A Virtual Reality Check

April 19, 1992

By Scott Rosenberg

Mr. [Terry] Anderson offered some insights into how he and other hostages kept their equilibrium and sanity during their ordeal [as prisoners in Lebanon].... He devised various "mental exercises" to pass the time. During the time he was held together with Thomas M. Sutherland, an agronomy professor, Mr. Sutherland taught him all he knew about farm management, animal husbandry and related topics, he said. Anderson said he later "built a dairy farm in my head" and planned its operation "very elaborately, down to the last penny."
-- The New York Times, Dec. 7, 1991

The paradox of virtual reality, the new technology that allows you to enter three-dimensional, computer-generated environments by donning headsets and gloves, is this: It doesn't exist -- not fully, not yet, at any rate, despite what you may have read. And yet it's always been around, in one form or another.

Virtual reality has become a buzzword so quickly -- at least here in Northern California's high-tech petri dish -- that its very presence among us is, as it were, virtual: It's omnipresent as an intellectual concept and as a media image, yet there's precious little of it around as actual machines that people can play with.

We've absorbed the concept of virtual reality so readily, even without benefit of the hardware, because its fundamental operation -- the creation of representations of imaginary worlds -- is one most of us already have plenty of experience with, from early childhood.

The human mind is a virtual reality machine (though to phrase it that way is to put the technological cart before the organic horse). And any kid who's ever marshalled a troop of toy soldiers, built a dollhouse or played cowboys and Indians has grasped some of its principles.

Alice entered virtual reality when she passed through the looking glass. The child heroes of C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" books entered virtual reality when they opened the door at the back of a magical wardrobe. Dorothy entered virtual reality when the tornado whisked away her Kansas house.

The chief difference between the experiences of these fictional characters and those promised by the prophets of virtual reality is the nomenclature and the means of delivery. Yesterday's Wonderland is tomorrow's "cyberspace." Where Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis and L. Frank Baum expected you to cross the thresholds of their magical worlds by paging through their books, tomorrow's fantasists will ask you to enter their creations by hooking up your eyes, ears and limbs to a computer.

The impulse is the same: The desire to create and explore a world where the rules as we know them just don't apply. The chief proselytizer for virtual reality so far has been Jaron Lanier -- the 30-year-old, dashiki-shirt-clad founder of the pioneering VPL Research company, who coined the term "virtual reality" and then defined it in press interviews festooned with photos of his protuberant dreadlocks.

As Lanier explained to a capacity crowd at 8 a.m. one day during Cyberarts, a conference in Pasadena last November, "Virtual reality is a world that's inferior in media quality but infinitely more flexible than our own. You can do all the things in it that you can't do in the real world -- like turn into a giant lobster."

Bypassing the fractal art display and the biofeedback booth, attendees at the New Human Be-In, a computer-counterculture event last winter, made a beeline for one exhibit -- a demo of the Sausalito-based Sense8's "World Tool Kit." I joined the throng and waited until it was my turn to put on the helmet.

I seemed to stand in a room lined with paintings. Dominating it was a large sign that read "Sense8." Sheesh, I thought -- virtual advertising.

You move through the Sense8 system's worlds by manipulating a "trackball," a sort of 3-D version of the desktop computer mouse. I tried to move forward; I went through the ceiling instead. (Nothing worth seeing there.) "Move your head!" I heard the attendant say, her voice floating in from actuality. Yes -- that was a fish that just floated by my eyes.

Later I watched a friend maneuver her way right through a painting on the wall and into a new space, a wide-open expanse of turf and rocks. (You could follow other people's progress in 2-dimensional video on a monitor at the side.) It turns out I hadn't even gotten past the starting gate. "You need to play more video games," the attendant advised me. I don't, I don't.

On the level of hardware, virtual reality works through microprocessors generating real-time graphics, 3-D "eyephones" or "head-mounted displays" rigged with dual video readouts that change perspective as you move your head, "virtual audio" systems that give the illusion of 360-degree sound placement and that keep the sound-sources fixed as you move your head, and other yet-to-be-perfected devices.

On the level of what techies call, with a certain amount of derision, "wetware" -- the level of our own, biologically evolved mental functioning -- virtual reality works through imaginative processes first analyzed in the early 19th-century by the Romantic poets. They might have lacked our digital expertise, but they had a way with the wetware.

However technologically advanced virtual reality's illusions become, it will always need to enlist some sort of collaboration from the imaginations of the human beings entering it -- or else they will never forget that their actual bodies are sitting in a room somewhere wearing a helmet. Coleridge called this collaboration "willing suspension of disbelief." Keats, describing the trait that allowed Shakespeare to imagine whole worlds of characters from many perspectives at once, named it "negative capability" ("when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason").

What virtual reality portends is a radical simplification of the terms of that collaboration. To enter the reality of "King Lear" or "Paradise Lost" requires acquaintance with complex literary and cultural conventions. To enter the reality of Jaron Lanier's lobster requires about the same skills as watching a Saturday morning cartoon.

Virtual reality's proponents say it's only a matter of time before their infant medium -- or whichever technical innovation supplants it to become the next generation of popular entertainment after movies and TV -- produces its own Shakespeares and Miltons. They may be right. In the meantime, though, while the engineers fine-tune the state of the art and wait for the virtual geniuses to arrive, what are we going to find when we put on those headsets and gloves? Whose reality is it, anyway?

I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.
--Bob Dylan

The virtual reality movement harbors a dream and a nightmare. The dream, as articulated by Timothy Leary, who has attached himself to VR as avidly as he once proselytized for psychedelics, is to "merge the scientific and technological with the artistic, musical, dramatic, to merge the left brain and right. The machine freed the human body. Electronics are going to do the same thing for the brain."

In his tireless stumping for VR technology, Lanier has promoted it as an "extremely creative and philosophically unprecedented" new form of interpersonal communication. In his vision, what's most important about virtual reality is that you can invent a world and then invite someone else into it. He imagines "reality conversations" in which VR voyagers might interact with each other and with their worlds like jazz musicians improvising around a riff.

It's a dizzyingly appealing picture. The other possibility, the nightmare that Lanier acknowledges and some of his colleagues sound much more spooked by, is that virtual reality will become, in the words of one, "just a mutant form of TV." That it will be marketed as a higher-octane, more-senses-at-once, more-bangs-per-minute form of mass entertainment. That however "interactive" the experience of a VR world may be, the man in the street will have no more direct say over its content than he does now over prime-time programming.

The dream is what gets talked about at VR conclaves like Cyberarts or the October 1990 Cyberthon in San Francisco. It's the nightmare, though, that seems to be winning the battle for the public imagination.

In "The Lawnmower Man" -- a lousy science-fiction thriller, very loosely adapted from a Stephen King story, that is the first Hollywood film to ride the virtual reality wave -- the audience receives a definition of VR in a screen of text that runs before the film's credits. VR, it announces, is either "a new form of mind control" or the next great leap forward for the species.

"Virtual reality," the scientist in the movie proclaims, "holds the key to the evolution of the human mind!" (His boss tells him to take a vacation.)

As an introduction to virtual reality, "Lawnmower Man" will probably just confuse people. The filmmakers don't seem certain whether VR is a fancy educational video game, a tool for brain surgery or a kind of graphic conduit for IQ-enhancing drugs. By the movie's end, its chief guinea pig, a musclebound simpleton who mows the scientist's lawn, has somehow been endowed with telepathic and telekinetic powers and fused his consciousness with the global communications grid. "God made him simple," the movie's ad copy reads. "Science made him a god."

No one is making claims of divinity for virtual reality -- yet. But anyone who pretends that playing god isn't part of the technology's appeal is being coy. Who gets to play god is the important question. Will the new medium become, as Lanier dreams, a widely available means of populist expression -- virtuality in every pot? Or will the technology, like its predecessors, become a one-way channel from an industry elite to a mass market? If somebody winds up playing god, will that deity provide for free will or predestination?

The Mandala System, created by the Vivid Group, a Canadian firm, offers a kind of inverse virtual reality: Instead of immersing you in a computerized video world, it aims a camera at you and incorporates your image into a video that you can watch and, in theory, interact with on a TV screen. I tried it at CyberArts, donning a white jacket (it shows up better on screen) that made me look like a hospital orderly.

You could choose from three experiences. The abstract landscape looked dull, and I had already watched someone else try the underwater scene (I knew you wound up in the shark's stomach), so I opted for the "Tokyo street scene." Cars whizzed by; I watched my towering form stomp through crowds of screaming bystanders. I got it -- I had been cast as Godzilla. Warming up to the role, I tried swooping, swerving and stomping. But I couldn't figure out how to grab hold of anything in the scene; my body moved, and the video ghost that I controlled moved too, but the fuzzy images swirled by unaffected. It felt like watching yourself on a closed-circuit video that had gone haywire: High-tech narcissism.

"Lawnmower Man's" hyperboles only echo those of a lot of magazine covers and newspaper headlines over the last couple of years -- sounding dazzled, confused, dismissive and terrified, all at once.

Like many of those gee-whiz accounts of virtual epiphanies, beginning with the Wall Street Journal's now-infamous "Electronic LSD?" headline, "Lawnmower Man" feeds the popular idea that virtual reality is the next cool drug -- a roller-coaster ride for the mind, a high-tech, no-harmful-side-effects shortcut to sensory thrills. VR's theorists may describe it as a new way to ask "what if?" and create answers you can share with other people. But what the public is picturing is the best way yet to fulfill the old, old promise of "You are there!"

Given the allure of that promise, it hardly matters that Lanier and his colleagues repeatedly and insistently deny that virtual reality is any kind of an intoxicant.

"The idea of spacing out in virtual reality is absurd," Lanier told Omni magazine. "It would be like getting a model train in order to fall asleep over it. People say, "I want to try virtual reality because I want the thrill of having these experiences wash over me,' but in fact the experience is the opposite of that. It's very intentional. A better name for it, actually, might be intentional reality."

But whose intentions? If you're Jaron Lanier, you have your own company and your own lab, and you can create "Realities Built For Two" to your own specifications --or to those of clients, who may be architects looking for new ways to model projects or chemists looking for new ways to model molecules or even salesmen looking for new ways to market kitchens. (One VPL project in Japan, for Matsushita, allows department-store customers to design their dream kitchens and walk around in them, virtually, before making a down-payment.) But if you're Joe Blow with a hankering to get virtual, right now about all you can do is pay a few bucks to play a video game called Dactyl Nightmare on the Virtuality system.

A British-developed VR system designed for public-space installations, Virtuality was introduced to the American market last winter; in the Bay Area, you can give it a whirl at the UC-Berkeley student center (at $1 a minute). The headgear looks imposingly advanced, but the concept is in a direct line of descent from the earliest arcade games. Basically, Dactyl Nightmare is 3-D Capture the Flag, in which you try to steal the banners of the other players (whom you can blast with virtual guns) while pterodactyls swoop at you.

Before you get the hang of it, stepping into Virtuality (or any of the current generation of VR set-ups) can feel like staggering through Toontown on a bender: Your field of vision and your head movements are out of sync, you're likely to have trouble figuring out where your own limbs are or what they're doing, and when you look up there's multicolored polygons as far as the eyes can see.

Once you've got your virtual legs, it's a different story: As suspension-of-disbelief kicks in, you go from feeling disoriented to feeling immersed, surrounded. From this point on, VR seems less a psychedelic experience than a theme park on hyperdrive. The closest comparison that springs to mind is what happens in movies when directors get over-zealous with the Steadicam and show you the point-of-view of a racing werewolf or a speeding motorcycle. In VR, unlike at the movies, you may be choosing which direction to look in; but the sights have still been designed by someone else.

What VR's advocates say about the technology's "empowering" qualities applies if you're the creator of your virtual world -- if, thanks to your own expertise or someone else's forethought in designing an easy-to-use world-building software kit (a world processor?), you have the ability to set the rules and draw the maps of the particular virtual realm you enter. Immersing yourself in a pre-packaged world, on the other hand, can be very passive -- if not downright scary.

The former experience, which is what Lanier has in mind when he talks about VR as a "reality conversation," is an intellectual exchange in sensory form, a testing and displaying of abstract possibilities in sight and sound. The latter, which is the way VR is being disseminated to the public, is chiefly perceptual, a joyride for the senses in someone else's vehicle. One adventure is Appollonian, the other Dionysian; one involves creative control, the other sensory surrender.

Here's an easy bet: It's those Dionysian joyrides that are going to be the hot sellers if and when VR (or something lik like it) becomes advanced enough and cheap enough to be widely distributed as a form of popular entertainment. Most of the talk so far about "virtual sex" (or "dildonics," as it's mischievously been dubbed) has been tabloid hype. And the virtual-sex scene in "Lawnmower Man" -- in which two Silver-Surfer-like mannequins fuse their smooth, metallic forms -- is unlikely to make any converts. VR proponents habitually dismiss "virtual sex" talk with a snort: "It's a ridiculous idea," Lanier told the L.A. Times, "and will probably exist only on the level of those blowup party dolls."

Still, every new communications medium has sooner or later been put to pornographic use, and there's no reason to expect that VR will be exempt. Given how difficult it is for VR programs to generate detailed, life-like images, however, and given how far the engineers are from full-body tactile-response equipment, violence seems more likely to dominate the virtual landscape than sex.

As that happens, we can look forward to another round in the irreconcilable debate over sex and violence in popular entertainment, with techno-puritans arguing that VR must be kept wholesome and techno-libertarians that it must be kept free. Our culture can't even agree whether violent films and TV shows incite real-life violence or merely reflect it -- or whether there's such a thing as "good" porn that liberates sexuality, or just "bad" porn that degrades women. God help us when our legislatures and courts start having to rule on what kinds of virtual experiences to protect and what sorts to regulate.

Does the First Amendment apply to cyberspace? Does the Bill of Rights guarantee the right to bear virtual arms? And we're only talking here about civilian applications; as with most high-tech breakthroughs, much of VR's seed-money has come from the military, which can think of a thousand things to do with VR -- from the relatively innocuous, like training jet pilots, to the most creepy, like psychological warfare.

The ethical questions over the content of virtual worlds will only escalate as the technology advances. People at industry conferences are already talking about "direct interface with the human nervous system" -- in other words, doing away with the cumbersome helmets and gloves and somehow patching computer output directly into your sensory inputs, beaming lasers onto your retinas.

They're only talking, of course, and few of us will probably live to experience it (fewer may want to). But virtual worlds with more-detailed graphics, better sound, more speed in responding to your actions -- these are inevitably where VR is heading. Lanier says that the goal of "photorealism," getting VR to look as good as the movies, is 20 years away.

Not every toiler in the VR trenches, though, has embraced that as a goal. Brenda Laurel, the cofounder of Telepresence Research in Palo Alto, has a longer and deeper perspective on the new technology than many of her colleagues. At Cyberarts, Laurel cautioned, "Multisensorysory photorealism is a false grail we've inherited from the computer-graphics world -- an obsession with turning up all the knobs at once. Marshall McLuhan said that media that saturate your senses also cauterize your imagination. We need to look at the notion of pleasure we're basing our work on. You can fry people's brains and have their eyes turn into spirals and have them stagger out and barf in your lap -- but that may not be the outcome you want."

Laurel -- who has written a provocative interdisciplinary book, "Computers as Theater," which looks at computer design through the lens of Aristotle's Poetics -- argued that designers should be aiming to "elicit imaginative participation," by, for example, figuring out how the senses interact. (It turns out that boosting sound quality can fool people into thinking they're also getting a better picture, but not the reverse -- improving the visuals won't compensate for crummy sound.)

If Laurel is right, then sooner or later we may want to stop fine-tuning the picture and adjusting the sound and think for a moment about why we're building artificial worlds in the first place.

The audio aspects of virtual reality are less glamorous than the visual, and there's a passel of competing systems, from PC-based cheapies to a Roland "sound localization system" that has been used by Michael Jackson -- and that, at $45,000, only he can afford.

At Cyberarts, I made an appointment to try out the Virtual Audio system, a product of Audio Cybernetics, based in Woodland Hills. In a dark room, I put on headphones and eyeshades (throw in a cork and it could've been Tommy's Holiday Camp). Then I listened to system designer Christopher Currell explaining the system to me. He was at my elbow, then behind me. He was popping a Coke can to my right. He was rattling paper clips above and behind my left ear. He was opening a newspaper and ripping it over my head.

Of course he wasn't there at all. What he had proved to me was that his equipment was capable of extraordinarily precise, life-like sound placement. In the future, some artist will no doubt find a brilliant use for this ability. For now, if you craved hearing paper clips rattle near your ear, it might be simpler just to have someone do it -- rather than summon all the technical might of the late 20th century to simulate the experience.

You could explain the appeal of virtual reality as just another manifestation of what Dr. Andrew Weil calls "the inborn drive to experience episodes of altered states of consciousness." In this view, our Western culture -- in which we sanction reaching goals through technology more readily than through chemistry or self-discipline -- is simply finding a mechanical road toward what Native American rituals have traditionally accomplished through hallucinogens and Buddhists have achieved through meditation.

That argument conveniently neglects the fact that VR is stirring some of its most avid interest in Japan, which, whatever its culture may have imported and borrowed from overseas, can hardly be called Western. To the resident of Tokyo, where every square inch is worth a fortune and living space is a precious commodity, VR may be of more interest as a kind of trompe-l'oeuil for the mind -- an antidote to claustrophobia -- than as a gateway to altered states.

For that matter, even though the highest concentration of VR-niks is here in California, VR may ultimately find its ideal market among the residents of cramped Manhattan studio apartments. (It could certainly solve problems like street noise or the upstairs neighbor's stereo.) The allure, that is, may lie less in how wild an imaginary world you can visit than in how many of the imperfections of the actual world you can screen out. VR, Lanier suggests, has the potential to "re-create the commons," to become the new town square; it could also serve as an escapist retreat.

Virtual worlds will presumably be free of pollution, homelessness and the rest of our urban ills. Still, it's worth noting that we're refining the ability to build virtual worlds at the same historical moment that we're perfecting the ability to dominate, alter and destroy the natural world we've inherited. Isn't it possible that absorption in virtual experience will distract us from or anesthetize us to what's happening to our actual environment?

Jaron Lanier doesn't think so. "The existence of a virtual Maui will just make the physical Maui that much more precious and desirable," Lanier argues. "I don't think virtual reality will ever serve as a substitute for the physical world. It's not as good. A virtual Maui could never be a full simulation. By putting it into a computer, you remove its mystery; it's blander and clunkier. You turn it into a finite model."

It would be nice if Lanier were right. But the human passion for models and representations and imitations is pretty strong -- particularly when they can be owned. Physical Maui may be "better" than virtual Maui. But sooner or later it will be cheaper to buy a virtual version of Maui than to visit the real thing -- as the cost of creating something through computer memory drops below the cost of paying people to build and maintain something real. And once virtual Maui is yours, you can have it all to yourself, or admit only people you want there. In that sense, virtual reality, far from "re-creating the commons," could generate a new species of exclusive property -- privately held psychic real estate.

"Telepresence" is a subgenre of virtual reality: Instead of hooking your senses up to a computer-generated world, a telepresence device simply feeds your senses input from a distant location -- it's like a remote pair of eyes and ears that follow the movements of your own. I tried out the telepresence equipment of the Menlo Park-based Fake Space Labs company during a roll-out party at George Coates Performance Works.

The Fake Space people have mounted a pair of small TV monitors at thet the end of a gyroscopically rigged boom that moves freely in all directions. As you move it, the exact same movements are duplicated by a "Molly," a "teleoperated camera platform" that becomes your surrogate eyes. You peer into the boom, and see whatever Molly sees.

The Molly looked like a pair of binoculars in a 5-foot glass bubble. It was stationary at the foot of the stairs that lead from the lobby of Coates' theater into the house, only its pair of lenses bobbing inquisitively. As I stood inside the theater and put my eyes to the boom, I got a great view of people chowing down brownies and ordering drinks in the lobby. People see the Molly's eyes swiveling and want to play to them, to perform. Only they can never be sure who's looking at them.

You don't have to search long to find visions of virtual reality's future potentials. The Holodeck used by the crew-members of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is one utopian gadget our engineers can't yet make real. Many other virtual realities have been charted by science fiction writers whose work predates the invention of the term.

Roger Zelazny's "Amber" books offer one glimpse of the kind of powers we might be granted in the benign version of Jaron Lanier's dream. Zelazny's heroes are able to travel at will through an infinity of "shadow worlds," among which they can find every possible variation of geography, biology and physical laws. (They use a kind of magic rather than computers and head-mounted displays, but the result is pretty much the same.) There's one problem: Only the members of one royal family are able to roam the multiple-choice cosmos; the rest of us are trapped in the worlds they hop among.

For a grimmer vision of a VR future, read Philip K. Dick's "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch," in which draftee space colonists of the near future relieve the miseries of off-planet life by communing with "Perky Pat layouts" -- miniature models of antiseptic suburban homes that they can enter, inhabiting Barbie- and Ken-like personas, when they take special, lichen-based drugs.

"For settlers on a howling, gale-swept moon, huddled at the bottom of a hovel against frozen methane crystals," Dick wrote, "Pat and her layout were an entree back to the world they had been born to." Meanwhile, mega-corporations are making their fortunes manufacturing accessories for the layouts that the colonists purchase with fetishistic devotion. In Dick's nightmare, a mass-produced virtual reality becomes a kind of consolation prize for people who've lost access to earthly reality; then it's rigorously exploited for profit.

Dick's satire of high-tech consumerism is eminently believable. But by far the most influential dreamer of the virtual future has been William Gibson, who coined the word "cyberspace" in his novel "Neuromancer."

"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation ... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system."

Gibson's cyberspace, roamed by those "legitimate operators" and "jacked into" by not-so-legitimate "interface cowboys," is a kind of three-dimensional database in which information, money and power are represented by physical shapes -- polygons in a digital dimension that is the corporate nexus of the future. The author, who admits he's no techo-whiz himself, has said on a number of occasions that his vision was intended as ironic.

That hasn't stopped VR pioneers from "jacking into" Gibson's ideas. In fact, the 3-D database concept is considered both achievable and useful, since visual representations of complex data are much more easily grasped than numbers. The stock tables of the future might be bar-graphs you could walk through; instead of following a tickertape printout, traders might have to follow the fluctuations of geometric shapes in a virtual environment. Business schools might have to start teaching virtual acrobatics.

The Jeetertech virtual reality system, which was on display at CyberArts, is the brainchild of San Francisco artist Scott Scarboro. It consists of a beat-up motorcycle helmet with an old-fashioned Viewmaster on the front and tinny headphones mounted on the sides. I placed it on my head and sniffed: Shaving cream? Nope, Vicks Vapor-rub, Scarboro said. After a minute of staring at the faded Viewmaster slides, I took the thing off. "I guess this is satirical, huh?" Scarboro, poker-faced, replied, "Well, some people see it that way...."
VR could easily become the new Wall Street, the new Hollywood, the new Disneyland, the new Bell System, or all these and more. Whatever it becomes, what's going to matter most is how we fit into it -- as subjects or as objects.

To be a subject, you need to have a face. Right now, the VR computers can't manage that level of detail. Today, in fact, virtual voyagers are doubly faceless: In cyberspace they're cyphers, while in actuality their visages are hidden by helmets that cut them off from contact with people standing right next to them.

As the technical people work on improving virtual reality's specs and the marketing people psych out its sales potentials, it's going to be a wild, confusing ride for the rest of us. But as different versions of the technology compete over the next decade for attention and money, we shouldn't settle for virtual anonymity. We should hold out for realities that can endow us with life-like expressions -- or machines that don't obscure the faces we already have.

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