Dreaming Awake - Can VR experience be a kind of dream state?

Ever noticed how similar a VR experience is to dreaming? Once you put on the headset, you are inside a dreamscape. Anything is possible. You can turn around the corner of a busy city street and suddenly walk onto a beach. You can meet Shakespeare at a nightclub. You can recreate your childhood house and take your grandkids to visit the past. Place, time, context and object can all be jumbled up and shuffled around like a pack of cards… and it would not seem absurd at all. Just like a dream. And furthermore, isn’t taking the VR headset off very similar to waking up from a dream? So many times, I have watched people taking off the headset and immediately looking around themselves, as if to reconfirm where they are now and how they got there. “Welcome back!” I say to them.

Realistic vs Believable

As the number of VR titles grow in the market, we are beginning to realize that realism is not necessary for how ‘immersed’ we feel. It is more about creating - and sustaining - the illusion of presence. Even if your hands are cartoony and unrealistic, as long as they move in the way you want to move your hands… it will feel real. If the sensory stimuli and motor movements coincide to create the illusion of presence, our brain will naturally connect the dots and suspend disbelief. ‘Suspending disbelief’ does not mean that our questioning, skeptical intellect is switched off. It simply means that the things we did not believe to be possible in reality (simply because we did not perceive them) appear to be believable in the context of the experience. Just like dreams.

Ever have the feeling of falling in a dream and then waking up suddenly in your bed? Curiously enough, the same sensations occur in VR. The feeling of height when one is standing on top of a skyscraper, or the shivery sensation in the spine when one falls from a virtual height, or when one is moving very fast and our body can feel speed… These are all examples of how VR experience can be very dream-like. It feels real but it is not. It feels immersive because it successfully suspends our disbelief. After having a vivid dream/immersive VR experience, we take off the headset/open our eyes and let out a sigh, “Oh that’s right, I’m just in my room. I almost believed I was elsewhere, even though I knew I wasn’t.”

Walking into the Human Unconscious

Reality is not a dream. But the human mind can be very dream-like. Our mind usually programs itself in a closed-circuit using the semantic structure and cultural influences that we are exposed to around us. These cultural symbols, memes and attitudes are like blocks of data (sense impressions) that are stored in a collective cloud server (collective unconscious). People then replicate these ‘blocks’ in their own behavior, thereby creating an action (or ‘transaction’ with reality). These transactions are recorded in the cloud server, hence validating the ‘culture’ and propagating it further.

Am I proposing that culture is a blockchain based sociogram? Maybe. But that’s not the point I want to elaborate. I want to point out that these ‘cloud servers’ are information pools that transact in our unconscious mind. And as we begin to extract information from these ‘cloud servers’ of our unconscious mind (which is the job of an artist), and use technology to build VR experiences out of them… there is going to be fundamental rift in how we perceive reality (and I don’t mean the headset). Dreams were the original way of accessing the human unconscious - therefore, it is not a coincidence that visionaries in human progress are often called ‘dreamers’. But now, as technology advances into an era of VR, AR and holograms… all our dreams (both private and collective) have the potential to come true. And I say this with as much optimism as with caution - not all dreams/virtual realities are going to be good for us. We must proceed consciously and responsibly on this exciting new path.

Just a few decades ago, virtual reality seemed like a dream from the distant future. Now it is a part of our reality and it is here to stay. But as it develops, we might discover... that perhaps our reality is more dream-like than it seems.