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VIRTUAL REALITY

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

It’s the wave of the future, we are told. Soon, we will all be wearing special headsets capable of transporting us to any place in the real or imagined world.

The computer-generated environment is no doubt fascinating. It is easy to understand why people of all ages are drawn to the sensation of total immersion in a place or situation they might never be able to visit without VR technology.

There is, however, nothing new to see here; virtual reality has been with us at least since humans sat around a fire and told stories.

Augmenting reality is an art form. We gravitate towards that which seems more interesting, beautiful, and surprising than the normalcy of everyday life. We admire storytellers of every medium.

Our senses are stimulated by the original creations of painters, sculptors, composers, and poets. We open our wallets for the opportunity to see performances by talented actors and musicians as they bring both classical and current creations to life.

The urge to edit reality persists through the generations. Using whatever technology is available, we humans attempt to make reality more real.

When I turned five years old, the Ringling Brothers Barnum Bailey Circus came to Washington, DC. The elephants were paraded down the city streets as advance advertisement, quite an impressive sight for a pre-school girl.

Mother somehow found the money to pay for admission, and we rode the bus to the US National Guard Armory on East Capitol Street, SE, where the tents were set up on the 80,000 square foot drill field.

Before its construction in the summer of 1941, the Convention Hall on 5th Street, NW, was used as an armory. During WW II, the FBI Identification Division used the new Armory to house fingerprint records.

In addition to the enormous drill field, the new complex offered a 10,000 seat multi-purpose arena and, over the years, became a venue for a broad range of events, including inaugural balls, trade shows, concerts, and sporting events.

I don’t remember whether my brother, Jim, was with us that day. Since he was probably still in diapers, it would have been a problem for Mother to handle both of us. Most likely, Mam-Maw cared for him at home.

As we stepped down from the city bus, Mother held my hand and guided me to the admissions area of the large white tent.

Amidst the aromas of all the popcorn, cotton candy, and other tempting delights, my eyes immediately spotted a colorful book, the story of the circus, which I begged Mother to buy for me.

She handed me my new treasure book, and we found our way through the crowd walking over the sawdust-covered ground to our seats in preparation for the big show.

I have some vague memories of exotic animals being led around the ring, acrobats flying precariously overhead, and many clowns in various colorful costumes and painted faces.

Everyone laughed as the clowns went through their antics; however, I looked away and continued reading or pretending to read my new books. I never liked clowns. They always frightened me.

My mother later told me that I spent the entire show with my nose in the little circus storybook instead of watching the actual circus. She may have been disappointed, but I had a great time.

This tendency to prefer virtual over actual reality has often been repeated in my life. It began with my Grandmother, Mam-Maw, reading fairy tales to me as I sat in her lap, memorizing each word.

As my reading ability advanced, I selected books featuring young heroines such as Nancy Drew. I could sit under our mulberry tree hypnotized as she solved each mystery. Of course, I was by her side, processing each clue with no headset required.

Having made it into the 21st century, I am often amused by how we greet each innovation or process improvement as a unique one-of-a-kind event.

Why are we surprised that our species continues to learn by trying new ways of solving problems. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do?

The space travel that we now take for granted was once written about as science fiction by someone who could imagine another dimension. Inspired by the imagined virtual reality, many scientists and engineers worked together to turn the imagined into the realized.

Look at the modern miracle you are probably holding in your hand. My generation never dreamed that we would one day have a method of communication and the majority of human knowledge, a sophisticated camera, our photo albums, and travel guidance feely available wherever we go. Someone imagined that. Someone could virtually see such an invention becoming a reality.

The advances currently being made in virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence are exciting not only for entertainment but also in education, medical treatment, and architectural design.

The overload of negative information and misinformation that we can barely escape in the age of 24/7 news coverage and social media coupled with two years of a pandemic has caused many of us to seek escape from reality.

Any form of technology may be used for positive or negative purposes. The choice is ours. Will we use it to help or hurt, inform or confuse, unite, or divide?

VR, AR, and AI may be used to make learning safer by allowing for mistakes. They may help us understand those who are different from us by seeing the world as they do.

Human curiosity and imagination are inexhaustible. As long as our species retain and use these attributes, we can look past what is to what can be. We can turn our imagined virtual reality into a new and better reality.

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