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Virtual insanity

By [email protected] - 23rd February 2017 - 12:42

It is hard to open a tech news website without seeing a predication that virtual reality will be ‘the’ technology of the year. I realise I could open different websites but nevertheless, these futurologists’ (not a real job title) pronouncements leave me a little cold.

In its current incarnation and looking at the direction of travel for its development, virtual reality simply isn’t striving to recreate reality. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that – apart from the name being misleading.

If the technology giants who are pushing this technology and who want to bet their vast farms on men and women of all ages spending hours of real life ‘immersed’ in unreal gaming worlds, blasting anything that moves into a computer-generated afterlife, then that is their prerogative. It’s their farms, after all.

But it seems to me that the opportunity is being missed for this ever-developing capability to model and explore anywhere without leaving the office, to have a real impact on how many geo-professionals do their jobs.

Current VR (I’m very busy and can’t possibly keep typing virtual reality) systems start and end with only two senses: sight and sound. This is, as any schoolboy knows, only 40% of the available sensory inputs an unimpaired human being has.

For me, by ignoring touch, taste and smell, the experience of strapping on a pair of ludicrously large goggles and holding a floating joystick whilst flying around the streets of San Francisco has been uninspiring. Even when I was strapped to a moving table (I’m sure there is a more technical term) the added sensation of diving and climbing simply made me feel unwell. It certainly didn’t make me feel more involved in the virtual world I was exploring. In fact, it made me feel that the people in the real world were laughing at a man strapped to a moving table who was trying not to throw up.

Reality is a tough concept to explore in a 600-word column but without entering the metaphysical, it is fair to say that people use all their senses to orientate themselves in their worlds. It seems strange then to try to recreate a world while ignoring three-fifths of the available ways that people will interact with it.

You could reasonably argue that in the geo-industry’s applications of VR, seeing and hearing is more than enough for the challenges it has been designed to address. Indeed, it may be an advantage not to be able to smell the streets, particularly in the less attractive parts of a city. Seeing what is there, how the streets are mapped out and so on are enough to make planning decisions or route new utilities.

Except I believe that it really does matter that the person using this technology can experience the reality of a situation, otherwise the connection is no more real than our would-be soldiers reaping carnage from their sofas (if the smells of war and the pain of being shot were introduced to VR gaming I’d guess that chess would see something of a renaissance as a way for people to spend their free time).

People make decisions based on the information they gather and process. In VR, they are being denied the chance to collect it all and so will make decisions with what could be vital information missing.

When town planners, building engineers or farmers say that they have a ‘feel’ for how a situation should be resolved, they mean that they have, without thinking, collected all the information of their senses, mixed it with the experience they have gained from previous work and created a solution. If a virtual world is only one of sight and sound, it is a poorer place than the real one and so will struggle to provide economic or efficiency savings to industries.

Alistair Maclenan is founder of the geospatial B2B marketing agency Quarry One Eleven (

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