How we can use VR to relive memories, and how it changes the past

Virtual reality opens up some bigger questions
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For as long as humans have been around, we've always tried to capture our memories. Back when we hunted and gathered, we painted them on cave walls. When we invented the camera, we took stilted black and white photos that made us look like we were allergic to smiling.

As technology has advanced, we've adapted. More compact cameras allowed us to bother our neighbors with vacation slideshows. Camcorders made home videos possible. Smartphones and the internet have opened the door for a whole range of personal videos, from Snapchat stories to vlogs on YouTube.

Now there's VR and 360 video, which is slowly starting becoming a mainstream thing. You can find both on two of the most popular platforms on Earth, YouTube and Facebook. At the same time, both technologies are new, and we're still figuring out just how to best capture our beloved memories.

We record our memories so that we can attempt to remember them in the future; so we can get close to re-living them. Reminiscing over old photos, crying at home videos and laughing our ass off at what we did last night on Snapchat. This human need to capture and attempt to relive our memories will no doubt transfer over to VR. But how?

A matter of perspective

Thomas Wolosik, who runs Strawberry Wedding Photography, had worked with 360-degree video before. He was incredibly interested in the technology, and its potential, so he got six GoPros and a rig from eBay and started tinkering.

He installed an Oculus Rift in his office, and when couples searching for a wedding photographer strolled in he'd tell them he was experimenting with some new technology, offering to let them take a look and experiment with it for themselves.

A new problem emerged, however. He needed examples. So Wolosik began offering 360 photography for VR as a free add-on to his photography and videography packages. The first gig a couple agreed to, however, didn't go so well. "I put the camera in one spot and I didn't even know how to approach editing," he says. Eventually, he figured it out and was able to put together enough footage to show off to couples. Enter Derick and Janna Michael, who were looking for a wedding photographer. When Wolosik offered it to them, they were game, and while they didn't notice the rig during the event, they did appreciate the footage afterward.

40 years down the line I can put this back on and really feel like I'm experiencing it again

Janna said while she enjoys any media from her wedding, it's the 360 video that feels the most unique. Because VR has less of a perspective, it captures more of what's going on. So when you look at wedding photos or video, it's always the same. That isn't the case here. "You could see a new moment every time," she says. Even better, it avoids the trap of wedding videos, which only highlight the big moments and the people in the immediate area, often missing the rest of the picture.

"My grandmother is pretty old and I could see her a lot in the 360 but I don't see her a lot in many of the pictures," Derick says, noting that she was not able to make it to the dance floor. "It's nice to see her reaction to the first dance."

Showing people their wedding has also become easier, as Derick says that if someone asks about their venue he can quickly show them and allow them to see it in its entirety, far more than what he could have with either a set of photographs or a standard video. "Not only am I remembering this magical moment in our life, but everyone is super engaged."

Janna and Derick are coming up on their first anniversary, but already they can't wait to use VR to relive their special memories years on from the event. "I love having the opportunity to put the goggles on, knowing that 40 years down the line I can put this back on and really feel like I'm experiencing it again."

Altering the past

How we can use VR to relive memories, and how it changes the past

While 360 video is the best way for us to capture memories to relive in VR now, it does have significant limitations that curb our ability to fully re-experience a memory. As Thomas Bedenk, a virtual reality consultant, tells Wareable, 360 videos don't really have a perspective. They're passive videos that allow us to look around.

They don't capture different viewpoints. And they can't capture your individual perspective – unless you want to stick a rig on your head, that is. Instead, 360 videos in VR are just more effective ways of recalling memories.

Memories are formed when your five senses process unique signifiers during an event and send them to the hippocampus, the memory centre, Nanthia Suthana, an assistant professor at UCLA in neurosurgery and psychiatry, tells Wareable. Once the memory is formed, its broken up and stored in different parts of the brain. One of your senses can be triggered by a photo, or video, or word, or smell, or touch, and then your hippocampus pulls all those sensory markers together to recreate the memory. It's because of this that VR, which typically has far more detail than still photos and video, is more effective at triggering memories.

To fully recreate a memory, allowing you to relive it, VR needs to do a better job of triggering all of your senses. It needs to offer smells, or touch, or a more detailed environment. For example, Suthana tells us that VR opens to the doors to more advanced memory testing. "In the older days people would sit in front of a computer and learn a list of words or a set of pictures and we'd test their memory. But now with VR we can actually test more real-world like memory. For instance, navigating through an area and finding locations or finding objects or meeting new people."

In the future, Bedenk says, the best way to capture a memory to relive it in VR is to volumetrically capture a space. You would need a set of cameras and sensors that fully capture every nook and cranny and person and object in a venue, and that would have to be fully recreated, either by hand or by some kind of software that automatically builds all of that. This way, you'd be able to fully walk through a working version of your wedding. People would be moving around, the playlist would be the same, you'd be able to navigate around the space and get as close or as far away as possible.

While being able to volumetrically capture a space is technology that's on the horizon, being able to capture people within the space is a little more difficult. There would have to be a way to fully capture, analyse and convert people's movements into AI so that a computer could simulate your uncle falling asleep just before the dancing got started. However, that may not be the great end point to re-living memories either.

When we create these spaces, Bedenk says, the next step is user agency. People want interactivity, they want to be able to nudge and push something and change it. If you've captured and recreated a memory, that means you'd want the ability to change it. And that opens up a whole new can of worms.

Are we ready?

How we can use VR to relive memories, and how it changes the past

Volumetrically capturing and recreating your memories in VR is already a murky situation. If you've got a wedding with hundreds of guests, how many of them would be perfectly fine with every action captured and analysed and recreated for your stroll down memory lane every couple of years?

That's a conundrum all in itself, but then you enable a person to step into a memory and mess with things. Sure, you could go back and handle a certain situation differently to soothe your own thoughts or treat someone badly to vent out your feelings, but should you?

And then there's the fact that false memories are a thing. As Suthana tells us, there are already ways for someone to mess with the way you remember something, altering your points of reality. And, as Bedenk tells us, the more people relive or remember a memory, the more likely they are to be remembering their own version of that memory, not what what really happened. The memory essentially manipulates itself, and if your memory can subtly alter itself then it's not inconceivable that someone else could subtly change your digital memories too. Then, when you go back to relive them in VR you'd slowly start to accept that memory as your own. It sounds a bit Inception but it's something we may one day need to consider.

What happens if your recreated memory is located on some server up in the cloud, or Facebook, or YouTube? Is there anything stopping someone from having the ability to alter your beloved memories, changing your perspective? Memories are some of our most personal things; we share them with loved ones, we remember them in good times and bad times, and having someone trounce over VR versions and alter them would be like editing your wedding photo to make it look like you had a terrible time. On the other hand, altered memories can also do a lot of good – Suthana points out that they can be used to calm those afflicted with post traumatic stress disorder.

Virtual reality is one of the few technologies that allows us to fully immerse ourself in another world. It's only a matter of time until the technology is advanced enough for us to allow ourselves to immerse ourself in our own past world. The bigger question is whether we can deal with that.


How we test

Husain Sumra


Husain joined Wareable in 2017 as a member of our San Fransisco based team. Husain is a movies expert, and runs his own blog, and contributes to MacRumors.

He has spent hours in the world of virtual reality, getting eyes on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR. 

At Wareable, Husain's role is to investigate, report and write features and news about the wearable industry – from smartwatches and fitness trackers to health devices, virtual reality, augmented reality and more.

He writes buyers guides, how-to content, hardware reviews and more.

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