Virtual reality has been a fantasy of human beings for decades, with scores of movies and films set in a futuristic world where we can experience amazing, impossible things with the help of technology. Now, the day where VR is possible has arrived, and although it’s not as flashy as it was imagined in films like Tron or The Matrix, it’s also not as invasive.
You don’t need a complicated surgery to experience VR, or a massive room in your house dedicated to your virtual explorations like the one Ray Bradbury imagined decades ago in “The Veldt.” Most VR devices take the form of small headsets, connected to smartphones for more basic experiences or gaming consoles for more advanced and immersive trips.
VR, like television, can be experienced in the comfort of your own home. Many are now asking: with virtual reality so rapidly ascendant, and its tech becoming more affordable and more ubiquitous every day, does television stand a chance? Or will it go the way of the telegraph? That technology was replaced by a far more vivid form of communication. Will the beloved American pastime of staring at the television be rendered obsolete by technology that allows us to actually participate in, and interact with, our entertainment experiences?
It’s interesting to consider what sparked the human imagination to begin pondering virtual reality. The idea was barely a notion until the advent of television, which itself was an evolution of the moving pictures of cinema. Consider the Americans who fled screaming from the theater when a moving image of a train barreling toward them appeared on the screen. What would they think of a headset that transported them into an Amazonian rainforest? And yet VR is an outgrowth of that same desire, for visceral, tangible entertainment that feels exciting, realistic, and at times dangerous.
So, just as cinema sparked the imagination and led to the invention of broadcasting moving images over the air, television begat virtual reality. Thinkers saw how raptly households of people fixated on the so-called boob tube and wondered what could possibly come next. Video games evolved out of computer technology, but once they reached the home, they were played on the television. And yet they didn’t replace TV entirely. People still wanted stories they could observe passively, rather than having to participate in, even if only by tapping a keypad.
This is perhaps the best hope that TV has to remain relevant and keep its place in our homes. Yes, we want immersive experiences, that draw us in and make us feel as though we’re a part of the story, but there’s a limit to our thirst for engagement. Television will likely live on in some form or another for those of us who would rather feel gripped by a narrative or an image viewed from afar than to reach out and grab it. Another thing giving TV a fighting chance: virtual reality tends to produce nausea in its users, as their brains are confused by the motion-detection software. It may be that this issue is eliminated completely in a few years, but I predict there will still be holdouts, content to sit back and consume their content passively; the continued cultural phenomena of shows like Stranger Things and Game of Thrones is evidence enough of that. TV may eventually be rendered obsolete by VR, but it won’t go out without a fight.