THE NOTION of virtuality refers to the design of imaginary worlds inside-of/outside the mind; and it may be considered to be, in a sense, the very opposite of reality—specifically because, according to the OED, it is:
- The possession of (unnatural) force or power;
- Apart from external form or embodiment;
- A virtual (as opposed to an actual) thing, capacity, etc.
During the 1990s, the term Virtual Reality (VR) became a popular way to describe any computer generated environment in which the user felt (or believed) that he had been transported into another realm or digital world that was (in some sense) entirely separate from his real-world body.
Put simply, the computer simulated presence inside a false, imaginary, magical, or multi-dimensional reality. Because VR systems often used stereoscopic headsets and three-dimensional graphics; some people came to associate the term with 3D. However the ideas are (in fact) largely separate; and VR is linked with a whole range of presence transformation modalities; including: visual-perception/illusions, sound, touch, taste, skin feelings, powers of the mind and thinking, macroscopic and microscopic explorations, remote terrain and/or multi-dimensional navigation, and even flight.
VR is also sometimes referred to as Immersive Media; being a computer-simulated environment that can simulate the real world and/or imagined worlds. VR covers remote or virtual presence of users, tele-existance or telepresence; and may be used for the purposes of communication with distant people and/or interaction with remote places, and/or to provide life-like experiences
VR may be said to be all about creating realistic-illusions; i.e artificial / augmented / illusive-reality etc. But where did these ideas come from?
Virtual Reality Origins
VR has its roots in creating simulations for training pilots; where it was used to help novice flyers get up to speed with the complex skills required to fly; and without all the attendant danger(s) of making a mistake. Later during the early 1990s, VR technology enjoyed a brief popularity; and a number of university-groups and companies began experimenting with the opportunities that it seemed to offer for the scientific and medical fields, and also for entertainment.
However much of the interest in VR faded away over the next twenty years or so; and perhaps because the necessary CPU processing power and/or graphics chips, plus software/displays were not available and/or powerful enough (yet). But currently VR is undergoing a new lease of life with fast and cheap VR headsets becoming readily available (see Oculus Rift etc). The time seems right to take a new look at VR; and to explore the possibilities of humans actually ‘entering’ the machine world.
The term Virtual Reality can be traced to Frenchman Antonin Artaud (1892-1948), who in his 1938 book The Theatre and its Double described theatre as:
‘La réalité virtuelle’, a virtual reality in which, in Erik Davis’s words, ‘characters, objects, and images take on the phantasmagoric force of alchemy’s visionary internal dramas… [claiming that] the perpetual allusion to the materials and the principle of the theatre found in almost all alchemical books should be understood as the expression of an identity… existing between the world in which the characters, images, and in a general way all that constitutes the virtual reality of the theatre develops, and the purely fictitious and illusory world in which the symbols of alchemy are evolved’.
In this quote we see how VR was conceived (at least partially) as a mental world that the participant is somehow responsible for creating for himself (in his imagination).
The concept of VR has been explored in films like Brainstorm and The Lawnmower Man. Other films like Minority Report, Avatar and Transcendence explored notions related to humans merging with digital world, remote viewing/presence, and escaping from the boundaries of time and space, and/or entering into alternative realities.
But where are these ideas for Virtual Reality headed; and what will be the wider benefits to society as whole? Can/could/will VR help humanity solve the bigger problems?
Virtual Reality Future
Because VR completely immerses a person into the virtual world, some people have claimed that VR constitutes a new form of human experience; a form that is as important as film, theatre and literature etc.
It is a technology that can potentially be applied to every type of human activity and be used to mediate in every human transaction (possibly). One could say that VR changes the nature of the human relationship to information/ knowledge and reshapes our view of ourselves. It has been called by some the last computing platform—or the ultimate memory/ mind extension.
By totally immersing the consumer into the illustration itself, combined with the nonlinear, free-association format of hypertexts; it is difficult to come to any other conclusion than VR offering a rejoining of mind and body, a milieu that will create a new region/mode of human possibility.
VR may be (part of) what we are evolving into/towards. And if this be so – it is vitally important that we understand the nature of this technology; and scope its possibilities and future territories in as much detail as possible. Indeed that is the goal of the present site: and in the process establish an actual Science of Virtual Reality to help us along the way.