I am concerned that, in the not too distant future, I will be asking my Granddaughter, “Honey, is this the real world or the virtual world?” My Granddaughter will giggle and respond, “Oh Nana. Your so funny.”  And that may be, but I’ll be left wondering where I am. I mean, it’s one thing to, have problems with remembering things but, not knowing if the experience is real or virtual is whole different level of confusion.

Several years ago, our son who was in college at the time, introduced me to the virtual world. He was interning in a computer lab experimenting with virtual reality. Placing a large set of glasses on my head and a thing called a haptic arm in my hand my son asked if I saw a box and a stick. He instructed me to move the stick from the floor to the top of the box. The box and the stick appeared to be real. Moving the haptic arm forward I felt as though I was walking toward the stick and after several attempts, managed to pick up the stick and place it on the box. I mentioned to my son that it was a strange sensation of moving but unable to discern exactly how close I was to the objects in the room or to feel the things I was trying to move. “Yah,” my son said, “We are trying to figure out how to add the sense of weight to the haptic arm. We think that might make the experience more real.” As we left the computer lab our son explained that they were developing software to make the virtual experience feel real so that people could practice putting together complicated machinery without ever actually touching a screwdriver.

Where Real Things Happen

That made sense to me. They were creating a “pretend” place where a person could become proficient without worrying that a small mistake could result in catastrophic, real life consequences. That would be amazing! A great advancement! I could see all kinds of applications until I wondered aloud, “But how will we know if we are in the real world or the virtual world?”

As a child I was often told to stop daydreaming and come back to reality. I was raised to believe that the real world was where real things happen. That our actions had real consequences. That what we saw on TV or in the movies was make believe, not real. Now that I think about it, I was raised with a lot of skepticism. You can’t believe everything you read, and don’t believe everything you hear were statements often made when I was growing up. On the other hand, a picture was worth a thousand words. Isn’t that why directions come with pictures? This virtual space was just a better more complete picture of the instructions, right?

When the Future Becomes Reality

I told myself technological advances have been made by humans since the beginning of time. Always in search of a better, safer, easier way. It is what we humans do. Sometimes advances are made that we did not know were needed until we had them, like video conferencing.

I was reminded of my Mother, who the first time she participated in a video call, did not speak. I had arranged the call so Mother could meet her first Great Granddaughter. Mother and I sat looking at our faces on the computer and discussing what we had done that day until the call from my son came through. I accepted the call. “Hi, Grams!” Which was the name our children called their grandmother. “I would like to introduce you to your great granddaughter!”

My Mother didn’t say a word. She sat in stunned silence. I couldn’t tell if she was overwhelmed with the sight of her first great grandchild or having a stroke. “Oh, Mom! Isn’t she beautiful?”

Mother turned and looked at me. “This isn’t a movie?”

“No. This is in real time.”

Looking back at the computer she said. “They said one day we would be able to call someone and see them too.”

“Yes.” I smiled. “And you have lived to see it happen. Now talk!”

But my Mother could not speak. Technology was making it possible for my Mother to meet her first Great Granddaughter, who lived thousands of miles away. The future had become reality. It was all a little too much for her to absorb.

New technology is often met with skepticism, resistance, and a little fear.  After all, you can’t believe everything you read, and don’t believe everything you hear. But now humans are going beyond video conferencing and designing a virtual world. What is it about this new virtual world that I find so concerning? Why does it feel more like a nightmare than a dream? Maybe it is that in my daydream world I am in control. Nightmares, not so much. Who exactly was in control of this virtual world?

What Is Real?

What is real? Fact is, much of our lives are already virtual. For example, money. Trading was the most basic or “real” way of getting what you want or need. You have something I want. I have something you want. Let’s trade, even up. We both got what we wanted and got rid of the thing we didn’t need. At some point people decided that precious metals, like gold or silver were valuable. The advantage to gold and silver was you could sell goods or services, buy things you needed or wanted and amass as much gold and silver as you could. The problem was safely storing large quantities of gold and silver. So, banks would guard your gold and silver in exchange for paper notes. A fair trade, as long as the gold and silver, the things of real value, was accessible if need be.

Today credit cards are our money. Their value is determined by our ability to obtain and payback credit. Pretty virtual, if you ask me. But it works – if we all agree that credit is of value. I guess that only proves that reality is defined by what we value and that what we value changes with time.

Innovation Begins As A Dream

I understand that innovation often begins as a dream. I also know that if you spend all your time in the virtual room practicing for life, your dream will never become a reality. That has been and will continue to be true no matter how technology changes the world. So, rather than worrying about looking foolish in my Granddaughter’s eyes, it is time for me to embrace the future, live my legacy and be an example of how to navigate an everchanging world…. with a little skepticism and a dose of reality.