Can virtual reality save humans?
Brain researcher Katarina Gospic has come to tell us that the future is here. Virtual twins and digital socializing are no longer just a dream. But the question is: are we keeping up with development or obstructing our own evolution?
Why do we prefer snacking on the sofa to going for a run? Why do we continue to deplete the Earth’s resources and our employees when we could be rationalizing our work with digital innovations? Why do we risk our health doing hazardous jobs, why do we accept simple answers to complex questions, and why do we get burned out?
M.D., Ph.D. and a M.Sc. in Physiology from the Karolinska Institute
Katarina has 15 years of experience in brain research and neuroeconomics, today she is an entrepreneur and Director of Neuroscience at the VR/AR company Spinview Global and work with ehealth and prop tech. She has several years of experience lecturing, both within and outside academia. She is the author of six books.
These questions may not seem even remotely related, but according to Katarina Gospic, Director of Neuroscience at Spinview Global, they’re all interconnected. All the elements hang together – from the way our reptilian brain seeks the line of least resistance, to how that same brain can provide inspiration for undreamed-of everyday innovations.
Gospic graduated in 2011 in cognitive neuroscience. Her dissertation was in neuroeconomics, a field that explores how we control our feelings and what happens in the brain when we make decisions. Since then she has published seven books. Her latest book, Brain Balance, examines how we can find balance in a connected world. In 2011 she started the consulting business Brainbow Labs, where she works as an author, speaker and consultant. She is currently engaged in a research project at Spinview Global which explores, among other things, how virtual reality (VR) can improve our everyday lives.
Spinview provides a digital platform for VR/AR. During the interview she talks about a project to create virtual reconstructions of various types of buildings – also known as digital twins. When we meet Katarina in her office in central Stockholm, she invites us to visit Älvsjödepån, Stockholm’s local railway depot. We explore the depot in an area of just a few square meters. As avatars – digital representations of ourselves– we crawl under the tracks, inspect dangerous spaces for faults, and compare the depot’s virtual twin with sketches to search for areas requiring maintenance. It’s a dizzying experience. The idea is that this service will simplify and rationalize work in inaccessible and potentially hazardous spaces, thus protecting people from risky work tasks.
“The future is already here – we just haven’t caught on yet. It’s often said that people fear change more than death. People also resist this type of service out of an urge to guard their own territory. Moreover, this type of work requires a different sort of expertise. But it’s towards this digital world that we’re headed; we just need to learn how to inhabit it.”
It’s often said that people fear change more than death.Katarina Gospic, Director of Neuroscience at Spinview Global
Traditionally, there is a fear that VR will have negative long-term effects by discouraging human, social contact. Is there any truth in that?
“I’d say it’s exactly the opposite. Today’s technology is so advanced that VR allows us to meet and socialize through avatars. An avatar can be described as our digital twin. This actually makes it possible to meet people in places that are hard to access.”
VR is still largely associated with games and expensive add-ons. According to Katarina, the challenge has been to find a B2B application that can add value to businesses. One reason for this is that companies haven’t yet realized the new technology’s potential for creating completely new opportunities and business value in the corporate world. And there’s also a widespread fear that new technology could take away jobs, making workers redundant.
“Many jobs that traditionally required manpower call for different expertise today. Many maintenance jobs, such as the work at Älvsjödepån, used to require more physical strength, whereas now they need an engineer with knowledge of complex software. This creates insecurity, since people’s traditional expectations do not coincide with the emerging conditions in today’s knowledge society. Companies need to see the link between the technology’s strengths and how they can be utilized to create business value. It was against this background that Spinview’s platform was born. It essentially involves a relocation of knowledge. Whereas the focus used to be on muscles, now it’s on the brain. We live in a time where knowledge and information shape our whole society, so it’s natural that they also shape our workplaces. “Every day we’re exposed to 100,000 words. That’s like being bombarded with 100,000 tennis balls. And then we wonder why it’s so hard to concentrate and absorb all the new information.”
Can VR catch the tennis balls? Yes. VR takes away distractions. Gospic presses a button on the side of her glasses, and we’re suddenly in a forest. A river ripples peacefully and birdsong twitters in the distance. After listening for a while, you can almost smell the familiar fragrance of pine needles. We’re experiencing a VR meditation.
“When I work with health and mindfulness in companies, I find many people think that you can cure stress by simply not being stressed. This stops them from taking time for recovery. But being in balance means focusing on recovery, and a VR meditation can really help with this if you work in an urban environment.”
When Gospic helps companies with wellness, one of the things she works with the most is increasing their focus on their greatest resource: people.
“People are undoubtedly a company’s greatest resource. Without people, there’s no company. And whichever way you look at it, taking care of employees’ health is a matter of priorities. It’s remarkable that so few review meetings are held to discuss employees’ state of health. Imagine if we only had one review meeting a year to discuss the budget – that would be completely unthinkable.”
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