When we enter a virtual environment, do we really enter a new world?

It’s been a little over a month since I first strapped on the Oculus Rift— a virtual reality headset that promises to immerse its wearer in wondrous, three-dimensional worlds—and I’m still struggling to find words to describe the product and its vision of a new imagined reality.

“Nothing I say will make sense until you try it yourself. Have fun in there,” said the burly attendant before he eased me into the intimidating pair of ski goggles that forms the headset part of the Oculus Rift.

“In there” is probably the best spatial description of the virtual reality journey that the Rift takes you on. Once you’re hooked in, there’s a brief sense of sensory deprivation before the vivid, three-dimensional images start appearing.

Enter the Matrix

The first world I’m taken to is inside a chamber of a medieval castle, lit only by torchlight. The images are crystal clear and I’m able to look around the castle by moving my head. Walking around is done through an Xbox-360 like controller, which works using standard controls [right joystick to walk forward, push left to turn left, etc.].

Exiting the castle through a side door takes me to the streets of a snow-covered town—which the attendant later tells me is inspired by a 15th century Norwegian castle town—with details popping up all over the place. I can see individual snowflakes falling to the ground, falling on the shops that sell swords and armour, falling over a group of kids that are playing what I can only imagine is a 15th century version of cops and robber.

In some ways, the Rift is like an IMAX movie that doesn’t end at the edge of the screen—it wraps the world around you completely with some spectacular immersion.

By leaning and turning my body I can truly navigate the world in front of me—very similar to how one would lean in real life to peer at an object that are at a far way distance. The Rift manages this as the new prototype adds a camera that sits in front of you in order to track your body movement.

The second demo I’m taken through is more of a proper game— a space-fighter shooter game to be precise, made by the developers of EVE: Valkyrie. The Rift places you in the cockpit of a small, snub-nosed spaceship and your goal is to destroy enemy ships, which brings its own sense of satisfaction. Lean forward and look around and you can read your ship’s weapons data on the control panels. Look further down and you can see your virtual body safely ensconced within the ship.

It is here that the Rift disorients a person’s sense of self. The technology isn’t full-body virtual reality yet. Moving forward and backward is done through a game controller. So when I move my arm in real life and it doesn’t move in the virtual world I’m in, it leaves me with a sense of panic—as if I’m almost paralyzed.

It is also an addictive machine—jumping into it gives the user a little kick, a rush of endorphins no doubt—I spent nearly 10 hours using it, taking photos and watching others use it.

Black Swanning

The Oculus Rift is, without doubt, a black swan that moves technology from being a mere tool to being a coordinated experience. We don’t just use the Rift; it uses us as much as we use it.

The big question here: When we put on the Rift, do we really enter a new world? And that too, not just a world conjured out of a programmer’s code, but one mixed with our own memories and desires, with our cognitive immersion giving it an emotional force.

In my search for answers, I stumbled across research conducted by scientists who sought to observe the effects of literature on the human mind. If you think about it, virtual reality and literature aren’t too different, at least in the way we react to it. For instance, entering the Rift and reading a gripping piece of literature make us experience “narrative emotions”, through the sympathetic actions of our nervous system,—where we become part of the story.

Research by the Washington University in St. Louis found that groups of nerve cells are activated in the brains of readers when they read about a particular real-world action. For instance, if a character in a story picks up a pencil, the neurons that control muscle movement fire in a reader’s brain. So in that sense, when one reads a book, it appears as if the reader does enter a new world—or at least the brain replicates it to be so.

There are a particular group of nerve cells called place cells—which fire reliably at certain physical locations and which play an important role in how the brain creates cognitive maps.

A more recent study by Northwestern University carries lessons for the Oculus Rift however. The study, which studied what goes on in the brains of rats as they navigate digitally created spaces, found that the rats’ place cells were considerably less active in virtual realty than in the real world.

Mayank Mehta, who is a UCLA neurophysicist, compared the activity of place cells in rodents running along a real, linear track with the place cell activity of rats running in virtual reality—and saw some surprising differences.

In the real world, about 45% of the rats’ place cells fired at some point along the track. In virtual reality, only 22% did. “Half of the neurons just shut up,” he says.

Some of the difference may stem from the fact that virtual reality technology still hasn’t incorporated all five senses—there is no smell, no odour that comes from a virtual environment. And the usual caveats that apply to any study are true here as well; the sensory perception of rats is quite different from that of a human being.

But at the same time, the study hints at the richness of our perception of the world. A richness that seems to be inherent, that seems to be inscribed on our physical being even if we are not consciously aware of it. To me, this raises questions that are not often asked when we talk about virtual reality or even augmented reality. Is virtual reality a form of diminished reality? By putting on the Oculus Rift, am I diminishing or degrading my real reality? By putting on Google Glass, am I degrading my other layers of conscious and unconscious perception?

Put more simply: Is Virtual Reality + Real World < the Real World?

And—does it matter?