Cyberwocky. (virtual reality) (Special Anniversary Issue)
by Steven Anzovin
Those lines from Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" may not sound like the future of computing to you, but if you listen closely, you can hear them in all the talk about VR (Virtual Reality), perhaps the ultimate computer buzzconcept.
The whole idea of VR, which we'll define here as "a computer-generated simulation of real experience," has given birth to a staggering amount of verbal goulash, much of which makes "Jabberwocky" sound sensible.
Virtual reality, artificial reality, synthetic reality, cyberspace, cyberarts, multimedia, hypermedia, or whatever it is - you know, there's some basic confusion here when the experts can't agree on what to call it - is hot stuff right now.
It's attracting plenty of press, including this magazine, and the attention of some big players in the industry - Autodesk, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, VPL Research, Evans & Sutherland, and many more. But since researchers really don't know what they're doing yet, VR stuff tends to stay in the labs. In fact, most of it's just theorizing - virtual VR, so to speak.
Not much VR has filtered down to the real-world level - a few pieces of hardware, like the Gold Brick for the Mac, and some innovative software like Vista for the Amiga. You have to look in the journals and attend the conferences to get a real sense of where VR research is headed.
Writing in last year's summer issue of Multimedia Review, Randal Walser, manager of the Autodesk Cyberspace project, outlined a VR world system that involves a puppet (a virtual actor in the virtual world) controlled by a patron (a real person in the real world). This puppetmaster paradigm leaves me cold - too schizophrenic. Remember the "Twilight Zone" episode in which the evil dumny takes over the ventriloquist?
I go for the virtual telepresence model espoused by Scott Fisher, formerly of the NASA Ames Research Center. In this concept you can take on an entirely different identity (someone rich and famous, for example) and interact with others in their virtual identifies. In other words, instead of just watching "Star Trek," you can be in it. As you can see, conceptualizing about VR is still at the infotainment level.
Some thinkers warn us to ground our virtual realities in some aspect of true reality, lest we lose our way in them. (Maybe it's the VR theorists who have lost touch with reality.) While moral and ethical questions don't come up often in mainsteam VR research, VR does have its own Moses.
At the last Virtual Reality Conference held in San Francisco in December 1990, Professor Michael Benedikt of the University of Texas brought down from the mountain seven commandments for the design of virtual realities, including:
* The world is indiffirent to
* One may not enter a space
*Shared spaces exist by
the consensus of those
It seems that Benedikt's main concern is to prevent cyberspatial voyeurism. That takes all the fun out of it for me, but my personal favorite is, "Each world contains fewer dimensions than itself." Think about that for a minute.
The academic approach to VR, however, is not for everyone. The really interesting action is elsewhere. for a look at the outlaw fringe of VR - as well as other bizarre manifestations of the electronic age - check out Mondo 2000 magazine (P.O. Box 10171, Berkeley, California 94709).
Self-described as a "mutazine" for cyberpunks, hackers, crackers, and wild-eyed visionaries, Mondo 2000 is kind of a blend of Interview, Mother Jones, Shaman's Drum, and New Media Age. It covers everything from weird electronic conspiracies - if you believe the letters to the editor, there are a lot of them out there - to the latest trends in drug-free expansion of the senses.
The race for VR (as Mondo 2000 likes to call it) is fascinating to follow, and the VR toys are fun to play with, but you really have to wonder, why are we so anxious to escape into alternate realities? And given the state of the real word, what makes us think the virtual worlds we create will be any better than the real thing?
Such questions make me a bit anxious about the "frabjous day" when VR is - you'll excuse me - a reality.