What is Virtual Reality? VR Definition and Examples

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Virtual Reality (VR) is a powerful technology that has the potential to cause a multitude of social and psychological problems. VR is defined as a “computer-generated display that allows or compels the user to have a feeling of being present in an environment other than the one they are actually in and to interact with that environment (Schroeder, 2). VR creates a three-dimensional situation in which the user is able to fully immerse themself and interact with the environment. Through the user’s ability to interact with their environment, they can engage and control their interactions.

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VR is analogous to the Internet and as such, VR could potentially diminish interpersonal relationships if used in an excessive and ‘unhealthy manner’ (“Social Impacts of Virtual Reality”). There is a growing fear that the Internet is causing people to spend more time online rather than with friends and family and since VR is analogous to the Internet, it can be concluded that VR will have the same detrimental effects on people’s social interactions and interpersonal relationships.

In order to understand the potential social impact of VR, it is first important to understand the social implications of the Internet. For instance, one of the greatest controversies regarding the Internet is how it is affecting relationships people have with friends and family. Many people argue that time spent on the Internet is actually allowing people to maintain and strengthen existing ties. The purpose of the Internet is to allow people to connect with one another, whether it be with people across the street or on the other side of the world. However, while many adulate the Internet’s ability to broaden relationships, there are those who are concerned that the Internet is drawing people away from human contact. These people argue that “the Internet allows for more ‘interface’ with computers and TV screens rather than looking in the face of our fellow human beings” (Person). The main concern centering the Internet is that it sucks people into spending an excessive amount of time online rather than with others in real life. Therefore, a conclusion can be made that while the Internet may indeed reduce communication, it also has the ability to bring people together and mold new relationships.

While VR can diminish relationships, it can also simulate real-life relationships and experiences, which is why more people are willing to use VR. Gershon Dublon and Joseph Paradiso stated that “eventually this kind of remote presence could provide the next thing to teleportation…travelers could project themselves with their families while on the road.” If there is a way for people to interact with others without any preparation beforehand, people will spend considerably more time in VR because it eliminates the distance between users. This would allow for one to spend time with friends and family that are located around the world and VR would be providing an immersive application that would be responsible for facilitating social interactions (Schwartz and Steptoe, 2). One application that VR offers is a new approach for interpersonal skills training: “the user of immersive virtual reality (IVR) technology with virtual humans as training partners” (Mast et al., 3). Interpersonal skills training involves training with another person and with VR, in a virtual environment. Virtual humans are 3D representations of people and can interact with trainees. They speak with a human voice and “can either be agents in which case they are entirely pre-programmed and nothing else than a computer algorithm; or they can be avatars, meaning that they represent real humans in the virtual world and are controlled by the human” (Mast et al., 5). Using virtual humans as training partners is advantageous because they are convenient and are programmed to act a certain way, depending on the scenario.

Through IVR can be used to strengthen communication skills and improve relationships, there is a limitation. In IVR training, the trainer controls the virtual human via a computer and despite facilitating social interactions, there is no spontaneity in them like real people. Humans are unpredictable and pre-programming a virtual human to react a certain way will have its consequences as it is nearly impossible to predict how humans will behave. Virtual reality certainly has, “the potential to satisfy certain needs by supplementing the everyday social experiences in real life (Calvert, 20) but it ignores the psychological consequences. As stated by Laker and Powell from Marianne Mast research about immersive virtual reality training with virtual humans, “…it may increase the trainees’ anxiety because such training frequently introduces behavioral responses and cognitions that conflict with previously held beliefs, values, and frequently used behaviors” (qtd. In “Future” 15). Due to the fact that such frequent training may introduce new beliefs that conflict with already held beliefs and increase anxiety levels, it may cause resistance to learning. Resistance to learning, therefore, will not benefit the trainee and communication skills will not improve.

When discussing the nature of virtual reality, Gershon Dublon and Joseph Paradiso states that it allows one to “be [somewhere] in real-time”. Therefore, with virtual reality, users might become so immersed that they are completely separated from the world. This may culminate to ‘VR addiction’, as users would be able to “experience themselves online differently, build their ideal selves through their avatars, and emotionally connect with a virtual world that might offer them a better reality than the real world” (Sutton). Personal relationships could potentially be reduced because VR addiction stems from the idea that a better world is achievable through VR. Since a new reality becomes convenient, users would detach themselves from the real world and commit to a virtual world where they are in full control. Users are pushed further and further to online interactions as human interactions become diluted. This becomes a serious issue because the desire to stay in a virtual world leads to psychological dependence on VR. VR addiction is not the only risk associated with immersion, there are considerable psychological effects associated with excess time spent in virtual environments. For instance, if users spend an extreme amount of time online it would begin to cause detrimental effects on how they, “perceive and act in the real world” (Rachel). They may perceive the real world differently because of how invested they were in a virtual world, causing one to have reduced spatial awareness. Another psychological effect stemming from VR would be sensory conflict theory, which is when the visual and vestibular systems are at conflict while in an immersive, virtual world. A study was done on lab rats at UCLA Keck Centre for Neurophysics which found that there were abnormal patterns of activity in rats’ brains when exposed to VR environments (Catalano). This is classified as “cybersickness” and was discovered that 60% of brain neurons shut down in the process (Catalano). Although the study was done on rats, humans may have the same “abnormal pattern of activity” in the brain after continual exposure, posing a considerable health risk. The psychological effects associated with VR is not the only issue that is harmful, as VR addiction is another problem that has negative consequences on social interactions.

Virtual reality may diminish the complexity of human interactions as virtual reality interactions become more commonplace (Calvert, 19). The increasing popularity of simulations (‘sims’) suggests that people are willing to try out alternative lifestyles. Since VR is capable of simulating real-life experiences, the availability of a virtual family may affect people’s eagerness to pursue a family life in the real world. VR can provide a stress-free life and this may cause a decrease in marriages. A person’s virtual partner and children may be programmed to be perfect. In the long run, however, continual exposure to such a virtual world may raise unrealistic expectations from people in the real world (Koltko-Rivera, 6). This set of unrealistic expectations may diminish interpersonal relationships because one would be more reliant on VR because of the ability to create the ideal human to interact with.

Some may view VR as a way to escape from the stresses of the real world, but relying on such a tactic too often would lead to neglect of proper responsibilities in favor of an escapist fantasy. Ultimately, such immersion may make people unable to deal with frustrations in the real world and issues that are associated with relationships. VR allows one to escape from everyday life and experience one’s dreams and fantasies. Since users are using VR as a means of escapism, it suggests that people want to break away from the real world and alleviate their unpleasant realities. VR is able to offer one the ‘perfect’ world to live in and as such, many people are thrilled as they already want to escape real life. As one spends more time interacting with VR, less time is available to participate and practice in real social interactions (Calvert, 19). The predisposition to break away from reality already exists and the development of VR is enforcing this.

A possible treatment for any VR addictions that form would be to use a treatment similar to CBT-IA (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Internet Addiction). CBT allows addicts to understand why they are addicted in the first place, while also learning new skills to cope with their addiction. CBT-IA is a comprehensive three-phase approach that includes behavior modification to control compulsive Internet use, cognitive restructuring to identify, challenge, and modify cognitive distortions that lead to addictive use, and harm reduction techniques to address and treat comorbid issues associated with the disorder (Young, 1). The first phase of CBT-IA is for Internet addicts to learn to manage their time online and offline so that they may break the habit of turning towards the virtual world instead of friends and family. In the second phase, “cognitive therapy is used to address denial that is often present among Internet addicts to combat the rationalizations that justify excessive online use” (Young, 2). CBT-IA uses cognitive restructuring to break the common pattern found among addicts of feeling dissatisfied with the real world. The third phase of CBT-IA uses Harm Reduction Therapy (HRT) for continuous recovery and relapse prevention while, “addressing any coexisting factors associated with the development of Internet addiction” (Young, 5).

Although CBT-IA is used to treat Internet addiction, it may be refined in order to apply to VR addiction. CBT-IA focuses more on the development and the effects of Internet addiction on one’s behavior. Using CBT on VR addiction would be different because it would focus more on treating the addiction rather than getting down to why the addiction developed. Certain corrective behaviors could be implemented to monitor users time in virtual reality. Similar to HRT, it would allow users to recover from their VR addiction and come up with ways to prevent a relapse. For instance, users could spend more time with their friends and family, read a book, or find some other activity to make them less likely to go back to VR. While one limitation to the treatment is the fact that it requires three months, to accommodate for the limitation, relationships lost would be rekindled through those three months spent getting the treatment. Thus, with the implementation of CBT-IA, it would mitigate relationships with broken ties because of the excessive amount of time spend in VR. 

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What is Virtual Reality? VR Definition and Examples. (2021, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/what-is-virtual-reality-vr-definition-and-examples/