When I was a toddler, I had a sippy cup on which was printed graphic of a bear drinking from a cup. And printed on the bear’s cup was a tiny picture of a bear drinking from a cup, which had a picture of a bear drinking from a cup with a bear…ad infinitum. This is called the Droste effect: An artistic device that shows an image reoccurring within itself smaller and smaller into infinity.
I was mesmerized by this image. Even as a little girl, there was a tangible pleasure from observing & ruminating on infinity.
Flash forward 40 years and each time someone slips on a virtual reality headset for a demo that I’ve organized, it’s a live action version of the Droste effect: I’m standing in one reality observing someone observing another reality, inside virtual reality.
The VR headset is a portal to a universe within a universe (or more accurately, a metaverse). Virtual reality is a terrible misnomer because there is nothing virtual about it. Inside the VR headset, we’re enrobed in a plane of reality so convincing that our eyes, brains, sympathetic nervous system, & emotions react accordingly. The environment inside a virtual reality headset may be artificial, and unless you’re reading this from a grassy meadow, the environment in which you are sitting right now is probably artificially lit, artificially cooled, and artificially powered.
It all begs the question “What is reality?” We know that infinity doesn’t end, but where does infinity and real reality begin? Questions like these, long loved by philosophers and string theorists, will soon be confronting the average citizen. And they won’t be wondering about these big questions with a mere fleeting curiosity. As VR adoption rates grow, crisscrossing reality and different planes of existence will be a regular, palpable occurrence, making the nuanced and layered nature of reality impossible to ignore.
Can many people suddenly thinking deeply about the nature of reality & being be a bad thing? As the masses start traipsing back and forth over VR’s reality bridge, I hope it sparks not a mass existential crisis, but a pandemic of humility.
A clever definition of humility is “knowing your place in the grand order of things.” We all want to be a part of something bigger. It’s the common denominator of humanity. But no one wants to be insignificant or a mere cog in an uncaring machine. Life is meaningless unless we feel an integral part of something bigger, organic, alive, & meaningful.
With VR, we’ve created a mechanism that creates a sub universe. It’s a mini big bang (albeit without all that helium). Our place in the grand order of things might become a bit more ambiguous before it becomes a bit clearer, but we have a new opportunity for a better understanding of reality. For what better way to gain perspective on reality than by ducking out for a bit? Just as one can’t see the forest for the trees, one can’t see “reality” without strapping on a headset, dipping into VR’s fifth dimension, and coming back out again.