Before the Future of Childhood: Immersive Media and Child Development salon took place in November 2018, we invited experts to share their visions about the ways VR and AR might impact childhood 10 years from now. Jesse Schell is the CEO of Schell Games, the largest full-service education and entertainment game development company in the United States. Here, he explains why we should explore VR and AR—despite our current concerns—and their potential benefits for children.
While many people think of virtual reality as a technology for the eyes, in truth VR is a technology that allows us to interact with computer generated worlds using our bodies. By creating the illusion of presence, VR lets you feels as if you are truly in a place that you can reach out and touch. This creates countless opportunities for powerful new experiences of exploration, discovery, and play. Presently, the high cost and fragility of VR systems has made it a system strictly in the domain of adults. Over the next 10 years, we will see this change radically because of a secret that no one wants to admit: VR is a medium for children. No one likes to say this, because of fears about how long term use of VR and AR might affect children’s developing eyes and minds. These are valid concerns, and they are same ones we saw at the inception of television. And, like with television, the technology will be so appealing to children it will be difficult to keep them away from it, and gradually safety concerns will subside as we will acclimate to virtual and augmented reality being part of children’s lives.
Why do I say that VR and AR are media for children? For two reasons. First, the primary feature of these mediums is that you interact with your body. These are experiences that encourage standing, walking, throwing, touching, grabbing, holding, stretching, ducking, and crawling. Adults are shy about interacting with their bodies. They prefer to sit and watch, or point and click. For children, exploring the world is a full-body experience, which lines up perfectly with the strengths of VR and AR.
The second reason is because one of the most powerful experiences that VR and AR are able to provide is that of giving the user an imaginary friend. As these technologies evolve over the coming decade, another technology will be advancing and merging with them: artificial intelligence. The time is not far away when every child given the opportunity will be able to don a special pair of glasses that lets their imaginary friend become a real friend, someone they can see, touch, and play with. This friend will be a tireless playmate, always there and ready to play whatever games, indoors or out, that a child wants to play. And while this sounds like it could be an antisocial experience, it won’t be, because other children will have them too, and the glasses will let you see not only your imaginary friend, but the imaginary friends of your real world playmates. But why will parents allow these strange virtual friends into their homes and into their children’s lives? Because these new friends will be so much more than playmates. Connected to the internet, they will have a world of information at their fingertips, and like a great teacher or parent, the imaginary friends will seamlessly weave valuable teaching moments into the play experience, and what parent will be able to resist a tireless tutor and playmate that their child loves?
It is easy to be afraid of this future, easy to condemn and warn against it. But perhaps the most useful thing we can do is to plan for it. VR and AR are not just gadgets—they will be the eyes of the next generation. We should all work together to give them the best eyes humanity has ever known.
Jesse Schell is the CEO of Schell Games, a team of one hundred people who strive to make the world’s greatest educational and entertainment games, including HoloLAB Champions, the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood games, and Happy Atoms. Schell Games also creates pure entertainment content, such as the award-winning VR game, I Expect You To Die. Jesse also serves as Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon University. Jesse is also the author of the award-winning book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses.