Escapism with VR: digital fantasy as a shield from stark reality


“By the 2030s, virtual reality will be totally realistic and compelling and we will spend most of our time in virtual environments. By the 2040s, even people of biological origin are likely to have the vast majority of their thinking processes taking place in nonbiological substrates. We will all become virtual humans.” 

Ray Kurzweil

Isolation puts pressure on industries to redefine themselves. Let’s take entertainment: cinemas, recreational parks and other businesses tied to a specific location have to reinvent their business models, basically, turning them around. Since people cannot reach out due to quarantine, LBE industry must meet them halfway. Since people cannot escape, the escape must come to people’s households and relax their minds. And the ways VR can interact with human minds are limited by imagination, and are, therefore, boundless. 

Massive change in LBE

LBE (Location-Based Entertainment) industry had to wrap up their venues since mass  gatherings had been forbidden. The employees were granted an unpaid leave, therefore, the times of great uncertainty have begun. Now it’s too soon to tell how the domain will recover and how much time exactly it will take. The best case scenario is the beginning of June when we’ll be able to analyze the whole picture.

The development of VR, IoT, AR and AI prove that the old school business model no longer work for LBE. Simply put, people are ready for bold experiences. The isolation sets a new development direction — in-home VR. Accessibility and mass application will disrupt LBE, compete with it. The more immersive storytelling is, the trickier mind games are, the more holistically one approaches the human consciousness — the greater will be the presence of VR in people’s lives. Why? Escaping the reality has always been the means for coping with hard times for ones, and the only possible way of survival for the others.


Escape from reality as defense mechanism

The concept of escapism was introduced in mid 50s as an explanation of people’s desire to evade the routine, everyday troubles via some activity that engages imagination. In other words, submerging into fantasy world, where we are better, more successful and important and nothing what we really are. Sigmund Freud argued that escapism is vital for humans, and auxiliary construct is an important element of life, and we need the extract satisfaction from it because the reality is simply not enough. J. R. R. Tolkien pointed out, that escapist fantasies must have a horror constituent.

If we jump back a hundred years ago, we might trace a certain cyclical nature of things. The influenza pandemic of 1918 erased from the planet’s surface around 100 million people. Somewhat ten years later, the Great Depression kicked in having devastating effect on the entire world, rich and poor on equal basis. And in parallel, at the very same time, just as crises was hitting humanity in the stomach, the entertainment industry was blooming like a rose.

Radio shows, soap opera, Orson Welles drama, jazz standards of Ella Fitzgerald, sound in movies and ultimately, the Hollywood’s Golden Age — all of that seems to be triggered by sufferings of different kinds and the urge to be less aware of them. With the advent of the digital era and virtual dimension, the escapism acquires new meaning. Today, demanding, tech-savvy, sophisticated citizen N wants to escape the reality in the ways that astound, shock and are stretched to the limit.

How VR responds

When human communication becomes dangerous, people turn to technologies. Obviously, the pandemic is causing huge damage to a vast array of industries. Left LBE alone, the domains that contribute to economies the most, suffer million-dollar losses. In order to afloat, the businesses have to reinvent their business models, rethink their strategies, come to light as responsible, ethical entities with a mission to help and be useful. Therefore, the companies embrace remote modes, and virtual reality comes into play as a crucial enabler.

Putting aside b2b market, where VR has proved itself as the effective tool, the technology is increasingly absorbing b2c. Medical students prefer to educate themselves via VR scenarios, as this kind of preparation works on hundreds of cases without real patients being used. Microsoft Research developed VR cane for people with eyesight impairments. The product helps to navigate virtual reality which replicated physical resistance, and gives vibrotactile and spatial 3D auditory feedback. UK Premier League are training with VR headsets on daily basis. People even eat in VR, and this is where things get quite interesting.

The element of storytelling sneaks into the aspects least expected, creating multisensory experiences. Here comes the question: what value does VR bring into those experiences? First and foremost, VR creates an entirely new world custom tailored for the liking of each specific person, therefore, deep personalization. This is what LBE must consider when designing their unique offers. Secondly, VR represents a very realistic form of escapism and distraction from events that might be harmful psychologically or otherwise. Thirdly, one gets instant gratification, which is why virtual reality is being used extensively as pain relief and anxiety therapy. Last but not least, it stimulates senses in a manner we didn’t have in the past (virtual traveling, for instance, really makes us believe we ARE actually there). In terms of senses, VR is an open field for experiments on human mind.

Artwork by Daniele Buetti

Going deeper: cognitive science and philosophy

It goes without saying, that VR has stepped into a new spiral in its history. The technology will only get more complex, smart, holistic — whatever it takes to trick our consciousness the best way possible. The entire industries will weave these tricks into their products/services, and those who did it better will cut through the noise and win the niche. It takes knowing us, how our brain works, what’s in its dark corners, what we really want, fear even unknowingly. Basically, VR experiences will delve into cognitive science and applied philosophy.

In order to thrill, the virtual experience must take the full control of our senses, space and time. In his “Embodiment of mind” theory, Gerald M. Edelman argues, that human body isn’t secondary in the processes of cognition and consciousness. It plays a pivotal role in what we think reality is. The body and brain are two sides of one coin, and their unity shape the reason. The humans created VR and pushed the pendulum. In coming years, virtual reality will recreate not only businesses and user experiences, but the concepts of real and surreal and as a result, who we are.

Artwork by unomoralez