How many kids have walked through your yard looking for a Pokémon? Were you surprised to discover that after all these years of living in your home, they’ve been hiding in your dining room all this time? (Who knew?!)
The Pokémon Go app has swept the world since its release last week, overtaking Twitter in the U.S. in terms of daily users. Kids and their parents now roam neighborhoods searching for the elusive Greninja, Mew or Pikachu, creating teams, and then training their Pokémon for battle. Friends of mine who aren’t even very active, are now taking daily, hour-long “walks” with their kids as they use the app together.
These are great thing, but a few bizarre and scary stories have emerged.
A Wyoming teenager was searching for a Pokémon near a river when she discovered a dead body floating nearby. A group of four Missouri teens were lured to a CVS parking lot to join another supposed team of searchers when they were mugged at gunpoint. And, you can only imagine the number of people using the app while driving.
Overall, the app seems fun and, if used wisely, pretty harmless.
But, Pokémon Go has caused me to ask a big question.
What is the brain impact of this more intense mixing of the digital world with the real world?
Anecdotally, I’ve often noticed a difference in behavior in my own children after they’ve spent too many hours watching YouTube Kids or playing Minecraft. It’s almost as if the extended pixel stimulation puts them out of sync with real people, making them a bit shorter in their responses and decreasing their patience with the people around them. I have no science to prove there’s a connection, but it’s made me wonder if there’s a cause and effect at play.
What we do know is that certain doctors and researchers are pointing to the real possibility that a screen-based pornography addiction hijacks the brain’s rewards system into bonding with pixels instead of people. Since 2012, scientist Gary Wilson has postulated that an Internet porn addiction increases the frequency of erectile dysfunction.
All of these impacts come from using “boring,” two-dimensional screens. Does this point to a potentially greater brain impact from digital experiences that seem more real? Let’s looks at two “realities” that are changing how people interact with technology.
The Pokémon Go app uses augmented reality (AR) during gameplay. AR is not new–many have used it in GPS devices without knowing what it was–but it has been a relatively unknown term to the masses until Pokémon Go. This technology superimposes a digital image over a real image from your camera, in order to create a composite, “mixed” view.
For Pokémon Go, this means seeing a Pokémon standing in your living room, through the camera view on your smartphone. It means seeing a map of your neighborhood, and there’s a Pokémon behind your neighbor’s house.
Interestingly, the term “augmented reality” implies that reality alone isn’t good enough and an overlay of technology makes it greater in some way. In other words, that beautiful sunset is made even more magnificent by an emoji of a bird on the screen while taking a picture.
Regardless of how you feel about it, does AR start to create confusion in the malleable adolescent brain? Is there harm in believing that an augmented reality is better than just “reality”?
Because AR hasn’t been used in mass until now, we just don’t know enough to be able to answer these questions.
I remember watching the movie Minority Report and the scene where Tom Cruise walks into a virtual reality “shop,” where users could pay for any type of virtual reality experience.
I don’t feel like we’re very far away from this kind of experience.
Virtual reality (VR) artificially creates sensory experience, transporting the user to a situation that feels very real through the use of hardware worn over your eyes that blocks out the real world. There are endless, good applications for virtual reality, including transporting students to the Lourve during a history lesson, or allowing them to walk through the Grand Canyon during a geology class. Medical professionals will have the ability to practice difficult surgeries before ever stepping foot in an actual operating room. The applications for armed forces and training pilots and soldiers are obvious. Elderly, bed-ridden friends can be transported to any destination that their frail body will no longer allow them to visit. Graduating seniors and their parents can take a campus tour without ever leaving their home.
But, if nothing else, advances in technology continue to teach us that anything that can be used for good also has a very dark side.
Gamers and Porn Stars
In 2014, Facebook paid $2 billion for Oculus, which manufactures the well-known virtual reality Rift headset. In October 2016, Sony will release PlayStation VR, known by the codename Project Morpheus. Rumors are flying that Xbox could be releasing its own VR console in 2017 currently named Project Scorpio.
Not surprisingly, the porn industry has quickly boarded the virtual reality train. Pornhub is the largest pornography distributor in the world, with over 3 million videos, and over 60 million daily visitors. In March 2016, it launched a free virtual reality channel, the first in the porn industry, where viewers are invited to a growing library of free 360-degree trailers.
Through Pornhub, smartphone users are treated to virtual reality videos optimized for both Android and iOS, playable through most virtual reality headsets such as Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and Google Cardboard.
The creators of virtual reality porn are extremely educated on not only what their viewers want, but also what they truly need. And, they are creating VR porn to meet these needs.
One VR porn creator spoke about the emphasis virtual reality porn puts on creating an emotional connection with the viewer through actual conversation. She said the “closeness” of VR porn makes fostering emotional intimacy easy. Further, she noted the desire for companionship is a big part of the adult industry that’s often overlooked, and that VR porn provides companionship that 2-D screens just can’t compete with.
Closeness. Intimacy. Conversation. Companionship. These are needs that are imprinted on every human soul.
Our brains are wired to reward experiences that satisfy these needs. Remember, neurons that fire together eventually wire together. And, as a result, virtual reality pornography has the potential to trigger a deadly cocktail of neurological activity that distorts the brain in new and scary ways.
For now, it feels like we are standing on the cliff of what could be a monumental shift in how we interact with technology. It seems a cruel irony that the digital world may become more detrimental to humans as a result of making it more like the real world.
What do we do right now? Well, not much, other than having fun with our kids while hunting Pokémon in our parks and neighborhoods. For right now, that seems like a wonderful reality to experience.