From the simple VR games found in upscale video arcades, to the ultimate "immersion"--the CAVE, a surround screen, surround sound system that projects 3 D computer graphics into a ten-foot high cube--virtual reality has introduced what is literally a new dimension of reality to daily life. But it is not without controversy. Indeed, some say that a collision is inevitable between those passionately involved in the computer industry and those increasingly alienated from (and often replaced by) its applications. Opinions range from the cyberpunk attitude of Wired magazine and Bill Gates's commercial optimism to the violent opposition of the Unabomber. Now, with Virtual Realism, readers have a thought-provoking guide to the "cyberspace backlash" debate and the implications of cyberspace for our culture.
Michael Heim first offers a thoughtful discussion of what virtual reality is "in the strong sense." He outlines its essential characteristics -including the "Three I's" of immersion, interactivity, and information intensity--and introduces readers to such virtual reality technologies as head mounted displays; SIMNET, a networked simulation of tanks rolling over a virtual terrain; and flight simulators in which a trainee can experience conditions approximating those of actual flight. He also leads us through a fascinating gallery of virtual art experiences, including Marcos Novak's Virtual Dervish, in which the viewer wears a head mounted display and is immersed among and interacts with drifting, shifting "transhuman figures" and other virtual entities. And he describes various side effects of immersion in virtual reality, including types of relativity sickness known as Alternate World Syndrome (AWS) and Alternate World Disorder (AWD). Perhaps most important, Heim suggests ways of living with technology and harmonizing computers with culture. For instance, he offers a philosophical reconciliation between the conflicting views of "naive realists," who regard computer systems as a suppression of reality rather than an extension of it, and "idealists" who seem to think computers and software can cure all ills. Heim argues convincingly that in order to have an accurate view of the relationship between "natural nature" and cyberspace, we must balance the idealist's enthusiasm for computerized life with the need to ground ourselves more deeply in primary reality. This "uneasy balance" he calls virtual realism.
In this wide ranging exploration, Michael Heim draws on an incredibly eclectic range of sources, from the lyrics of Jim Morrison, to the wisdom of the Tai Chi masters, to the works of philosophers and writers as varied as Heraclitus, Descartes, William Gibson, and Jacques Ellul. The result is an ambitious and provocative commentary on the ways in which virtual reality and associated technologies are increasingly influencing our lives.
About the Author
Michael Heim is the author of the award winning The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality and the ground breaking Electric Language.