Before he founded Oculus VR, Palmer Luckey worked at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, where a team of therapists were using virtual reality to help veterans overcome their post-traumatic stress disorder through a process known as exposure therapy. Veterans would strap on the virtual reality goggles and be transported to back to the battlefield. Only this time, the competent hand of a trained therapist would guide them through their fears.
Years later, Luckey says that was the first time he truly realized that virtual reality is good for a lot more than gaming. “It can make a significant difference in people’s lives,” he tells WIRED.
Virtual reality’s potential to transform entertainment and social networking has been thoroughly discussed. But its promise as a tool for doing good is only beginning to be understood. The possibilities of VR as an avenue for more than escapism are taking center stage this week at the annual Games for Change Festival in New York. Luckey says VR offers fertile ground as a catalyst for social change because of the powers of immersion.
Because virtual reality has the ability to put you in places in a much more real way, it has the potential to be a much better canvas. Palmer Luckey
The fact is, some of the most pressing problems in the world — war, starvation, natural disasters — can often seem very “over there” to those of us lucky enough to enjoy the developed world’s typical middle-class comforts. Even the most compelling videos or photographs are still several steps removed from the reality many of us in the US experience. Virtual reality, Luckey says, is different. “Because virtual reality has the ability to put you in places in a much more real way, it has the potential to be a much better canvas,” he says.
Still, Luckey hastens to add that, today, virtual reality technology, including Oculus’s own, has its shortcomings. For starters, designing any virtual world still requires taking some artistic liberties, and that means no virtual world appears exactly as it would be in real life. “Until we have technology that can perfectly capture and recreate what’s going on in something like a war zone, there’s the potential for heavy-handed bias in how things are presented,” Luckey says. “There’s a risk people see it and treat recreations of things with the same weight and authority as videos and pictures, which are much harder to manipulate.”
The potential for VR to be used as a venue for true documentary-style VR experiences is currently limited by the lack of affordable cameras capable of shooting in immersive 3-D. But such devices will be within reach of consumers in a year or two, Facebook’s chief technology officer recently told WIRED (Facebook owns Oculus). In the meantime, the UN-commisioned Clouds Over Sidra, a VR tour of a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, has a lot of people talking about gear like the Oculus as a powerful medium for non-fiction storytelling.
Luckey says virtual reality is already playing an important role in healthcare, helping with things like surgical and emergency response training. “That’s going to lead to less direct but just as important social change in the world,” he says.
The good news is Luckey believes that in the future, virtual reality headsets will be as affordable as mobile phones are today, making them a viable option for people living in the developing world. “That’s important that VR will be on the same path as mobile phones, because other technologies, like televisions and even laptops, haven’t made that jump,” he says. When that happens the number of applications for virtual reality as an instrument of social good will rapidly grow.
Today, however, Luckey says the crucial thing is that philanthropists don’t blindly dive into the world of virtual reality simply because it’s the new toy everyone’s talking about. First, they need a legitimate reason to try it and the technical chops to pull it off. “Most revolutions in technology do take time to take hold and virtual probably isn’t going to be different,” he says. “It’s the newest, shiniest thing, but it’s not always the best tool for every problem.”