I want virtual reality to be healthy to use and useful for the world, but I’m skeptical.
Today is launch day for the first premium consumer electronic virtual reality device, the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have already weighed in this morning. In this “year of virtual reality” I’ve got plans to follow this new consumer tech industry closely, explore virtual reality myself, and report back to you. As a Feldenkrais practitioner and paleo/primal movement enthusiast, I think I’ll make a pretty unique guinea pig for virtual reality. If I lost you with any (or perhaps most) of the nouns in that sentence, let me explain.
There’s a unique cultural tension brewing right now, and I’m not talking about politics. On one side we have a rapidly growing movement in the alternative health and wellness community toward a paleo/primal view of human improvement. Wellness professionals, backed up by more and more scientific studies, are claiming that living our lives more in accordance with how we evolved serves our health in a myriad of ways. Here’s the short version as I see it: we’re finally noticing that while modern history has created the reality we live in (let’s be broad and say the last 10,000 years), our evolution over millions of years created a species that is, through our very DNA, best adapted to prehistoric reality. Increasingly dieticians and movement professionals (myself included) would like to see us behave a bit more like…well, cavemen.
There’s a lot of info out there right now about paleo/primal movement, diets, and lifestyle choices. My personal favorite sources are Mark Sisson and Katy Bowman, two people who are committed to sharing paleo/primal benefits widely by promoting flexible paths toward health improvements, paths that acknowledge the reality of each individual’s current circumstances. I’m impressed by how both of these authors keep up with recent science and bring it down to earth for everyone. Check out Sisson’s Primal Blueprint and his searchable 10-year blog Mark’s Daily Apple, and Bowman’s resources: her Nutritious Movement website and podcast, and my new favorite book, the indispensable Move Your DNA. In addition to covering many other paleo/primal topics, Sisson and Bowman do a great job addressing how to get more natural movement into our often sedentary, screen-dominated lives.
But what if we’re moving our caveman DNA in virtual reality? As a species, are we prepared for virtual reality experiences that dramatically alter the basic relationship we have with our world through sight and movement?
Virtual reality (VR) is the other side of the cultural tug-of-war I see developing this year. High quality VR arrives in homes today with Facebook’s Oculus Rift. Next week the HTC Vive launches. The PlayStation VR, perhaps the most consumer-friendly VR headset in terms of price and ease of use, will launch this fall.
If you understand the basics of VR, go ahead and skip two paragraphs. For the uninitiated: to have a VR experience, you wear a headset with a visor that replaces your actual visual field with an entirely computer-generated visual field. This virtual point of view is displayed on small screens inside the visor, one image for each eye (just like reality). At the same time, your actual physical presence and movement is tracked by sensors, so that as you move your head and body, your perspective of the simulated world changes just as if you were in it. Compared to traditional two-dimensional display screens like whatever device you’re reading this on, the image completely surrounds you in virtual space. For comparison, imagine you’re looking for a new place to live, so you’re browsing real estate listings online on your home computer. Photos are essential because you get a glimpse into each room in your potential new living space through a still picture on your computer screen. Video walkthroughs are great because you can start to see the flow of one space into the other, but you’re limited to seeing exactly what was filmed.
Now imagine blocking out the real world completely and putting on a VR headset for a virtual look at a room. By wearing the headset you inhabit a live point of view in virtual space, so you can look around yourself in all directions freely. Suddenly you’re not looking at the room through a photo or video window on your computer monitor or phone, but rather you have a complete visual sense of being in the space. After a few minutes your brain is tricked, and you simply start to feel like you are there. When you take it off the headset you might even be briefly disoriented by real reality. The effect is apparently so convincing that many VR tourism experiences are already being created.
Facebook, HTC, Sony, Microsoft, Samsung, and others have been doing VR research and development for years, and Apple is staffing up big right now. Each company is betting this is a multi-billion dollar industry waiting to happen, an inevitable wave of the future. The technological transition is remarkable. The best analogy I can think of is the advent of moving pictures in the 1890s. It was mind-blowing at the time, as is VR now. At launch, entertainment content is driving the VR tech, especially video games. There are also a rapidly growing number of virtual reality films and “experiences” as major filmmakers and smaller studios dip their feet in the virtual water. In the long term many companies are also betting that education, communication, and virtual tourism will be common VR applications.
Prehistoric reality vs virtual reality
So while in 2016 the alternative health and wellness movement is telling us we should jump into the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers, walking for hours barefoot in the woods on a regular basis, carrying heavy things, getting plenty of sun, and letting our eyes survey the horizon for predators and prey, at the same time powerful tech and media conglomerates want us to strap an opaque visor inches in front of our eyes and disappear into virtual reality. Just check out a few google images of these human animals voluntarily disabling their entire visual awareness of reality.
Perhaps surprisingly to most readers who follow Twin Cities Feldenkrais, I am utterly fascinated by—and diving into—not one but both of these very different cultural movements. The cultural tension I see coming this year echos a long-time personal ambivalence. As an example of this sometimes uneasy tension in my life between paleo/primal/Feldenkrais movement and my love of video game technology, I’ll share a day’s activities last week.
On the one hand, Tuesday morning I taught 20 people this Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lesson about learning to better sense and thus improve the inner workings of their shoulders, ribs, necks, and arms. Later I taught a Feldenkrais Functional Integration (FI) lesson about grounding and length to a woman with multiple surgically-fused vertebrae. I taught another FI to a young child with spina bifida, whose compromised neuromotor control of her lower body is becoming a challenge for walking and continence.
And twice Tuesday I walked out my front door and into the 2000 acres of Lebanon Hills Regional Park: once for my weekly sprint interval workout (gotta train to get away from those saber-toothed tigers), and once for a barefoot walk with my wife and kids. My three-year-old also took off her shoes, and her giddy enthusiasm for the unique ground sensations of early spring in Minnesota was adorable! Barefoot and minimal footwear walking and running is a type of natural movement I discovered through my Feldenkrais professional pursuits of the last 10 years, and just one example of the paleo/primal ways of moving that I’ve found to be so beneficial.
On the other hand, later Tuesday I read a video game blog and listened to my favorite podcast about gaming. I also spent time in the video game world of Star Wars Battlefront with my two older kids. And much later, when they were in bed, I went back to Jabba the Hutt’s palace alone. I’m not much of a TV watcher; for my few minutes of entertainment at the end of the day I’d rather explore and interact with a virtual world, and I loved every second of it.
And then, knowing that there’s a Star Wars game coming to VR, excited about loads of other software and film experiences on the VR horizon, and frankly unable to resist any longer, I spent a lot of money preordering the PlayStation VR.
So why move my caveman DNA in VR?
Why would a barefoot-loving, Feldenkrais-practicing, “get outside, kids!” kind of parent want to put on a headset that blocks out and replaces the real world that I love? I’ve always had a passion for movement and the outdoors and I’ve always loved technology and video games. For years I’ve been aware of the unnatural challenge of sitting fairly still and orienting myself to a screen that my entertainment hobby requires. So the idea of immersion in VR, of enjoying a virtual world not as glimpsed through a TV “window” into it, but instead being inside of it, with my head, gaze, and awareness finally free to explore around me “naturally” while I can sit, stand, and move more freely…well, for me, it’s utterly captivating to imagine.
When I clicked that preorder button I also decided it was time to share all of this with you, and see if I can create a unique and useful discussion right on the brink of a new technological era. History tells us that frequently new forms of media are met with excitement, uncertainty, and sometimes even fear, from the advent of the novel all the way through sound recording, film, and modern popular music. I’ll be taking an enthusiastic but critical look at VR, starting with gaming, because that’s what VR is doing now and I’m very familiar with the gaming medium.
To sum up and pose a few questions for later discussion, here’s why I want to be the paleo/primal/Feldenkrais-practicing VR follower and guinea pig in your life: I want VR to be healthy to use and useful for the world, but I’m skeptical. Most everything I observe in my professional life as a Feldenkrais practitioner and so much of what I have valued in my personal growth in the last decade or so is all about getting more connected to plain old nonvirtual reality. Heck, I start my weekly public Feldenkrais classes by asking a room full of adults to simply sense their weight and breathing, the two most primary experiences of our reality as organisms on this earth.
As I imagine the implications of millions of people spending significant time in virtual reality, a lot of concerns pop up immediately. Is it in some way damaging just to disconnect from reality so thoroughly, even briefly? Certainly we’ve got broad consensus that regularly leaving the reality of our typical consciousness through perception-altering chemical means isn’t good for us. What happens when millions of people spend significant time each day in VR? Will hours in VR lead to a change in our perception of nonvirtual reality? Will long term use have an effect on our vision or how we carry our bodies? What other kinds of physical, psychological, emotional, and social issues will emerge? Do you want to sit in your house next to someone wearing a VR helmet who’s having a completely other experience than the one you are? And as a father of three (with a fourth on the way) I have to ask, what about children, who are already so drawn to video games? All of the VR headsets are setting an age limit of 12 or 13 and above, citing “visual development” as the reason younger children shouldn’t play.
And what about the plus sides? Is this the exciting new medium for entertainment, education, communication, and virtual tourism the tech world wants us to believe it is? Are there other benefits the VR enthusiast community isn’t focusing on? In this era of endless multi-tasking, will VR offer a level of immersion that will actually prompt us to focus on one experience at time again? And, as someone who advocates against hours sitting at a desk for work (I wrote a lot of this while walking at a treadmill desk) I’m intrigued by virtual reality computing, in which you aren’t stuck orienting to a screen for hours at time, but could rather project a virtual screen in any orientation you want, perhaps even “placing” your different tasks on different “screens” all around you. There are good ergonomic possibilities there, since simply not having your eyes and neck fixed in one position while you work can create huge health improvements.
The Feldenkrais Method’s founder, Moshe Feldenkrais, taught us that if we pay attention to the right details, we’re endowed with all we need (in the form of a fantastic sensory apparatus and a miraculous nervous system) to know for ourselves if what we’re doing with our bodies moment-to-moment is good for us. We are brilliantly evolved to process the simplest input of our lives as a human organism: being aware of ourselves, our surroundings, and how those two things interact. My professional Feldenkrais self and the giddy tech enthusiast in me are excited but wary to see where virtual reality leads us as it upends some of the most basic relationships between ourselves and our surroundings.
What do you think about virtual reality so far? Do you anticipate using it, or have you already? What are your concerns? Let me know in the comments below or contact me and we’ll start the discussion for future posts.
I hope you’ll follow along here at Twin Cities Feldenkrais. Just sign up for the mailing list to be sure to get blog updates. A Facebook “like” (Twin Cities Feldenkrais) or Twitter follow (@livefeldenkrais) works too. If interest in this post is high I’ll split off a VR blog from the main TCF blog and newsletter and let you know.
Thanks for reading, and please help me launch this exploration by sharing this MY VR DNA permalink. Every project needs a good acronym, right?