Virtual Reality and The Sword of Damocles

When Ivan Sutherland created the first virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headset in 1968, it was so heavy and unwieldy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling above the user's head, inspiring its name, "The Sword of Damocles." However, the name is more than a reference to just the physical similarities between the VR/AR headset and a dangling sword - it is a warning from its inventor to be careful with this new technology.

Damocles was an adsentatore (court flatterer) to a 4th century B.C. tyrant, Dionysius. Impressed by the ruler's wealth, Damocles wanted to experience his lifestyle, to which Dionysius agreed. Damocles was greatly enjoying himself, until he noticed the sword  hanging by a hair above his head. Dionysius explained that this was the life of a ruler - extravagant, but dangerous.

This is VR - an exciting but possibly dangerous technology. VR experiences are fundamentally different than watching a movie or playing a video game. Though the technology is still not fully developed, research is already showing that your brain responds to VR stimuli like its real. A popular example is to have someone wear a VR headset and stand on the edge of a virtual cliff. Although you absolutely know there is now cliff, you feel like there is one and get that pit in your stomach. As the technology progresses, it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish between reality and "virtuality," and it will become more and more important that those developing VR experiences heed Dionysius's warning.

Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, sums it up nicely: "Virtual reality is like uranium. You can heat homes and you can destroy nations. It's up to us to choose applications that are good versus applications that are not."

Are you excited, worried, or indifferent about virtual reality?

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