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Chapter 1: A Place Called Cyberspace (continued)

Taking the "Virtual" out of Virtual Reality

"Well they outlawed LSD. It'll be
interesting to see what they do with this."
Jerry Garcia
From "Being in Nothingness"
by John Perry Barlow (1990)

     Webopedia defines Virtual Reality as:

An artificial environment created with computer hardware and software and presented to the user in such a way that it appears and feels like a real environment. To enter a Virtual Reality, a user dons special gloves, earphones, and goggles, all of which receive their input from the computer system. In this way, at least three of the five senses are controlled by the computer. In addition to feeding sensory input to the user, the devices also monitor the user's actions. The goggles, for example, track how the eyes move and respond accordingly by sending new video input. It is difficult to decide where to begin a discussion about Virtual Reality, or VR. Although constricted by the technology supporting it, VR actually has no natural limits. There is no absolute beginning, end, top, or bottom to Virtual Reality. The fact of the matter is that VR is as unlimited as the imaginations of those who are building these new virtual universes, and from what I have seen, the virtual worlds now coming to life on the Internet are being created by people with astounding imaginations indeed. (12)

     My personal experience with VR is quite limited. The majority of my career involving the Internet has been devoted to working on its infrastructure, security, and e-commerce capabilities. Naturally, I played around with VR from time to time but, like many of my peers, I left it to the kids. We all knew that the field of Virtual Reality is where the real action will eventually take place, but we were waiting for the technology to mature a little more before investing our time and money on it. After meeting some pioneers in the field of Virtual Reality, however, my opinion about waiting on the sidelines until the technology is perfected has changed dramatically. It is now clear to me that, while the World Wide Web is simply a linked, two-dimensional, document base, Virtual Reality is about direct person-to-person interactions in three-dimensional cyberspace. This is some of the technology our species has begun using to actually populate cyberspace.

     In early autumn of 1999, I attended a conference at which two of the presenters spoke about their work in Virtual Reality. Mark Pesce, co-developer of VRML, described ways in which our species is already being transformed by ideas brought back by some of the early colonizers of virtual spaces. One of the projects of which he spoke was T-Vision, or Terravision, which has already made a profound impact on all who have used it. In a paper delivered at an earlier conference, here is what Pesce had to say about this amazing project:

In T-Vision, the participant is immersed within the body of the Earth; using a novel "Earthtracker" interface, the system delivers a realistic [video] approximation of the planet, from almost any point of view, in a continuously refining series of quasi-live images. T-Vision is a networked system whose nodes gather up data and then share it with other T-Vision nodes. Each additional node adds detail to the system; each node consists of itself and all others.

T-Vision delights and enraptures participants in a seductive materiality; the immediacy of the ultimate interconnectedness of all life is self-evident rather than metaphysical. Spreading out from the proximal, the self finally comes to encompass a body greater than its own, the Gaian biota as a whole. (13)

     Another speaker at the conference I attended was Bruce Damer, a leader in avatar research and development. Bruce is also a co-founder of the Contact Consortium, a global forum for the development in cyberspace of Inhabited Virtual Worlds. (14) During the week of the conference, Bruce, along with dozens of his friends who were in remote locations, labored to construct a virtual counterpart of our conference in cyberspace. At the end of the week, Bruce gave his presentation jointly to those of us who were physically with him at the conference and to those who were also with us in cyberspace.

     Personally, I don't like the phrase "Virtual Reality." That term suggests that there is a more real reality elsewhere, and that in some way VR is only an imitation of what we so casually refer to as reality. The fact is there is no such thing as one, single, absolute reality that each and every human being shares. For example, those of us who live in the United States share a consensual reality we call the Interstate Highway System. We know that freeways exist because we drive on them. On this very same planet, however, there are people who have never seen an automobile, much less a freeway. For these people there is no independent and absolute reality of an Interstate Highway System. Even if they have heard of such things, technological artifacts like modern highways exist for many people only as fantastic flights of fancy.

     One could argue, of course, that freeways are truly an objective fact of reality, and that if members of an aboriginal tribe spent a month in Los Angeles their absolute reality would then include many of the things U.S. citizens assume to be absolutely real. What then of the reality of the aborigines? Are we willing to agree that their reality, which bears little resemblance to our own world view, is also concretely objective and real? If we are to force our freeways into an aboriginal world view of absolute reality, it seems only fair that we then agree the aboriginal world view also encompasses many absolutes. We are all members of the same species. What right does one tribe have to declare that theirs is the only real world view? Unless we are willing to integrate every existing human world view into our own (an impossibility, due to numerous contradictions), we cannot say that there is a single form of overreaching and absolute reality for our entire species. The reality of what we mistakenly call primitive cultures is every bit as well-grounded as that of modern physicists, with their tales of charmed quarks and other exotic particles that we cannot see with our own eyes. (15)

     Reality, as experienced by individual members of the human species, is not absolute. Rather, what we so loosely call reality is better called consensual reality. Our reality is what we, as a particular tribe, agree to. It is our consensual reality-our world view. As you peel back the layers of consensual reality, searching for some bedrock of commonality among all people, what do you find? The only absolute measures of consensual reality I can find that reach across all cultures are the three dimensions of up/down, left/right, and forward/backward. Even the fourth dimension, time, which most of the world has accepted as an absolute, is not universally accepted in all human cultures. Some native cultures view time as open for travel in both the forward and backward directions. Western civilizations, however, usually agree that it is not possible to go backward in time. Thus, I call the four-dimensional reality of the West "closed reality" as opposed to the open reality of those who have a more malleable view of time. For the rest of this chapter, therefore, I will use the phrase "closed reality" to refer to the consensus reality where one of the four basic dimensions, time, is limited to moving only in one direction.

     Unlike the case of closed reality, virtual universes created in cyberspace can establish their own laws of nature. Therefore, not only can one defy gravity and fly in VR space, one can also be instantly teleported to another part of the world or into a completely different universe, with no concerns for the restrictions of time. In essence, Virtual Reality is such an unlimited form of reality that after you spend some time there, you will wonder why anyone would want to live in the time-constricted space we call consensual reality. As Mark Pesce says, "At the furthest corners of the imaginal, our ability to simulate rapidly approaches believability, as if, soon we'll cross a threshold between what is real and what we believe to be real, never again sure of the difference." (16)

     Pure VR is a consensual reality that has no limitations in any of its dimensions if that is what the creator of a particular VR universe decides. Thus, Virtual Reality is actually unlimited reality. Of course, as virtual worlds are constructed in cyberspace, their citizens gradually evolve their own rules of nature, imposing whatever limitations are necessary to fulfill their visions within the mundane restrictions of computer speed and bandwidth. The fact remains, however, Virtual Reality is a mind-space that is no more virtual than any other form of reality in a quantum mechanical universe.

     I once heard a motivational speaker say, "Wherever you are, be there." What he was pointing out is that sometimes our minds are not in the same place as our bodies. Such is the case when, after a taxing day at work, some people cannot get their minds to focus on what is happening at home. Their bodies are at home, but their minds are still at work. The beauty of a Virtual Reality experience is that be-ing there is much more easily attained than when engaged in the physical world. Flying through a VR world is a pure mental and emotional experience, a pure spirit experience. There is a smooth, fast, continuous flow about it that causes creative sparks to fly, which sometimes results in seeing the physical world through completely different eyes. After having now spent some time in various VR worlds, I understand what Bruce Damer means when he says that "Virtual Reality is going to be the fundamental communications medium of the 21st century." I also agree with Bruce's view that VR is going to have a far greater impact on this century than any other form of communication media. Through the use of this powerful technology our species has the means to truly immerse itself in the future and see where various paths may lead us.

     As another Virtual Reality pioneer, Galen Brandt, says about the depth of a VR experience, "What happens to your image happens to you, because in Virtual Reality we become both art and artist." (17) This is not mere rhetoric; it is serious science. For example, the American Cancer Society has funded research aimed at discovering ways in which Virtual Reality technology can be used to help cancer patients better tolerate the side effects of chemotherapy. (18) In her soon-to-be published book, Virtual Healing, Galen Brandt provides other examples of how this technology is already being used to improve people's lives: (19)

Children with autism who can't deal with the complexities of the real world can be placed in a deliberately simplified VR and learn to use a fork or cross the street safely for the very first time in their lives.

Adults so crippled with Parkinson's disease that they can barely walk can use "augmented reality" glasses, which let them see regularly spaced visual cues in the form of little black cubes, and suddenly they can walk again.

Quadriplegic children wired to a Virtual Reality biocontroller can move a happy face cursor across a computer screen, just by moving their eyes.

An agoraphobic crosses a virtual bridge, then the real Golden Gate Bridge for the first time.

A doctor in Boston performs a colonoscopy in Bosnia.

A woman in a wheelchair plays tag in space.

A musician uses her nervous system to make music . . . and then becomes music.

     As Galen has told audiences for several years now, "These are miracles of virtual healing . . . and they are real today." It is a known scientific fact that changes in a person's consciousness can be directly linked to changes in one's brain chemistry. Your thoughts actually cause chemical reactions, which in turn can have a deep impact on your emotional state. There are rumors that research is now underway on using Virtual Reality as an anti-depressant, a digital drug. When Galen says the woman in the wheelchair was healed after playing tag in a virtual environment, she is not saying that the woman's body was miraculously restored to full health. Rather, by using Virtual Reality to send her body positive chemical messages, she was able to emotionally experience a new sense of self. As Galen says:

     Consciousness creates the body. To give yourself a new message is to become that message, down to your neurons. In beholding ourselves as healed, virtual selves-in becoming our self-visualizations-we become the selves of our deepest and most healing dreams. Belief becomes biology; the technological, the transformational. This is nothing less than a revolution in medical practice. (20)

      It is in people's minds that the healing begins. It is only there that our most deeply held self-image can change. Consciousness can truly transform the self, and regaining a positive image of oneself can do wonders in forging the attitude required to overcome the obstacles that life might throw in one's path.

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