Imagine a world without spoons, forks, and knives. These tools extend our capabilities beyond what we can do with our bare hands. We have gotten so used to them that we almost regard them as part of our body. Without them, we would be less capable, we could interact with our environment less effectively, and life would be less comfortable.
So, tools are just that, extensions of the human body and mind. Whether they are used for good or bad, however, seems largely determined by the greater ecosystem they are used in, from culture to the individual user. A knife can cut, for better or worse.
Media technologies are also tools. They extend the abilities of our human mind and body. Like a Swiss knife, mostnew media technologies, such as smartphones, offer several functions at once.
And now a new type of media technology has emerged: immersive media technology. Some say immersive technology, perhaps united in a Metaverse, will be our next Swiss knife, and that it will succeed the Internet and the smartphone.
Similar to dreaming or hallucinating, immersive technologies, for example virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR), envelope users in powerful perceptual illusions. Unlike in dreams or hallucinations, however, these illusions are provided by technology. Both VR and AR require users to wear equipment like headsets or special glasses for the perceptual illusions to unfold. VR completely immerses the user in a digital environment using computer-generated sensory information. VR users feel physically present in a virtual space when they put on their headsets: their virtual body feels like their actual body, and they feel the physical presence of others in the same space.
In contrast to virtual reality, AR users are not isolated from the real world. They still see their physical environment, but the technology enhances it with perceptually realistic virtual objects, people, and information. While computer generated and virtual, the user perceives these objects like they are actually present. For example, augmented reality can bring to life a virtual three-dimensional dog in your living room or let you see arrows on the street when navigating to a new destination in town.
But if we think about tools as extensions of the human body and mind, and about tools changing the way we live and interact with both the environment and with others, what then exactly is the function of these new immersive tools? They are psychologically powerful, but to what end? In our digitally connected world, they are a Swiss knife for what?
Both tech entrepreneurs and scholars have shown in a range of domains that immersive technologies like VR and AR can make a difference, extend our human capabilities in seemingly beneficial ways, and change the way ‘we do things’. Immersive technologies are already being used for new effective therapies to treat phobias like fear of heights, to provide new training and learning opportunities in or- ganisations, to allow remote users to collaborate and connect, to enable on-the-spot problem solving by virtually blending in additional information or a remote expert, to host virtual concerts that allow artists and fans to connect in new ways, to show virtual homes or other objects to prospective buyers before they are designed or built, and so on. Clearly, immersive technology has great power and potential.
But with great power comes great responsibility. This raises the question of ownership and control. If technology can make people enter a dream-like state or lets them see things that aren’t there, who makes sure this tool serves a good purpose, like the welfare, or well being, of individuals and society? Will the Metaverse, should it ever emerge, be regulated, and by whom? Who is going to own these new hybrid (partly virtual, partly real) public places where we will meet, shop, and work?
The immersive technology ecosystem, from hardware and sorware to the surveillance and monetisation of user behaviour and data, is currently dominated by a few big tech companies. But immersive technologies extend the realities that we experience with our own brains and bodies. Most people are picky about what they put on their bodies or let into out their thoughts and dreams. Arer all, is there anything more private or personal?
With the rise of immersive technology, we will have to start thinking about our responsibility as individuals and as a society. We must find a way to nurture the power of this new tool without sacrificing our autonomy and our ability to choose, while creating a culture in which immersive technologies are used to promote, rather than undermine, our welfare and well-being. Let us rise to the occasion.
1 Tilo Hartmann is a professor for virtual reality in communication science. He draws on psychological theory and methods to understand the use, experience, and effects of immersive technology on people and society.