philip lelyveld The world of entertainment technology


Elizabeth Bonesteel on the connecting power of virtual reality

Our Q&A with the author of “Overlay” from Better Worlds, our sci-fi project about hope

We discover that Ando is using VR to give his father one last adventure before he dies. Do you think similar technologies will see widespread use in the future?

Technologically, I think VR at this level is pretty far off. In the case of someone like Ray, who’s suffering from dementia, you’d likely be dealing with a very different interface than you would for someone who was cognitively unimpaired. That said, while I don’t think VR has taken off quite as quickly as people expected it to, its potential is too great for us to let it languish. Never mind its uses in gaming — which is essentially what I use it for in this story — but the scientific applications alone could have a massive social benefit.

Getting to the point of actually fooling a user into believing their experience is real is a different issue that brings up some ethical issues. A friend of mine suggested “Overlay” was, from a certain perspective, a horror story: Ray’s had his reality replaced with an externally constructed narrative. In the story, VR is used for palliative reasons, and I imagine people would opt in or out of the therapy as part of an advance health care directive. But there’s definitely the potential for such technology to be weaponized. It would certainly have the potential to be addictive.

There’s an interesting moment when Ando says that he was written in one of the simulations as “a brat.” How do you see these types of VR stories impacting how we perceive the past or our loved ones?

Ando is able to have a sort of beyond-the-grave dialogue with his mother, but I’m not sure it’s substantially different from the letters, photographs, or video we have today. We’ve always rewritten ourselves one way or another, choosing which memories to preserve and pass on. And once we’re gone, the people we leave behind rewrite us again. Even now, we can edit ourselves to be smoother, kinder, funnier than we really are. A VR story — fictional or otherwise — would be a more vivid, fine-grained version of the same conceit.

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