Photo: Ain't nothing like the real thing -- but virtual reality comes close

By David Suzuki

The digital revolution is breaking new ground every day. Technology has a way of doing that. I remember when Hewlett-Packard introduced its first "laptop" computer, which stored a page and a half of writing. It revolutionized my life as a newspaper columnist, allowing me to write on planes or in a tent and submit articles through a phone. I never imagined the steady advances that would lead to today's powerful laptops, tablets and handheld computers.

Once while filming in a remote B.C. forest, I wanted to pan from the roots of a cedar tree along the trunk to the top in a single shot. After spending hours rigging wires and pulleys and struggling to keep the heavy camera from swaying as it rose, our crew gave up in frustration. Recently, we used a light GoPro camera mounted under a drone to get a spectacular high-definition shot in a few minutes!

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The first time I opened YouTube, I was looking for a video of the astounding phenomenon of mucous secretion by a hagfish, a primitive marine animal. To my surprise, I found several postings, and as I chose one, a list of several others that might be of interest popped up. Two hours later, I realized I'd been sucked in by an incredible range of films.

When I first heard about virtual reality, I was invited to put on the goggles and experience it. Crude as those first images were compared to what's available now, I was immersed in the scenes. It was impressive and exciting, but I suggested that people should be wary of unintended consequences, because virtual reality could eventually appear better than reality.
With virtual reality, people could race a car and experience all the heart-thumping adrenalin of the real thing, then crash and walk away unharmed. We could have a showdown with a gunslinger, lose and fight again. We could indulge in the kinkiest sex without exposure to sexually transmitted infection or other consequences. Why go for the real experience when a virtual one would be risk-free?
During a recent visit to Montreal, I had the opportunity to watch the latest iteration of the digital revolution: images in 3D, HD and 360o wrap-around. It was mindboggling. I swam with whales and zoomed through a forest, listening to actual sounds, along with music and narration. As I watched a spectacular mountain forest, a train suddenly appeared, splashing across a lake and then coming straight at me. As my body responded to the all-too-realistic locomotive, it reached me and exploded into a thousand birds that took off in a glorious cloud. Computer graphics melded seamlessly with actual footage that generated scenes far exceeding reality.
I've been intrigued by the possibility that this technology could enable people to have such incredible experiences with whales, fish and other animals that we would no longer feel the need to imprison animals in aquaria and zoos. People wouldn't even need to journey to exotic places to see wildlife in their habitats.
I have no doubt virtual reality is going to have a huge impact. We're just beginning to recognize its potential. But as with all new technology, there will be unintended repercussions, the greatest of which will be further estrangement from nature. Studies show that because people evolved out of nature, we need that connection with the natural world for mental and physical well-being.
Author Richard Louv categorizes a suite of childhood problems — including bullying, attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity — as "nature deficit disorder", induced or worsened by too little physical exposure to nature. The average Canadian kid today spends more than six hours a day glued to a screen — mobile phones, computers, televisions — and less than eight minutes a day outside! That's one reason why the David Suzuki Foundation is encouraging people to get outside for 30 minutes a day in May with its 30×30 Nature Challenge.
Some proponents claim virtual reality will stimulate children to spend more time outside. But why bother when the virtual world seems better than the real one? I'm sure innovation and creativity will continue to drive the technology to new frontiers. I'm just as sure there will be enormous unexpected and damaging consequences if we aren't careful.

May 12, 2016

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Jul 19, 2016
5:04 PM

Thanks for writing this David, I am glad that some like you and David Abram are interested in the “real thing.” When computer science was young back in the early 70’s, I appeared on your show from UBC extolling the computer’s capacity to promote creativity and community. While this has proven true, my deeper concern at the time with AI and still now is proving the impact of computer technology to be very dehumanizing and further separating ourselves from Nature and from what we actually are.

The advanced AI work at the time with semantic networks with which to “understand” natural language, had one large gaping hole in my view. They only tolerated single interpretations of word and sentence meanings, and resisted multiple interpretations as being too complex and expensive. But this was also, as I did not notice, the problem with just everyday, ordinary software. Now we have people in their mid 30’s who have grown up using software daily, and from the simple software conditioning, find it difficult to be open to multiple meanings and interpretations of language and hence, what is real. It is somewhat paradoxical as they also tend to be much more open to human diversity than our generation was. Now as you have so delightfully pointed out Virtual Reality is posing an opposite concern. VR can be so seductive in experiential ways that perhaps participants are going to find it difficult to discern what is real and actual for them. Let alone to be open to what is oftentimes the much more subtle sensual reality that really connects us and immerses us in a spectacular cosmos. Enter “being entertained” vs. generating and creating our own life experience, and the whole situation seems to be tilted to giving endless power to technological advances and artificial lives.

Is there a way in which VR and computing technology in general can bring us back to a full and expansive immersion in Nature?

I am thankful that poetry is still allowed, and poets honoured and not jailed.

May 19, 2016
7:24 PM

Read ´power versus force . Nature Will not be conquered by man. P.R.

May 16, 2016
6:50 AM

Ain’t Nothin’ like the real thing baby! The Hollodeck is here. What will become of VR when it gets long in the tooth? It is sad that we are losing sight and respect for nature. The oil sands and fracking don’t seem to enough attention for the damage they do to nature. I see humans finally becoming a head attacked to a petri dish of nutrients that is 24/7 on VR. We are over producing human beings at a rate that is out of control. The climate is heating up and fresh water is getting scarcer. A big brain and dexterity does not help us to survive. A healthy respect for nature will.

May 13, 2016
10:25 AM

“Some proponents claim virtual reality will stimulate children to spend more time outside. But why bother when the virtual world seems better than the real one? I’m sure innovation and creativity will continue to drive the technology to new frontiers. I’m just as sure there will be enormous unexpected and damaging consequences if we aren’t careful.”

The essential difference between VR and “real” nature seems to be the absolute control implied by the former and the surrender of control implied by the latter. Connecting with nature means accepting that you can’t control it — that nature in fact has its own laws that YOU need to abide by. VR, on the other hand, is all about creating the laws yourself. Seductive and fun, yes! But potential for damaging consequences, definitely.

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