IIMS 96 contents
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Virtual reality or virtual unreality

Anthony Lusk
Western Australian School of Design

The nature of reality

While searching the Internet I stumbled across a message entitled "Virtually Yours" which urged the reader not to waste time sitting in front of a computer. It suggested that I would be better off doing something of value, going for a ride in the country, playing sport or spending time with my family. I know from practical experience how all absorbing that world of the computers can become. If you visit a computer room at a tertiary institution you are likely to find young people sitting in front of the computer for hours at a time, completely absorbed by the fascination of it all. So "Virtually Yours" attempt to guide us back to the "real world" is most laudable, though those of us who have experienced family life may prefer to escape into the virtual world of computers rather than face the realities that family life can present us with. It is not always the kind of reality that we want to deal with. Increasingly the so called real world does not satisfy us, and people have turned to all kinds of escapism, films, dreams, drugs and yes, even computers.

Before I enter into a discussion about "Virtual Reality" it may be of value to look at what we understand by "reality". On the obvious material level, we rely on our five senses to feed information into the brain and a construction is created in our mind that we then classify as being real. Now we all know of course that the senses can be deceived, but it works well enough to allow us to create a reality that enables us to function effectively in most situations that we are likely to encounter. However, what we see is not what is there, it is simply an adequate representation that our brain constructs from the available information. What appears to be solid matter is, in fact, mainly space and even the nucleus of atoms that were previously considered as solid matter are now being questioned by scientific exploration into sub-atomic particles. If the big bang theory of the universe is correct, and all the matter of the universe could be compressed into an area smaller than the head of a pin, then it raises the question:

What is the nature of this material world that we perceive?

The scientist Niels Bohr showed that the stability of the atom could only be explained using quanta based mathematics. One aspect of this is the "quantum leap" phenomena where electrons apparently jump between electron shells around the central nucleus without being in between at any time. Louis de Broglie formulated a theory that a subatomic particle's state could be described as a wave function and that what could be calculated was the probability of the particle being in any particular point at a given moment. Benjamin Woolley describes what Bohr's ideas implied in the following manner:

It was a startling strategy; one implying that the electron - indeed, any sub-atomic particle - was not in one place at one time that the wave function helped determine, but actually smeared across a field of probability in a way that could only be described using statistics (Woolley, 1992, p219).
Werner Heisenberg stated that
It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event (Heisenberg, 1989, p19).
However, as soon as a scientist takes a measurement of some description, then the transition from possible to actual takes place. This raises a question about the independent existence of the material world and gives the observer a role of an active participant rather than merely a passive observer. This implies that our perception of the world is the thing that creates it. Science is beginning to question the nature of reality and the way we understand it.

Quantum mechanics was formulated as a theory when it no longer became possible to explain the behaviour of sub-atomic particles in terms of scientific laws that normally apply to our universe. Scientists are discovering that reality may not be the product of universal laws of perception. In view of this, "Jarin Laniers oft-quoted assertion that it is not the idea of artificial reality that is strange, but reality itself' (Woolley, 1992, p225) would appear to be a very valid observation.

The artist does not concern himself with dissecting and observing the world in the same way that the scientist does; his way of exploring truth or reality is a much more subjective one. Because of what the scientists are discovering about the nature of the physical world, their ideas and those of artists about the nature of subjective truth are now beginning to appear much more in tune with each other. In fact the truth expressed by the artist can be considered as a more sustainable "reality" than that of the scientist.

Art and the nature of illusion

The Hindu word maya means both art and illusion. Some aspects of the Hindu religion class all material objects as belonging to the realm of illusion and modern scientific investigations into the nature of matter are definitely tending to support this notion. However, in religious terms, this illusion does not simply refer to the fact that the world of matter can be equated to a wave function or a set of possibilities, but that all material objects are subject to decay or entropy. In fact some would consider that the only aspect of the physical world that can be termed real is energy which Einstein discovered can neither be created nor destroyed. Some religious beliefs have equated energy with the life force of the universe, which the seeker of self realisation attempts to unite his mind with as the only permanent reality.

Certainly illusion has figured prominently in art, illusion of space created on a two dimensional canvas, illusion of one material representing another (marble for flesh) or plaster representing confectionary in Oldenberg's cake shop. Many artists such as Duchamp, Johns and Cage have explored the concepts of illusion in art. What I am trying to demonstrate here is that the illusion that the artist creates is just as valid, and may be argued is more valid, than the so called "real world". Van Gogh's painting of sunflowers can be considered as representing a greater reality than the original subject because it involves human observation and interpretation which gave rise to a completely new creation. Furthermore, the "real" sunflowers have long since ceased to exist whereas Van Gogh's have survived to give pleasure to millions. It is a realisation of the subjective truth as observed and expressed by the Artist.

Virtual reality

In the technology of virtual reality, the artist has at his disposal the ultimate illusion making tool. The Oxford Dictionary defines virtual reality as "The generation by computer software of an image or environment that appears real to the senses". On the other hand the Webster Dictionary does not define virtual reality as such but gives the following definitions This can be paraphrased as the following, virtual reality is a "state or fact that is real in effect but not in form".

It is interesting to note that what is "real" is a matter for objectivity and can be extremely difficult to establish, but the effect is more subjective and does not have to be substantiated in the same way. Having said that, if we had to collide with a wall I'm sure we would rather it were "virtual" than "real".

Increasingly, people have become familiar with products of an artificial experience: theatre, novels, movies and television. During the course of the development of art better and better ways of creating the illusion of reality have been found. The renaissance painters went to great pains to use the laws of linear perspective to create very convincing representations of three dimensional space on a flat surface, but looking at the work, nobody would be misled into recognising it as anything other than a "painting". With the advent of movie films, television and virtual reality the distinction between reality and illusion has become increasingly blurred. Virtual reality has the capacity to produce the ultimate illusion, a field that is very familiar to the artist. According to Michael Heim the essence of virtual reality does not lie in the technology but in art, perhaps art of the highest order. He states that rather than being considered as a form of escape, entertainment or communication, the ultimate purpose of virtual reality may be to redeem our awareness of reality. Undoubtedly, in the hands of a creative and original thinker, the ability to create illusions can lead to some wonderful work. Richard Wagner was one artist that spoke of a "Total work of art" which he saw as a seamless union of visual art, drama, dance and music that could transport the audience to another dimension. As human beings we all have the ability to enter symbolic space or lose ourselves" into art that is sublime and can transport us to another plane of being. However, a virtual world is in danger of becoming boring or mundane if it merely imitates the "real world", the ultimate virtual reality should go beyond the "real" world which is anchored in the space time world of life and death to become a transcendental experience.

The secret of blurring the distinction between reality and virtual reality is a phenomenon known as immersion. Previously to the advent of computer technology, the closest that we were able to come to the kind of total immersion necessary was the 70 mm cinescope film. Further attempts to make cinema more immersive involved the developments of such systems as cinerama, 3D glasses and the omnimax system which projected the image onto a domed roof encompassing the cinema.

The state or theatrical medium that virtual realities can be created on is that broad electronic net called cyberspace. Theatre patrons will be able to enter cyberspace from where they live thus eliminating the need for them to gather at the theatre. It also opens up the new and creative possibilities for inter activity and communication between people. Virtual reality has the capability of giving people mobility and control over their lives in a new media environment.

The value of this technology for educational purposes has long been recognised and simulators are being used for training pilots and astronauts. The technique of telepresencing is one that is closely allied to virtual reality and this is being used to control robots in environments that are not suitable for humans, such as working on the bottom of the ocean. The ability to simulate a wide range of real or fantasy environments makes this technology particularly suitable for entertainment and educational applications. It is possible to design a 3D paint system so that people can create their own virtual environment that others could explore. Another exciting possibility for virtual reality is interactive theatre. The combining of the technologies of interactive cinema and virtual reality present the viewer with the capability of influencing the action and creating their own endings. Virtual technology could change the world of drama dramatically by allowing audience interaction.

Post modernism and virtual reality

Post modernism is a current term used for a movement that is a product of modern day capitalist culture, with particular reference to the arts. It originated in New York in the 1960s and has been adopted by European theorists, in particular Jean Francois Lyotard in his book The Post Modem Condition. This book has questioned some of the myths of the modern age, progressive liberation of humanity through science and the idea that "philosophy can restore unity to learning and develop universally valid knowledge for humanity" (Sarup, 1993, p132).

Madan Sarup identifies these aspects of post modernism as being most significant. The blurring of the boundaries between art and everyday life and the disappearance of the distinction between fine art and popular culture. Post modernism is typified by stylistic eclecticism and involves parody, pastiche irony and playfulness. It is critical of anything that goes beyond the manifest to the latent. Other important features are a shift from content to style and a fragmentation of time to a perpetual present which has been referred to is its schizophrenic tendency. It is important to note that the modernist idea of the private identity, capable of generating its own unique vision of the world has lost favour in the post modernist world which considers individualism as a myth. The concepts of Marx and the emancipation of the worker to form a classless society has lost credibility. Post modernism has seen the stabilising of capitalism and socialist philosophies have lost favour. Jean Baudrillard is considered a post modernist philosopher and his thinking has relevance for the relationship between virtual reality and post modernism. I would argue that virtual reality is very much a post modernist phenomenon with its blurring of boundaries between art and everyday life, reality and illusion. Baudrillard felt that the world was constructed from models or simulacra. One of the ideas behind this was that no reference or ground had any reality except its own. What used to be considered as non-essential points of capitalism, advertising, media an communication networks have increasingly moved to the dominant position in modem society. The media has become so good at creating images that consumers tend to be immersed in them with the result that they lose their relationship with an external reality. He considers that the image or signifier of an event replaced the direct experience. The news for instance, is a collage of broken images and that these images are only signifiers and have a reality only as images which are not necessarily tied to the event. The past is "treated as a resource bank of images for casual reuse" (Sarup, 1993, p165), another example of the schizophrenic tendency for denying historicity, giving us only an eternal present.

The purpose of TV and mass media is to privatise individuals and place them into a world of simulations where it will become increasingly difficult to differentiate between the illusion and the real. Post modernism has been accused of plundering the past for images and using them in such a way as to strip them of historical significance, "When the borderline between the real and the imaginary has become eroded reality is not checked, called to justify itself" (Sarup. 1993,p165).

Reality is no longer our contact with the world, this is determined by what we are presented with on the TV screen. This is what Baudrillard considers as simulation which he maintains has replaced production.

Virtual reality and the artist

So what are the implications of this new technology for artists? As I have mentioned earlier, the artist will have at his disposal the ultimate illusion maker. It will have the potential to change the nature of the relationship between artist and the viewer through the interactive possibilities that the computer can facilitate. This has the potential to decrease the distance between the artist and the audience, the viewer will no longer be simply a passive recipient of what the artist presents and will be able to respond in an interactive way to influence the outcome of the work. He will become a participant rather than a spectator.

Even without virtual reality or computers, the nature of the interaction between an audience and an exhibition is changing. I recently had a collaborative exhibition with another artist, Barbara Bolt, at the Fremantle Art Centre where the audience was presented with the process of creative endeavour instead of looking passively at a series of completed works. The gallery was set up as an artists studio and the work was produced during the exhibition. An important feature was the interactive nature of the show where people come into the gallery and talked to the artists and observed the work being created. The entire gallery became an interactive work of art where artists were relating to the audience and to each other. The whole process was recorded by video cameras in the ceiling and spy cameras on the artist's arms and head recorded close up aspects of the process of creating the work. The four images from the videos were projected onto a split screen, but the viewers could select any of the images as a full screen presentation. Virtual reality technology would allow for more direct input from the audience, blurring the distinction between artists and audience so that their reaction becomes an integral part of the work. Inter activity is going to become increasingly important in art as people are encouraged to explore issues and Ideas.

The divisions between the different art forms have been eroded during the modernist era and this process will continue into the post modern era. Film already combines music, theatre and the visual arts and virtual reality will further hasten and facilitate the merging of different art mediums. No longer will there be a distinction between visual art, theatre and music. Modern film has relied almost exclusively on photography for its visual imagery, but with modem techniques in computer graphics and animation developing at such a rate, artists will be able to use drawing and paint programs to create increasingly sophisticated images. Spielberg's Jurassic Park used computer animation to create very realistic and convincing images of things that don't exist. Computer paint, animation and 3D programs will increasingly replace or augment the camera as a means of realising moving images.

In order for an artist to express his imagination he must have some sort of tool, and this places restrictions on what is possible. Because of the power of the computer virtual reality increases the scope of what can be created by the artist. However the production of realism does not guarantee great art, it could be argued that the artist's creativity works best when there are constraints. Virtual reality does have its limitations, but these can be found in the fact that the technology is very expensive, technically demanding and time consuming. This means that if the medium is to be accessible to people who wish to create their own virtual worlds, suitable tools will have to be designed for them.

The future of Virtual Reality is not without its problems and a planned strategy for research and development needs to be put in place to ensure that virtual reality doesn't suffer the same fate as other technologically based mediums. Unfortunately, history indicates that, like so many great and enlightening inventions, this will not happen and it is likely to suffer the same debasement as film, television and video. One of the major problems is that modern mediums are becoming increasingly expensive and virtual reality is no exception to this. Artists who wish to communicate through this medium will have very little access to it because by and large they do not have the funding. This means that the industry will become controlled by those who do have the resources to exploit it and they will use it to make money from the areas that realise the most profit, entertainment and pornography. This technology will be a very powerful tool to influence people's minds in a potentially profound and alarming manner. It could be used as a propaganda mechanism of the most convincing form to influence the thinking of people in a way that is favourable to those who have the most access to the technology. Television already has a considerable hold on the minds of the majority of people who tend to believe what is presented to them as "real" even though that reality is created by the television script writers and camera men. I read of the case of a person who lived near the scene of a railway accident who was able to view the scene first hand, and scarcely recognised it as the same event when he saw it on the television news that night. How much more power would virtual reality technology have over the ability to shape people's perceptions of reality?

The artist who has the capacity to provide the antidote for this and present a different perspective, will have great difficulty in realising this role because of limited access to the technology. He may only be able to do this as an employee of an organisation and this will place restrictions on his ability to use it with originality and integrity. The military in the USA have invested enormous quantities of money into the development of virtual reality because of its very obvious military applications, and as we all know the military has at its disposal even larger budgets than big businesses.

However artists do usually manage to gain access to various forms of modem technology through government grants and universities, and are able to use the limited resources that these can provide to produce interesting and creative work. But they will still confront the continual problems that artists have to deal with and that is access to the general public. Their message can only be disseminated from outlets such as art galleries (which only a minority of people go to), art theatres and cinemas (which most people steer clear of) or public television (which comparatively few people watch). In the past the mass media has generally been denied to the artist and consequently he has not been able to capture the public imagination in the same way that "popular culture" has. One of the features of the post modern era is that the distinction between "fine art" and "popular culture" is being increasingly eroded and I am sure that many very talented artists are being employed to produce material for the mass entertainment industry. But they seldom deal with issues of great importance to our future. It is my view that the post modernist era will see technological developments such as computers and virtual reality increasingly invading and dominating the field of art. As I have described earlier, this will open the way for some startling innovations and possibilities for art and artists, but there are also ramifications that are cause for considerable concern. Art will increasingly pass into the hands of those with the big money.


Baudrillard, Jean (1983). Simulations. New York: Semiotext.

Cooke, Philip (1990). Back to the future. London: Unwin Hyman Ltd.

Heim, Michael (1993). The metaphysics of virtual reality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heisenberg, Werner (1989). Physics and philosophy. London: Penguin.

Helsel, Sandra and Roth, Judith Paris (1991). Virtual reality - theory, practice and promise. Wesport: Meckler Publishing.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1984). The post modern condition: A report on knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Pimentel, Ken and Teixeira, Kevin (1993). Virtual reality: Through the new looking glass. New York: Windcrest Books/ McGraw Hill.

Sarup, Madan (1992). Post structuralism and post modernism. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Woolley, Benjamin (1992). Virtual worlds: A journey in hype and hyper reality. Oxford UK: Blackwell.

Author: Anthony Lusk
Western Australian School of Design
Central Metropolitan College of TAFE
19 Aberdeen Street, Perth Western Australia 6000
Phone: (09) 427 2563 Fax: (09) 427 2533

Please cite as: Lusk, A. (1996). Virtual reality or virtual unreality. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 237-241. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/lp/lusk.html

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