The internet is ablaze with talk that virtual reality will replace drugs like LSD within 10 years. The giddiness was sparked when Microsoft asked 17 women in its global research organization what technology would look like in 10 years. The company published some of the answers in a blog post in early December.
One researcher, Mar Gonzalez Franco, responded like this: “By 2027 we will have ubiquitous virtual reality systems that will provide such rich multisensorial experiences that will be capable of producing hallucinations which blend or alter perceived reality.”
That’s not really what Franco was getting at. In her response, she goes on to say that “Using this technology, humans will retrain, recalibrate and improve their perceptual systems.” What she means is that VR will be a tool to enhance our existing five senses.
“In contrast to current virtual reality systems that only stimulate visual and auditory senses, in the future the experience will expand to other sensory modalities including tactile with haptic devices,” Franco wrote.
In other words, she’s talking about affecting sight and sound with VR goggles and earphones. But she means that we can affect other senses as well, with “haptic devices.” Think of your Xbox controller, that vibrates when you get shot. Or perhaps a glove that could make you feel textures or heat and cold. Or a machine that blows air at you or generates a scent.
“When all these inputs are aligned they provide these alternative perceptions of reality,” Franco told Inverse. So bottom line: does she believe virtual reality and its cousin, augmented reality (AR) — which uses overlays to complement what you see and hear — will one day mimic psychedelic drugs?
“I don’t think [augmented reality] will be anywhere similar to chemically altering the brain,” Franco told Inverse. “I know these comments and these predictions sound pretty crazy to these people so they can begin to exaggerate them.”
But Mark Griffiths, a professor of behavioral addiction at Nottingham Trent University in England, says it’s possible. He tells Dose that “visual and auditory hallucinations are commonly experienced by regular video game players.” And that’s just regular flatscreen games, not VR or AR.
“Given that my own research has shown that hallucinations are common among video gamers, it’s no surprise that VR games can do the same thing,” Griffiths says, adding that there are already a number of anecdotal reports that playing games in VR can produce hallucinations.
Griffiths cautions that it’s debatable whether VR players can induce such hallucinations on their own. “Very few players in our own research said they were able to induce hallucinations,” he says.
Franco also makes clear she doesn’t expect VR to interfere with our senses the way drugs do — quite the opposite: “The key part is that we don’t lose consciousness,” she told Inverse. “The higher cognitive functions are not altered by virtual reality.” So in fact, a VR hallucination might actually be better (in some ways) than LSD, since you’d experience it with full command of all of your senses.
“At present, we simply don’t know what the long-term effects of VR gaming will be and that goes for VR-induced gaming hallucinations too,” says Griffiths. “It may be the case that VR-induced hallucinogenic states will be ‘safer’ than ones induced by psychedelic drugs as there is no ingestion of a psychoactive substance, but that’s just speculation on my part.”
You may also have read about iDosing about six years ago. These digital recordings send different audio frequencies to the right and left ear, creating a third perceived, or “binaural” tone. Many users swore listening to “binaural beats” made them high — and there was the predictable moral panic in the media, but there’s no proof they alter consciousness.
Will VR hallucinogens be any more effective? We just don’t know. They aren’t even in their infancy yet. But you can bet VR tinkerers and psychedelic seekers won’t stop till they can “drop” — virtually.