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Virtual Realism
Michael Heim
Oxford University Press Inc, 1998
254 pages
ISBN: 0195138740

From my point of view an exceptionally profound, practical and humane book about all the fundamental questions that arise with Virtual Reality, Virtual Collaborative Workspaces, Virtual Environments, Telepresence and the dangers as well as the chances of living in the digital age.
The first impression that it might be a rehash of "The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality" is wrong. Heim is tackling the topics with more insight and deeper understanding especially the role and responsibilities of the virtual arts.

"Dedicated to those minds at large who find no home in the established schools"

1. VR 101 "Confused about virtual reality? What is it? Here's a guide for complete beginners."
2. Virtual Realism "Between the future shock of network idealists and naïve realism of the Unabomber runs a middle path. It is the peaceful road of virtual realism. Ten signposts mark the way."
3. The Art of Virtual Reality "Artists teach us how to marry technology with spirit. PlaceHolder and Virtual Dervish provide lessons in virtual realism. What do you learn from spending six hours in a headmounted display? Here's a report."
4. Interactive Design: Tunnel or Spiral? "Since the 1960s, artists–from Glenn Gould to Jim Morrison–prepared us for digital interaction. The same artists now help us to understand how to build holistic virtual worlds."
5. InfoEcology "Survival dictates that we integrate information systems with planetary ecology. Virtual Reality is already cleaning nuclear waste sites left by the Cold War. One engineering project adds photogrammetry to virtual realism."
6. Nature and Cyberspace "Does nature end where Cyberspace begins? Or can we put nature into cyberspace? The author looks that the puzzle through some personal life history."
7. AWS and UFOs "Why do alien intruders populate so many nightmares? What brings them to us? Consider these visitors our future selves, summoning us from the not-too-distant technological future."

p.6 The three "i"s of Virtual Reality. immersion, interactivity and information intensity.

Immersion comes from devices that isolate the senses sufficiently to make a person feel transported to another place.

interaction comes from the computer's lightning ability to change the scene's point-of-view ...
(Ralph Ammer notes that it is not appropriate to confine interactivity to change of the point-of-view, not even in old VR, but that is not of interest here.)

Information intensity is the notion that a virtual world can offer special qualities (Emphasis by me) like telepresence and artificial entities that show a certain degree of intelligent behaviour. Constantly updated information supports the immersion and interactivity, and to rapidly update the information, computers are essential.

Perhaps this richness these special qualities are what in an interactive environment/installation could be called Experiential Quality? All this information intensity partly creates the diversity and richness of the experience. But is more intense information automatically a better experience? It also is the how, the why, the what. The what for. Some of this information is live, remote, transparent ("intelligible") or pertains to multiple senses ... possibly resulting in a vivid and engaging or ambiguous and unnerving experience.
What is the relationship between the data/information, its presentation, the interface (interaction principle) - in short, the (perceived) content and how it is experienced?
Some pieces are overwhelming, immersive with high quality sound and large visuals ... others minimalistic, quiet, contemplative and with reduced modes of expression - but that doesn't necessarily define their quality! Ease of interaction, transparency are part of the equation. But these don't guarantee the quality of a piece, they just add on to it. So what makes the quality? The concept? The content?

The introduction is about Telepresence, Immersion, HMD's, VRML, the CAVE, the Boom and can be quickly browsed through.

p. 38 Idealists vs. Naïve Realists vs. Virtual Realists
Naïve Realists criticise and warn of the changes that come with networks, genetic modification etc.
They are less afraid of change then afraid of that these technologies will not bring the liberation they promised at it is still the same power elite which before moved 'atoms' now also moves the 'bits.' They would prefer, so Heim, to keep grounded outside of technologies. This idea comes of course at least a century to late.
Futurists like the Toffler's are Idealists. Their big ideas absorb individuals, only see the bigger picture and macro-economies.
This idealism is going back to the Rationalists and their faith in reducing thinking to systems of rational logic.
They are optimistic and embrace change and the future.
Two sides of the same coin ... Hegel would suggest a synthesis, but it is not in sight.
p. 43 Heim suggests the view of the Virtual Realist. The Virtual Realist "balances the idealist's enthusiasm for computerized life with the need to ground ourselves more deeply in the felt earth affirmed by the realist as our primary reality. [...] The delicate balancing act sways between the idealism of unstoppable progress and the Luddite resistance to virtual life."
But also: p. 44"Virtual Realism parts with realism pure and simple. Realism often means lowered expectations. [...] It is important to find a balance that swings neither to the idealistic blue sky where primary reality disappears, nor to the mundane indifference that sees in VR just another tool, something that can be picked up or put down at will. The balancing act requires a view of life as a mixed bag, as a series of tradeoffs that we must first discern and then evaluate. Balancing means walking a pragmatic path of involvement and critical perception.
p. 49The ten steps through the narrow gate of Virtual Realism:

1. Be clear about what virtual reality is in the strong sense.
2. Avoid glib exaggerations like "Everything's virtual reality."
3. Refuse to fear an all-pervasive technology monster.
4. Virtual worlds do not represent the primary world.
5. VR transubstantiates ('changed in substance') but does not imitate life.

6. We are just standing on the doorstep of virtual technologies and have to "bracket the current attacks on Virtual Life and Virtual Communities."
7. Now is the time for constructive criticism.
8. Realism in VR results from pragmatic habitation, liveability and dwelling [less] in calculation.
9. Watch how cyberspace intersects geo-physical space. [...] Observe those spots where high-end VR touches earthcentred applications.
10. Look closely at the bio-psychic imbalances created by computer technology.
11? The right names:The right name illuminates and enlightens. [...] it touches ethics and civic life. If language terrifies one part of the populace and over-stimulates another, then we have not found the right words. Joseph Joubert (1754-1824): "The true science of metaphysics consists not in rendering abstract that which is sensible, but in rendering sensible that which is abstract; apparent that which is hidden; imaginable, if so it may be, that which is only intelligible; and intelligible, finally, that which an ordinary fails to seize.

p.54 After returning from a movie theatre" Everyday familiar objects [...] take on a paranormal feeling, depending [on the type of movie].
When people return from HMD VR typical gestures are to pat the body and affirm the return to primary presence. (Emphasis by me.) [...] ...the landing back in the primary world takes much longer. Re-orientation takes time until the participants can walk away safely, and it takes even longer before everyday feeling tone returns.

p. 55 VR immersion must immerse the psyche as well as the senses if it is to fascinate.

p. 57: Philosophers have long noticed this: Plato shows us a Socrates who is always questioning, and Ortega y Gasset insists that we are most human when we fell our lives shipwrecked. Existing as a human being comes with a built-in sense of disorientation, because humans transcend the sureness of the instincts that guide the animals.

The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality
Michael Heim
Oxford University Press Inc, 1994
200 pages
ISBN: 0195092589

last update: 4/20/02010 15:48

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