The Virtual World
With the release of the Oculus Rift in March 2016, the age of virtual reality (VR) truly began. VR tech had been generating buzz since the 1990s, but the Rift was the first high-end VR system to reach the consumer market, and early reviews confirmed that it delivered the kind of experience users had been hoping for.
Virtual reality was finally real.
Research into VR exploded in this new era, and experts soon started to find innovative ways to make virtual experiences more immersive...more real. To date, VR technologies have moved beyond just sight and sound. We've developed technologies that let users touch virtual objects, feel changes in wind and temperature, and even taste food in VR.
However, despite all this progress, no one would mistake a virtual environment for the real world. The technology simply isn't advanced enough, and as long as we rely solely on traditional headsets and other wearables, it never will be.
Before we can create a world that is truly indistinguishable from the real one, we will need to leave the age of virtual reality behind and enter a new era — the era of neuroreality.
Neuroreality refers to a reality that is driven by technologies that interface directly with the human brain. While traditional VR depends on a user physically reacting to external stimuli (for example, swinging a controller to wield a virtual sword on a screen) a neuroreality system interfaces directly with the user's biology through a brain-computer interface (BCI).
Notably, this technology isn't some far-flung sci-fi vision. It's very real.
To rehash the basics: BCIs are a means of connecting our brains to machines, and they can be either invasive (requiring an implant of some sort) or non-invasive (relying on electrodes or other external tech to detect and direct brain signals). Experts have predicted that advances in BCIs will lead to a new era in human evolution, as these devices have the potential to revolutionize how we treat diseases, learn, communicate...in short, they are set to utterly transform how we see and interact with the world around us.
In fact, some companies are already innovating in the newly emerging field of neuroreality.
Founded by physicist Dan Cook in 2013, EyeMynd's goal is to create a VR system that allows the user to navigate a virtual world simply by thought—no immersion-breaking controller required.
“When you’re in the virtual world—whether you’re playing a game or something else—you don’t want to have to keep thinking about what you’re doing with your hands,” Cook told Digital Trends in November. “It’s much better to have pure brainwave control. It will be a much more satisfying experience and will allow for a much greater level of immersion. You can forget about your live human body, and just focus on what’s going on in front of you.”
Cook likens the experience to dreaming. “In a dream, you can run around without moving your physical legs. That dreaming and imagining creates brain signals that we can read,” he told The Guardian. "With what we want to do, you won’t need eyeballs to see, or ears to hear, or hands and feet. We can bypass all of that.”
EyeMynd's system is non-invasive, meaning it wouldn't require the user to undergo any sort of device implantation. Instead, they would wear a headset that includes EEG sensors to track their brainwaves.
Cook's isn't the only company exploring the use of brainwave-detecting external tech to make the VR experience feel more seamless. Boston-based startup Neurable, bioinformatics company EMOTIV, and social networking giant Facebook are all working on non-invasive devices that would allow users to navigate the virtual world through thought alone.
However, as Joy Lyons, chief technology officer of audio tech startup OSSIC, told Vice at the 2016 VRLA Summer Expo, the ideal hardware for creating a new reality isn't an external headset, no matter how advanced. It's "a chip in the brain."
A World in Your Mind
Earlier this year, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk founded Neuralink, a company with the goal of developing cutting-edge technology that connects a person's brain to the digital world through an array of implanted electrodes. Shortly before Musk's announcement, Braintree founder Bryan Johnson announced a similar venture—that he is investing $100 million to unlock the power of the human brain and make our neural code programmable. Johnson’s company, Kernel, is working to create the world’s first neuroprosthesis
Musk himself has predicted that we'll eventually be able to create computer simulations that are indistinguishable from reality, and if these brain interfaces come to fruition, they could act as the platform through which we experience those simulations, allowing us to not only see a realistic world but touch it and truly feel it.
In a detailed report announcing the launch of Neuralink, Tim Urban described the potential impact of this proposed tech on our understanding of reality. Instead of relying on external hardware like goggles, gloves, and headphones to trick our senses into believing that what we encounter in the virtual world is real, we could program realities that trigger the same parts of our brains that would be engaged if the experiences actually were real.
"There would be no more need for screens of course — because you could just make a virtual screen appear in your visual cortex. Or jump into a VR movie with all your senses," asserted Urban. "You’ll be able to actually experience almost anything for free."
The same part of your brain that is stimulated when you taste pizza could be triggered to engage when you bite into a slice in this new reality, and the same part that lets you smell the ocean air in reality could be simulated and provide that feeling while standing on the shore of a virtual Atlantic ocean.
The difference between the real world and the virtual one would be undetectable. For all intents and purposes, a difference would not exist.
Figuring out the tech to actually make this happen won't be easy, and overcoming the non-tech related obstacles will present an additional challenge (such as developing a comprehensive map of the human brain and all our neurons). Elective brain surgery is an extremely controversial subject, and past experiments haven't yielded such promising results. Neuralink and like-minded companies will need to engage in years of research before their devices will be ready for human implantation, and even then, they'll have regulatory hurdles to overcome.
Still, BCI research is progressing rapidly, so while a system of electrodes that can effectively project an entirely new world directly into our brains might seem like a sci-fi pipe dream, it really shouldn't. After all, just two decades ago, the virtual reality experience delivered today by the Rift felt woefully out of reach, and now, anyone with $600 can bring it home with them (and the price is dropping at a remarkable rate).
As Cook told The Guardian, we aren't as far as we may think from the day when navigating virtual worlds using just our thoughts is the norm: “Ten years from now, this will seem obvious.”
Disclosure: Bryan Johnson is an investor in Futurism; he does not hold a seat on our editorial board or have any editorial review privileges.