Virtual reality (VR) is a term generally used to describe three-dimensional computer-generated environments that can be explored and are interactive. Virtual reality represents an extraordinary shift in the way humans experience the digital realm. VR experiences are simulations that can be similar to or completely different from the real world. The interacting person is immersed within the artificial environment, where they can look around, move around, interact with virtual features, manipulate objects, or perform a series of actions. VR uses a host of technologies to achieve the goal of immersion and is a technically complex feat that can influence our perception and cognition. Currently, standard virtual reality systems use either virtual reality headsets or multi-projected environments to generate realistic images, sounds, and other sensory material. Additionally, haptic technologies, such as VR gloves or full body suits that simulate users’ physical presence through the senses are used in order to create the illusion of reality. By stimulating as many senses as possible, such as vision, hearing, touch, even smell, the computer is transformed into a gatekeeper to the artificial world.
Our reality comes by way of the senses. That is to say, our perception of reality is mainly shaped by the variable sense-data we experience and our individual interpretation of it. We can assume then, that if one is presented with curated sense-information, one’s perception of reality would change in response to it. The individual would subsequently experience a version of reality that is not really there, but perceived as real. If an implementation of virtual reality manages to get the combination of hardware, software, and sensory synchronicity just right it achieves something known as a sense of presence, where the subject really feels like they are present in that virtual environment. The combination of a sense of immersion and interactivity is called telepresence. Computer scientist Jonathan Steuer defined this as “the extent to which one feels present in the mediated environment, rather than in the immediate physical environment.” This dimension of presence relates strongly to how vividly the user experiences the environmental and spatial properties of the mediated environment. When the perception of telepresence is strong, people are no longer aware that their experiences are being mediated through technology. In other words, an effective VR experience causes one to become unaware of one’s real surroundings and shifts the attention onto the existence inside the virtual environment. VR is effective because it mimics the experiences we encounter and the qualities of the physical world. Even if not all senses are fully engaged, a VR experience can still be convincing because the typical human brain tends to rely predominantly on vision over any of the other senses.
There is a perceptible relationship between VR experiences and Eastern philosophies, which lies in the involvement of visualization, simulation, and illusion. In Indian religions, māyā (Sanskrit, from mā “not” and yā “this”), for example, is a term signifying three interconnected concepts. In Vedic mythology it is the power which enables those in its possession – most often gods – to produce forms in the physical word. With the onset of the more philosophical Upaniṣads and eventually the school of Advaita Vedānta, māyā represents the reality produced by this process and furthermore, the illusion of the phenomenal world of separate objects. In many divisions of Hinduism, māyā must be overcome in order to liberate the soul from reincarnation and karma. Similar conceptions of māyā are embedded within Buddhism and Sikhism.
In Tibetan traditions, dream yoga is the practice of waking up within a dream, which in contemporary terms is often called lucid dreaming. The idea is that if one can realize that they are dreaming in the midst of a dream, then they can also wake up in physical reality and realize that we are all in fact living in a dreamworld – an illusion. These spiritual accounts could be equated with a description of virtual reality experiences, including analogous elements such as avatars. Furthermore, embodying different personae in the universe can essentially be understood as acting out a dream or a role-playing game in a simulated world. This notion is supported by the simulation hypothesis, which posits that we are actually living in an advanced digital construct, such as a computer simulation, that is overseen by some higher form of intelligence.
In the last century, an increasing interest in visualization is part of a new climate of thought in the West, which has manifested in various forms of visualization in the fields of therapy and healing, including practices of Eastern traditions, hypnosis, hallucinogenic drugs, and altered states of consciousness in general. Visualization is the use of mental concentration and directed imagery in the attempt to secure particular goals, whether physical, psychological, emotional, vocational, educational, or spiritual. It attempts to program the mind to discover inner power and guidance and is often used as a means to, or in conjunction with, altered states of consciousness. Philosophers, healers, and sages in every ancient culture used visualization as a tool for healing, growth, and rebirth to reveal “hidden truths” and to allow individuals to experience personal connections to “cosmic consciousness.” Typical accompaniments of visualization include relaxation, meditation, controlled breathing, yoga postures, cultivation of will-power, and faith or trust in the process itself. Visualization applications require practice and few people are trained in applying the essential component of visualization, which is imagination. This is where the significance of VR applications in contemporary therapeutic settings come to play.
Today’s VR technology is able to effectively blur the line between physical reality and illusion, pushing the limits of our imagination and granting us access to any experience imaginable. With well-crafted simulations, these experiences are so immersive that the brain believes they are “real.” In VR-based therapies, the virtual world is a means of providing artificial, controlled stimuli in the context of treatment, with a therapist able to monitor the patient’s reaction and adjust the virtual environment. Virtual reality therapy has been used to help treat conditions including depression, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, phobia, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and stroke patients. Such as with ancient visualization techniques, VR experiences do not have to be an exact replica of the physical reality for people to suspend belief and interact with the presented content as if it is the “real” thing. Experiences and transformations made in a simulated world have a direct effect on the “physical reality.” In embodied virtual reality, and possibly also in experienced physical reality, it is sometimes realizable to glimpse oneself as the virtual object one really is. As the Buddha would say, we are neither real nor non-existent.
Given how powerful VR is becoming, and how widely its use may become, we need to keep in mind that these technologies may also be misused, as they would be in torture, online bullying, stalking, propaganda, etc., the negative impacts of which could be massively augmented by VR. Virtual reality experiences and visualization practices can either wake us up to the nature of reality or pull us further into delusion and escapism. It is our responsibility to determine how to best use these technologies to induce experiences for the purpose of awakening, healing, and the greater good.