Virtual reality is a wondrous tragedy
A climate adaptation technology that might have to help us adjust to a world on fire.
Recently I bought Facebook’s virtual reality (VR) headset to see if the hype around the technology is real. After testing out a few games and other apps it’s clear to me that the excitement is warranted. Despite Facebook’s questionable account login requirements, the whole experience is seamless and simple. You can go from being in a living room to being in a spaceship in under 60 seconds. More often than not I find myself actually immersed - feeling as though I really am in a different place. And this is with a headset that doesn’t even have the highest visual quality in the market today. It’s very easy to see how with another decade or two of development the level of immersion will be at least an order of magnitude more impressive. In imagining the future of VR it’s hard not to have a moment of wonder. VR will allow anyone to “go” any place at any time they wish. And with advancements in body tracking, we’ll also be able to do anything within these virtual worlds. But if you’re someone who spends a lot of time thinking about climate change then that same moment is also when you have this sickening realization that VR is ultimately a climate adaptation technology that we may not have a choice in accepting. Two recent experiences frame my thoughts that VR in 2050 could be a simultaneous wonder and tragedy. The wondrous part is the technology's ability to help us adjust if the world is less hospitable and unrecognizable compared to the past. The tragic part is the fact that we might need to rely on it at all.
The first experience was my attempt or lack thereof to exercise during the wildfire season in California last year. A running habit that was already on life support completely flatlined as the air quality made it hazardous to even go on a walk without an N95 mask. Unmitigated climate change would only make wildfires worse and more frequent. But wildfires won’t be the biggest problem for outdoor exercise. That honor would go to unrelenting heatwaves. With no climate mitigation up to 90 million people in the US could experience 30 or more days per year with a heat index above 105 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century. That's almost a third of the country facing conditions where it’s not just uncomfortable but actually unsafe to do strenuous exercise outdoors. If something as simple as a run or a bike ride ceases to be an option for portions of the year then naturally indoor activities will take their place as substitutes. And VR is well positioned to be the substitute.
Despite shortcomings elsewhere, fitness is the “killer app” for VR. Boxing in "Thrill of the Fight" took me from skepticism to full-on believer within a few rounds in the ring. And this interview with the founder of Supernatural, a VR fitness company, goes deeper into why it works so well for exercise. While most VR workouts are just kinesthetics right now, a future where Peloton offers its own VR experience for their stationary bikes seems almost inevitable - super immersive bike rides through the landscape of your choice! The rise of working out in VR is perfectly and painfully aligned for a time when outdoor exercise might become a special occasion and not something that’s just taken for granted. VR fitness is the definition of climate adaptation and the dichotomous feelings that come with it. A VR bike ride through a national park from the confines of a bedroom is as close to magic as possible. But having to do that because it’s too hot to go outside or because the real version of that park is consistently on fire is pure tragedy.
The second experience was a realization I had a few nights ago when Google searching for images of hippos. Every few months I invariably end up spending an hour or so looking at pictures of large wild animals. In addition to hippos - saltwater crocodiles, blue whales, and anacondas are all recurring image search queries. The fact that such creatures roam the Earth is fascinating. Especially interesting is the size of these animals in comparison to humans. A male hippo can weigh up to 10,000 pounds. The world’s largest saltwater crocodile is over 20 feet long. And neither of those compare to blue whales which can be up to 300,000 pounds and over 80 feet long. Despite how often I go down this rabbit hole, I’ve yet to see any of these animals in person. The periodic Google searches keep me satisfied mostly because in the back of my mind I know that if I really wanted to see a hippo, I could find a way to make it happen. But if the world heats up beyond 2 degrees of warming, the risk that those animals go extinct rises greatly. One study estimates that fully one third of all animal and plant species could be extinct by 2070. So here too VR might have a role to play if there are no more hippos left to visit.
Surprisingly there aren’t any decent safari experiences for VR right now, but it’s only a matter of time. And while the first versions might be limited in one way or another, the future of what’s possible is so obvious. Especially when considering how far graphics technology has come in just the past 10 years. Photos and videos can’t communicate the scale of these animals the same way that VR can. This was confirmed when I used a 3D sculpting app to try and create animals on my own. Even though my attempts were made of mostly blocks and squiggles, there was a distinct sense of size. I feel confident in saying that within the next 10 years a truly astounding VR safari experience will exist and it will cost under $500 (an actual safari costs between $4,000 - $15,000). That such an experience will exist is marvelous. But in a future that will be defined by climate change, there’s no way to think about a VR safari without also coming to terms with the possibility that the real animals modeled in VR might not exist on Earth anymore. This kind of climate adaptation is of the most dystopian variety. Digitally recreating a world in order to connect with what no longer exists. Yet it will be needed if we’re faced with mourning the loss of numerous species all at once. It's not all that different from how photos and videos help us grieve when our loved ones pass away. Climate adaptation will be about physical and mental adjustments and VR has a role to play in both.
VR will help us cope with a world that no longer behaves or resembles anything we’re familiar with. The fact that it’s so well positioned to do such a thing is what makes it both wondrous and tragic. Just how much of a role VR plays in our future is linked to how well we mitigate climate change. The technology itself will advance regardless because billions of dollars are continuously pouring into its development. Unlike other new technologies such as cryptocurrencies, VR in a twisted way does benefit from a world on fire. Rising global temperatures means strictly more time spent indoors. That’s the thing about climate adaptation technologies. It’s great that they can provide a way for us to persevere on a planet that’s changing, but they’re also a constant reminder that we don’t really have much of a choice. I was skeptical of VR before trying it out. Now I’m just startled by how much the future might rely on VR and what it will be tasked with providing for us.
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