6: Virtuality: Crafting The Most Imaginative Of Experiences

The author describes the first computer adventure game "Colossal Cave Adventure", which used text-based descriptions of locations and required the user to enter a limited set of keywords to navigate and perform actions in this imaginary environment. Though it was just text, players found it to be immersive, imagining themselves to be in the environment described by the game.

(EN: An older technology is missed: books, and even storytelling, provide the same sort of mental escape to the listener or reader. While the subject does not control the narrative, he still uses his imagination to project himself into the story, as a character or observer in an environment.)

In the same way, even later and more advanced video games immerse the player in an environment, in which they identify with the avatar they control. Games with a first-person view play on this notion, but even for third-person games where they watch a character on the screen, players speak of the gaming experience in the first person: "I went around the corner" rather than "the character went around the corner."

Crafting the Most Imaginative of Experiences

In creating a computer-simulated environment, the designer is crafting a world that does not really exist, and is not in any way tangible, but has enough of the elements of reality that if "feels" real to the user. While the experience is purely visual, seen through the fixed dimensions of the screen, the user imagines himself inside the created word and interacting with it.

This raises an interesting point: that experience is what happens inside the mind of the subject. In that way, even though the subject realizes that what he is viewing are pixels on a computer screen, the experience he has is equivalent to one he could be having in an actual physical environment. In this way, a stimulus does not have to be from a physically real source to be a "real" experience to the subject.

(EN: A more convincing example is recorded music: the person who hears a song played on a stereo has the same experience, insofar as audio is concerned, as a person who hears it played by live musicians, provided the stereo has sufficient fidelity. Memorex brand cassette tapes once showed this through their series of "is it live or is it Memorex" commercials, in which people couldn't tell the difference between an actual sound and a recorded one.)

Virtuality is not constrained to merely mimicking the real world, but can depict one that is wholly artificial and imaginary: technology can in fact depict things that do not occur or could not occur in the real world, but which provide experiences that can be just as convincing to a subject who is not easily shaken from his suspension of disbelief.

The concept of virtual reality is a subset of virtuality, for an experience that is intended to closely mimic reality, ideally with a level of verisimilitude such that the recreation seems very close to a real, or plausible, environment.

The Reality of Virtuality

The critical component in creating virtual immersion is the mind of the subject. The designer may use technology or propse, or even words alone, to give the subject some sense of the virtual world he wishes to create, but ultimately it relies on the mind of the subject to understand and accept the information the designer provides and use his imagination to fill in the missing details, what Coleridge termed the "willing suspension of disbelief."

Because of this, some people do not need highly detailed environments in order to participate in a depicted world and can, with relatively few details, project themselves into the virtual world that the designer is offering them. For such people, even a text-based description is sufficient.

(EN: This reflects on earlier note about the "intelligence and imagination" of an audience determining how much work the designer must do to place them in the virtual reality, and some need much more than others. Some people are so dull that they have trouble accepting a construct, or so mundane that they are distracted by minor details.)

Early test-based adventure games (Collosal Cave Adventure, Zork, and the like) counted on the player to imagine the environment. The same is true of Multi-user dungeons (MUDs) and other text-based games, and even going back to paper games such as Dungeons and Dragons.

As technology progressed, more than mere words were available to depict a virtual world. Video games now present highly detailed and realistic environments. The principle is the same, but the capabilities of the technology to provide more details and depict them with greater accuracy enable designers to provide more information in a more easily consumable format, making them accessible to less intelligent and imaginative individuals.

A common element of games and stories is timeline: pure imagination enables a person to create not only the sense of an environment, freely creating any details missing from the designer's offering, but also allows them to freely decide what to do in that environment, to have complete control rather than following a single path (stories) or choosing among relatively limited options (games).

It is possible to create a completely open framework, in which a virtual environment is created but participants are not given a course of action and may do as they please. Second Life is a good example of such an environment, and what tends to happen when one is created: people show up, don't know what to do, get bored, and leave.

(EN: Much the same happens in any real-world situation. For example, many clubs and societies fall apart because they gather a number of people and have no real purpose for them and no meaningful activity to offer, people stop turning up.)

This returns to the notion of "flow" as being critical to engagement: virtual environments are fascinating, but the novelty will wear off and unless there is a sense of purpose, there is nothing else to hold the user's interest.

Virtualizing Reality

The author regards Google Maps, Google Earth, and similar services to be a platform on which virtuality can be built: the creators of that service attend to the tedious task of creating a 2D or 3D rendering of the real world, and others layer data on top of it. A handful of other such platforms are mentioned in some detail: World Wind, Virtual Earth, CyArk, etc.

Presently most of these applications depict the world of the recent past: when you use Google Earth to see the Las Vegas strip, you see what it looked like days, weeks, or months ago. As the technology progresses, you might be able to get a real-time view of what it looks like right now (millions of Web cams showing a real-time image) and, if the data is preserved, to look into the more distant past, and see what the scene looked like ten or fifty or more years ago.

Until the archives of data have been amassed, it's still possible to create an artificial reproduction of past scenes, albeit with some labor and/or dependency on historical records (video or film taken earlier); and in the same way it may be possible to construct an artificial preproduction of what those scenes might look like in an imagined future.

It's also possible to blend the real and the imagined, transitioning from data depicting an actual location into data depicting an imagined one. Architects leverage this to show what a proposed building might look like in the context of an existing city.

On practical uses of this, IBM created a place inside of Second Life where clients could meet with employees in a virtual space, to have discussions and attend presentations, rather than travelling to a real-world destination. If leveraged on a large-enough scale, the considerable expense of creating a virtual place is dwarfed by the even larger expense of travel and construction.

Simulation of Reality

Simulation has often been used for training purposes: a flight simulator can be used to place a pilot inside a cockpit of an aircraft to give him a realistic experience of flying a plan, and the fact that licensing and regulatory agencies accept training in a simulator as the equivalent of actual flight testifies to the validity of simulated experience as an educational tool.

Simulation is useful in instances where it is impractical to provide a real-life training scenario. Consider the cost, in terms of fuel and maintenance, of training a pilot in a real plane as opposed to using a simulator. Also, consider the danger to the inexperienced pilot of "training" to land on an icy runway at a busy airport.

The military uses simulation in training more and more heavily to prepare soldiers for dangerous real-life situations. This is being used to train soldiers in one location for combat in various locations around the globe. It is also being used as a treatment for combat-related stress disorders, and a s a recruiting device. This same technology has been leveraged to make highly engaging games, particularly combat games of the first-person shooter genre.

A few more examples are used for the way in which simulation is used to train athletes, and even employees who will be in situations that are not as physically active, but demand assessment and decision-making to be applied.

(EN: One point, relatively minor, is that simulation training enables the subject to do things that would not be probable or possible in reality. A pilot in a simulator might decide that, since it's only a game, to fly into the control tower - and maybe the simulation lets him zip right through it with no consequences. I'm on the fence whether this is good or bad, but sense it depends on the situation: does the pilot learn not to do things as a result of doing them, or is he encouraged to do something like land in the grass because the simulation suggested there would be no ill consequences? Does the training think he is doing something he would do in real life and consider the student unfit? There are many considerations and few universal answers.)

(EN: Another point is that virtual training is not always effective or appropriate - you simply cannot learn some things without actual experience. As an example, I was approached by numerous vendors during my years at the BSA who wanted to provide a virtual tool to teach boys to start a fire with sticks - and I challenged them to build a prototype and test it, and if a boy who completed their virtual course could actually do it in real life, we'd discuss the matter further. No-one ever took me up on that, which I took as a sign that they acknowledged the futility of that - or if they did actually try, it never came to anything,)

Virtuality in Everyday Life

The author suggests that 3D environments "may well be on the way": a 3D virtual world replaces the flat pages of the Web, people shop and work in similar immersive experiences.

The promise of the Internet was to make everyone, everything, and everywhere almost immediately accessible, eliminating geographic barriers and the dead time created by the necessity to travel ion physical space. Older technologies eliminate this distance: the telephone and television enable us to speak to people or see a performance without the need to by physically proximate.

Consider a site that offers access to cameras at several locations around the world: it's as easy to move from one place to another as it is to change channels on a television set. A myriad of technologies facilitates this in our daily lives: automobiles, telephones, television, computers, etc. We take for granted this wondrous ability to overcome the barriers of time and distance.

(EN: I think the author deconstructs his own thesis, showing the reasons 3D worlds are inferior to the 2D Internet. While 3D may seem impressive, the nature of the interaction is inferior - and this, more than the quality or speed, is the reason that experiments in this area have largely failed.)

Virtuality Unbound

There is, however, an older way of moving beyond what lies physically at our fingertips, a way that predates digital technology: our imagination. He mentions stories and books, where the audience can imagine themselves in a virtual world, just by reading or hearing a general description. (EN: Hemmingway is know for his ability to give the user a sense of scene in a single sentence, though that may be a bit of a stretch.)

A quote from a video game designer: "Despite all the gadgets that are now available, nothing is as immersive as a good book." The author counters thus: "But a book is a gadget."

A stray note: the medium of text is also time-bending as opposed to the medium of conversation. A person who is reading is absorbing information at a completely different (later) moment in time than the author originally wrote them. When we read Plato's transcripts of his master, Socrates, we are "hearing" words spoken two thousand years ago.

In this sense, the reality of virtuality is created in the mind of the subject, prompted or assisted by the information provided by the designer of an experience. Said another way, we gather fragments of perception to assemble reality - whether the perception comes from the physical world or a digital representation is incidental.

A quote from a professor of digital technology: "When we enter into a fictional world, we do not merely suspend a critical faculty; we also exercise a creative faculty." She goes on to describe technology as a capable and efficient tool by which a designer can present the details to the user, but the process remains the same.

(EN: An example comes to mind, maybe a bit oblique, but here it is: we know that the human eye has blind spots, but we perceive a contiguous reality. Optical illusions play on this - we see a solid like instead of a broken one at a specific distance - and in that way, the human brain is designed to construct a more perfect reality where sense-data is missing. The phenomenon of confabulation shows this on a higher level - where memory is spotty, people fill in the details to tell a more detailed story that makes sense.)

Applying Virtuality

As usual, a laundry list of tips and ideas: