Virtual reality is one of the achievements of the technological progress that the humanity currently experiences. The history of the virtual reality, the birth of the very idea and putting this idea into practice is rather long and interesting not only due to the fact that it took a long time, over 4 centuries, to develop an incredible idea into a phenomenon that does not surprise any modern person, but also because it is accompanied by various considerations and arguments regarding the influences that the virtual reality might have on people. This paper focuses on the possible, or actually proven, effects of the virtual reality on human beings on the whole, and children and adults in particular. This discussion is put in the historical and scientific contexts and also present implications for the future of the virtual reality development.
The progress of the humanity is a fast process that does not stop and is facilitated by the investment that governmental and private organizations make into the spheres of technology, computerization, and technical advancement. The scientific development of the mankind also adds to the speed of the technological progress and allows human beings to put in practice the ideas that seemed unbelievable and fictional as long as 100 or 50 years ago. Virtual reality can be viewed as one of the achievements of the mentioned type as far as yet in the 19th century people could only dream about watching a movie and being able to smell the meals the main character eats for breakfast or feeling the raindrops falling from the sky in that movie.
Thus, virtual reality is the type of modern technology that allows its users to apply the bulk of their senses in the process of watching a movie, playing a game, training for any kind of activity, etc. At the same time, entertainment is not the major area where virtual reality technologies are used. Medicine and education seem to be dominant spheres of activity in which human beings resort to the help of virtual reality. The background of the technology of virtual reality and the effects that this technology tends to have on human beings are likely to shed the light on the essence of this technology.
Virtual Reality Background
History of Virtual Reality
Thus, the history of virtual reality is rather long and includes over 4 centuries of thoughts, ideas, and dreams about the more than two dimensional images and personal inclusion into the depicted scene. According to Yount (2004), the idea of virtual reality dates back to the middle of the 16th century when the art of the 360-degree panoramic paintings and murals was perceived as a miracle (p. 36). The next four hundred years marked the stagnation of progress in this area, while the early 20th century saw the sharp increase in the speed of development of the technology, and the introduction of the vehicle simulators in the 1920s was the first step in the way of fast virtual reality development (Cefrey, 2002, p. 198; Yount, 2004, pp. 39 – 40).
The decade between the 1950s and the 1960s was marked by the greatest activity in the virtual reality sphere as the first “prehistoric” virtual movie theatre, also known as Sensorama, was created by Morton Heilig in 1962. Tom Forness followed by introducing his visual flight stimulator for the Air Forces in 1966, while the so-called Augmented Reality Head Mounted Display System (ARHDM) was invented by Ivan Sutherland in 1968. Finally, the 1980s were the time when the pioneer of the modern virtual reality technologies Jaron Lanier developed the first “goggles and gloves” systems predominantly for the computer games at the initial stages (Burdea, 2003).
Major Aspects of Virtual Reality
On the basis of the past achievements in the sphere of the virtual reality, the current state of things in this creation of the human mind is rather promising. Thus, Baker (2000) and Heim (2000) argues that virtual reality is the general notion used to refer to the set of activities and computerized processes including simulation, interaction, participation, etc. all united by the concepts of 3D imaging and the use of the set of input and output devices ranging from the standard keyboard and mouse to the wired gloves, stereoscopic glasses, and stereo headphones (Baker, 2000, pp. 31 – 33; Heim, 2000, p. 173).
Nowadays, the virtual reality is used in the variety of spheres of the human life including education, medicine, training, and entertainment. At the same time, scholars like Evra (2004) and Kirsh (2006) argued about the controversial nature of effects, both positive and negative, the virtual reality might have on people experiencing it. According to Evra (2004), virtual reality might serve as a mighty tool for educational and medical purposes, but can also become a source of negative effects upon the human personality and psychic condition (p. 297). Kirsh (2006, pp. 123 – 124) stresses the importance of virtual reality technologies for the purposes of training, especially in aviation and navy, and also notices that the excessive use of this technology in the entertainment sphere might damage the human mind at any age.
Major Areas of Use
Needless to say, the virtual reality technology is applicable in the wide range of human activities among which education is the most socially important one as it allows facilitating both the efficiency of the educational process and the performance of students, especially the ones with mental of physical issues (Maheu, 2005, pp. 18 – 19; Tesar, 2003, p. 12). Thus, for instance, virtual reality is widely applied in the study of history and archeology as this technology provides reconstruction options, i. e. the ability to reconstruct the setting or the events of the past with the considerable precision (Grady, 2003, p. 18).
Further on, virtual reality is widely applied in instruction where this technology allows teachers to introduce the study topics as if from the inside and involve students to participate in practicing any topic using the virtual reality displays and computerized technology (Grady, 2003, p. 21; Tesar, 2003, p. 29). Thus, the students that under perform in the study obtain the opportunities for better learning the material and developing their cognitive skills via the virtual reality. On the whole, Braddon-Mitchell (2006, pp. 192 – 193) notices considerable advantages that virtual reality might present for the cognitive purposes and explains this fact by the direct involvement that virtual reality provides into any topic it is used to represent in class. Accordingly, virtual reality enhances educational opportunities for the wider range of people and assists those having difficulty in study with achieving considerable progress.
Another seriously developed sphere of the virtual reality usage is the medical, or healthcare, sphere in which virtual reality is implemented for the purpose of assisted therapy as the part of mental health treatment procedures (Maheu, 2005, p. 188). In this context, the concepts of virtual reality and virtual environment are used synonymously to refer to the opportunity to create the artificial environment that would reconstruct the stressing situations for the patients so that they could deal with them under the guidance of therapists and get rid of their basic fears and concerns (Maheu, 2005, p. 188). Thus, virtual reality is helpful in dealing with phobias and anxiety disorders as well as distraction procedures, like for example the ones aimed t reducing pain or at least the time a person spends thinking of pain. According to Maheu (2005), the use of the virtual reality reportedly allows reducing this time from 60 to 14 minutes per an average therapy procedure and speeds up the recovery process (p. 190).
Further on, Maheu (2005) and Tesar (2003) argue that virtual environment is widely used for the purposes of different training activities that range from school instructing to the military, police, and Pentagon officers’ training, management and skilled workers’ training (Maheu, 2005, p. 190; Tesar, 2003, p. 39). Also, Cefrey (2002) discusses the military use of the virtual reality technologies noting that the US Military currently applies the tank training in which soldiers go through the initial stages of training in the so-called virtual tanks that allows them to feel the real life environment but be protected from fatal mistakes at this early stage (p. 32). Drawing from this, it is obvious that the use of the virtual reality is rather wide and mostly positive as it allows human beings perform better in achieving their goals. Various kinds of training where the virtual reality can be used prove this point of view revealing that such an advance of modern technology as virtual reality might be helpful even for such serious goals as military and police training.
Needless to say, in the modern era of the fast and permanent growth of the role of mass media in the society it would be impossible to imagine the media did not resort to use of the virtual reality technology that presents a wide range of opportunities to influence the reader. First of all, virtual reality is used for promoting the media literacy skills and for developing these skills among the youth (Evra, 2004, p. 217). Also, Maheu (2005) argues about the text media and virtual reality immersion techniques that provide better audience involvement and enhance the popularity of the media in the society (p. 384). At the same time, Maheu (2005) and Packer (2002) note the negative effects of the excessive use of virtual reality that might result in distracting a person’s mind from the course of real life events and harm the psychology of this person, especially if it a child (Maheu, 2005, pp. 209 – 210; Packer, 2002, p. 108). Thus, the more widely virtual reality is used, the more negative effects come out and need careful consideration.
The sphere of entertainment is likely to be the most dangerous sphere to use the virtual reality; not because here this technology will prove to be the most harmful, but because in the public entertainment there is little to no chance to control the use and effects of virtual reality (Maheu, 2005, pp. 208 – 209). The most widely considered point in this aspect is the spreading of violence through the numerous video games and movies that use the virtual reality technology and 3D imaging in order to create the most realistic effect. However, together with this realism the virtual reality use in entertainment might often, according to Evra (2004) and Maheu (2005), be causes of the real life violence that people, especially children, perceive as a norm after viewing it in all details in the virtual reality (Evra, 2004, p. 209; Maheu, 2005, p. 384). On the other hand, scholars like Riegler (2001), Sherman (2003), and Whyte (2002) argue about the adverse effects of virtual reality violence upon violence rates in real life and claim the artificial pictures of violence to reduce the inclination of people to the violence in the daily lives.
Effects on Children
Accordingly, the above presented discussion of the virtual reality technology use in the modern human society allows summarizing the main positive and negative influences that virtual reality might have on people on the whole and children in particular. The most interesting point is that the alleged positive effects outweigh the negative ones in number, but the importance of the negative effects is unlikely to be minor. In other words, the negative effects of virtual reality are less numerous but might cause more harm to the human mind than the positive effects can compensate.
Thus, the positive effects of virtual reality on children include the educational progress, advances of health care that allows treating children’s physical and mental issues, school and career skills training, assistance in developing the media literacy, and the assumed, by Riegler (2001), Sherman (2003), and Whyte (2002), effects of virtual reality video games and movies on reducing the rates of real life violence in children. Accordingly, the use of the virtual reality technology might serve educational and training purposes, improve health care standards, and possibly solve the sharp social problem of violence.
At the same time, the less numerous negative effects are likely to have more substantial influence on the conditions of the human mind affected by the experiences of virtual reality. The most moderate negative effect that the virtual reality can have on children is, according to Packer (2002), the process of distraction from reality resulting from the excessive time spent in the virtual environment and dealing with the virtual problems (p. 111). In other words, a person spending the bulk of his or her time in the virtual reality loses adjustment to the real word and soon becomes unable to deal with the simplest life challenges and might even start losing the elementary communicational skills.
However, Evra (2004) and Maheu (2005) claim that the worst effect of virtual reality is its ability to promote violence and introduce it to the users in the context that would make violence the norm of life. Thus, Evra (2004) argues that having no fear for violent actions in the virtual reality, a person who loses his or her ties with objective reality might lose the limits of virtual and real life and introduce violence as the norm of daily activity (p. 209). At the same time, Maheu (2005, p. 385) observes the great impact that violent images observed in the virtual reality might have on the person’s psychology and undermine the mental stability of a human being.
Effects on Adults and Human Mind
Naturally, not only the children’s minds are subjected to both positive and negative effects of the virtual reality technology. Adolescents and adults are also under the influence of virtual reality, and if the positive effects are mainly observed in the area of socialization and professional development, the negative influences of virtual reality concern predominantly the human psychology and mental health.
Thus, the reported positive effects of virtual reality upon the adult human beings include the improved health care standards, wider opportunities for professional and military training, and the increased efficiency of the latter (Cefrey, 2002, p. 32; Maheu, 2005, p. 188; Tesar, 2003, p. 39). So, scholars see both the great current use in virtual reality technologies and considerable potential for their development in the future provided the further discussed negative effects are eliminated or at least reduced.
The negative effects that virtual reality actually has, or might have according to scholarly assumptions, are mainly similar to the effects virtual reality has on children in both the physical and mental aspects. First of all, virtual reality distracts a person from the objective reality in the sense of losing the adjustment to real life processes and losing the simplest communicational skills (Grady, 2003, p. 18; Maheu, 2005, pp. 208 – 209). This has the far outreaching social and personal consequences as the people distracted from reality often lose families, jobs, and social positions, and time and special therapy are needed to return them to normal lives. Thus, the negative effects of virtual reality have considerable implications not only for particular people but for the human society as a whole.
The above presented discussion of virtual reality in all its aspects allows making the following conclusions. First, virtual reality as an idea has a long history and dates back to the late 16th century. Second, the powerful impact to the development of the virtual reality ideas was observed in the early 20th century and the late 20th century saw the formation of the virtual reality as we know and develop it today. Third, the spheres of use of virtual reality are numerous and include education, medicine, training, mass media, and entertainment. Fourth, virtual reality has both positive and negative effects on human beings and especially on children, and further research and modernization of virtual reality is necessary to eliminate or at least reduce the negative effects and facilitate the positive ones.
Implications for Future
Finally, the above discussion allows outlining the main direction for the future of virtual reality in both the development of the very virtual technology and studying the effects of this technology on human beings. Thus, special emphasis in the development of virtual reality should be placed on its positive effects in the spheres of education and health care to retrieve as much benefit for human beings as possible. The study of virtual reality should be focused on its effects on human beings, with special emphasis on their mental health.
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