Imagine that you participated in a world where all the objects and all the people seemed real enough to touch but you knew--somewhere in your mind--that what you were experiencing was both constructed, and mediated by technology. The telephone, for example. You're pretty sure you're having a conversation with your friend as if he were in the room with you, and it's easy to feel that he's right there. When you think about it, though, you realize he's not in the room, and the only way you can hear his voice is over the phone connection. You're in virtual reality.
Or imagine that you're watching the news on television and you see angry people raising their fists and yelling something at the camera. Faced with such a display of emotion, you're convinced the world is indeed a dangerous place and that something needs to be done. You forget, temporarily, that this demonstration has been edited out of its context and framed neatly to fit into a news story sandwiched between commercial messages for the purpose of keeping you watching. The world you are watching through the window of the television is a simulation--real as it may seem--and you've again been in virtual reality.
Maybe you're one of millions of North Americans who uses a computer and an internet connection to participate in an online game like The Sims. You've chosen your avatar--your personal representative in cyberspace--and you spend hours interacting with other avatars in a simulation of social interaction. You're convinced that the community you participate in is just as real as the RL (real-life) community you join for classes or sports. Again: you're in virtual reality.
Other examples of virtual reality include the telepresence of NASA's Mars rovers sending back images from the surface of the red planet; simulations of molecules that a researcher can navigate through; virtual tours of cities, museums, or buildings; computer games of all sorts; and simulations of miltary engagements. In all cases, the holy grail of the virtual reality engineers is to create an immersive, interactive experience to help you forget you're in a simulated and constructed sensory environment. As we'll see below, some cultural critics fear that our ability to live in simulated environments--Jean Baudrillard calls this the simulacrum, Umberto Eco refers to hyper-reality--threatens to cut us off from the realites of existence.
The Microsoft Computer Dictionary is a concrete place to start when tracking down the complex of ideas surrounding definitions of virtual reality and simulation. The Computer Dictionary defines virtual, an adjective, as "a device or service that is perceived to be what it is not in actuality...The way in which a virtual device is actually presented or implemented is much different from the device or service the user experiences." The writers of the Dictionary have things like "virtual memory" in mind, where the computer partitions out more random access memory from the hard drive resources: "For example, a computer user can treat a virtual disk as if it were a physical disk, but a virtual disk is actually a portion of the computerís memory that is used as if it were a disk." In this definition of virtual, what we have at hand is transformed by our ability to treat it as if it were something else. In other contexts, we might pick up a stick and pretend it is a magic wand or a sword, or we make a paper airplane.
The dictionary, however, will have none of this playing around, and provides a final illustration: virtual memory is "simulated by paging, caching, and disk storage" (411). That memory is simulated affirms the close relationship between virtuality and simulation. At the most mundane, yet extraordinary level of transformation, we construct the virtual by the function "as if." This creates a powerful feedback loop between what is real and what is virtual, making the two interdependent.
Another computing application which would fit this definition is the use of Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) to construct the visual representation of a space, as in architectural renderings, or virtual worlds software. In all of these cases, virtuality is a condition created by computer processing, and thus has a degree of concreteness which is lacking from many of the cultural references to virtuality we will consider below: think of Disneyland, a favorite subject of the hyper-realists, or Las Vegas, or All My Children, or the evening news.
Computer pioneer Alan Kay specifically associates the ability of computers to enhance education with simulations. In making this point, he criticizes most contemporary education by referring to physicist Murray Gell-Manís remark that education in the 20th C. is like being taken to the worldís greatest restaurant and being fed the menu. "He meant that representations of ideas have replaced the ideas themselves; students are taught superficially about great discoveries instead of being helped to learn deeply for themselves" (148).
Kay claims that both adults and children "learn best when they can test their ideas through simulation." However, he warns that we must be aware of the limitations of the media we use to "amplify yearnings" for knowledge. He uses the example of photographs of great paintings in the study of art, in itself a resort to hyper-reality: "Little protest has been made over replacing high-resolution photographs of great works of art (which themselves do not capture the real thing) with lower-resolution videodisc images (which distort light and space even further). The result is that recognition, not reverie, is the main goal in life and also in school" (151).
To illustrate his suggestion, Kay describes the value of Playground, a simulation construction kit for children with which they are able to create both new worlds and models of existing environments, be they cities or underwater ecologies. One of the virtues of such simulations is how they develop a healthy questioning attitude in young learners: "If the personally owned book was one of the main shapers of the Renaissance notion of the individual, the pervasively networked computer of the future should shape humans who are healthy skeptics from an early age" (155). Will Smith's SimCity series and The Sims--by their very popularity--seem to support Kay's argument.
The Internet has proven to be an excellent milieu for exploring a variety of simulations: from the simulated salon or discussion group (Usenet, Chat, MSN, ICQ), to virtual role-playing environments (MUDs and MOOs) and networked games (Quake, Everquest). While the educational potential of these simulation environments continues to be debated, there is clearly much potential here for productive learning.
Many people know the term virtual reality from the highly-publicized experiments of Jaron Lanier in the late 1980ís, though the notion can be traced back to Myron Krueger in the 1960ís, and Morton Heilig and Ivan Sutherland before that (Heim xvii). Michael Heim defines virtual reality as
"an event or entity that is real in effect but not in fact" (109).
He points out that "there is a sense in which any simulation makes something real that in fact is not." Again, this intriguing association of VR with simulation. In his essay, "The Essence of VR," Heim attempts to define the slippery term by examining the "seven divergent concepts currently guiding VR research."
Heim notes that certain researchers try to avoid the term virtual reality since it seems to make excessive claims for itself. At MIT and NASA, they prefer virtual environments, and some universities would rather there be virtual worlds. As a philosopher, Heim is not afraid to make great and noble claims for virtual reality, which he suggests might realistically be considered the Holy Grail of computer research:
Perhaps the essence of VR ultimately lies not in technology but in art, perhaps art of the highest order. Rather than control or escape or entertain or communicate, the ultimate promise of VR may be to transform, to redeem our awareness of reality (124).
If Heim emphasizes, with some qualifications, the transformative potential of virtual realities and simulations, Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard are skeptical about the powers of mass media to absorb us into hyperreality. We risk losing touch with the "more" real. Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulations: "Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal..." (166). By "hyperreal," Baudrillard means the representation of a thing or event which has no counterpart or analog in consensus reality--the hyperreal is, in a sense, a new thing which seems to refer to something real. He is concerned, for example, that the news on television has nothing to do with real-world events; rather, the news is a simulation designed to hold the attention of the viewer. The election process has little to do with informed discourse or the selection of the most qualified candidate, and everything to do with the manufacture of consent (in Chomskyís phrase.) Baudrillard claims that "to simulate is to feign to have what one hasnít," quite a different sense from that used by Alan Kay above. Disneyland is "the perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with, it is a play of illusions and phantasms" (171). Baudrillard considers this simulation dangerous to the degree that it distracts us from more pressing world events.
In Baudrillardís dystopia--or negative vision of the future-- simulations have the power to displace the real, much like images of women in advertising are able to displace real women. Mass media allows these advertising images, for example, to reproduce themselves through a kind of mirroring process. In an article which links the ideas of Baudrillard with discoveries in the field of quantum physics earlier in the century, Mikhail Epstein summarizes the effect of hyperreality:
On the face of it, mass communication technology appears to capture reality in all its minutest details. But on that advanced level of penetration into the facts, the technical and visual means themselves construct a reality of another order, which has been called "hyperreality." This "hyperreality" is a phantasmic creation of the means of mass communication, but as such it emerges as a more authentic, exact, "real" reality than the one we perceive in the life around us.
We begin to think of the hyper-real as more meaningful than the thing or event it refers to. The APEC demonstration in Vancouver (1996), or the riots protesting World Trade Organization policies in Seattle and Davros (1999-2000), as seen on TV become the protests of record, despite the historical facts of the matter. The television-viewing public have become experts in world affairs without ever leaving their communities.
One of the most entertaining ways to get into the spirit of the hyperreal is to join Umberto Eco on his tour of America, as described in Travels in Hyper-reality. In this collection of writings, Eco delights in the confusions that so trouble Baudrillard, though both are similarly concerned by the blurring of distinctions between the real and the simulated. In his description of a reconstructed Oval Office, for example, Eco sounds a note of distain for the duplicity he sees in the creation of the hyperreal, a kind of dishonesty which results from confusing the sign with what it points to (signifies):
Constructing a full-scale model of the Oval Office (using the same materials, the same colors, but with everything obviously more polished, shinier, protected against deterioration) means that for historical information to be absorbed, it has to assume the aspect of reincarnation. To speak of things that one wants to connote as real, these things must seem real. The "completely real" becomes identified with the "completely fake."...The aim of the reconstructed Oval Office is to supply a "sign" that will then be forgotten as such: the sign aims to be the thing, to abolish the distinction of the reference, the mechanism of replacement. (6-7)
For Eco, virtuality occurs when the sign is taken for what it represents. The Oval Office in the mind, or in simulation, is taken to be the Oval Office in fact.
In her interview with director Jim Cameron--The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic--Paula Parisi explores the future of digital effects in Hollywood film-making. The interview reveals some excellent insights into the relationship of virtual reality to the art of Hollywood. Cameron responds to Parisiís comment, "A lot of filmmakers are trying to capture the virtual reality experience on film," with the following:
I think itís a big mistake. Iím talking about virtual reality using overtly artificial-looking computer animation. On a number of pictures a lot of money has been spent on really expensive virtual reality scenes, but the audience goes in knowing theyíre in an artificial environment, so they donít credit the work. In T2 and Jurassic Park, computer animation was being used to solve a real-world photographic problem, and so the audience didnít question the reality of the images. Film is inherently kind of not real, and the films that succeed best are the ones that start by creating a world or characters or whatever that say: this is real, this is real, this is real--and they keep coming at you every moment the actors are working, and every bit of production design is trying to underline in red that itís real. The moment you start playing with virtual reality, the audience knows that what theyíre seeing is not real, so youíve sort of violated one of the most powerful things about film--the ability to create an alternate reality. And the other thing is that film doesnít address whatís really great about virtual reality, which is the interactivity: you move and, as you move, the scene changes. In a film, you have none of the upside--none of the interactivity, none of the control. (130+)
We know weíre in hyper-reality when weíre considering which is more real: Hollywood FX or virtual reality animations! Incidentally, this is an informative article on digital developments in Hollywood.
Douglas Rushkoff, in Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace , reports on some of the euphoria surrounding virtual reality. Typical is the following by Warren Robinett, manager of the Head-Mounted Display Project at the University of North Carolina:
Virtual reality will prove to be a more compelling fantasy world than Nintendo--[I thought for a second there he was going to say "life"]--but even so, the real power of the Head-Mounted Display is that it can help you perceive the real world in ways that were previously impossible. To see the invisible, to travel at the speed of light, to shrink yourself into microscopic worlds, to relive experiences--these are the powers that the head-mounted display offers you. Though it sounds like science fiction today, tomorrow it will seem as commonplace as talking on the telephone. (43)
This quote suggests, rightly so, that we have to learn to accept the new technology in a kind of willing suspension of disbelief. In the same way we have to "learn" that the train coming at us in a film will not run over us, we will develop a multimedia literacy which will allow us to accept the characteristics and limitations of virtual reality as if they were real--or at least real enough. One of the foremost scientists in the development of immersive technologies is Steve Mann, formerly at MIT and now at the University of Toronto. Mann has pioneered the use of wearable computing to enhance and extend his powers of perception: miniature head-mounted displays in his glasses, on-board networked computing, recording devices..... Like the artist Stelarc, Mann is pushing the limits of the human-technology interface. In his book Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer, Mann suggests that these wearable extensions bring with them new opportunities and new responsibilities:
As the present eclipses the speculations of even the most brilliant of our past theorists, we must remind ourselves that though the idea of extending the human being through technology is not a new one, actually putting that concept into action remains relatively untried and untested. How will we post-humans grapple with the awesome powers to reinvent humanity and society that technology has bestowed on us? To what extent are individuals free to alter their own bodies and minds? To what extent will individual mind/body alterations affect other members of society? (2)
A review of the resources on simulations and virtual reality impresses us with the range of applications it covers: from the entertainment of computer gaming to the politics of global empire-building and the arms trade. It is sobering to recognize the extent to which cutting-edge VR technology is a product of military research; that simulations are not only distracting, but deadly business as well.
Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1988.
Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyper-Reality. Trans. W. Weaver. London: Picador, 1986.
Epstein, Mikhail. "Hyper in 20th Century Culture: The Dialectics of Transition From Modernism to Postmodernism." Postmodern Culture v.6 n.2 (January 1996).
Heim, Michael. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
Kay, Alan. "Computers, Networks and Education." Scientific American: The Computer in the 21st Century. Vol. 6.1 (1995): 148-155.
Kroker, Arthur & Kroker, Marilouise. Hacking the Future: Stories for the Flesh-Eating 90's. Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1996.
Mann, Steve (with Hal Niedzviecki). Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer. Canada: Doubleday, 2001.
Parisi, Paula. "Cameron Angle." Wired 4.04 (April 1996): 130+.
"Virtual." Microsoft Computer Dictionary. 2nd ed. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Press, 1994.
War Games: The Military Uses Its Combat Simulators for Afghanistan Training. ABCNews.com. Nov. 16, 2001.
Many thanks to the authors whose work has been excerpted above. Fair dealing exemptions apply.