Last year 40k people died in the US while driving; 1.3m worldwide died in car accidents. Productivity is lost and fossil fuel is wasted during commuting, a creaking infrastructure must be maintained and cars that are hardly used must be manufactured1. Then there is the impact on our mental health: The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that feelings of happiness and life satisfaction decrease with every successive minute of commuting.
This is the focus of academics like Stanford University Professor Jeremy Bailenson: “My dream is for us to look back at my dad’s hour-long commute each way in a row of boxes the way we look back smoking in hospital beds”.
Better roads, public transport solutions, hyperloops and flying cars are solutions to these problems… maybe. But other things will contribute too.
One of these may be VR. Mark Zuckerberg, talking to Kara Swisher co-founder of ReCode in July:
“One of the biggest issues economically today is that opportunity isn’t evenly distributed. You get all these people who have to move to cities, and then the cities get to be way too expensive, and if you have a technology like VR where you can be present anywhere but live where you choose too, then I think that that can be really profound.”
I can hear big yawns of “we’ve been here before, surely?” Norman Macrae thought this age was upon us when he wrote in a 1975 edition of The Economist that there “would be little coherent purpose to trudge long distances to work.” Looking out the window, I’m in a rainy business park.
If VR has been a perennial white elephant it is partly because the technology hasn’t been ready. We’re perhaps still not quite there yet, but it does appear closer than ever. The technological issues have been nearly surmounted – for example new OLED displays are coming that are not far off achieving the upper bounds of human vision2.
The real barrier now appears to be empathy – interaction is about empathy and understanding subtlety of body language and facial expressions, things we interpret subconsciously. Bailenson believes that “when it’s done well it’s an actual experience”. He has studied the relationship between empathy and VR for more than 15 years and believes that richer content such as 360 degree video is bridging the empathy gap. “In VR, content that moves the body will also move the mind.”
Virtual and augmented reality could change our lives dramatically. It could, for example, increase access to live events or allowing industrial design companies to give technical product demos on demand. A virtual retail experience certainly appeals to me, so good news that Wal-Mart has recently applied for a couple of patents.
If a hardware solution like VR can become a platform for a broad set of uses, it has a great chance of widespread adoption – in a diversity of applications we cannot yet predict. It is another object lesson in the way we investigate sustainable impact investing; sustainable solutions to current problems may come from unexpected places.