The world we live in is an amalgamation of layers. Pesce (2020) puts forth the idea that technology like augmented reality (AR) is a way of adding meaning and metadata to the world around us, that when we write something into space, we change the behaviour of people in that space. This article will explore augmented and virtual reality through the lens of therapy and counselling, focusing on how it is beneficial and what lines it can push in those areas; and how these technologies contribute to the surveillance state.
But first, what’s the difference?
There has often been discourse about the distinctions and bounds that separate virtual and augmented reality. Poetker (2020) argues that the first time these terms fractured was in 1968, with the invention of computer scientist Ivan Sutherland’s head-mounted display ‘The Sword of Damocles’ that used computer-generated graphics to enhance sensory perception.
Virtual reality (VR) aims to achieve a completely synthetic universe. In contrast, AR blends the synthetic with the real, fashioning a technologically supported hallucination that challenges the boundaries of what we interpret as ‘real.’ To navigate VR, one needs prosthetics like data gloves, wands, handheld controllers, or motion-capture sensors. The point of this is to embed a sense of oneself into a virtual world.
AR and VR are also projected to have massive GDP and economic contributions, the technologies expanding over the last few years with extensive use in PokemonGo, in social media filters, and navigation systems.
How did we get here? And what’s next?
The genesis of functional augmented reality systems goes back three decades to flight control systems for jet fighter pilots (Pesce, 2017). AR helped them process critical information better and faster, with an easier pathway to making life and death decisions in safe practice rather than in the field. But the first commercial use of the technology was in the entertainment and gaming industries, later spanning to education, communications, and medicine. AR is used to enhance these environments and create enriched experiences that can be interactive and customised, overlaying the digital on the real.
Pesce (2017) discussed Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for AR and VR glasses from his F8 presentation. He cited Magic Leap, a Florida-based start-up with two billion dollars worth of seed money from Google and Alibaba, which is likely to mass-produce the glasses in the next decade, if not less. The greatest innovation since the smartphone (ibid.), the spectacles will be able to uniquely curate the world for every wearer, causing people to keep seeing what they want to see – or what Big Tech companies want them to see.
Can AR help with therapy?
In recent years, clinical and health psychology have been veering toward the integration of AR into therapy. AR’s potential in dealing with areas like phobias, PTSD, chronic pain, grief, and other mental disorders is extraordinary, as it can combine simulated events with a person’s reality (Ventura et al., 2018). AR helps therapists assume control of a simulation and witness firsthand a patient’s limits, their reaction to certain stimuli, and teach their patients “adaptive behaviour that could help them in future situations” (ibid.). VR allows for a scene to be simulated without entirely relying on a person’s memory, in special cases such as for veterans, and without accounting for cognitive avoidance – which occurs when patients involuntarily repress or shy away from painful memories (Cipresso et al., 2018).
A concerning aspect of technology is addiction. Many times, VR and AR have been used in grief therapy – going as far and creating virtual versions of the deceased for a person to interact with. Technology creates new dimensions of memory, wherein people can ‘communicate’ with their deceased loved ones by VR/AR headsets, holograms, and digital spectra. However, this cannot always be viewed as a step forward, as the person may be vulnerable and mourning, and this experience can cause a refusal to move on and stay in an imagined false reality.
But is such technology entirely accessible? In theory, if one has access to augmented reality technology, they can be connected to their therapists no matter how much physical distance separates them if one does not factor in the cost and the limited availability of such technology in rural areas and third world countries.
The expansion of the surveillance state
But, as Pesce vehemently stated, “AR is a technology of surveillance” (2020). He further went on to cite gaze detection, as will be utilised in Facebook’s Project Aria, that can collect and store data of everything your eyes flick across and for how long. When it has already been confirmed that Facebook has been using “sophisticated algorithms to identify and exploit Australians […] allowing advertisers to target them at their most vulnerable […],” it is almost expected that the same standards of ethics will be applied to AR headsets that will be able to see the insides of our houses, our paths to work, et cetera.
Along with the use of machine learning, “the capacity for computer programs to train themselves to get better at their goals,” (Pesce, 2017) technology will be able to predict our whereabouts in real-time and the way we could respond to stimuli. This has already been utilised, in Tesla’s self-driving car and Apple’s Siri and similar products being trained to recognise speech patterns.
Such technology works to benefit Big Tech companies who sell data for advertisement purposes. Research has shown that people are more susceptible to stimulus than they realise, as demonstrated in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and subtle targeted ads and posts can go a long way to influence a population’s political choices. ‘Fake news’ has been used since the early 1900s by intelligence agencies to persuade the public, and this has only been refined under the data-driven culture of today. How much agency do we have, really, when certain players have so heavily infiltrated our everyday existence? How much of what we think is a result of critical analysis, and how much the product of targeted propaganda?
And, more importantly, how are we protecting the vulnerable? Surveillance is no longer only a question of privacy, but also of liberty. The worst part, one may conclude, is not that Facebook will try to sell us something we thought about but never voiced: it is that Facebook will sell our phone numbers, IP and residential addresses, and sensitive information. Technology is normalised to the extent that people do not tend to think twice about inputting their information online — especially not uneducated people nor minors nor the elderly.
“We live in a connected world,” Mark Pesce (2017) writes, calling smartphones our “invisible tethers to machines” that aid recording our passage through the world and uploading all of the data onto internet servers. We are at the mercy of Big Tech Giants and their clients, who will soon be able to finetune everything we see from moment to moment, and not exclusively when we engage with the digital world. If this technology progresses the way smartphones have, it will soon be impossible to live in a world without them.
This exploitation of influence is being closely monitored by governments of the world, with an example of Australia’s preoccupation with telecommunications metadata that aided build individual profiles of citizens, that uses technology to conceal authoritarian processes and cloak persistent manipulation of reality.
To conclude . . .
AR and VR are revolutionary technologies that ironically work to serve the surveillance state. Ever since its genesis, it has been used as a tool by governments. It can be used in therapy and for recreational purposes, but one must be weary of those pros outweighing the cons of its usage. In the hands of companies like Facebook that have historically used their platforms for profit and have ignored human rights violations, augmented reality is dangerous. One must always be vigilant and question such innovations as there is more to them than hunting Pokemon and the darker sides are often concealed behind promises of novelty.
Cipresso, P., Giglioli, I., Raya M. A., and Riva G. (2018) The Past, Present, and Future of Virtual and Augmented Reality Research: A Network and Cluster Analysis of the Literature. Front. Psychol. 9:2086. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02086
Dalton, J., & Gillham, J. (2019). Seeing Is Believing-How VR and AR will transform business and the economy. In PwC.org (pp. 1–18). https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(00)57996-3
Pesce, M. (2017). The Last Days of Reality. Retrieved from Meanjin: https://meanjin.com.au/essays/the-last-days-of-reality/
Pesce, M. (2020). ARIN2610 Week 8 Lecture.
Poetker, B. (2020). A Brief History of Augmented Reality (+Future Trends & Impact). Retrieved 3 November 2020, from https://learn.g2.com/history-of-augmented-reality
Riva, G., & Serino, S. (2020). Virtual Reality in the Assessment, Understanding and Treatment of Mental Health Disorders. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 9(11), 3434. doi:10.3390/jcm9113434
Ventura, S., Baños, R.M., and Botella, C., (2018). Virtual and Augmented Reality: New Frontiers for Clinical Psychology, State of the Art Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Knowhow. DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.74344. Available from: https://www.intechopen.com/books/state-of-the-art-virtual-reality-and-augmented-reality-knowhow/virtual-and-augmented-reality-new-frontiers-for-clinical-psychology