The week of June 28, 2015

The blurring line between virtual reality and real life

By Jesse Hicks

The Lawnmower Man is one of the stranger artifacts of ’90s cinema. Starring Jeff Fahey as the titular, simple-minded gardener who’s experimented on by a nerdy, pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan, the movie sutures Flowers for Algernon to Frankenstein to a half-dozen other sci-fi and horror B movies. There’s a scientist with a god complex, a shadowy corporation looking to militarize his research, and an unwitting patient. It’s a fever dream of a cautionary tale, working the familiar themes about man’s hubris and Things In Which We Are Not Meant To Meddle. And soon enough, Fahey’s memorably named Jobe Smith christens himself “CyberChrist.”

Besides its over-the-top camp value, The Lawnmower Man is remarkable for its worries about a technology that soon revealed itself as a fad: virtual reality. VR was big in the 1990s—or at least big on hype—and when the would-be CyberChrist talks about the future, he sounds a bit like a hype machine himself. “This technology has peeled back a layer to reveal another universe,” he says. “Virtual reality will grow, just as the telegraph grew to the telephone—as the radio to the TV—it will be everywhere.” Notice there’s no mention of something called the Internet. Brosnan’s scientist responds, “You’re having delusions, Jobe. Struggle for reason!” Come on, CyberChrist—get serious.

“You’re having delusions, Jobe. Struggle for reason!” Come on, CyberChrist—get serious.

But as Aaron Sankin investigates in this week’s issue of the Kernel, in the early ’90s, it wasn’t so far-fetched to believe VR would change the world. Jonathan Waldern was a British Ph.D. student who turned his attention to virtual reality; he believed it could redefine the way we interacted with computers—and with one another. His company, Virtuality, helped mainstream VR, bringing bulky helmets and primitive 3D graphics to arcades around the world. He became a paper millionaire when the company went public, and the future looked bright. But reality failed to live up to the hype, and VR fizzled. An apparent dead end, the idea remained largely dormant until recently, revived by systems like the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, built with inexpensive, off-the-shelf technology. And Jonathan Waldern still has his dream, ready to see what happens to virtual reality this time around.

How might virtual reality affect us? Will it turn us into strange and deranged techno-gods like in The Lawnmower Man? Well, no. Will it lead to dizziness and nausea, as Brian Williams warned way back in 1996? Maybe! But probably not. As Selena Larson explains, scientists have been using VR for decades in experiments measuring its effects on empathy. Can stepping inside a virtual reality world, taking on someone else’s view of the world, make us more understanding and tolerant?

Of course, virtual worlds don’t have to be built from bulky helmets and 3D graphics. They can be built of words. Chris Stokel-Walker looks at Avalon, an online, text-based multiplayer game that began in 1989. It’s still around today, a world unspooling one line of text at a time. For the small group of people still playing—some of whom have been there from the beginning—it’s just as important and engaging as the so-called “real world.” Maybe even more so.

There’s no real division between the worlds we call real and those we call virtual.

It’s a reminder that there’s no real division between the worlds we call real and those we call virtual. Both are human spaces; what happens in the “virtual” can bleed through into the “real,” and (obviously) vice versa. Jenny Davis reminds us that we’re already embedded in virtual worlds, in her examination of the unfolding saga of Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal, she argues, has sparked a debate about an entirely virtual identity—that of a person born into the wrong race or ethnicity, dubbed “transracial.” Critics and pundits from both sides of the political spectrum have addressed the concept, whether in mockery or support, but no actual human being has claimed this identity. It’s entirely virtual, Davis argues—at least for now.

In short, we already occupy virtual worlds, virtual spaces, virtual identities—to the point that we might as well drop the “virtual.” There’s just the world, with a multiplicity of spaces and identities, and we’re all figuring out how to navigate them.

Photo via Charisma Jonesford/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed