We are not lost

We have a 3D immersion cinema here at the University of Plymouth. It's a converted planetarium, which among other things, is now used to research some of the principles of virtual reality. I take visitors there just so they can experience the 'Wow!' factor. But how far down the road to full immersive experiences in education are we? We have handheld devices such as the Nintendo Wii, and sites such as Second Life which offer us a semblance of immersive experience sans the headset devices and much vaunted VR systems we heard so much about in the 90s. VR headset versions are being used in a variety of learning contexts such as military training, but how effective are they? And do we actually need them anymore? Popular fiction writers dwelt on the capacity of virtual reality to inspire, excite, terrify and bemuse, as in the Michael Crichton novel Disclosure:

He brought the headset down from the ceiling and started to place it over her eyes.
“Just a minute.” She pulled away. “What is this?”
'The headset has two small display screens. They project images right in front of your eyes. Put it on. And be careful. These things are expensive.”
“How expensive?”
“A quarter of a million dollars apiece.” He fitted the headset over her eyes and put the headphones over her ears.
“I don't see any images. It’s dark in here.”
“That's because you’re not plugged in, Louise.” He plugged in her cables.
Sanders stepped up onto the second walker pad and brought the headset down from the ceiling. He plugged in the cable. “I'll be right with you.” He said.
He put on the headset.
Sanders saw a blue screen, surrounded by blackness. He looked to his left and saw Fernandez standing beside him. She looked entirely normal, dressed in her street clothes. The video was recording her appearance, and the computer eliminated the walker pad and the headset.
“I can see you,” she said in a surprised voice. She smiled. The part of her face covered by the headset was computer animated, giving her a slightly unreal, cartoonlike quality.

Crichton painted a picture of a high cost, graphically rich, and exotic multi-media based technology into which users could mentally immerse themselves, and into which social interaction and interpersonal communication were embedded. It was a technology where the edges between reality and fantasy were blurred and where the interface between human and computer faded to grey within the mind of the user. Crichton's story was the unadulterated fiction we would expect, particularly with large cash advances and a Hollywood movie deal in the offing. This set of possibilities became the central theme for the cult movie series '
The Matrix' in which the boundaries between reality and virtuality were blurred. How does VR work on the mind so well, deceiving people into believing they are having some kind of 'real' experience? And do we need visors anymore now we have Second Life, the Wii and other apps which can 'fool' us almost as well...?

The media expert Derrick de Kerckhove sheds some important light on this question in his book '
The Skin of Culture'. de Kerckhove relates the story of a colleague who was visiting the wilds of Ontario, with an Alonquin Indian guide to look after him. At one point, he turned to his Indian guide and suggested that they may be lost. 'We are not lost', replied the guide, 'the camp is lost!'. This disconnect in cultural perceptions of space was not lost on the colleague, who realised that in his world space was fixed and he was a free agent wandering around it. His guide saw a different perspective, where the only fixed point was himself, and the rest of the world flowed by as he moved it under his feet. This is the exact same principle employed by VR systems to fool the individual into thinking s/he is moving around and encountering objects when in fact s/he is fixed in space.

This principle will sustain itself as the virtual experience in all its guises continues to perplex. But what it will look like is probably still beyond us.


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