John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article created Sept 99, revised Feb 04

The Two Paths of Virtual Reality

virtual reality

Lately, it's hard to go through the day without hearing the term "virtual reality" (VR) somewhere in the media or conversations going on around you. Did you ever wonder what the term "virtual reality" actually means? I know I have. Here's what my dictionary says about the word "virtual":

"having the effect but not the actual form of what is specified"
"having potency, validity"
"in effect, practically" (virtually)

So "virtual reality" is a reality that has the effect of actual reality but not its authentic form. It's a kind of simulation or substitute, but one with potency and validity. It gets close to the real thing. In its effect on people, it's practically the real thing.

The term, unfortunately, can be a bit misleading. It implies that VR is an attempt to recreate the world as we consciously experience it with our eyes, ears, skin, body. This, indeed, is one of the two paths of VR. But there's another path. VR also strives to create new environments that are more imaginary - fantasy realms that feel "real" in unique ways but do not directly correspond to the world as we usually perceive it. Let's take a look at these two paths of virtual reality and see where, in the future, they may take us.

True-to-Life VR

This path for computer generated environments takes us on a journey to more and more accurate simulations of real world situations. But just how accurate is the reproduction? Using current state of the art technology, you would wear goggles and headphones to recreate sights and sounds in a 3D space, with perhaps sensors attached to your head and limbs that could translate your body movements into the movements of your "avatar," the virtual body that acts within the computer generated environment. In a more sophisticated laboratory, you might even be surrounded by air nozzles and scent dispensers that could simulate changes in air movement, temperatures, and smells. A treadmill under your feet might work well in the virtual scenario of a walk through the woods, as you feel a cool breeze on your face and enjoy the aroma of wild flowers.

However, if you decide to climb a tree, that could be a problem. With your arms and legs, you could mimic reaching, grabbing, and stepping on limbs, and the computer might even do a good job of having your avatar tackle the climb. Although visually it may look like you're ascending, it's not going to feel like you're actually climbing the tree, with your arms straining and the sensation of bark in your hands. With very little actual physical effort, you could hoist yourself all the way up to the highest branch and not have to catch your breath at all once you arrived. For some people, that almost effortless climb might be a wonderful experience - even a therapeutic experience. Those who suffer from physical limitations could benefit psychologically from what we might call this VR amplification of physical vigor along with discomfort attenuation. In these cases, we're turning the sow's ear of VR - it's inability to recreate a realistic bodily experience - into a silk purse.

The amplification of physical vigor and the minimizing of discomfort is more fantasy than reality. It doesn't live up to the definition of "virtual." People who WANT the exertion, the thumping heart, the sweat, the feel of the branches in their grip, will be disappointed. It ain't nuthin like the real thing, baby.

Of course the VR laboratory might include a tree-like structure, or an actual tree, that you could climb while wearing the goggles. You're in a lab in a building somewhere, but as you look around during the ascent, you see the Rocky Mountains, feel the cool summer breeze, and smell the forest. Assuming technology can make these virtual scenes as realistic as possible, what will we use them for? The applications are endless - practical, educational, recreational, therapeutic. For example:

- An architect take clients on a tour of their completed, fully decorated new home months before the foundation is poured.

- A high school history class strolls through the busy streets of ancient Rome.

- A daughter living in Hong Kong plays tennis with her father in New York, without either of them leaving home.

- A professional dancer with a knee injury practices her routine on stage in the theater where she will perform later that year.

- A psychotherapist accompanies her client to a family reunion that took place months ago.

It may never be possible for computers to generate highly true-to-life environments where these activities could take place. But crude approximations of these real world scenes are available now and will improve. VR "goggle technology" and interactive cyberspace environments are the predictors of things to come. More on that later in this article.

Imaginary VR

The beauty of computer simulated environments is their ability to transform reality as we know it. They do not have to recreate the actual world. Instead, they can construct imaginary environments, fantasy realms where the usual laws of reality are stretched, altered, or negated. You appear in any form you wish: animal, vegetable, or mineral. You shape-shift between persona as you please. You walk through walls, communicate telepathically, live out a scene from a movie or book, do anything your imagination can conjure up in any surrounding of your choice. It can be a dream-like experience, if that's what you want. We see the prototypes of these computer generated environments in online multimedia chat software such as The Palace.

Perhaps the term "virtual reality" applies to these environments in the sense that the imaginary experience could feel AS IF it was real. Fantasy becomes reality. It's important to note that the magnitude of these imaginary features could be controlled. Some scenarios might involve only a sprinkling of fantasy - like a walk to the top of the Eiffel Tower, where you eat lunch at your favorite cafe that has been transported intact from New York City. Other scenes could be intensely imaginative. Like being a flock of birds that dissolves into wispy clouds above the Grand Canyon. As with true-to-life VR, the applications are endless - practical, educational, recreational, therapeutic:

- For a reunion party, college buddies gather in cyberspace to perform as a rock group in Madison Square Garden.

- Grade school students take a Magic School Bus tour of the solar system.

- In preparation for filming, an actor experiments with a scene by trying out different bodies and changing the furniture and decor of the room.

- To better understand the species, a biologist spends a day living as a wolf in the Alaskan wilderness.

- In avatar psychotherapy, a therapist helps a client explore her identity by having her live out scenes as her mother, father, and as the character from her favorite novels.

A problem with highly unusual imaginary environments will be disorientation and sensory over stimulation. Nature shaped the human perceptual system to work efficiently within specific parameters. Designing fantasy environments for a person must take into consideration the biologically predetermined limits for sensory stimulation - as well as individual differences in how people can tolerate alterations in sensory stimulation. Problematic reactions to imaginary scenarios will involve complex psychological factors. Alterations in one's virtual body could trigger dissociation, identity diffusion and disruption, or disintegration anxiety. It will be important to assess the appropriate fantasy scene for any given person. From a research perspective, experimenting with imaginative environments can help psychology better understand the parameters of human sensation, perception, and identity construction.

To Immerse or Not

So far in this article, I've made the assumption that a good virtual environment is one in which people feel fully "immersed" - as if they actually are present in the scene. This may not always be the case. Third person views may in some cases be preferred over first person views. Using multimedia chat software, some people prefer the third person view of their avatars interacting in a visual scene (e.g., Palace), rather than the somewhat more claustrophobic tunnel-vision or "head-in-a-box" feeling of first person scenes. Once technology gives users more peripheral vision, that closed-in feeling may be less of a problem. Yet some people may still prefer the feeling of objectivity and even transcendence that third person views offer. A powerful virtual reality will offer both options - to immerse AND to step out and view the scenario from a distance. In "real" life, wouldn't it be very helpful to step out of a situation you're in so you can examine it from a safer, more objective distance? In virtual reality - especially scenarios that are especially arousing or disorienting - the ability to process the scene from a third person view might be very useful. Psychologists call it an "observing ego."

I've also made the assumption that virtual reality is interactive. Interactivity does enhance the sense of immersion. That's the way the real world works. You engage objects, animals, and people - and they engage you. But this too is a variable that can be controlled in virtual reality. You may choose to be a passive observer in a scene, without any power to alter it. You may choose to affect the things and people in the scene, but they cannot act directly on you. Or vice versa. You may even choose to have no avatar body at all, just pure consciousness in the scene. Of course, if we combine a third person view with absent interactivity, we're talking about TV and movies. Perhaps hundreds of years from now, media historians will consider TV and movies the earliest forms of VR.

The Ultimate VR Experience: Fact and Fiction

Seeing while hearing while smelling while tasting while touching while sensing and moving muscles. It's taken many millennium for the evolution of the human body and all its highly sophisticated, integrated network of sensations and behaviors. We're not going to duplicate that robust sensory and motor experience any time soon in a computer generated environment. Nevertheless, that doesn't stop us humans from imagining just how we might go about achieving that incredible technological feat. In science fiction stories and movies,we see two alternative methods:

Body Immersion Environments: Similar to the "holodecks" of Star Trek, the person physically steps into the virtual situation created by the computer. If you're going to walk through the woods and a climb a tree, it's you in your own body doing it, not an avatar. There are no goggles. That means the computer generates the ground, the trees, the sky, the breeze, the smells. The computer creates the environment, and you walk into it.

Now how does the computer do that? Well, maybe by converting energy into the matter of the virtual scene, and then setting it all into motion, and then creating the illusion that you can walk for miles in this space when really you've never left a 30'x40' holodeck chamber.... Not any easy technological trick! All of today's Internet technology is child's play by comparison.

Assuming it IS possible - or a watered-down variation of it - an important feature of a Body Immersion Environment is that it is "body bound." You are limited to activity and experience according to the parameters of the physical body. If you climb to the top of the tree, you're going to get tired. And if you fall from that high limp, the computer better have some very sophisticated injury prevention subprograms!

Brain Stimulated Environments: In the 1960s, the neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield used a thin electrode to selectively stimulate various areas of an awake patient's cerebral cortex, which was exposed during a brain surgery. Amazingly, when each area was stimulated, the patient reported a different sensory memory, such as the sound of piano music, or the smell of baking bread. It was as if each tiny section of the brain stored an intact sensory experience, which could be consciously recalled when electrically activated. Although replications of Penfield's research were unsuccessful, his work stirred up some fascinating speculations. Are all of our memories stored away in the cerebral cortex? Is it possible to tap that vast neuronal warehouse of intact sensory experiences, perhaps even activate complete memories we have long forgotten? Even more intriguing, could VR technology penetrate our unconscious, allowing us to live out scenes where we interact with our hidden fantasies, wishes, and fears?

Science still has no answer to these questions. Nevertheless, science fiction has had a field day with the possibility of brain stimulated experiences. In movies like "The Matrix" and "Total Recall," futuristic computer technology - using drugs, electrical and magnetic impulses, you name it - stimulates the cerebral cortex to create true-to-life worlds, down to every touch of the fingertips and the faintest whiff of perfume. The virtual scene all takes place inside one's head. In most science fiction stories, you have to wear a headset in order for the computer to work inside your skull. Exactly how the headset selectively stimulates the billions of neural pathways that comprise the gray matter - and how one goes about writing software that not only encodes the almost infinite sensory complexities of the real world but also translates that code into the control of the headset - well, that's really science FICTION!

The Possible Future?

How far will VR technology go on this path to realistic Body Immersion and Brain Stimulated Environments? For the moment, engineers are doing their very best to improve the visual and auditory components of goggle-technology. Computer-generated scenes tend to look somewhat artificial or cartoonish, which is fine for imaginary environments but falls short of the mark for true-to-life environments. Your movement through the virtual scene also is jerky and peripheral vision is weak. Some people get disoriented and sick - which, in a way, may be a good sign because their brain is fooled into thinking they have actually entered the scene, but a scene that is behaving in an unexpected, nauseating fashion. Another step forward will be to refine the technology enabling the fluid translation of your body movements into your avatar's movements. For narrow range activity, like dancing, the avatar's movements can closely mimic yours. For wide range activities, the avatar will amplify your movement. You jog in place, the avatar runs at top speed. Without that amplification, your real body is going to be running into the laboratory walls.

Virtual environments of the not too distant future most likely will be specialized and hybrids of body immersion and brain stimulated environments. A computer will use headsets to stimulate the eyes and ears, as well control an array of equipment and objects in the environment that interact physically with the person (air and mist jets; scent nozzles; passive and responsive objects like chairs, artificial trees, robotic and/or real animals and humans). Given the complexity of the software and hardware, each system will specialize in a particular set of virtual scenarios. "Reaching the Top of Everst," "Drinks at the Ritz," "Dodgers win the World Series." Actually, this is just a few notches above the special effects rides that many of us have enjoyed (or not!) in large theme parks. It's even possible that researchers will experiment with drugs - perhaps specifically designed psychedelic drugs - to enhance the intensity of immersion.

What is the "Reality" in Virtual Reality?

Ultimately, all dichotomies are more a conceptual convenience than an absolute truth. It's probably more accurate to think of true-to-life and imaginary VRs as opposite poles on a continuum. In between, there are varying mixtures of reality and fantasy - some more reality-rich, others more fantasy-rich. Also, if we deconstruct any imaginative scenario, its elements are always drawn from reality-based experience. In your mind, you can visualize Lincoln pole-vaulting while wearing polka dot sweats. In reality, you have never seen this, but all of the elements - Lincoln, pole-vaulting, polka dots, sweats - are extracted from real world experiences. So an imaginary virtual scene always is constructed from tidbits of actual experience. It's a novel reshuffling and synthesis of the elements of reality.

There is at least one other way that the two paths of VR weave in and out of each other. Any fantasy has its roots in the unconscious - in hidden wishes, fears, and needs. Are those underlying elements of the human psyche any less important or "real" than what we see with our eyes or hear with our ears? We psychologists know that those inner fantasies shape how we perceive the world. So then what's the difference between "reality" and "perception" anyway? These are big philosophical questions. Perhaps we can use VR technology as a tool to explore this issues about the human mind and the realities it creates.

See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

Cyberspace as a psychological space
Presence in cyberspace
The psychology of avatars and graphical space
Cyberspace as dream world
Avatar psychotherapy

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