Thursday, July 14, 2016

When the Border between Physical and Virtual Ceases to Exist

The author, despite continued ridicule from friends and suffering ofttimes hardships in the most inconvenient times, have for the past years resisted purchasing a smartphone despite the device being more and more commonplace across even the poorer parts of the world.  The desire to remain disconnected from barrage of messages that always seem to require immediate response may be the most compelling reason he can put up to what is increasingly perceived an irrational, eccentric behavior.  But perhaps, in the recent days, there is one more powerful reason to resist smartphone adoption.

Anyone in tune with social media probably would have heard of Pokemon Go by now.  In what is quickly becoming the ailing gaming giant Nintendo's greatest business comeback in years, the smartphone app has gone so viral to the point that more phones have it installed than long-time popular social media apps such as Linkedin, and for a good reason.  The idea behind it is quite revolutionary.  By superimposing Pokemon graphics in real-world locations, the app is able to use the cutting-edge technology of virtual reality to push the boundaries of age-old concept of social gaming.

But the real-world consequences of such a game going viral is more than just folks at Nintendo jumping for joy or the rare (often comical) sights of otakus spending extended periods of time outdoors.  Even prior to the release of such a viral game, technologically advanced societies were already infested with smartphone zombies, or as they call it in the Chinese-speaking world, 低頭族 ("di-tou-zhu," literally "lowering head tribe").  Heavy smartphone users are constantly glued on their screens even as they walk about areas with busy traffic, putting themselves and others in constant physical danger.

Pokemon Go has only served to exacerbate the problem.  At least in the past, the world inside the smartphone screen and outside of it were completely different, requiring even the most addictive of smartphone users to occasionally glance away from their screens.  What Pokemon Go has initiated is a slow process toward full integration of the two worlds, where the realities of the physical world is reflect to enough extent that allows the user to credibly believe that s/he can get around without actually taking their eyes off the game for a split second.

Yes, of course, Pokemon Go is not that powerful yet.  In terms of virtual reality application, it is still very primeval.  Any user can obviously detect what part of the game is direct transport from physical reality and what is crudely inserted cartoon characters.  But take a moment to imagine the possibilities.  It is highly conceivable that future iterations of virtual reality applications will become much more "natural," creating ultra-realistic digital insertions that react and even interact with visually displayed physical reality.  The user will not easily be able to distinguish what is real and what is digital without confirming against the reality.

It will be a world where direct interaction with the physical reality will become completely unnecessary for visual stimulation.  But enhancing visualized reality with digital supplements, it will even make the very idea of interacting with physical world a greatly unattractive proposition for the user.  For the developers of such applications, the resulting functional dependence of the users will in time translate to revenues.  Several small-scale projects, such as instant language translation and instant mathematical calculation apps, are already created upon this idea, the next step is a comprehensive platform that touch upon more aspects of life.

In time, all social interactions will be more conveniently conducted through digital interfaces that can filter, massage, and customize all communications for better understanding and immediate response.  Direct human-to-human interactions will become comparatively inferior in efficiency and effectiveness.  Even in situations where social gathering is the very purpose (e.g. parties or meetings), virtual reality that bring the likeness of different people in the same location from remotely controlled physical contact may become so real that people no longer see the need to go through the logistical hassles of actually convening in person.

That will be the day that cinemas, event spaces, nightclubs, and bars will die.  The real-world brick-and-mortar would be completely superseded by virtual spaces where people can simulate physical reality so much that without conscious decision to enter the virtual space, they would not even be able to tell if they are in virtual reality or a physical one.  All of this is something one can only imagine for a rather distant future, but it suffice to say that the concept requires a robust business model to financially justify development.  A primitive but viral application of virtual reality on a smartphone may have provided the very first justification. 

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