Virtual Insanity?

There is a saying “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone”.  It means to appreciate what you have now and don’t take anything for granted because it might not be there tomorrow. For when it’s gone, it’s gone. But does this apply to the world we live in today?

With new technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR), we now have the ability to reconstruct the past, bring things we have lost ‘back to life’. Now we can explore ancient worlds, ‘travel’ to Africa in the comfort of our own homes to feed an African lion and even tour the Mosel Museum which had been destroyed by terrorists. Whilst VR is emerging as a tool for conservation and education – for the purpose to promote better understanding and give people empathetic insight, we are too facilitating the idea that we can take things for granted, always with the assumption that whenever we want something (even if lost), it can still be there…. albeit re-created through digital technology.

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Sure, VR can provide immersive experiences and access to a wider (younger) audience to communicate a message of conservation, but is this appreciation of the ‘real’ a juxtaposition of the technology itself to the alternative reality that it evokes on the user? Does the very experience itself give people the sense of detachment of the VR world vs. their reality? How can we realise the true value of what’s missing from our lives or what we’re about to lose – if we can feel and we can experience as if it were still here? Can people truly see the impact of what they do now if they cannot experience the long-term consequences? I wonder.

The VR content market is predicted to be worth $108 Billion by 2021. Though this figure includes all forms of content such as gaming, entertainment etc. it still demonstrates the significant potential for growth in this format. The demand for conservation VR content is already increasing with the likes of David Attenborough’s Sky VR series with London’s Natural History Museum, commissioning of VR documentaries for mainstream media and 360 videos watched on smartphones. It is the ability to transport people from their current realities as a form of escapism that makes VR so attractive.

Right now, we are using VR as a means to hold on to our world. We are betting that VR can help expose conservation issues and instill a feeling in people to act. Nonetheless, we can only hope through the representation of it there is some form of emotion that it can inspire.

I feel it is now important to say, no technology will ever completely bring the past back, no matter how close we might think we are to understanding it. While it brings a new dimension to conservation and facilitates conversation, it will never replace what we’ve lost or will lose for real. What if our close relationship with this technology (through the virtual representations of nature and of our world) is the very reason we will forget the significance to protect and conserve our present?

So, the question is…are we banking too much on technology to change human behaviour?

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