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Can virtual reality change the way we understand ourselves?

by Jon Farrow Jun 3 / 19

Virtual reality (VR) technologies could open a window on the nature of consciousness, while advances in neuroscience are expected to lead to better VR experiences. CIFAR is bringing researchers and industry together to make this “virtuous circle” a reality.

Virtual reality lets you immerse yourself in another reality within seconds of slipping on a headset. The applications for entertainment are obvious, but virtual reality has the potential to be much more than a new entertainment medium.

“VR represents a revolutionary paradigm shift that is not only going to change every domain of human experience, but also has some deeper philosophical shifts,” says Kent Bye, a journalist who has been preoccupied with the potential of virtual reality for the last half decade.

Bye embarked on a quest to create what he calls a “real-time oral history” of VR shortly after slipping on the first commercially available headset in early 2014. He has been interviewing neuroscientists, tech CEOs, artists and programmers about VR ever since.

And Bye isn’t the only one with high hopes for what VR can do. Ryan Chapman is CEO of Motive, a Vancouver-based company that develops immersive VR training experiences. He too has a vivid memory of his first time entering a VR world: “I was floored by how real everything felt.”

Chapman wants to use the technology to train people for expensive or dangerous scenarios without ever leaving the office. Already, companies such as Walmart are rolling out VR training programs for once-a-year events like Black Friday, and U.S.-based Verizon has started using VR training for employees who need to learn to work at heights. Chapman also sees applications for doctors, pilots and the military.

There is research that shows VR training can be more effective than other methods. Chapman and other industry players have a question: how close is VR to the real thing?

This is where researchers like Anil Seth come in. A fellow in CIFAR’s Azrieli Brain, Mind & Consciousness program, Seth is interested in how the brain constructs reality. He uses VR in his lab to study embodiment — the experience of being a self and having a body. In a virtual environment like the one presented inside a VR headset, the limits of physics don’t apply.

“With VR, I can give you a virtual hand and then mess around with it in some way — delay it, change its colour or change its size, and see how that affects your experience of what is your body,” says Seth. Neuroscience labs are often far removed from the game developers and programmers who will be able to implement research findings to build more immersive VR experiences. So, as part of the knowledge mobilization (KM) strategy for the Azrieli Brain, Mind & Consciousness program, CIFAR’s KM team has been working on ways to bring these communities together.

At last year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, CIFAR sponsored a panel on neuroscience and VR, which included two neuroscientists from the program — Alona Fyshe and Craig Chapman (both of the University of Alberta) — as well as Kent Bye and Jake Staunch, a tech CEO who has developed a lightweight EEG headset that integrates with gameplay. With nearly 200 people crowding into the small room, it was clear that game developers are keen to learn more about neuroscience.

“We had never been to GDC before, so we weren’t sure if people would be interested in a panel about VR and neuroscience. But seeing the packed room and the discussions afterwards, we knew there was something in this,” says Rebecca Finlay, vice-president of engagement & public policy at CIFAR.

To build on this interest, the KM team convened a workshop for consciousness researchers like Anil Seth, industry leaders like Ryan Chapman and connectors like Kent Bye in New York in May 2019. The idea is to explore common challenges and foster new collaborations.