I had a long and wide-ranging conversation this last weekend with Esther Dyson, and at some point we got on the topic of where virtual reality might be going, and what its relationship will be to people seeing each other in person.
She made a very interesting point (not surprisingly). When people come to see her, perhaps to ask her to invest in their new venture, they get on a train or an airplane and see her in person.
It would be much easier for them just to get her on the phone, or Skype or talk via Google Hangouts. But they generally don’t do that.
Of course meeting in person has far higher bandwidth. You can pick up on subtle visual, verbal and facial cues when you are actually with somebody that might completely elude you using any currently known electronic means of communication.
But even if we solve those problems, and the future equivalents of the Skype chat become so ultra-high fidelity that they are perceptually indistinguishable from face to face conversation, a crucial difference will remain. The person who is going to see Esther is going to see her.
There are times, when it is important to you, that you choose to put your physical body on a bus or train or airplane, perhaps at the cost of significant physical discomfort. In this way you show, by your very presence, that it really matters. In a sense, you are are voting with your pain.
We only have one physical body, and it is precious to us. Where we choose to place that body, and whom we are with at the time, is a very important statement. Virtual reality, no matter how good it ever gets, is never going to replace that statement.