Whether its H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Stephen King’s mysterious portal in his book 11/22/63 or Marty McFly’s nuclear-powered DeLorean in Back To The Future, the idea of time travel has long been a fantasy to those who ask, “What if we could go back in time?” Now, however, thanks to immersive virtual reality (IVR), time travel is indeed a possibility.
According to Motherboard, a team of researchers at the University of Barcelona and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel have developed an immersive virtual reality time travel experience that allows volunteers to not only go back in time, but to also change the past. The study noted that the immersive environment created an illusion of presence in the virtual world that also generated enough body ownership to allow users to feel that their own body was substituted into their virtual being.
The study placed users in a virtual art gallery with two floors, operating an elevator between the two floors. Leaving one avatar on the first floor, upon reaching the second floor, one of the avatars on the elevator brandishes a gun and begins firing on the five other avatars on that level. Participants in the study experienced either the “repetition” mode, where the scene was repeated and a new life spawned as in a video game, or the “time travel” mode that offered users the chance to go back to the start and view the actions of their previous virtual experience to see what they might change upon experiencing the elevator again. The moral dilemma the time traveller faced was do nothing, send the elevator back down to sacrifice one life to save five others or, if they thought quickly enough, stop the elevator between floors and save everyone.
The study discovered that those who experienced the time travel mode and managed to change the past felt less guilty, furthering the idea that muting the past offers more emotional comfort. Researchers noted that a potential use of IVR time travel could help in the area of psychological therapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, allowing participants to relive the traumatic event and perhaps, in their minds, change the past.
Currently, the laws of physics preclude the concept of physical time travel. However, this immersive virtual reality offers the unlimited potential to, at least in the minds of the user, allow us to go back in time and, perhaps, even change the past to alter their future self. And you don’t even need a DeLorean.
Photo and video credit: iCrea, Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies