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TUCoPS :: Cyber Culture :: psych.txt

Inside Virtual Reality




Subject: Inside Virtual Reality by Jeremy Wolff
Summary: The Myth of Transparency and the Myth of Reflection
Reposted from ECHO's Conference on Virtual Reality:
Jeremy Wolff                         24-JUN-90  19:18

		   Inside Virtual Reality
     (The Myth of Transparency and the Myth of Reflection)


      A couple of weeks ago I spent two minutes inside a virtual
 reality.  I put my hand into the dataglove, the heavy, hardwired
 goggles were lowered over my head--and suddenly I was through the
 screen and into a computer-generated environment.  A checkerboard
 plain surrounded by a green field stretched to a blue horizon.  When I
 turned my head, I could see the rest of my computer-animated world:
 red pyramids and yellow columns, a floating grey box, a toy car and
 airplane, a balloon overhead.  Responding to the movements of my hand
 inside the dataglove, my virtual hand, yellow, disembodied, floated in
 front of me.  Pointing with my index finger made me to fly to an
 object.  I could grab the car or the plane and move it to a new
 position.  Or look up at the balloon overhead, point to it, and fly
 upt, the checkerboard plain receding below me.  I flew through the
 balloon into an unseen cityscape.   Out of the balloon, arcing over
 the more familiar plain and back down to the solid surface of my
 virtual world.

      I took this trip at a press conference before a lecture and
 demonstration advertised as "FROM PSYCHEDELICS TO CYBERSPACE."  The
 show, April 30 at NYU's Loeb Student Center, featured Sixties LSD guru
 Dr. Timothy Leary, author and conspiracy-theorist Robert Anton Wilson,
 and the first public demonstration of Virtual Reality (VR) technology
 on the East Coast.  I had been fascinated with the concept for months,
 and when I heard this road-show was coming with the real equipment, I
 made sure I got to try it.

      Virtual Reality (sometimes called artificial reality or
 Cyberspace) is hardware and software that puts you inside a
 computer-generated graphic world.  The goggles (or "eyephones")
 position two TV monitors before your eyes, aligned to create a 3-D
 stereoscopic image.  When you turn your head to "look around," your
 head movements are tracked electronically and the computer alters the
 image before your eyes accordingly.  The illusion--the experience--is
 of a complete, 360-degree environment you can look around at and move
 through.

      After two minutes of tooling around in VR I was pretty spaced
 out.  (That is the correct term.)  But I felt proud and ripe for the
 future when Eric Gullichsen, President of the SENSE8 Corporation of
 Sausalito, CA, whose equipment this was, told me I was a good pilot.
 Gullichsen is a demure and clear-speaking 30- something young man with
 a scraggly beard and a very long blonde ponytail.

      Recent VR systems required half-million-dollar computers to drive
 their software; Eric's "Desktop Virtual Reality" prototype is run by a
 Sun Sparkstation, a $12,000 dollar computer now selling as fast as the
 top-end Macintosh, and which Eric predicts will be down to $5000 by
 the end of the year.  [5/13: A woman at SENSE8 says Sun announced last
 week it was dropping the price of the Sparkstation by $5-6000.]  The
 dataglove he uses gives an even better idea of how fast this stuff is
 moving out of the lab and into our lives.  A year ago, Eric's demos
 used a prototype that cost $8000.  Now he works with a
 "Powerglove"--made by Mattel for Nintendo.  It sells for $79.

      Even with a lot of power behind it, SENSE8's VR is about as slow
 and low-resolution as it can be to work at all.  But you still get a
 sense of the possibilities.  It's not so much that the experience
 doesn't live up to the hype:  more that the experience is hard to
 connect with the amount and variety of hype.

      Doing It was brief, unique, somewhat ineffable.  The hope,
 hysteria and hypotheses that have arisen out of the concept of VR is
 what the rest of the event at NYU was all about: several hours of
 dreams and visions, tech-talk and peptalk on what this stuff is for
 and what it will do.  My two-minutes' experience aside, you can't help
 but feel Something's Up, just from the assortment of strange
 characters and corporations clammoring to jump, or at least keep an
 eye, on the VR bandwagon.

      Representing psychedelics at the "From Psychedelics to
 Cyberspace" show was Dr. Timothy Leary, the former Harvard Prof.  and
 Acid-activist, now willing to commit his career-long utopian dreams to
 this straight, labcoat technology.  (The work of nerds!) Age 70, he
 comes bounding on stage, energetic and radiant, in brand-new white
 Adidas and a sharp suit sporting a "Just Say Know" button (for sale,
 $2).  His ramblings have slowed, but you still have to pay attention
 to follow the playful and curious threads of his thinking.  Among many
 other things, he's here to contend that 90-percent of the engineers
 and programmers creating the current personal-computer revolution are,
 like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs (the founders of Apple Computers),
 veterans of psychedelics.  That Silicon Valley is a stone's throw from
 Berkeley and the Haight, he says, is no coincidence.

      Technology (of all things) is allowing Leary to speak in a new
 and more accessible way about the benefits of altered consciousness.
 He thinks the experience of these computer- generated realities breaks
 down the "straight" idea of a Real World or an Absolute Reality as
 much as the LSD experience did--but without the stigma of "Drugs,"
 which has always prevented Leary's theories from being taken
 seriously.  Instead of sounding like a chemical prophet, he's talking
 about technology and innovation and competition, almost like some Lee
 Iacocca-type on TV, "Working to make America great again."

      During the show, Leary was the first to demonstrate the goggles
 and glove.  He was strapped in by Gullichsen, then took off, twisting
 his wired head around, giggling, and squirming in his chair as he
 glanced, pointed and flew through his imaginary world.  "Whoa-ho,"
 came his self-mocking laugh, "I've been here before!"

      "PSYCHEDELICS TO CYBERSPACE" pulls virtual reality into the realm
 of drugs, and also into the world of Science Fiction:  "Cyberspace" is
 sci-fi writer William Gibson's word for his conception of VR.  Gibson
 posits the ultimate interface--what he calls being "jacked in": a
 direct link from machine wires to human nerves and brain.  In the
 world revealed in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, Gibson's characters can
 jack into cyberspace--a computer-generated visually abstracted matrix
 of information--or into the live or recorded senses (the "sensorium")
 of another person.

      Gibson's vision, and his role in the development of the concept
 and consequences of VR, is taken very seriously; his name comes up in
 every VR speech, and the scientists talk like he's one of the boys.
 Gibson's idea of a direct interface is beginning to happen (in work
 with damaged hearing, experimenters are connecting microphones
 directly to auditory nerves); current VR technology is not direct, but
 tries to make the human-computer interface transparent (that is,
 perceived as direct).  The effect is to put "you" (some part of you,
 some ratio of your senses) into an artificial world that you can
 actually move through and operate within.

      "Artificial Reality"--the first term used to describe computer
 and video environments--was coined by author-inventor-engineer Myron
 Krueger in the early Seventies, and is the title of his seminal book
 on the subject.   Written in 1972 but not published until a decade
 later, Krueger's Artificial Reality presented all the major concepts
 guiding today's VR investigations, including the idea of a dataglove.

      Krueger, hailed by all present as the "Father of Artificial
 Reality," was the first speaker.  "I feel a little like Rip Van
 Winkle," he said, "except that it's the rest of the world that's been
 asleep for 20 years."  A good-looking, square-jawed, clear- eyed
 American, he could be your milkman or your mayor, or your math
 teacher.  He has the down-to-earth practicality of someone who, in his
 words, "knits computers," but he too talks about science fiction's
 role in real-world breakthroughs:  "I don't read as much now, but when
 I was younger I read everything.  I used to believe it when someone in
 this field said they hadn't read science fiction; I used to believe
 it, but I don't anymore.  I don't think it's possible."

      Conspicuously absent was the best known and most publicized of
 the VR pioneers:  Jaron Lanier, a 29-year old white rasta and high-
 school drop-out distinguished by his long dreadlocks and his NASA
 contracts.  He makes the most mystical claims for VR, which might not
 be taken seriously were he not ahead of everyone in VR software and
 hardware and working for the government.  Jaron (everyone here invokes
 the demi-diety on a first-name basis) sees VR having therapeutic,
 ritual uses--in the way of psychotropic drugs in shamantic tribes.  A
 recent Wall Street Journal article on Lanier offered these brave but
 tentative subheads: "COMPUTER SIMULATIONS MAY ONE DAY PROVIDE SURREAL
 EXPERIENCES," and, "A KIND OF ELECTRONIC LSD?".

      You get a sense that Leary and Wilson are hitching their old
 messages to The Next Big Thing.  But, in fact, the connections they're
 making hold remarkably well.  One message is that VR does what
 psychedelic drugs do.  Another message is political:  how electric
 communication will break down the fascist control of centrist
 governments.  "It was electrons," Leary says, "that brought down the
 Berlin Wall".

      Politics, drugs, science fiction, philosophy, and mysticism are
 just a few of the fields and factions inspiring and being inspired by
 the cutting-edge technology and scientist-inventors of Virtual
 Reality.  The range of these factions parallels the range of
 implications of the concept:  When consciousness is extended by
 electronics, science and philosophy are in the same room, and there
 are ramifications everywhere in between.

      Leary, Wilson and Gullichsen each referred to VR as part of an
 electronics revolution that will change television from a passive to
 an active medium--the Viewer will no longer be in the thrall of the
 broadcast monopolies, whose centralized control stems from the current
 state of TV technology (i.e., TV is cheap to receive, but only a
 government or big corporation can afford to produce and broadcast).
 That's changing, with cheap VCRs and portable cameras; with cable, and
 especially fiber-optic cable, which will increase television's
 interfaces with computers.  All of these new forms (including, soon,
 VR) give the individual more control and choice as to how to use the
 medium.  Strictly speaking, "Television" as a medium is visual
 electronic information; your Mac is as much a TV as your Sony.
 Television will no longer be just a receiver for a centralized
 broadcast medium, but one component of an interactive, computer-based
 communications network.

      "VR is a network like the telephone, where there is no central
 point of origin of information," Jaron stated in a recent interview in
 the Whole Earth Review.  "Its purpose will be general communication
 between people, not so much getting sorts of work done."  He's already
 created a "Reality Built for Two" (RB2), a virtual space in which two
 people interact.

      Virtual reality is like the telephone medium, which opens a new
 realm for human interaction but doesn't affect the content, i.e., what
 you talk about.  The technology of VR per se has nothing to do with
 what you create or do within it.  But whenever I explain the concept
 of VR to people, they have strong reactions to it.  Fear is common, a
 kind of Brave New World/1984 paranoia.  A professor I described this
 stuff to waxed rhapsodic about how it signals the end of the
 mind-brain duality, creating a sort of spiritual or mystical
 materialism.  (John Barlow has published an article on VR called Being
 in Nothingness.)  Leary and Wilson look into VR and see a
 technological utopia.  Others dream of its pornographic
 possibilities--virtual sex-partners.  A visionary- rebel like Lanier
 is drawn to mystical ends; as the Wall Street Journal observed, "[His]
 obsession with Artificial Reality seems to reflect his dissatisfaction
 with conventional reality."

      These are all understandable human reactions.  Every new medium
 works like a mirror, reflecting back some part of ourselves.  (The
 telephone, in this sense, "reflects" our speech and hearing.) VR is a
 mirror that reflects our entire consciousness--which might explain
 some of the extreme reactions it's eliciting.  These reactions reveal
 something of the general resonance of the new medium, but more than
 anything specific about what VR does, these reactions reveal us.

      Marshall McLuhan addressed this phenomenon in Understanding Media
 (1964), labelling it "Narcissus as Narcosis."  In the myth, Narcissus
 falls in love with his own image, unaware that it is his reflection.
 He is numb or blind to an extension of himself, and remains unaware of
 the medium operating on him, in this case, a reflecting pool.  With
 any new medium, we are entranced by its content--which is an extension
 or reflection of some part of ourselves--but remain numb or blind to
 the operation of the medium itself.  We are able to look through or
 conceive into a mirror because it extends our sense of sight--but it
 is impossible for us to focus on or perceive the surface of a mirror
 (the place where its technology is operating) as a two-dimensional
 plain.

      The thinking of McLuhan (who was dubbed "the Media Guru" around
 the same time in the Sixties when Leary was being accorded guru-status
 for his work with psychedelics) lurks at the edges of a lot of the
 ideas VR is inspiring.  Like Gibson's, his name came up several times;
 Gullichsen quoted McLuhan--"In the future we will wear our nervous
 systems outside our bodies"--as a preface to demonstrating his
 data-goggles and glove.  And Leary later mentioned and gave a good
 illustration of McLuhan's best-known maxim, The Medium Is the
 Message:  "When Moses came down from the mountain with the Word of God
 carved into those marble tablets, let me tell you, boys and girls,
 those were not suggestions...."

      McLuhan prefigured the electronic extension of consciousness more
 than 25 years ago:  "Having extended or translated our central nervous
 system into the electromagnetic technology, it is but a further stage
 to transfer our consciousness to the computer world as well.  Then, at
 least,  we shall be able to program consciousness in such wise that it
 cannot be numbed nor distracted by the Narcissus illusions of the
 entertainment world that beset mankind when he encounters himself
 extended in his own gimmickry."

      All the reactions to VR (the "Narcissus illusions") say nothing
 about how this particular mirror works or why our brains are able to
 conceive into and make from this mass of electronic information a
 space that is perceived as real.

      VR technology does not create "reality" in any sophisicated way;
 in fact, it works in the most unsophisticated way, revealing to us our
 simplest perceptual illusions.  The "space" one enters during the VR
 experience is not visually sophisticated; rather it takes advantage of
 our inclination to conceive three-dimensional space out of two
 dimensions.  In the West, we have been trained to see depth in the
 simplest two-dimensional drawings if the lines of perspective are
 right.  We perceive depth in a line-drawing of a cube (the classic
 "optical illusion"), but this is a relatively recent technical
 development (perspective drawing is a Renaissance invention).  The
 effect will not work in a tribal society whose visual perceptions have
 not been trained in this way.

      Myron Krueger:  "What VR does is highlight the status of
 artificial experience which we already have lots of."  Jaron Lanier:
 "The reason the whole thing works is that your brain spends a great
 deal of its efforts on making you believe that you're in a consistent
 reality in the first place.  What you are able to perceive of the
 physical world is actually very fragmentary.  A lot of what your
 nervous system accomplishes is covering up gaps in your perception.
 In VR this natural tendency of the brain works in our favor.  All
 variety of perceptual illusions come into play to cover up the flaws
 in the technology."

      Entering SENSE8's "flawed" virtual reality on April 30, 1990, was
 the culmination of an exactly nine-month gestation period whose
 conception was my first encounter with the idea of electronically
 extended consciousness in the real world.  From then on it was as
 though I was being bombarded by the concept, and from so many diverse
 angles that it was impossible to ignore.  It started on August 1,
 1989, when I read an article in the "Science" TIMES about a device
 called a teleoperated robot.  The operator of the robot moves two
 mechanical arms that move, remotely, a robot's arms.  A helmet covers
 the operator's head, with speakers by his ears and two small video
 monitors before his eyes--with which he "sees" and "hears" via the
 video-camera eyes and microphone ears on the robot's head.  The
 technology allows delicate and dangerous work (like disarming a bomb)
 to be done from a safe distance.  The term "telepresense" has been
 coined for the perceptual illusion:  "The closer you come to
 duplicating the human experience, the more easily your mind transposes
 into the zone as though you were there," operators say.  "You forget
 where you are."

      "Telepresence" got me, and the idea that "your mind transposes
 into the zone as though you were there."  This was the first real
 example I'd come upon of what McLuhan had predicted more than 25 years
 ago, the electronic extension of consciousness or electronic direct
 experience.  (Like VR, telerobotics puts your consciousness
 elsewhere.)

      Shortly after, a Seattle computer-jock friend of mine asked if
 I'd heard about Virtual Environments, and it was from him that I first
 learned of the goggles and glove and suit you could wear to see in and
 move around a computer-generated space.

      The next time I encountered the idea was in the unexpected
 context of an interview with Jerry Garcia in ROLLING STONE (Nov.  30,
 1989).  "Have you heard about this stuff called virtual reality?" the
 lead-guitarist for the Grateful Dead asked his interviewer.  He went
 on to describe the idea quite cogently, and also to connect it with
 psychedelics:  "You can see where this is heading:  You're going to be
 able to put on this thing and be in a completely interactive
 environment...And it's going to take you places as convincingly as any
 other sensory input.  These are the remnants of the Sixties.  Nobody
 stopped thinking about those psychedelic experiences.  Once you've
 been to some of those places, you think, 'How can I get myself back
 there again but make it a little easier on myself?'"

      Then I was given Neuromancer--Gibson's sci-fi novel (and I've
 never liked sci-fi) that introduces and explores "Cyberspace"--and a
 copy of the interview with VR-pioneer Jaron Lanier.  Reading Gibson
 and Lanier at once, I was startled by how close sci-fi and fact had
 become.

      Appropriately, it was via ECHO, a new computer bulletin-board,
 that I found out about "From Psychedelics to Cyberspace."  I'd joined
 ECHO a couple of weeks before; getting a modem and entering the world
 of telecommunication transformed my computer from a typewriter to a
 tool for putting ideas online in real-time, a new medium for
 conversing with a group of unseen others, like me, typing down the
 telephone lines.

      VR is the beginning of another new medium for human
 communication--huge amounts of processed digital information used to
 create the bare-bones of what our brains perceive as "reality." What's
 new is that this realm of information is encountered as experience.
 The content of the telephone medium is speech; the content of the
 television medium is movies and drama and talking- heads: with the
 telephone or TV, you are aware of the inside and the outside--of the
 medium and its limits, and of the real world that surrounds it.  The
 TV or telephone experience does not exist separate from its entrancing
 content (which is itself a different medium, what McLuhan calls "the
 juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of
 the mind").  In VR, there is no such duality.  You know it's not
 "real," and when the perceptual illusion works, you are just Being
 There.  The content of virtual reality is not speech or action or any
 other visual or auditory medium.  The content of VR is consciousness.

      This sets up a basic question about the difference between
 information and experience.  Information--the kind that comes from
 other people or books or movies or TV--is mediated experience.  It is
 not like the Real World--the real, direct experience of things that
 surround us.  VR is also information, but it is perceived as
 immediate; that is, it is not mediated or digested or translated-- it
 is just "lived."  If "experience is the only teacher," it was the
 experience of psychedelics that taught many people, in a profound and
 direct way, the limits of "reality."  The experience of VR can teach
 that too, and many other things.

      Playing a video-game or reading a book or watching TV or a movie,
 there are times when you are unconscious of the medium, when you are
 immersed in its content (when "the watchdog of the mind" is chewing
 that meat).  At other times you are aware of the television or the
 book's boundaries.  Within a virtual reality, there is no such losing
 and regaining awareness of your state.  You are aware of its unreality
 and perceive its reality at the same time and all the time.  In fact,
 in VR you have a heightened awareness of perceiving reality in an
 unreal system.  Your consciousness it at once the perceiver of VR, and
 its content.

      All of which is thrilling to ponder.  But if this stuff is going
 to develop on a mass scale, it has to get there via some marketable,
 real-world applications.  Many people think VR will be carried through
 this intermediate phase by applications in pornography, as was the
 case with the VCR less than ten years ago.  (Add some sort of
 force-feedback or tactile response system, and every sort of inter-,
 trans- and multi-sexual interaction could be programmable: safe sex,
 indeed.)

      Krueger and Gullichsen, guys on the practical, hands-on, I-
 need-funding side, are working to come up with simple, high-concept
 applications that even America's short-sighted venture capitalists can
 understand.  This sets up some strange situations (since they are
 courting business partners but depend on frontmen like Leary to bring
 in the crowds and press), like when these older corporate guys in
 suits arrive en masse to check-out Gullichsen's gear.

      They look like money; like their good graces could shower SENSE8
 with contracts and options.  They struggle with the eyephones and the
 glove.  They did not grow up with TV--they are not good pilots.  Eric
 is deferential and cogent and clear, trying to dispel with his manner
 any doubts his long blonde ponytail and rough beard might cast.  And
 then the suits have to sit through the lecture, surrounded by
 college-age Trekkies and every stripe of New Age huckster (a man
 selling "psycho-active soda" for three dollars a cup), and listen to
 Leary and Wilson make fun of Bush, Quayle and the drug-addict Drug
 Czar.

      Gullichsen does his best to talk toward the most mundane
 applications:  Imagine an architect showing a client around a
 "virtual" building (it's been designed but not built).  The client
 wants to see how it looks with bigger windows, so the architect, in
 the virtual world, can reach over and enlarge the windows with his
 hands.  Another area he talks about is education--the Defence
 Department's use of VR in fighter-pilot training is probably the most
 sophisticated form now in practical use.  A related application, the
 first one we're likely to see, is in entertainment, VR video-arcade
 games.

      Krueger has one device that's so basic and useful, it seems
 inevitable.  Simply put, it allows you to use your unencumbered hands
 to do anything a mouse does--access menus, draw pictures, move text,
 etc.  (Of course, this isn't VR, you don't put goggles on and put your
 head inside.  But it should make Krueger rich while he waits for the
 technology of the goggles, and the 3-D imaging and computers that run
 them, to catch up to his ideas.)

      Leary, not surprisingly, flies off into the future, imagining VR
 as some kind of holographic telephone. "You'll call up your friend Joe
 in Tokyo and say, Where do you want to meet today? and press some
 buttons and the two of your are strolling in Hawaii, or meeting in a
 cafe in Paris or on top of Everest, or joining Aunt Ethel for tea in
 Idaho."

      Jaron Lanier seems to have the most developed ideas about how VR
 will function and where it will be relevant.  He talks about
 handicapped people experiencing full-motion interaction with other
 people, and tele-operated mircorobots performing surgery from within
 the human body.  But he also builds on Leary's dreams of the
 therapeutic uses of psychedelics as tools for exploring the
 unconscious mind.

      "Idealistically, I might hope that VR will provide an experience
 of comfort with multiple realities for a lot of people in western
 civilization, an experience which is otherwise rejected.  Most
 societies on earth have some method by which people experience life
 through radically different realities at different times, through
 ritual, through different things.  Western civilizations have tended
 to reject them, but because VR is a gadget, I do not think that it
 will be rejected.  It's the ultimate gadget.

      "It will bring back a sense of the shared mystical altered sense
 of reality that is so important in basically every other civilization
 and culture prior to big patriarchal power.  I hope that that might
 lead to some sense of tolerance and understanding." Jaron envisions
 the VR experience, potentially, functioning like an Amazonian
 shamantic drug ritual for the electronically re- tribalized Global
 Village.

      When considering these predictions and dreams, it's important to
 remember the stage all of this is at.  People at the show were asking
 how VR would help the Homeless and what good it would do for babies
 dying of AIDS in Africa.  This would be like asking Alexander Graham
 Bell in 1870 what the telephone was going to do to stop the
 Franco-Prussian War.

      VR is now at the Wright Brothers stage, the thing's sputtering
 and popping and just barely getting off the ground--and everyone's
 trying to predict what moon-rockets will be like.  Back then, instead
 of William Gibson, you had Jules Verne's sci-fi model; and in sixty
 years we did walk on the moon.  But who could have imagined any of the
 mundane and earth-changing reality in between-- 747s and People's
 Express and plane-food and in-flight movies and jetlag?  Who, looking
 at television in the 40s, could have predicted Watchman TV or
 palm-size video cameras or the worldwide resonance of seeing Tiananmen
 Square on CNN?  And the speed of the computer revolution is on an
 altogether different scale.

      If cars had progressed at the same rate, they'd cost $10 and run
 for a lifetime on a tank of gas.  In ten years flat we've gone from
 4000 to 4 million transistors on a thumbnail chip, and the power is
 quadrupling every two years.  At this pace, science fiction like
 Neuromancer becomes a myth of the present.  The technology has
 progressed faster than our ability to even imagine what do to with it;
 it's almost as though it has appeared magically and full-grown in our
 midst.  The VR toys now being demonstrated barely scratch the surface
 of the brain-extending fun and games possible when creative thinking
 gets applied to this new and limitless computer power.  Hold tight:
 the unimaginable future of virtual reality is only a few years away.

 16.5.90

 Comments, criticism appreciated.  This is not copyrighted. It is, in
 fact, open to wholesale theft.



-- 
Patt Haring                       patth@sci.ccny.cuny.edu  

"The harder you fall, the higher you bounce."  
                      -- American Proverb


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