Thursday, April 26, 2007

Virtual Reality

Martin Hunt headshot by Martin Hunt

A virtual reality is like a virtual image in a convex mirror - you really see it, but it isn't what it seems. Virtual reality has existed for decades as thought experiments and fiction. Lately, virtual reality has become real enough that you can actually walk around and explore a 3d space and interact with objects. In fact they have been common for some time now in computer games.

Let us leave the content of computer games aside for a moment and consider instead the experience of the game. What you experience is sights and sounds that can be responded to as if they were coming from objects and entities in an environment. The experience can be very engaging, to the point that for some it can be called an addiction.

I am familiar with several computer games, by no means the most advanced. "Titanic" is an interactive fiction piece. There is a clear story line: you are a British spy whose mission is to thwart some German spies. Your point of view is that a person walking around the ship. The events transpire on the night of the sinking. To win the game you have to solve a series of puzzles. The puzzles involve things like finding a crucial ring someplace on the ship. The ship itself is vividly represented and it is a pleasure to just explore, from the huge boilers at the bottom to the bridge at the top. The visuals and sounds combine with the narrative to create a vivid experience of reality.

Quake is similar in that you have a point of view that you manipulate through a 3d space. The difference is that the puzzles involve gaining skill as well as figuring things out. In Quake the environment that you explore is very vivid and often quite beautiful.

Age of Mythology is another game that I am familiar with, and it is different in type. Your point of view is that of a strategist high above a landscape. You get to move things around and build things. The idea is to build societies that can support armies that can beat enemies. It's a multilayered game involving economics and military strategy. As in other computer games, the visual experience is quite vivid.

These games are quite different from each other in many respects, but they are quite similar in the way that they engage a person's mind. You lose the sense of being a person looking at a computer screen with fingers on a keyboard. You really do come to feel that your are in a real space and are interacting with real objects there.

Computer games are designed to engage our minds to the extent that they create environments that we actually experience. It actually works very well. When I am on the Titanic, in the middle of the game, I am not experiencing a computer screen - I am experiencing a ship. This is very interesting - way more interesting than the games themselves. These games provide a way for us to probe our own minds so that we can understand how our minds give an experience of reality from sense datum.

The games I have mentioned are all interesting and engaging, but they are also fictions and constructions. They involve narratives that are shallow, and sometimes objectionable - they are games. I have recently started participating in a different sort of virtual reality. Its called Second Life, and it exists on the internet. It's not a game in the sense that the others are because there is no narrative, and there is no goal whereby one can win. Its a space that looks much like a computer game, but what one does there is build things (houses, sculptures, landscapes, etc) and talk to people. There is a real economy there. There are things to buy and sell. Second Life is way more interesting than a computer game. Watch this space.

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