Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Virtual Reality

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 8, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse. 

"Come on over to our condo," my niece said. "We are having a technology show and share." My niece loves new technology and always finds the latest cool and exciting gadgets. At the show and share, my niece showed us several recent purchases. First, she had us try the Oladance open-ear headphones. Unlike traditional in-ear headphones, Oladance features a completely open-ear design that rests gently and securely on top of your ear. The sound and comfort were great, and some ambient sound still came through, so you could hear if someone spoke to you.

The next item in the show and share was the ThermoPro wireless meat thermometer. With its Bluetooth connection, this wireless thermometer can monitor your cooking or grilling up to 500 feet away. It provides an easy way to keep track of the cooking progress and ensure that the meat is cooked to the proper temperature. 

When my niece passed the  OCOOPA rechargeable hand warmers around, I was impressed by how warm they were. They had three temperature levels to keep your hands warm. The high heating level works for eight hours on a charge, medium for 12 hours, and low for 15 hours. One of the useful features of these hand warmers is that they can also be used as an extra power bank. They can provide more than two charges for a cell phone and easily fit into any pocket or bag.

After showing several smaller items, my niece brought out her premier attraction, the Meta Quest 2 virtual reality headset. This strange-looking bulky headset was a life-changing experience when strapped onto your head. Virtual reality uses computer technology to create simulated environments and places you inside a three-dimensional experience. Instead of viewing a screen in front of you, you are immersed in and interact in a 3D world.

I do not think I have ever had such a bizarre experience as seeing a virtual world with the Meta Quest 2 headset! Here I am learning the controls through a tutorial game, and I can reach down onto a table and pick up blocks, hit a ping pong ball with a paddle, and throw paper airplanes while standing in the middle of my living room. This artificial environment makes it possible to experience anything anywhere! I explored Jeju Island in Korea, where a K-drama I had recently watched was filmed. 

As I played with the headset's possibilities, I swam with sharks, traveled through strange rock formations in Russia, and found myself in the middle of a Cirque du Soleil performance. I rode a roller coaster and felt nauseous by the end. With the virtual reality headset on, it was as if my living room no longer existed and I was thousands of miles away. The whole experience of being immersed in an exciting virtual world is incredible.

As I explored the virtual world in front of me, I remembered a book I read many years ago in high school. In the book Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, there is an advanced form of technology called the feelies that is like a movie theater in many ways. However, on top of sight and sound, smell and touch are added to the experience through vents pumping in various scents and two metal knobs that allow the viewer to feel what is happening on screen. While most people enjoyed this cheap thrill, the protagonist John hates it and believes the feelies are a base, lesser art form than reading. The feelies don't exist today, but virtual reality devices resemble Huxley's feelies. They distort the concept of what is real.

With virtual reality, the reality is defined and controlled by the user. There's a world ready to explore, and you never need to leave your house. The truth of your surrounding no longer matter because you are immersed in an alternate truth. But this alternate truth is not reality. 

I feel that many of us are living in virtual reality. We have surrounded ourselves with the reality we want to experience and shut out all influences that might change our reality. We ensure that all of the information we consume aligns with our world view and the reality we want. Our virtual reality makes it easier to shut out the unpleasant realities of life. When we live in the reality that we have invented, we cannot see injustice and the plight of people around us.

Jesus spoke to this problem when he said, "the King will say to those on his left, 'Go away from me. You will be punished. Go into the fire that burns forever that was prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink. I was alone and away from home, and you did not invite me into your house. I was without clothes, and you gave me nothing to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then those people will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or alone and away from home or without clothes or sick or in prison? When did we see these things and not help you?' Then the King will answer, 'I tell you the truth, anything you refused to do for even the least of my people here, you refused to do for me.'" Matthew 25:41-45 (NCV)

The people that Jesus was talking about were religious but had been living in virtual reality. They had constructed a world in which they could not see injustice and the needs of others. And in the end, they paid with their life. "For the anger of God is unveiled from heaven against all the ungodliness and injustice performed by people who use injustice to suppress the truth." Romans 1:18 (NTE)

Gentle Reader, virtual reality may be fun to experience, but if we live in a virtual reality that we have constructed, we need to open our eyes and see the world the way Jesus sees it. "Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete. Because of the grace allotted to me, I can respectfully tell you not to think of yourselves as being more important than you are." Romans 12:2,3 (VOICE) That is the reality we should strive for.

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