There's no escaping it. Pre-orders of the Oculus Rift virtual realty (VR) system — as many are concerned, the best consumer version of the technology — are rolling in. Other models from Playstation and other companies are to follow. And the tech will be everywhere. Remember when Nintendo's Wii came out and your feeds were drowning in photos of people squaring off in virtual tennis matches? It'll be like that, except with wrap-around visors. Soon, living rooms all over the country will look like Daft Punk videos.
Judging by the proliferation of new devices touting virtual reality (VR), a brave new immersive world is upon us. And while it’s apparent that the technology is disrupting media, it’s less clear how it will affect sleep. On one level, virtual reality is very similar to dreaming, as a user is transported to a pre-fabricated world simulating reality where each of the senses is activated. Conversely, the dreaming mind can be described as a VR machine itself — what is a lucid dream, where the dreamer can control his or her fantasy, if not VR experienced during REM? And control of the dream world is the allure of both lucid dreaming and VR.
In brief, VR thrusts users into immersive worlds via a headset that displays images modified according to the movements and positioning of the user’s head and eyes. The images appear life-sized and, often, 3D sound adds to the experience, making one feel as though he is, say, floating in space and staring at swooping meteorites and swirling galaxies or escaping a charging T-Rex.
App developers, filmmakers and game designers are all creating content for VR. A user could enter into a game, a movie, or a concert. What’s more, VR is also used to teach skills and to simulate on the job experiences. The result is the user’s senses are tricked into believing he or she is in a world other than the actual physical one. In short, it could be summed up in one phrase: go nowhere, experience everything.
Sounds similar to a dream doesn’t it? Well, VR experiences are very dream-like and yet realistic. (Whether this is done intentionally or just by virtue of their nature is another question altogether.) For instance, the flying simulator “MindRide” and its accompanying equipment provide the user with the illusion and sensations of flying. It’s a flight dream come to life.
Although the technology is in its infancy, myriad examples already exist. VR content provider VRSE lets the user watch the filming of “SNL” sketches from the viewpoint of an audience member, walk around New York City or swim with dolphins and sperm whales. “Project Cars” transports the user to, among others, Germany’s famed nürburgring. Whip through one of the track’s treacherous s-turns and you’ll sweat and clench your jaw as though you were actually on the course. VR porn is the next frontier of sexual fantasy — so real, some say, that it blurs the line between reality and dream.
The confusion makes sense. Like a dream, VR tricks the brain into believing the experience is real. And its uses aren’t for sheer entertainment. For instance, a VR version of a heroin environment — a house party where the drug is snorted and injected — was used in a study at the University of Houston. The experience it created was so like the real thing that it could be used to help real users kick their addictions — first virtually, and then in the real world.
According to research developed by Jayne Gakenbach at Grant MacEwan University in Canada, those who play video games, particularly those that take place in first-person, often have an usual level of awareness and control in their dreams.
“Gaming improves spatial skills. And people who spontaneously have lucid dreams also evidence superior spatial skills — so there is a lot of self-selection,” Gackenbach told Van Winkle's in the previous conversation. “But also the playing of video games improves spatial skills even in the novice player. Thus, it’s not unreasonable that those improvements would generalize to the dream state.”
Given the connection, it only makes sense, then, that VR, too, can influence them the same way: In a study published in the International Journal of Dream Research, VR-based memories evidenced in reported dreams approximately four days after participants underwent a VR maze task.
When speaking with Van Winkle’s, Elizaveta Solomonova, the author of the study, speculated that VR could serve as training tool for lucid dreaming experience.
“VR can also be used as an artistic tool, right?” she told us. “To create a dreamlike scenario that people could explore. You could see people training their lucid dreaming skills in virtual reality by noticing when the dream scene shifts. Or by practicing their flying.”
The relationship between the two worlds certainly make sense. While studies on the subject don’t exist just yet, those who have VR setups often cite lucid dreaming is a side effect of regular use.
One familiar technique for priming for lucid dreaming is performing reality checks while awake — that is, testing reality by, say, attempting to push a finger through your palm while awake will allow for a similar test while dreaming. If the finger passes through effortlessly, you’re dreaming. Thus conscious of your state, you can take control of your dream and achieve unparalleled levels of imagination.
Testing reality while in a VR experience may further push the boundaries of what lucidity is achievable. Though bounded by the technology’s maker’s recording or coding skills, similar reality tests could be incorporated into the VR world. They would further prod the conscious mind to believe the unbelievable and further priming for lucid dreaming.
While we don't know exactly how closely VR will mimic the world of our REM reveries, what is certain is that there will be a creative flow between the two worlds. Dreams will inspire virtual engineers and, in turn, those experiences will inspire dreams.