introduction: virtual reality
"...good enough for the man in the pseudo-street."
We are getting very good at making things look real. Emerging
technologies involving electronics and computers may soon create
synthetic perceptual environments (such as what goes on inside a
movie theater) which are indistinguishable from, and
confoundable with, natural perceptual environments (such as what
goes on outside the movie theater).
A natural environment provides a blend of sensory information
(sights, sounds, feels, and so forth) from which we ordinarily
infer the existence of a external world of objects in relation
with each other, which objects are the thought to be the
ultimate causes of those sensations. It is that outside world of
bedrock objects and facts about those objects which constitutes
In a synthetic perceptual environment, which is called
cyberspace, sensory information is provided to the subject by
machines. The best of these machines now consist of tiny
projectors of visual and auditory data (miniature TV screens and
headphones) which are mountable on our heads, worn as a sort of
helmet. The projectors create 3-D vision, and surround-sound,
and are shortly expected to create kinesthetic sensations
(bodily feels) as well. The projectors are managed by computers,
and the subject-user has control over the computers. This
creates an interaction between the subject-user and his
perceptual environment. Pulling on the throttles changes that
The subject-user at the controls of these devices will infer the
existence of a countless number of equivalent, alternate
realities each apparently real. Each virtually real.
The expression "virtual reality" designates the technical
processes by which such convincing synthetic perceptual
environments are created, and signals an important human
response to these environments, which is to consider them real.
Obvious uses for the new machinery have suggested themselves,
including the training of personnel for performance in esoteric
circumstances (like the piloting of jet aircraft, in which
context the earliest "reality simulators" were developed); the
creation of exploded renditions of bodily organs on the basis of
Catscan and like data; the education of students, using
full-immersion techniques; the perfection of the latter-day
electronic game, in which computer programmers play God; and
players play at life, instead of being stuck in one; the
liberation of users from various media-based tyrannies such as
network TV, and Time Magazine.
There are institutions already concentrating on the development
of the new devices, and lively popular discussions on what these
devices may mean for the man in the street on the one hand, and
the man in the pseudo-street, on the other.
Our concern in the paragraphs following here is for one of the
men in the street, who is the philosopher, who has monitored
debates on the matter of what is ultimately real, and what is
not, for centuries. These debates will have to reckon with the
eventual performance and acceptance levels of the reality
simulators, which may be very much higher one day than we now
anticipate, and to clarify (among other things) what it is we
will mean in the distant future when we classify something as
Some of this latter-day metaphysical thinking can be forecast on
the basis of what we already know, and on the basis of what we
can see (or think we are seeing!) just around the corner. The
most important elements of that forecast are given in the essays
which follow here.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.