From Plato to Portal: 3000 Years of Virtual Reality
6th September 2012 by Lindsey Kennedy
Ask most people what they think of when you say ‘virtual reality’ and you are likely to get one of two answers: video games or The Matrix. In fact, virtual reality technology is extraordinarily far reaching, playing a major role in providing training to sectors such as healthcare and the military, and providing incredibly diverse uses in everything from architecture to finance.
The concept of virtual reality and our attitudes towards it are surprisingly ancient. Like most things in the modern world, the idea is rooted in Classical Greek philosophy. In 1938, when the director Antonin Artaud described theatre as ‘la réalité virtuelle’, he was drawing on an argument that leads right back to Aristotle: that theatre provides a safe ‘virtual’ world, immersive and simultaneously detached from the ‘real’ world, in which we tell our stories, share ideas, explore, learn, work out our fears and anxieties, and ultimately experience catharsis. This, Aristotle believed, allows people to process information, ideas, emotions and desires that, in the real world, they might find it difficult to absorb or express. Essentially, or so the argument goes, playing LA Noire on your Xbox 360 is enjoyable because it allows you to express and purge darker impulses in an extreme, but also symbolic, environment, that has no negative impact on the physical world around you.
Even the early backlash is strikingly familiar. Rather than helping them to function better in the ‘real’ world, Plato argued that allowing people to plunge themselves into an imaginary world could cause them to forget themselves, to become excessively wrapped up the virtual world and to begin to absorb the cruelty or immorality they were experiencing, however vicariously. Nearly 2500 years later, debates still rage over whether too much time online makes us more or less connected and whether violence in video games provides an outlet for aggression, or actually increases it.
Of course, it has only recently become possible to create virtual worlds that faithfully replicate reality, as opposed to conceptualising it. Breakthrough technology has now made it possible to create virtual environments that imitate the real so convincingly that they can trick not only a willing human imagination but also animals and insects, as studies with cats and cockroaches have shown. Scientists have long understood the benefits of verisimilitude in training and education, especially in scenarios where potential problems are impossible to recreate physically. Medical students and soldiers are increasingly taught how to deal with complex operations through virtual simulations, whilst the NASA team who guided the Curiosity rover to a safe landing on Mars had years of ‘virtual’ practice to prepare for the historic event.
There are limitations to what can be achieved with virtual reality alone. Whilst most people will happily accept and interact with aesthetic and structural elements, no one has succeeded in finding an effective replacement for the input of real people, even within virtual worlds. Many video games attract extensive online communities of people who would rather compete against one other than against machines, whilst popular virtual worlds such as Second Life are, at the core, a vehicle for human interaction; albeit one that allows players to present fantasy versions of themselves. No one likes automated helpdesks, no matter how intelligent and able to understand sentences some of them claim to be. For most people, information and answers are still best provided by a real, relatable, responsive person, rather than a technological construct, even if that person is speaking to them from inside a virtual world.
It is always possible that attitudes may change as the technology becomes more convincing. Recently, a Japanese hacker succeeded in building himself a VR girlfriend using 3D assets, motion tracking technology and a pair of video goggles – an achievement that has been seen by some as a sign of an increasingly introverted society. However, the total rejection of human contact seems highly unlikely to catch on. Just as the fundaments of storytelling have been practically unchanged by thousands of years of technological development, changing attitudes and evolving tastes, the need to communicate with others, and to feel that ideas and information are being shared with us directly, seems unlikely to change. We respond to other people; we want to hear their stories and viewpoints because their experiences are like our own, and so we trust them to understand us and our needs. Virtual environments provide a great platform for sharing ideas and information, for framing the stories we tell, but they certainly can’t replace the element of human storytelling and interaction that lies at the heart of all communication.
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