Virtual Reality Will Let You Experience the Awe Only Astronauts Have Known
The Overview Effect is an experience astronauts have reported during spaceflight while looking at the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface. It is a transformative shift in awareness. One goes from experiencing the Earth as a series of places to a tiny fragile ball of life suspended in space.
From space, national boundaries vanish, environmental problems are more visible, and the conflicts that divide people become less important when considered from a cosmic perspective. To date, this firsthand sight of Earth from space has changed the lives and mindsets of a select few. Yet it is difficult to describe, like seeing your firstborn or falling in love.
This has not stopped people from trying. Edgar Mitchell, the sixth person on the Moon, said: “There was a startling recognition that the nature of the universe was not as I had been taught. I not only saw the connectedness, I felt it. I was overwhelmed with the sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos. I realized that this was a biological response of my brain attempting to reorganize and give meaning to information about the wonderful and awesome processes that I was privileged to view.”
Other astronauts have echoed similar sentiments. There is a near-universal feeling among veteran astronauts that their flights resulted in a deep transcendent experience that changed their lives and outlooks upon returning to Earth. To even partially understand their experiences, the rest of us can only listen to their words and look at photos and videos that are a poor substitute of what the human eye can see.
The full extent of the Overview Effect is difficult to convey in pictures alone, but where pictures come up short, immersive virtual reality may deliver. Improved communications with higher data rates and high-resolution cameras will enable companies to provide real-time, omnidirectional views from space with virtual reality headsets such as Oculus Rift (full disclosure: I am working at such a company, which is launching such a camera to the International Space Station).
Such views will be accessible from your couch and be nearly indistinguishable from what an astronaut would experience orbiting Earth.