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The future often starts as a toy, so don't shun toy VR this Christmas

We won't know the possibilities of VR or any other technology until we play with it

An acquaintance recently asked if he should buy his child an expensive virtual reality system for Christmas, worried that it would be used for little more than gaming. I put his fears to rest, informing him that simply having an amazing device like that at hand - regardless of how it gets used - changes the way you think.

We like to believe we’re creatures of mind, yet in reality we think with our whole bodies. We need to get stuck into a problem, mind and hands, to reach understanding. Jean Piaget, the father of developmental psychology, worked it out a hundred years ago: we think better with something in hand than we do when it’s only in our head. Books may be good, but kit is better.

We understand this, and crowd small children with lots of toys to play with, but as we get older we tend to think of toys as an indulgence, something that we should feel vaguely guilty about, a distraction from more important matters. That’s a bit of nonsense of the most pernicious sort. Not only does that attitude deprive us of the pleasures of play, it keeps our understanding underfed and incomplete. Without toys we remain mentally frozen in place.

I don’t mean to imply that every reader should go out and blow a few thousand dollars on a VR system. Toys are as unique as the individual. Some (like me) prefer shiny new tech gear, others might delight in a garden implement, a power tool, or a colouring book - whatever brings that sense of delight in open-ended play. Our toys can be pricey, or cheap as chips - it’s all about how meaningful the toy is to us. Does it give us permission lay down our cares and play?

Playing with my BB-8 Droid last year, I learned a lot about how smartphones have become the ‘magic wands’ controlling our physical world, and more about how autonomous devices would soon populate the landscape. Neither of these I’d given thought to before I had BB-8 in hand, but both became apparent after a few hours of play.

This year, playing with my HTC Vive, I understood that VR - this time around - aims for the heart of enterprise IT. Next week, when I get my hands (Face? - Ed) on a Microsoft Hololens, I’ll likely understand something about Mixed Reality that a quarter-century working in that field hadn’t taught me, because I’ll have the device in hand.

Tech analyst Benedict Evans recently tweeted, “The future often starts as a toy." Toys frame our capacity to dream about the future, which means we really do need to have a good think about the toys we need to think with - and the toys we want to give our children to think about. Every moment of play with a toy shapes us, and shapes the future.

What kind of world do you want for yourself? Find the toys that bring you closest to that world, play with them, learn from them, share what you’ve learned - and invite others to play. Play is probably the most significant mental activity we can engage in - making us smarter, wiser, and more capable. Why deny ourselves play when the benefits are so obvious?

Let’s take this further, making it clear to our kids and grandkids that play is probably the best way to stay ahead of the machines that have recently grown from toys into very capable and widespread intelligences. Parents who give their kids AIs to play with - Alexa and its kin - give those kids a big leg up on understanding the mid 21st century.

The future’s coming at us fast. Our instincts tell us to sacrifice playtime in the rush to keep up. We need to rethink and reverse that, because a future without play has no place for us to learn and grow. Instead, let’s have a think about how to structure our work and our lives around play. There will always be work, but we’ll do it more capably - and more happily - when we give ourselves more time to play. ®

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