Virtual reality can fix a lot of what's wrong with media, and people are wildly underestimating it

  • Virtual reality helps us slow down and process content at our own pace, focusing on one experience at a time.
  • Virtual reality content unfolds in real time — it has to, because it revolves around the movement of the human body.
  • That's extremely difficult to do with the way we consumer content today.
A volunteer experiences the Samsung Gear VR
Charley Gallay | Samsung | Getty Images
A volunteer experiences the Samsung Gear VR

Critics of virtual reality argue that the immersive nature of VR relegates the technology to gaming, entertainment and job training — not everyday tasks. At its worst, virtual reality is imagined as the epitome of escapism.

I once agreed.

But now I believe that those critics have underestimated the prevalence of media in our culture, and its impact on society.

Virtual reality can be used to create games. It can also be used to deliver news, watch movies, socialize and illustrate educational concepts. Virtual reality helps us slow down and process content at our own pace, focusing on one experience at a time — something that's extremely difficult to do with the way we consume content today.

There's a reason that experiencing something has a greater impact than reading about it, and virtual reality is the next best thing. The closer that the pace of storytelling in the media mirrors the way we perceive real life, the less likely we are to get swept up in the moment, and the more accurate our view of content will become.

Rather than disconnect us from reality, virtual reality has the potential to realign our mental clocks with how humans are meant to learn in the real world.

The way we interact with content is not trivial

When Twitter and Facebook first started, the platforms were trivialized as ways to share what you had for breakfast or find attractive women.

Less than a decade later, we are questioning whether these platforms influenced the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.

Evidence compiled by The Atlantic makes the case that smartphones have measurably impacted the behavior and happiness of an entire generation.

In other words, the way we entertain ourselves is not isolated from our impact on society. That's why it's important we take virtual reality seriously.

According to Activate data cited by Business Insider Intelligence, U.S. adults spend about 12 hours per day on average consuming tech and media — more than they spend on work, on sleep, or on necessary daily tasks (cooking, cleaning, eating, drinking, socializing, grooming).

But amid widespread backlash against all types of media, the data also estimates that we are approaching the upper limit of how much media we can consume.

And there should be a backlash. This is not the technology we were promised. Jony Ive, Apple's design boss, said in a recent speech that the miniaturization of the clock, and the democratization of time, was part of what inspiredApple's miniaturization of the computer. Technology is supposed to save time, not be a time suck. It's supposed to help us do less, not make us juggle more at once.

The problem with content today

"How evil is tech?," David Brooks asked in a recent New York Times op-ed:

"Online is a place for exploration but discourages cohesion. It grabs control of your attention and scatters it across a vast range of diverting things. But we are happiest when we have brought our lives to a point, when we have focused attention and will on one thing, wholeheartedly with all our might.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that we take a break from the distractions of the world not as a rest to give us more strength to dive back in, but as the climax of living. 'The seventh day is a palace in time which we build. It is made of soul, joy and reticence,' he said."

Whether it's true or not, digital media and entertainment has been built around the idea that attention spans are short and getting shorter, as technology is able to deliver more content more quickly. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said that human attention is "the true scarce commodity" of the future.

To cope with the faster pace of media distribution on the internet, humans did what they always do: used the narrative tool of pacing to control the flow of information.

Pacing, or the manipulation of the perception of time, is a building block of any narrative. Pacing creates suspense in a thriller movie, and can pack an entire love story into a 1-hour-30-minute block. The mystery story is an explicit manipulation of time — the story begins after important events of the plot have transpired, thus granting the storyteller control over when to reveal them. News stories reveal the most interesting quote or fact first, out of chronological order, and then explain the full story.

Phenomena like "clickbait" use these techniques to try and build suspense and grab your attention in the more crowded field of media.

At the same time, content platforms try to make you forget that time is passing in the real world — a good NPR segment is supposed to make you idle with bated breath in your driveway. Facebook and Netflix study your interests and habits, and reveal content not as it is posted, but when it seems like you are likely to keep engaging. Video game characters are not restricted by the laws of physics, enabling them to move quickly between the most engaging parts of a story, and thus, keeping users invested in what comes next.

And by making content faster and easier to digest, people are able to consume more of it at once. In 2016, eMarketer estimated that nearly 85 percent of internet users surf the web while watching TV.

It's no surprise that programs designed to curb tech addiction focus on reclaiming your time, with names like "Moment" and "Time Well Spent."

How virtual reality can help

Virtual reality, by design, provides solutions to some of these problems.

Virtual reality content unfolds in real time — it has to, because it revolves around the movement of the human body. In fact, if there is a disconnect between the speed perceived by the eye and that of the inner ear, users could become nauseated, an issue that virtual reality designers must consider at every step of the process.

That means that content consumed through VR can capture our full focus, with minimal behavior manipulation. Virtual reality is able to slow down its storytelling because it has a third dimension, space, which can be used to reveal new information in an engaging way.

There have been some hamhanded attempts at this so far, but it's early days. Jaron Lanier, a preeminent figure in the virtual reality industry, has predicted that virtual reality can restore the dignity and autonomy to our interactions with technology.

In the era of "fake news," that sounds pretty refreshing.

Of course, there are other aspects of content that people find problematic, like aspirational, unrealistic images or the need for social validation. What if, as in a Ray Bradbury-esque dystopia, we prefer another reality to our own, and we just ... stay there?

But as Lanier points out in The New York Times, sublime, addictive images are created specifically because they are competing for your attention. Virtual reality gives you the autonomy to focus on just one feeling at a time.

"Chris Milk, the founder of VR studio Within, has a piece called Life of Us, where your body becomes different creatures in the history of life and evolution. It involves so much self-exploration," Lanier told Wired. "When you're really changing yourself, that's so much more interesting than watching something in the external world—and it really improves your sensation of reality."