A journey of disappointment may reflect an insurmountable obstacle.
Despite remarkable advancements, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) face inherent limitations in their pursuit to replicate the real world. The physical intrusiveness of the equipment, such as headsets, disrupts the immersive experience, and health issues like VR sickness often deter potential users. A crucial challenge lies in the technologies’ inability to capture the authenticity and individuality of human experiences, such as tasting a banana split or engaging with one’s environment. AR and VR strive to create a ‘replacement reality’, a concept akin to ‘hyperreality’ explored by Jean Baudrillard, yet often fall short due to the subjective nature of human consciousness and lived experiences. The question arises whether technology can genuinely replicate or replace the complex, subjective, and personal nature of reality, reminding us of the irreplaceable richness of our unique human experiences.
Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, in their quest to recreate our physical world, find themselves embarking on a Sisyphean task — creating a replacement reality that struggles to live up to the authenticity of lived experience. These technologies aim to emulate the sensory and spatial aspects of our world, but often falter, serving up an iteration that is inherently imperfect and unfulfilling.
Moreover, the physical imposition of VR and AR technologies — the necessity of a headset — exacerbates the rift between the real and the replaced. Donning a headset is a reminder of the technology’s intrusion, a tangible testament to the contrivance. While the designs have certainly improved over time, the requirement of such equipment inherently disrupts the immersive experience these technologies aspire to provide. The weight on the head, the feel of the straps, the potential for discomfort or disorientation — all of these factors contribute to the unavoidable reality that the user is engaging with a device, not directly with the world. This physical obstruction serves as a constant reminder of the separation between the real and the artificial, detracting from the authenticity of the experience.
Another persistent hurdle for VR technology is the physical disorientation, often experienced by some users. Symptoms, similar to motion sickness, can include feelings of queasiness, dizziness, and nausea. These adverse effects arise due to the perceptual conflict between what the user is seeing in the virtual environment and what their body is physically experiencing in the real world. The brain struggles to reconcile this sensory mismatch, leading to discomfort. This ‘digital seasickness’ not only disrupts the immersive experience but can deter potential users from engaging with VR technology. Despite advancements, addressing VR-induced nausea remains a significant challenge, further limiting the capacity of VR to seamlessly replicate reality.
Let’s consider a simple yet illuminating example: the experience of enjoying a banana split. The sweet taste of the banana, the cool creaminess of the ice cream, the crunch of the nuts, and the sensation of satisfaction that follows — all these create a symphony of sensory pleasure that is unique to each individual. AR and VR can strive to recreate this experience in numerous ways: visually simulate the dessert, project the sounds of a bustling ice cream parlor, even simulate the sensation of a spoon. However, no matter how sophisticated the technology becomes, it cannot truly replicate the taste, the satisfaction, the personal sensory reality of eating a banana split.
This disconnect extends beyond food experiences to encompass our interactions with the world around us. Every individual’s reality is a complex tapestry woven from unique perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and experiences. The premise of AR and VR as a replacement reality is fundamentally flawed because it attempts to replace something that is irreproducible — our individual lived experiences.
This limitation finds a compelling parallel in the realm of literature and cinema. When a beloved book is adapted into a film, the common refrain is that “the book was better.” But why is this the case? The book allows the reader the cognitive flexibility to construct their reality based on their interpretation of the text. They imagine characters, scenes, and events in a way that aligns with their interests, fears, delights, and personal experiences. The book is a ‘participatory reality’ that is co-created by the reader and the author.
In contrast, a movie presents a ‘replacement reality’ that is predominantly determined by the director’s vision. It constrains the viewer’s cognitive flexibility and demands that they fit within this contrived reality, often resulting in a sense of disconnect or dissatisfaction. The same holds true for VR and AR. Despite their technical advancements and the immersive experiences they provide, they remain prescriptive models that often fall short of the richness, complexity, and individuality of our lived experiences.
While AR and VR present intriguing possibilities across multiple fields, their fundamental role as replacement reality faces inherent limitations. This echoes themes present in Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, where he explores the concept of ‘hyperreality,’ a state where the line between reality and simulation becomes indistinguishable.
The attempted replacement of the real by AR and VR constructs a hyperreality — a reality that is more real than real, yet falls short of the authenticity of lived human experiences. This hyperreality, in its strive to mimic, neglects the subjective human consciousness, reducing our rich, nuanced world into a frail, synthetic construct.
This raises questions of the ultimate endgame of these technologies. If the goal of AR and VR is to seamlessly emulate reality, they grapple with a philosophical quandary: can reality — complex, subjective, and personal — truly be replicated or replaced? The individual’s lived experience, laden with emotions, thoughts, and unique perceptions, retains an irreplaceable value that technology, no matter how advanced, may never fully capture. As we push the boundaries of what AR and VR can accomplish, we must also grapple with these philosophical implications, reminding ourselves of the irreplaceable richness of our unique human experiences.
John is the #1 global influencer in digital health and generally regarded as one of the top global strategic and creative thinkers in this important and expanding area. He is also one the most popular speakers around the globe presenting his vibrant and insightful perspective on the future of health innovation. His focus is on guiding companies, NGOs, and governments through the dynamics of exponential change in the health / tech marketplaces. He is also a member of the Google Health Advisory Board, pens HEALTH CRITICAL for Forbes--a top global blog on health & technology and THE DIGITAL SELF for Psychology Today—a leading blog focused on the digital transformation of humanity. He is also on the faculty of Exponential Medicine. John has an established reputation as a vocal advocate for strategic thinking and creativity. He has built his career on the “science of advertising,” a process where strategy and creativity work together for superior marketing. He has also been recognized for his ability to translate difficult medical and scientific concepts into material that can be more easily communicated to consumers, clinicians and scientists. Additionally, John has distinguished himself as a scientific thinker. Earlier in his career, John was a research associate at Harvard Medical School and has co-authored several papers with global thought-leaders in the field of cardiovascular physiology with a focus on acute myocardial infarction, ventricular arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death.