Faculty discuss virtual reality, human impact

Virtual reality – its benefits, consequences and future – were on center stage at a faculty panel discussion on virtual reality, held at 5 p.m. on May 1, where professors in the philosophy and cognitive science departments at Oswego State discussed the rapidly growing technology.

The panel, hosted by the cognitive science and philosophy clubs on campus, brought together five Oswego State staff members: David Vampola, visiting assistant professor of computer science; Damian Schofield, professor and director of the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) masters level programs; Caglar Yildirim, assistant professor and director of the VR lab on campus; Jared Peterson, visiting assistant professor of philosophy; and Mark Zelcer, assistant professor of philosophy. 

Yildirim and Schofield primarily provided a technological perspective to VR, discussing the ways it is growing and expanding to become an increasingly larger part of people’s lives.

“Nowadays is a great time to be involved in VR because we have access to commercial headsets that are affordable or relatively affordable and accessible to many people,” Yildirim said.

Schofield, who has worked with VR for many years in the judicial, academic and health fields, said he has seen technology come a long way through cellphones and similar products, and soon, VR will be the next step to even more advancements.

“We connect to all the knowledge in the known world through these devices, and it’s just a thin layer of plastic between us and this device, but that thin layer of plastic is going away,” Schofield said.

Peterson and Zelcer, who both work in the philosophy department on campus, took a more philosophical approach to the subject, posing questions like what VR means for free will, the realness of experiences and human identity expression.

Peterson spent much of his portion discussing philosopher Robert Nozick’s experience machine, a thought experiment wherein a person can live their lives in an experience machine – a device where all experiences, while simulated, feel very real. The experience machine is a less active version of the reality VR provides, one where the real and virtual is blurred together.

Zelcer said this blending has already been happening for a while, with things like advertising tricking people into a false reality in much the same way VR does now.

“This technology fools our brain in every possible way,” Zelcer said. “The better we can trick people, the scarier virtual reality comes in terms of what we’re susceptible to.”

All panelists considered the possible consequences of VR, as some students who attended raised concerns about the technology growing too fast and leading to possible abuse. Schofield said there are many issues surrounding anonymity in the virtual world, with players behaving in ways they would otherwise not if they could not be anonymous.

“People hide themselves behind their virtual avatars and these cloaks of anonymity,” Sholfield said.

But that does not mean disaster is the next step, Schofield said, as most players still maintain their ethical codes in gameplay. Peterson said he sees a great potential for VR in a learning capacity.

“We’re going to have to face up to the fact there’s going to be people who misuse this technology,” Peterson said. “But I definitely think it’s already served great purposes.”

Other panelists echoed this mentality and Yildirim said he remains optimistic that humanity is not headed for a dystopic future like in Netflix’s “Black Mirror.”

“I’m very optimistic that, as human beings, we are not going to be so dependent that we’re going to use it for everything,” Yildirim said. “We still have our friends, family – that’s going to prevail in the end.”

Vampola, who moderated the panel, said he was happy to see such a pertinent topic be discussed on campus.

“It’s an appropriate time for us to actually be getting together to talk about this since there is a critical mass of people on this campus who are interested in virtual reality, using it as both a research agenda and in the classroom as well,” Vampola said. 

Several attending students shared that sentiment. Max Mozes, treasurer of the cognitive science club on campus, said it was a rewarding experience to help host the event and educate students in a unique way.

“We’re a pretty small club, but this is the most people we’ve ever had,” Mozes said. “It’s really the core of the cognitive science club, to have actual experts talk about their fields that are related to cognitive science.”

Justin Driscoll, a sophomore cognitive science major, said he appreciated the multiple perspectives the panelists offered, and he would like to see more discussions in the future.

“I really liked there was this combination of interests that attracted everybody … [and] the fact that five professors from different fields showed up,” Driscoll said.

Photo by Jessica Wickham | The Oswegonian

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