Brave New World

Is Virtual Reality for Our Own Memories Really Such a Great Idea?

It’s not just movies and social media—in the coming years, virtual reality will be about recording personal moments. But what’s to stop people from living fully inside those memories?

07.05.16 4:18 AM ET

Virtual reality has been the talk of the entertainment industry for the last couple of years, as the TV, film, gaming, and social media worlds all look to immersive experiences as the next advancement in digital experiences.

But while big budget productions will rake in millions in the coming years, the on-the-ground presence of virtual reality will be about more than studios—it will be about sharing individual experiences and recording personal moments. And that’s maybe not a good thing.

At a recent Cannes Lions Festival appearance, Google VR vice president Clay Bavor said some interesting things about the future of VR, as a way for users to start reliving their own life experiences. It starts with the close connection between memory and experience. “When you look at your brain under an fMRI,” he said, “remembering and experiencing look very similar.”

Bavor talked about how, if your home was on fire, you’d be saving photo albums and hard drives with photos because of their value: the experience. “You can remember someone you love” is how he phrased it, someone “who might be far away or who you’ve lost.”

And for him and the many others writing and developing the VR world, that’s the primary goal: to step back into that memory years later.

Bavor went on to discuss his own experiences with a new prototype camera for recording VR.

“I’ve recorded similar things too, little fleeting moments,” he said. “Sitting with my grandmother in her home. Having breakfast with my son. Here’s the thing: A few years from now, when my grandmother is gone, I’ll be able to sit with her. Twenty years from now, when my son is an adult, I’ll be able to put on some goggles and sit across the breakfast table from him as a little boy.”

Recreating the past is what we do. It’s how we remember what we lost, what we had. It’s how we find inspiration to get through bad times. But being able to call up an experience with the push of a button carries some dangers that memories don’t. We could get lost in the experiences, in an addictive way.

I know that sounds like science fiction, and yes, here’s where the Matrix reference would go. Feel free to make your own associations. But as a counterpoint to the skepticism, the more apt comparison isn’t with that film so much as Vanilla Sky, or perhaps Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You know, tales of a virtual world people want to stay inside of.

Oh, and as for the fictional side of all of this, it’s not so farfetched. The question of taking the false for the real got more serious this week, with the announcement that scientists are trying to implant memories in human subjects. There’s your Inception moment.

But back to VR. It could be a good thing. There are benefits to stepping back in time: One can think of many ways this sort of research can help Alzheimer’s patients or those with some form of brain damage to regain their possession of their own mind. It’s not a big leap to think that creating a virtual space to experience the past would help jar someone to access those moments. Plenty of anecdotal cases have shown music and pictures to help.

But what about the recreational side? What happens when flipping through a photo album becomes a multi-hour lounge on the couch? It’s even easier to picture a grieving parent plugging in a headset on the nightstand and never leaving bed—we’ve all known someone who probably wouldn’t have gotten out of a bout of depression had they had access to this kind of technology. Addiction, dependence: The past could easily become the new drug of choice for self-medication.

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And say what you will about how technology has affected interpersonal communications—how youth and adolescence have been harmed by an unforgiving internet that remembers everything you do—but imagine how much more embarrassing and difficult life could become to navigate when your peers can literally step into that moment you were embarrassed and relive it over and over for amusement.

As with every technology (and I have found myself saying this near-daily over the last few years) there’s going to be a social cost-benefit problem to work out. Livestreaming became a great justice tool, but it has also played host to horrifying things. The internet gives people a voice, but some hateful voices don’t need to be heard.

As for immersive virtual reality recording, it too will capture our best moments and our worst, depending on who wields the camera.

But at least it will make all those vacation photo albums more interesting.