Learning to Believe the Unbelievable: Fortifying Ourselves for a VR Future

The Cottingley Fairies

As humans, we are accustomed to suspending our disbelief. Indeed, we’re known to indulge in it. Each time we dive into a book, a movie, a video game, a TV show — even a spiritual flight-of-fancy — most of us are willing and able to disengage from the pedantry of our everyday judgment, and allow ourselves to be convinced by things that are less-than-absolutely-convincing…

This coaxing is a consensual arrangement. I allow you to present me with the improbable on the proviso that it is entertaining, or educational, or uplifting, or philosophical — i.e. my pay-off is that I am emotionally stimulated in some way. I don’t need to scrutinize a movie in its every detail, what is important when I watch it is that I enjoy it and it makes me happy (or scared, or angry, or sentimental!).

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Of course, when we suspend our disbelief, it isn’t always in to be absorbed in something totally fanciful. Some creators can dance very close to the line of reality, creating gritty episodes in which we recognize vivid, real lives. These things are not entirely “improbable” in their content, but it is nevertheless improbable that we might get so intimately close to them. It is our contextual proximity which adds to the necessary incongruity of make-believe. Again, we suspend our scrutiny of this improbability.

Now admittedly, this is a fairly elementary assessment of our relationship with the “unreal”, but it captures some of the key facets of the dynamic. When we assent to suspend our disbelief, we suspend our usual scrutiny because our experience leads us to expect its value to be emotional or intellectual, but not practical. On the contrary, in real life — for clear purposes arrived at via evolution — it is important that we scrutinize all scenarios, people, objects, relationships, etc. In this domain, we are rather more concerned with practicality.

So, what’s my point? Simply put, I’m qualifying the idea that there is some definite clean air between real things in our lives, and things that are the objects of our suspended disbelief. Our attitude towards the two categories is importantly different.

Imagine then, being asked to simultaneously suspend disbelief, enter a non-reality and understand this reality as having the same practical use as the real world. The proposition feels a little like being asked to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time — but this is a future that VR developers are driving towards.

Let me explain.

This week TechCrunch reported on a Swiss company, called Imverse, who they say have, “the power to make VR seem much more believable.” The believability part is probably up-for-debate, but the plain fact is that company’s technology can render the users human form within a virtual reality. Basically, you look down and you can see an avatar of your own body, which mimics your movements.

“Is this me?” “Or isn’t it me?” “Should I believe and scrutinize?” “Or suspend and enjoy?”

My instinct says that we’re still at play in this environment. This is not the right and truthful us. Like the Ship of Theseus, or a perfect stroke-for-stroke copy of a Leonardo da Vinci painting — no matter how like the original it seems, we feel that at its core it is a deceit. Therefore, we can desist with our scrutiny (which is much easier, after all).

Yet, increasingly, believability is not the determining factor of whether we shouldscrutinize or not. Instead, this must now come down to whether our actions within a virtual or mixed reality environment could have an effect on our actual real lives. And we know that these practical effects of VR environments are just around the corner.

Another example: VR developers introducing convincing sensory experiences, like touch, to a virtual environment. Now, touch is not something we would ordinarily experience within the average “suspended disbelief environment”. Touch is real, and undeniable. It should be a thing of scrutiny. Yet within a VR world, we could expect two opposing forces to play against each other here: on the one hand, the injection of non-virtual reality (touch being a tangible facet of the real world), and on the other hand this very fact urging us to further suspend disbelief, and therefore abdicate our usual scrutiny of such true forces. The first reminds us of the practical, the second promises us emotional pay-off.

If this all sounds a bit head-scratchy, here’s an illustration. In his latest book, Jeremy Bailenson, talks of what in real-life we call the “Midas Touch”. This is a well-documented phenomena whereby (for example) wait staff who touch customers on the shoulder tend to get bigger tips than those who don’t. Now, without going into experimental detail (which can be read in an excerpt here), it has been shown that virtual touch (i.e. indirect human contact in a virtual environment) can replicate this effect.

What’s the significance? There’s plenty as I see it. If we’re naturally in “play mode” when we are in a suspended disbelief environment (as we usually are), we might — for want of a better term — roll over much more easily. Be less aware of any practical consequences that should be up for examination. Importantly, we could be less suspecting, and less aware of things sent to manipulate and/or mislead us. In other words, if VR is set to become as prolific as we’re often told, in the future we might need to fight our well-trained instincts and, as my mother would say, “keep our wits about us.” Not because things seem so convincingly real but, on the contrary, because they remain unconvincing.