Now You See What I Mean
The real promise of shared virtual realities

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 21 October 2022

We’re getting something about virtual reality profoundly wrong right now. It’s not about the simulation; it never was. It’s about the way a simulation can create an excuse to connect with other people in a more profound way.

As I listen to the many descriptions of Web3 environments in which our virtual selves are supposed to do fake rave dancing or trade NFTs, I’m struck by how far such visions and applications are from Terence McKenna’s first thoughts about virtual reality back in the early 90s. “You will literally be able to see what I mean,” he told me. All that came to mind for me as he said that was some form of dancing that my avatar might do — something like a bee dancing in order to communicate the location of pollenating flowers.

I only came to understand what he meant about a decade later while shooting a PBS Frontline documentary, digital_nation. We were filming a segment at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, where their Director for Medical Virtual Reality, Skip Rizzo, was using VR simulations to treat PTSD among combat veterans, and with surprisingly good results. We decided to put me into the simulation as the patient, so we could film how it worked while I experienced it first-hand and explained the sensations to the TV audience.

The simulation was used mostly for vets who had been exposed to an IED (Improved Explosive Device) or ambush while driving in Iraq. The patient would sit in a chair, put on VR goggles and then describe the scene to the psychologist running the simulation. The vet could say whether they were in a Bradley, Humvee, or tank, which seat they were in, whether it was day or night, and so on. Then the therapist would make the appropriate selections and build a simulation. The rig could even generate the particular smells of different parts of the world in various seasons.

I figured I would go all in, and use a devastating car crash I had survived in the 1980s for my simulation and stored trauma. I was in the passenger seat of a regular car, as my best friend drove us east through the desert toward the Grand Canyon.

Skip dutifully recreated the scene.

“He had brown hair,” I told Skip of my friend in the driver’s seat.

“Like this?”

“Yeah, but shorter. He just had it buzzed.”

“How’s this?”

“Yeah. It was around 430am, the sun wasn’t coming up but the sky was getting blue,” I told him. “There were some juniper bushes and cactuses at the side of the road. No, not that many.”

Once he had the scene right, I told him about how the accident happened. How we both fell asleep as the sun came up, and then went off the road into a tree. I told him all the gory details and he managed to recreate them, and then remake the crash, and the spray of windshield glass, and my dead best friend in the exact position in which ended up.

And yes, the virtual reality, the sights, the smells, and the ability to look around, was gripping and evocative. But the healing? The real breakthrough? It was that Dr. Skip Rizzo could see what I meant. What I had lived through. His willingness, his human willingness to sit there and patiently build the experience step by step, and look through his own monitors at the things I was seeing and had lived through. It was that human connection that made the VR worth anything at all. If I had done all that describing to an AI, even if the AI could render a more granular depiction of my trauma, it wouldn’t have meant anything at all. It healed me because Skip was there. He knew. I knew he could hear me because he listened well enough to build the simulation for me. And then he witnessed what happened, as I went through it again. I was not alone in it anymore. And it was profoundly healing.

This is because trauma isn’t something we can or should attempt to metabolize on our own. Sure, we can try to shake something off the way a squirrel shakes off a near-miss with a car on the road (watch one when they get to the curb). But our deep wounds — both individual and collective — deserve empathy and connection.

Without the sharing, an experience is merely sensational. Like sex without the vulnerable shared space of staring into each other’s eyes — that sense of total exposure and total acceptance is the part that touches the soul. The VR is the means to that end, the medium for the interaction, not the simulation of an interaction. The simulation of my accident was not occurring primarily between me and the avatar of my poor dead friend Steven, but between me and the other living human being in the simulation.

The extent to which this technology will succeed for anything beyond an isolating form of amusement park ride will depend on developer’s ability to resist the temptation to build high resolution simulations for individuals, and their willingness to accept that virtual reality is not a path to the next dimension, but a way for us to find our way back to this one.