Sitting on a bus yesterday, I was surrounded by people. Most were staring at their phones. Based on the regular gasps of delights and groans of disappointment, it was clear that many were also playing Pokémon GO. At one point, a teenage girl leapt from her seat and got off the bus to chase down a Pikachu she'd spotted out the window. I looked around and realised that, despite all of us being on the same bus, going in the same direction, not all of us were inhabiting the same world.
The rise of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) has hit people's consciences in a big way this year, thanks to the Pokémon explosion. But it's been creeping up on us for a while. Apps like Blippar and Snapchat have been integrating increasing amounts of AR into their offerings. Engineers and architects are starting to use VR headsets to demonstrate what finished projects will look like for clients, hotels are able to show potential guests what their room will look like, and countless start-ups are honing the tech which is making all this, and more, possible.
As a tech CEO, I'm excited about what these developments might mean. Companies will be able to offer a full sensory experience to customers, we'll be able to explore places thousands of miles away, and doctors and scientists will be able to deploy this tech for public good.
But what does the rise of VR and AR mean for our society more widely? I can't help but feel uneasy as people around me escape into other realms, pursuing personal quests with their heads down, eyes averted. Will VR mean we don't need to make real friends to socialise, leave the house to travel, or be in this world at all? And with the inventor of the terrifyingly realistic Scarlett Johannson drone releasing a manual on how to build one yourself, will romantic relationships with other humans soon become redundant too?
Whilst these scenarios might see like something from the plot of Her or an episode of Humans, this new reality is within touching distance. Our tech is becoming more advanced by the second and we are adopting it at an increasingly early age. Some kids are learning to navigate iPads before they can construct full sentences: a 2015 French study found that 58% of under-twos had already used a tablet or mobile phone.
With technology being embraced in this way, there is much to cheer about. It is helping bring education, healthcare and knowledge to billions across the globe. Pokémon GO is already being lauded as a tool to combat anti-depression and agoraphobia; helping people get out the house and into their communities. But as these virtual and augmented reality offerings become more advanced and increasingly life like, we run the risk of carrying out the rest of our days in virtual worlds. Cut off from normal social interaction, we'll be chatting with our bespoke drones over dinner before hopping on a dragon for a midnight flight over Siberia.
So, whilst we develop this tech and put it to work, let's try and remember that there's a time and place for virtual and augmented reality. When it stops enhancing and starts replacing our world, it's probably time to take a step back.
Ran Berger is the CEO and co-founder of software development company, Flat Rock Technology
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