XR and the real world: Feedback loops and spillovers

Extended reality (XR), the combination of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), promises to offer experiences that are more immersive and closer to real life than any digital experiences created so far. And as VR attempts to mirror the real world in virtual settings, users’ real-life actions could become a reflection – at least partially – of learnings and behavior formed or established in virtual environments.

It could create feedback loops that have positive effects on and for users in many ways – or create potentially problematic issues. Developers of XR applications might not intentionally design for such feedback loops, but unintended consequences could nevertheless emerge, and designers of VR environments could purposely take advantage of feedback loops to achieve positive outcomes.

What sounds theoretical in the abstract has tangible precedence in the world of sport, for one. In 2016, the New York Times described how “games like Fifathat were designed to reflect the sport’s reality, have helped alter it, influencing professional players and front offices”. Football video games such as Electronic Arts’ Fifa not only attempt to create real-world game situations realistically, but also change the actual behavior of some football players.

Creating effective, but safe virtual environments

Many real-world football players enjoy playing football video games and develop strategies there that then find entry to games on the field. Players such as Everton’s Alex Iwobi believe that moves used in these video games influence players’ real-world football play. And former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger at one point called world-renowned player Lionel Messi a “PlayStation footballer”, arguing that video games on consoles such as the Sony PlayStation affected Messi’s real-world football moves.

So it is suggested that video games are not merely representations of the real-world game, but influencers of it. If such a phenomenon occurs with traditional video games, it is easy to imagine that similar effects will occur more often and be more pronounced in highly immersive virtual environments.

More evidence about the effects that VR can have in the real world comes from the medical field – in this case highlighting related concerns. The University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies developed braveminda VR-based interactive therapeutic tool to assess and relieve post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The project is part of the US military’s SoldierStrong program to help veterans find a way back into civilian life and to help them move forward after traumatizing events.

bravemind peers video game-style imagery with a broad range of stimuli, including sound, vibration and scents. The purpose is to revive the traumatic memories veterans had to face. The application features a wide range of settings, such as Afghan villages in remote areas and crowded markets in Baghdad, which are populated with attackers and passers-by. As with many therapeutic VR tools, the application allows medical staff to create effective, but safe environments to confront traumas.

The noteworthy aspect is that the developers of Bravemind paid attention to developing environments that featured video game-like landscapes – they purposely avoided the use of advanced photorealistic representations. The developers wanted to make sure that patients would not have to confront life-like environments that could trigger additional trauma instead of allowing veterans to learn to deal with past traumas.

The designers of Bravemind had the psychological expertise to ensure the creation of beneficial features and representations. But with advancing technologies and increasingly realistic representations, concerns will emerge over what effects such immersive environments in virtual worlds could have on people’s psychological reactions and wellbeing in the real world. In other words, when does VR get so real that it can become part of, merge, or spill over to real life?

New channels for business

Marketing departments look at VR and AR as new advertising and sales channels to expose users to brands and products. Some envision retail outlets in the metaverse that complement current bricks-and-mortar and online shops. But VR offers options to address consumers in completely new ways by enabling experiences that allow them to try new activities that they might not try in real life initially. VR offers the opportunity to convert consumers who were difficult to reach in the past. Early examples of such efforts go back more than five years.

Outdoor gear provider The North Face commissioned VR content that enabled shoppers to experience Yosemite National Park in California and a canyon in Moab, Utah. Similarly, outdoor gear retailer Moosejaw created a VR app in 2016. These efforts did not continue, but the basic idea is still valid. As VR technology becomes more accessible, a growing number of applications will find use to immerse consumers into outdoor adventures and sports to let them get a taste of what such experiences might feel like.

Other companies that managed to launch memorable VR campaigns include footwear company Merrell’s Virtual Hike and sportswear manufacturer Adidas’s Delicatessen. In contrast to other VR applications whose only intention is to create another sales channel, VR enables consumers to look at activities they might see as too dangerous or too expensive at first. Here, VR can whet the appetite for real-life adventures – and accompanying sales.

Similarly, AR can have lingering effects in the real world. Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, investigates XR-related effects on humans, such as “When does the brain treat virtual and augmented reality as if they were real?” His team found that people change their real-life interactions with the physical world after wearing AR devices.

For example, after seeing a virtual person sit in a chair, individuals avoid sitting in that same chair in real life. Also, people seem to be affected by the presence of a virtual avatar in similar ways that they are affected if a real person sat next to them. Bailenson explains: “We have discovered that using augmented reality technology can change where you walk, how you turn your head, how well you do on tasks, and how you connect socially with other physical people in the room.”

Interweaving the virtual with the physical world

Currently, spheres of life separate into AR, VR and IRL (in real life). AR and VR describe the ends of a spectrum, however. Although there are technical differences, bundling them up into XR makes sense, given that both feature virtual elements, perhaps even entire landscapes – only the degree to which real-life objects and environments play a role makes the difference.

That leaves us with the distinction between virtual and real life. But even this distinction is spurious, as a look at the early years of online information and e-commerce indicate. In the 1990s, the distinction between physical and online features, as well as bricks-and-mortar and e-commerce stores, appeared to divide the world neatly.

The perceived contrast in relevance, use cases and benefits no longer exists. Online browsing and reviews help consumers find stores and restaurants. Bricks-and-mortar stores also function as warehouse spaces for online deliveries. Mobile commerce complements consumers’ in-store experiences.

AR, by its very nature of augmenting real-life objects and landscapes, will seamlessly interweave with the physical world. But VR, too, will become just another available source of information access, communication channels and shopping opportunities. Users will mix and match AR, VR and in real life as they see fit. XR will become a digitally mediated real-life experience.

Perhaps we are describing phenomena that we will not perceive a decade from now. Most people will not look at the online world as creating feedback loops or spillovers to our daily physical activities – our online and offline activities will have become complementing behaviors. Therefore, the XR and real-life worlds won’t bleed into each other – they will become one connected world. That doesn’t mean they won’t affect each other – we might just be less aware of it.

Martin Schwirn is the author of Small Data, Big Disruptions: How to Spot Signals of Change and Manage Uncertainty (ISBN 9781632651921). He is also senior adviser, strategic foresight at Business Finland, helping startups and incumbents to find their position in tomorrow’s marketplace.

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