Cyberselves: How Immersive Technologies will Impact our Future Selves

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Psychology


People have long been fascinated with the idea of transcending the limits of our physical bodies, of projecting ourselves outside of our bodies, into a different body, or even into a radically different world. From mystical experiences brought about through trance or psychedelic drug use, to film fantasies such as The Matrix, Avatar and Surrogates, such experiences are the source of dreams and aspirations, but also give rise to great anxiety and fear about the future.

With the development of next generation virtual reality and telepresence technologies, the possibility of experiencing the world from a point-of-view other than that from behind our own eyes is becoming a possibility for all of us. Such immersive technologies, through which you have the compelling feeling of being in another place or body, are here now. As more and more people devote time and energy to life in social media, virtual or 'cyber' realities, our cyberselves, the people who we become in these virtual worlds could become as important to us as our 'real' selves. We may start to find it hard to distinguish between these different versions of ourselves, or we may wish to lead distinct lives, one in 'meatspace' and one, or many more, in cyberspaces.

Since the technologies are advancing so rapidly, there has been little time to consider the transformative effects that widespread access to deep and prolonged immersion could have on people, their relationships, and our societies, both real and virtual. There is a pressing need, while these technologies are still being developed, to ask important questions, about the kind of selves we wish to fashion for ourselves, or the kinds of worlds we want to inhibit, and what rules we want to live by in those worlds.

Our Cyberselves project thinks it imperative that we examine the transforming impact of immersive technologies on our societies and cultures. Our project will bring an immersive, entertaining experience to people in unconventional locations, a Cyberselves Roadshow, that will give participants the chance to transport themselves into the body of a humanoid robot, and to experience the world from that mechanical body. Using state-of-the-art motion capture, virtual reality and robotics equipment, we have developed at Sheffield Robotics a system that will give participants a sophisticated experience of telepresence, and a chance to talk to cultural researchers, philosophers, engineers and robotics developers about their experiences: what is good, what is bad, what excites them for the future and what most worries them.

By collaborating with a wide cross-section of the public, industrial partners, educators and policymakers, we hope to understand better what people want, and do not want, from such technologies, so that these technologies are more genuinely useful to those people on whose lives they will have the most impact. We want to use our project to allow users to drive technological development, and have real, meaningful input into (i) the public conversations on what these technologies are for, and what they are doing to our concept of ourselves as 'humans' in different 'societies', (ii) the ethical and legal challenges that such technologies will inevitably force us to confront, and (iii) the direction and design of the technologies themselves.

We hope that by understanding what drives the dreams and aspirations behind technology, and the nightmares that new technologies so often give rise to, we can promote a culturally- and scientifically-informed debate about the potential benefits and risks of living as cyberselves.

Planned Impact

The technology for immersive virtual reality is improving very rapidly. We may think first of virtual reality in gaming or entertainment, but there are also important applications of immersive technologies in civil and commercial domains: for example, teleoperation of remote equipment can clean hazardous environments (such as in the nuclear industry, oil & gas, space); telepresence can be used as an effective means of delivering healthcare, or for conducting business, or for helping children with long-term disabilities attend school virtually; augmented reality can be used in areas such as design (e.g. planning and architecture), tourism, and retail. Perhaps most controversially, these technologies have also found military applications, such as the remote piloting of aircraft ("drones"). The increased use of these technologies in so many different areas raise concerns that people, especially children, could be put at risk of cognitive, physical or emotional damage through exposure to immersive technologies, or that we might be exposed to dangerous or malicious content that could have much more harmful effects than content displayed through more conventional interfaces (e.g. TV) due to the compelling nature of immersion. Thus, while important economically, the broadening use of immersive technology is a major concern both for policy-makers and the wider public. Given this context, there are many potential beneficiaries of our plans for disseminating our work on Cyberselves and expanding the conversations we have with all stakeholders:
* The public will benefit from being able to engage with an example of immersive technologies that will allow them to consider and explore these issues in an entertaining but sophisticated way. The engagements we offer will provide more detailed information on ideas or concepts that are often misrepresented in the popular press, and we will seek to understand public anxieties surrounding immersive technologies, both conscious and unconscious, which might provide obstacles to some of the important benefits that such technologies offer, now and in the future.
* People with disabilities, illness, or recovering from injury, will benefit through exploration of the potential benefits of immersive technologies for telehealth, for using telepresence as a means to interact with their familiar social groups while in hospital or unable to leave the home, for gaining better control over the environment through teleoperation, and of the use of mixed-reality immersive technologies in rehabilitation.
* Organisations and companies employing teleoperation of equipment in remote or hazardous environments, or working to deliver healthcare, will benefit from a better understanding of the user experience of immersive technologies.
* Manufacturers and end-users of cybertechnologies will benefit from investigation of the societal impacts of virtual reality devices and environments in both established markets, such as gaming, and in emerging ones, such as telecare.
* Ethicists, theologians, and lawyers who are concerned with the notion of what it means to be a 'person', will benefit from exploration of the concept of cyberselves in a humanities-grounded, but scientifically well-informed, context. This could allow progress in some major moral and legal debates about cyber-identities and rights.
* The artistic and scientific communities will benefit by exploring the mutual relationship between science fiction and science-led design, and between methodologies applied in the arts and those used in technology development.
* Government, and policy-making and advisory bodies will benefit from a better understanding of public perceptions and anxieties, and how these technologies are shaped by both cultural aspiration and fear. Policy, therefore, can be informed and shaped in genuine response to public concerns and aspirations.


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