October 21, 2012

Do We Really Have Virtual Reality?

In Bolter and Grusin's piece, Ubiquitous Computing, they outlined the difference between several types of technologies:

-- virtual reality -- in which the user is completely immersed in the reality presented (213)
-- telepresence -- in which the user is present in an actual reality through the technology (214)
-- augmented reality -- in which reality is annotated by technology (215)

The major difference between virtual reality and the other two is transparency -- virtual reality has it, while the others do not. Instead, they have hypermediacy, which leads to the presence of ubiquitous computing. (216)

Do we ever encounter virtual reality on a daily basis? Having a completely transparent medium is very hard to achieve. Even with supposed virtual realities, such as online games, virtual tours, and motion-centered console games, the medium is always present. Even if you are playing Wii tennis with the tennis accessory for the remote, you never actually believe you are on a tennis court or you are playing a real person. You are still staring at a television or a computer screen and you are usually sitting down. To call this virtual reality borders on dangerous -- what if our children grow up thinking Wii Tennis is actual tennis? Or that clicking through a computer generated house is the same as seeing and being in the house? Could this type of virtual reality ever fully replace reality?

This talk of virtual reality reminds me of a novel I read in middle school: Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde.

In this book, the main character is playing a virtual reality game at a facility dedicated to full-immersion games when an error traps her in the game. She must win if she wants to leave the game. The entire time, she is very aware that she is participating in virtual reality, not actual reality, even though she can't see the machinery. Eventually, the glitch becomes real -- if she dies in the game, she dies for real, and then she starts treating the game as reality, instead of a game that should be faced with strategy.

At one point, a character is inserted into the game which only she can see, a scientist who is there to explain the error and the consequences. Here she is presented with two conflicting realities and any alleged transparency of the medium is destroyed, but it is at this point which the game gets all the more real. So will attempts at transparency always fail because the user is always aware of the technology involved? Does hypermediacy actually make the technology more real and usable?

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