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Could we confuse virtual reality with real life?

There’s no doubt that we spend much more time online than we did twenty years ago.

Diane Hall


Virtual Reality Lenses

Question: if someone spent most of their time in the digital world, could this affect their experience of the real one?

The inspiration behind this article was a video I came across that showed a member of the public scaling a fence and dropping into the lion enclosure during a visit to their local zoo.

This is, to us, a very bad idea—as it was to the guy in question, who was, unfortunately, killed by one of the adult males. But it led me to thinking…if he’d only ever seen videos of cute lion cubs larking about with each other—and there are plenty of these videos across social media—maybe he thought they grew up to be equally harmless felines.

We absorb our knowledge through lived experience and what we watch and read. If you don’t read books about the natural world, and if you’ve never visited a zoo before, it could be that your only insight about these animals is what you’ve seen on TikTok. Could this influence someone enough to climb into a lion’s den, believing they’re not in any danger?

This is an extreme example, but it conjures up plenty of questions. Virtual reality may be pixelated and, therefore, not easy to confuse with real life; however, we can control a digital reality. We may apply this same behaviour to the real world and be surprised when it doesn’t comply in quite the same way.

If you’d only ever spoken to the love of your life via email and digital messages, how would you know if they are who they say they are? Plenty of women (and men) have been caught out in this way, some being duped out of their life savings in the process.

So, can the lines of VR and real life become blurred?

Take this person speaking on Reddit: ‘I keep experiencing this strange phenomenon. I notice that, occasionally, when I’m not in VR, for a split second, I’ll think I’m still in a game. Then I snap back into reality and realise that I'm in the real world. One time, for example, I started to lean against a wall in real life. I thought ‘Wait, I'll just fall through!’, then I realised I wasn’t in VR.’

Look up ‘simulation theory’, the premise that we’re in an existence like The Matrix, and that what we think we’re experiencing is simply a simulation. That will certainly blow your mind, but would it adjust your sense of reality?

It could be argued that the advent of the internet, and certainly social media, has made the real world more real, because we’re not receiving all our information via the mainstream media. In certain scenarios, we’re learning the real truth of a situation, and not what has been contrived for us to consume.

Augmented reality (AR) is an extra element within the field of virtual experiences. Whereas VR (virtual reality) creates a fully digital world, AR uses our natural environment and adds elements of virtual reality to it. Think of Pokemon Go…using the camera on your phone, you could ‘see’ virtual characters running about in front of you. When the craze for this game was at its height, kids were running all over the place to capture the digitalised mites; when viewing the real world through the perimeters of their phone screen, it’s possible that they could they have wandered into traffic. We’re back to the lion enclosure again; if your knowledge and/or senses tell you that you’re in no danger, why would you think otherwise?

Let’s face it, if you get run over in a virtual game you spring back up again, ready for Round 2. Just not so in real life.

Perhaps false reality can influence real life—though, as shown above, it could result in disaster. But what would be at fault in such a scenario: the person or the pixels?

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