The Metaverse is a place I like to visit. But I will not live in it. There is a simple reason for that.
Since 2016, I’ve been exploring virtual reality in depth, both professionally and in my free time. This occupation is not merely theoretical. I dive in for a few minutes almost every day. At times, I spend an hour or two at a time in VR. The people around me tell me that I inevitably smile when I put on my VR headset.
Yes, I am in love with this medium. But I wouldn’t want to live in VR because of it.
There’s a good reason for that. Virtual reality expands my body and space, but it can’t replace them. I remain deeply rooted in reality through my body and the matter that surrounds it.
That’s a comforting thought. As an athletic person, I don’t even want to imagine what it would be like to leave my body behind for a completely artificial world. Most people feel this way, and I can completely relate. Despite many years of VR experience, I don’t have the slightest desire to escape into another digital reality. At least, not permanently.
Virtual Reality is not just Virtual Reality
When I am in virtual reality, I am in two worlds at the same time. My eyes and ears experience a digital world, but the rest of my body remains attached to physical reality, whether it likes it or not. If I were to forget this, as some VR novices do, and run off at a dead run, I would feel it painfully.
Virtual Reality is not really Virtual Reality, it has always been a Mixed Reality. When you go into it, you’re always taking into account two realities, digital and physical, and you’re not quite at home in either. At least with today’s comparatively primitive technology.
For complete immersion, one would have to completely simulate our perception. That would probably only be possible, if at all, via a direct interface in the brain. Such technology does not exist and may forever remain a philosophical concept and a sci-fi fantasy. It is irrelevant to the metaverse that Meta and other companies have in mind because it is not technically feasible.
Big Metaverse promises
I’m always irritated when I see Metaverse visions that ignore the mixed reality of virtual reality and the fact that we can’t leave our physical bodies and space. These Metaverse visions pretend that full-dive VR is at our doorstep.
One example is the Metaverse that Meta showed at Meta Connect 2021. In one scene, you see avatars behaving as if they were detached from physical reality. They traverse rooms, sit at a table, or float weightlessly through the air. These are images that evoke a physicality that is missing in the insubstantial virtual reality.
What you see in the excerpt can more or less already be done in virtual reality today. You just can’t expect it to feel natural. Because your body is enclosed within your own four walls and remains subject to physical laws. Even if the term virtual reality suggests otherwise, current VR technology strongly distracts from so-called reality.
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VR is not a second life
Another example is the film We Met in Virtual Reality. Shot entirely in VRChat, this highly acclaimed and touching documentary shows how people in VR find each other during a lockdown.
The film presents Virtual Reality as if it were a second life and never switches to an outside perspective. Instead, you see numerous scenes that suggest a natural sense of body and world. The avatars ride in cars, hug each other, drink in bars and go to the fairground together.
Those who haven’t experienced virtual reality themselves might think they’re dealing with another, physically approximate reality, a kind of matrix, only not quite as realistic and with people appearing as manga characters, animals, and demons.
I’d rather have Meatverse than Metaverse
I’ve spent a lot of time in VR, and I can’t imagine a virtual life feeling as natural as the movie portrays it at times. In VR, I don’t feel, smell, or taste anything, and my virtual body remains a foreign body.
In one marriage scene, before the virtual wedding, the priest calls on those present to “do something that is going to feel very, very unnatural with the technology that you have on and that is stand.”
It sounds like most VRChat users are sitting down while in VR. That wouldn’t surprise me. Physically moving around and exercising in virtual reality is fun. But standing up with your legs for hours on end? That’s uncomfortable.
Virtual Reality lacks much of the best of the old-fashioned reality. That’s good because it reduces the chance that we’ll lose ourselves in artificial worlds.
The fact that I have to take the physical body with me into VR has another advantage. Virtual Reality is more immersive the more intensively we make use of our bodies. This has a positive effect. Unlike other entertainment media, we keep fit while in VR and thus gain the best of both worlds.
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