The promise and potential peril of the Oculus Rift

Dr. Keith Ablow: "If the Oculus Rift were a pharmaceutical or medical device, rather than a gaming headset, the FDA would study it for years and demand rigorous clinical trials before approving it."

Oculus Rift (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Oculus Rift
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Imagine for a moment that you were transported back in time to minutes before the Red Sea split. As the barreling chariots of the Egyptians become visible, various thoughts and doubts may run through your mind. Then at that moment, according to the Midrash, Nachshon ben Aminadav jumps into the sea. Miraculously it splits and the entire nation proceeds onward, including you of course.
The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that a person is where his thoughts are. To begin to appreciate in greater detail the power of thought, let us now extend our thinking by means of a “time machine” (מכונת זמן). The value of this phrase is 613, the same as the number of commandments in the Torah. We can learn from this that if a person is complete in all 613 commandments then he has a time machine.
Let’s assume that the imagery of the splitting of the sea thousands of years back began to appear in your mind’s eye. What then? If you see yourself as the protagonist of the story, Nachshon, then this is a very good thing. Close your eyes and imagine yourself jumping into a sea of water, full of faith that God will deliver the Jewish people from the Egyptian pursuers. But the Red Sea experience also was fraught by paranoia. Will they be caught? Only after the Jewish people reached the other side, and witnessed their enemies drowning in the sea, did they begin to spontaneously call out in song to God.
Every morning we recite the Song of the Sea during the prayer service. But instead of recounting a historical event, ideally we should meditate on freeing ourselves from the perceived pursuers and paranoia of everyday life. While the Splitting of the Sea meditation is immersive, there is also a test. Because the encounter is so captivating, there is also the risk of being swept away by the waters (God forbid). Psychologically according to Hasidism, we call this danger confusing the pursuer with the pursued or the predator with the prey.
As explained at length in Body, Mind and Soul, the immune system of the body relates the fear of rape to being pursued by the wolf. While a healthy immune system annihilates destructive foreign intrusions into the body, an unhealthy immune system turns against the body itself.
The spiritual cure is to cultivate in our souls a sense of gratitude to all those who have been kind to us and acknowledge our indebtedness to others, which in our account relates to the thanksgiving and praise offered after the splitting of the Red Sea. But until we get to that point, until we free ourselves of paranoia through redemptive song, there is a very great risk; we may confuse the pursuer with the pursued, such as the Egyptians with the Jewish people.
Immersive Virtual Reality
All that we have explained is a mental exercise mimicked by virtual reality technologies such as Oculus Rift. While these machines can’t actually take the user through time and space - for space travel you need a “space machine” (מכונת מקום), the value of “Shabbat” (שבת) or Shabbat observance - the visual realms they depict are dangerously addictive.
Let’s now assume that a game is developed called the “Red Sea Experience.” While playing, the gamer has the option of choosing to act out the experience from the vantage point of any of the participants of the event. If he chooses Nachshon, Moses, Miriam, or any member of the Jewish people, then he is doing well. But as we explained before, until healed of the pursuer-pursued confusion malady, God forbid, a person may mistakenly decide to choose to experience the perspective of one of the pursuing Egyptians. The question (and the concern) is what happens during the game over, the drowning experience? While physically, the gamer is not actually drowning, he may be led to think he is. Both from a physical and spiritual perspective this causes us to raise a red flag to the potential danger of Oculus Rift and other devices like it.
Although fully immersive meditation, whereby the meditator travels time and space, requires full mitzva and Shabbat observance to be experienced in its fullest (as alluded to in the numerical equivalences above), these virtual devices don’t require anything other than to put them on. As it is, children have died as a result of marathon gaming sessions. All the more reason for there to be a concern for a “completely immersive computer-generated environment” like what Oculus Rift presents.
We all remember the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, shooting where the assailant impersonated the “predator” of the movie being played.
As for the danger of acting out predator personalities, an actor answered the following to the Quora question: What are the consequences of repeated, highly-emotional acting?
“...Because the characters were experiencing such self-loathing that it became difficult for me not to internalize that hatred.”
Non-Regulated Entertainment
In a recent Fox News article, Dr. Keith Ablow writes:
“Here’s the problem: If the Oculus Rift were a pharmaceutical or medical device, rather than a gaming headset, the FDA would study it for years and demand rigorous clinical trials in volunteers before approving it. It would want to make certain the device had no unexpected side effects, like depression or attention deficit disorder or anxiety or delusional thinking. And it would want to make sure it was not addictive.”
If you read the rest of the article, without mentioning the Kabbala, Dr. Ablow goes on to explain the importance of interacting with real reality and real relationships to solve real world problems. But the Creator provides the cure before any possible disease or ailment. While Dr. Ablow is rightfully concerned that Oculus Rift and other virtual reality devices may lead to “narcissism and depression and dissociation and violent behavior,” we have already explained the cure.
When reading about the splitting of the Red Sea every morning during prayer, experiencing the Exodus from Egypt during Passover, the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot, and so forth, we run the risk of viewing these as one-time historical occurrences. But as Hasidism emphasizes, we should experience these events every day or year as if they were happening anew. While these experiences have the potential to be most profound and awe-inspiring, we also run the risk of viewing them as historical tales.
Whereas the unfettered flight of virtual reality games are potentially dangerous, if anything they remind us of the importance of immersing and experiencing events to their fullest. Whereas the imaginary escapades of these games could potentially lead to uncontrolled highs, our grounding and regulatory board is Torah and mitzva observance.
What then do we suggest? Learn the real potential of thought. Learn how to travel back in time or travel to distant lands in an instant. Learn how to experience as new that which first happened thousands of years ago.
There are three garments of the soul: thought, speech and action. These three vehicles of self-expression enable the powers of the soul to manifest in reality. But while speech and actions halt at times, a person is always thinking. Since thoughts don’t stop, the test is whether a person will replace the negative thoughts that come to mind with positive ones.
This then is our wish. That we all learn how to fully interact with the real reality around us, unfettered by matters of perceived limits of space and time, and fully immersed in positivity.
Invisible Technology
Astro Teller, head of Google X’s keynote speech at Disrupt NY, stated something very similar to what we are now saying. To quote from the TechCrunch article:
“When technology reaches that level of invisibility in our lives, that’s our ultimate goal. It vanishes into our lives. It says: ‘you don’t have to do the work, I’ll do the work.’”
What is our take on this statement? That while technology reminds us of the great potential of the human mind, we also hope for the day when technology becomes invisible. So invisible in fact that we no longer make use of it at all?
The Seer of Lublin could see clearly from one end of the world to the next without the need for Google Glass, Oculus Rift, or any other technology. Likewise, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev stated that we are all shown a vision of the Third Temple on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the day when we commemorate the destruction of the first two Temples.
Back in January I published an article called “2014: The Year of the Non-Existent Product.” This was written long before I knew about Oculus Rift, or what Astro Teller would say in his recent speech. But nevertheless I explained there that the supremacy of products is over, and we are not entering the primacy of thought.
Thus I would like to end with the wish that each and every one of you always merit to think good and happy thoughts. And for this we definitely don’t need the help of any machine.
Yonatan Gordon has spent most of his past 14 professional years in the world of Jewish publishing. He was the Marketing Manager at Kehot Publication Society (publishing arm of Chabad) for the better part of six years. He is founder of the website Community of Readers.
Visit Yonatan's new Jewcer campaign "The Kabbalah of Business Book"  here.