The introduction of new communications technologies, such as the telephone and the television, have led to important changes in daily life and activity. Not only have they led to changes in business and social interaction, they have facilitated whole-scale social and cultural change. And with the development of new communications technologies, such as virtual reality, we should expect to see more of the same.

But, how will emerging communications technologies, such as virtual reality, change the world? Virtual reality, like previous communications technologies, will change how we spend our time, how we do business, how we interact with one another, and what we do for fun. And this will in turn, usher in social and economic change. We might also expect to see the development of a new worldview, helping individuals make sense of and interact in the world, and reflecting a new understanding of our place in the universe.

Like previous technologies, virtual reality – a computer simulation that looks and feels very much like the real world – will be integrated into daily life and activity. That is, we will use virtual reality in very human ways. We will use it to communicate with business associates and friends. And we will use it as a form of entertainment, whether we are passively watching or actively participating.

Thus, to some extent, virtual reality may be viewed as an extension of existing technologies, the telephone, television, and the video game. That is, virtual reality will replace the telephone, the television, and will fulfill those social roles. Yet, virtual reality is more than just the next-generation telephone, television, and video game; it is a world unto its own. And within this world, we will see the development of a virtual economy, new business models, new social groups, and new interaction styles. Welcome to the “Virtual World.”

One of the things that will make the emergence of the virtual world so interesting is that we will be able to do a number of things in the virtual world that we cannot do in the real world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in manufacturing. In order to create duplicate copies of a book, for instance, you don’t need to have ink and paper, a printing press, or a type setter; it is simply a matter of copying a file (creation ex nihilo). And at some point in the future, “virtual manufacturing” and the automation of services are likely to result in dramatic increases in productivity, possibly not seen since the Industrial Revolution.

In a similar manner, the ease of communication, that is, the ability to meet with someone on the other side of the globe, will lead to a number of important changes in social and business activity. In this way, it will lead to cultural change, as well as to cultural cross-pollination. In addition, we should expect to see the development of virtual communities, based on common culture and interest (not on proximity and nationality).

As virtual reality becomes integrated in daily life and activity, the lines between the real and the virtual will become blurred. That is, the real and the virtual will become interconnected and intertwined. We will see the emergence of a virtual economy, and the virtual economy will become intertwined with real world economies. We will see people telecommute to virtual offices. And we will see the development of a vibrant nightlife, virtual shopping, virtual bars.

And when things become part of our everyday life and experience, we no longer call them virtual, we call them real. When you use a computer or talk on the telephone, you are having a virtual experience, but we don’t think of it in that way. And if you were suggest that a relationship over the telephone was not real, as was believed after the introduction of the telephone, we would think you crazy.

As we spend more and more time in virtual environments, the Virtual World will grow in importance, and will become the center of social and economic life and activity. In fact, we already spend a great deal of our time in virtual environments – on the telephone, watching television, surfing the internet, and playing video games. With the development of new technologies, virtual reality will simulate the world in greater and greater detail and accuracy. Flight simulators are already nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. And at some point in the future, playing basketball in virtual space will feel much like playing basketball in the real world.

Not only will virtual reality give us greater control over our physical environment, it will give us greater control over ourselves. The design of the virtual universe, the virtual body, and the social environment will change how we think and act. In other words, “social engineering” and “virtual genetics” may be used to influence thought and behavior. In this way, the development of a virtual reality environment is a social engineering project.

The physical attributes of a virtual environment, for instance, will influence behavior patterns. If it is too hot, people may become irritable. If it is secluded, it may give a sense of privacy. It is also possible to influence behavior patterns by altering the social environment. People act very differently at work, for instance, than they do at a bar. And finally, it may also be possible to influence behavior through various activities. Corporations know, for instance, that playing paint ball is great for promoting morale and a sense of teamwork.

In addition, it may be possible to change interpersonal interaction patterns by making changes to the virtual body (i.e. virtual genetics). Everyone knows that a beautiful woman is treated differently than an average one. It may also be possible to alter the strength and accuracy of various cues used in interpersonal communication, changing our ability to understand and interact with one-another.

In this way, social engineering and virtual genetics may be used to influence human thought and behavior. Yet, it is important to remember that social engineering and virtual genetics are nothing new. Most of these techniques have been used for thousands of years. We are simply getting a lot better at them.

Thus, we will use virtual reality in very human ways, and we will extend real-world interaction patterns into virtual space. Yet, we should also expect to see the development of new things in virtual space, new institutions, new interaction patterns, and new social groups. And as these forces grow in strength, they will begin to influence and spill over into the real world, challenging traditional power structures and practices.

Although virtual reality is not likely to result in apocalyptic social change, as it is slowly integrated in daily life and activity, we should expect to begin to see some very important changes. Basic changes to daily life and activity will lead to the development of new social and economic interaction patterns, and to a new worldview, as we adapt to a changing environment. Online communications will promote the formation of new social groups. Virtual physics, virtual manufacturing, and the automation of services will give us greater control over the real world. And virtual genetics and social engineering will give us greater control over ourselves. May we use these tools to build a better world.

msc 12/06