Whereas virtual reality (VR) has been expected to be the next breakthrough for IT human interfaces, the future seems to be late.
Together with the cost of ownership, a primary cause mentioned for the lukewarm embrace is the nausea associated with the technology. Insofar as the nausea is provoked by a delay in perceptions, the consensus is that both obstacles should be overcame by continuous advances in computing power. But that optimistic assessment rests on the assumption that the nausea effect is to be uniformly decreasing.
Virtual vs Augmented
The recent extension of a traditional roller-coaster at SeaWorld Orlando illustrates the difference between virtual and augmented reality. Despite being marketed as virtual reality, the combination of actual physical experience (roller-coaster) with virtual perceptions (3D video) clearly belongs to the augmented breed, and its success may put some new light on the nausea effect.
Consciousness Cannot Wait
Awareness is what anchors living organisms to their environment. So, lest a confusion is introduced between individuals experience and their biological clock, perceptions are to be immediate; and since that confusion is not cognitive but physical, it will cause nausea. True to form, engineers initial answer has been to cut down elapsed time through additional computing power; that indeed brought a decline in the nausea effect, as well as an increase in the cost of ownership. Unfortunately, benefits and costs don’t tally: however small is the remaining latency, nausea effects are disproportionate.
The way virtual and augmented reality deal with latency may help to understand the limitations of a minimizing strategy:
With virtual reality latency occurs between users voluntary actions (e.g moving their heads) and devices (e.g headset) generated responses.
With augmented reality latency occurs between actual perceptions and software generated responses.
That’s basically the situation of Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare” fable: in the physical realm the hare (aka computer) is either behind or ahead of the tortoise (the user), which means that some latency (positive or negative) is unavoidable.
That lesson applies to virtual reality because both terms are set in actuality, which means that nausea can be minimized but not wholly eliminated. But that’s not the case for augmented reality because the second term is a floating variable that can be logically adjusted.
The SeaWorld roller-coaster takes full advantage of this point by directly tying up augmented stimuli to actual ones: augmented reality scripts are aligned with roller-coaster episodes and their execution synchronized through special sensors. Whatever the remaining latency, it is to be of a different nature: instead of having to synchronize their (conscious) actions with the environment feedback, users only have to consolidate external stimuli, a more mundane task which doesn’t involve consciousness.
Coming alongside the White House creative use of facts, the upcoming Snap’s IPO is to bring another perspective on reality with its Snapchat star product integrating augmented reality (AR) with media.
Whatever the purpose, the “alternative facts” favored by the White House communication detail may bring to the fore two related issues of present-day relevancy: virtual and augmented reality on one hand, the actuality of George Orwell’s Newspeak on the other hand.
Facts and Fiction
To begin with, facts are not given but observed, and that can only be achieved through a mix of conceptual and technical apparatus, the former to design fact-finding vessels, the latter to fill them with actual observations. Based on that understanding, alternatives are less about the facts themselves than about the apparatuses used to collect them, which may be trustworthy, faulty, or deceitful. Setting flaws aside, trust is also what distinguishes augmented and virtual reality:
Augmented reality (AR) technologies operate on apparatuses that combine observation and analysis before adding layers of information.
Virtual reality (VR) technologies simply overlook the whole issue of reality and observation, and are only concerned with the design of trompe l’oeils .
The contrast between facts (AR) and fiction (VR) may account for the respective applications and commercial advances: whereas augmented reality is making rapid inroads in business applications, its virtual cousin is still testing the water in games. More significantly perhaps, the comparison points to a somewhat unexpected difference in the role of language in the logosphere: necessary for the establishment of facts, accessory for the creation of fictions.
Speaking of Alternative Facts
As illustrated (pun intended) by virtual reality, fiction can do without words, which is not the case for facts. As a matter of fact (intended again), even facts can be fictional, as epitomized by Orwell’s Newspeak, the language used by the totalitarian state in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Figuratively speaking, that language may be likened to a linguistic counterpart of virtual reality as its purpose is to bypass the issue of trusty discourse about reality by introducing narratives wholly detached from actual observations. And that’s when fiction catches up with reality: no much stretch of imagination is needed to recognize a similar scheme in current White House’s comments.
As far as humans are concerned, reality comes with semantic and social dimensions that can only be carried out through language. In other words truth is all about the use of language with regard to purpose: communication, information, or knowledge. Taking Trump’s inauguration crowd for example:
Communication: language is used to exchange observations associated to immediate circumstances (the place and the occasion).
Information: language is used to map observations to mental representations and operations (estimates for the size of the audience).
Knowledge: language is use to associate information to purposes through categories and concepts detached of the original circumstances (comparison of audiences for similar events and political conclusions).
Augmented Reality devices on that occasion could be used to tally people on viewed portions of the audience (fact), figure out estimates for the whole audience (information), or decide on the best itineraries back home (knowledge). By contrast, Virtual Reality (aka “alternative facts”) could only be used at communication level to deceive the public.
As smart devices and dumb things respectively drive and feed internet advances, selfies may be seen as a minor by-product figuring the scenes between reasoning capabilities and the reality of things. But then, should that incidental understanding be upgraded to a more meaningful one that will incorporate digital hybrids into virtual reality.
Portraits, Selfies, & Social Identities
Selfies are a good starting point given that their meteoric and wide-ranging success makes for social continuity of portraits, from timeless paintings to new-age digital images. Comparing the respective practicalities and contents of traditional and digital pictures may be especially revealing.
With regard to practicalities, selfies bring democratization: contrary to paintings, reserved to social elites, selfies let everybody have as many portraits as wished, free to be shown at will, to family, close friends, or total unknowns.
With regard to contents, selfies bring immediacy: instead of portraits conveying status and characters through calculated personal attires and contrived settings, selfies picture social identities as snapshots that capture supposedly unaffected but revealing moments, postures, entourages, or surroundings.
Those selfies’ idiosyncrasies are intriguing because they seem to largely ignore the wide range of possibilities offered by new media technologies which could (and do sometimes) readily make selfies into elaborate still lives or scenic videos.
Likewise is the fading-out of photography as a vector of social representation after the heights achieved in the second half of the 19th century: not until the internet era did photographs start again to emulate paintings as vehicles of social identity.
Those changing trends may be cleared up if mirrors are introduced in the picture.
Selfies, Mirrors, & Physical Identities
Natural or man-made, mirrors have from the origin played a critical part in self-consciousness, and more precisely in self-awareness of physical identity. Whereas portraits are social, asynchronous, and symbolic representations, mirrors are personal, synchronous, and physical ones; hence their different roles, portraits abetting social identities, and mirrors reflecting physical ones. And selfies may come as the missing link between them.
With smartphones now customarily installed as bodily extensions, selfies may morph into recurring personal reflections, transforming themselves into a crossbreed between portraits, focused on social identification, and mirrors, intent on personal identity. That understanding would put selfies on an elusive swing swaying between social representation and communication on one side, authenticity and introspection on the other side.
On that account advances in technologies, from photographs to 3D movies, would have had a limited impact on the traction from either the social or physical side. But virtual reality (VR) is another matter altogether because it doesn’t only affect the medium between social and physical aspects, but also the “very” reality of the physical side itself.
Virtual Reality: Sense & Sensibility
The raison d’être of virtual reality (VR) is to erase the perception fence between individuals and their physical environment. From that perspective VR contraptions can be seen as deluding mirrors doing for physical identity what selfies do for social ones: teleporting individual personas between environments independently of their respective actuality. The question is: could it be carried out as a whole, teleporting both physical and social identities in a single package ?
Physical identities are built from the perception of actual changes directly originated in context or prompted by our own behavior: I move of my own volition, therefore I am. Somewhat equivalently, social identities are built on representations cultivated innerly, or supposedly conveyed by aliens. Considering that physical identities are continuous and sensible, and social ones discrete and symbolic, it should be possible to combine them into virtual personas that could be teleported around packet switched networks.
But the apparent symmetry could be deceitful given that although teleporting doesn’t change meanings, it breaks the continuity of physical perceptions, which means that it goes with some delete/replace operation. On that account effective advances of VR can be seen as converging on alternative teleporting pitfalls:
Virtual worlds like Second Life rely on symbolic representations whatever the physical proximity.
Virtual apparatuses like Oculus depend solely on the merge with physical proximity and ignore symbolic representations.
That conundrum could be solved if sense and sensibility could be reunified, giving some credibility to fused physical and social personas. That could be achieved by augmented reality whose aim is to blend actual perceptions with symbolic representations.
From Augmented Identities to Extended Beliefs
Virtual apparatuses rely on a primal instinct that makes us to believe in the reality of our perceptions. Concomitantly, human brains use built-in higher level representations of body physical capabilities in order to support the veracity of the whole experiences. Nonetheless, if and when experiences appear to be far-fetched, brains are bound to flag the stories as delusional.
Or maybe not. Even without artificial adjuncts to the brain chemistry, some kind of cognitive morphing may let the mind bypasses its body limits by introducing a deceitful continuity between mental representations of physical capabilities on one hand, and purely symbolic representations on the other hand. Technological advances may offer schemes from each side that could trick human beliefs.
Broadly speaking, virtual reality schemes can be characterized as top-down; they start by setting the mind into some imaginary world, and beguiles it into the body envelope portraying some favorite avatar. Then, taking advantage of its earned confidence, the mind is to be tricked on a flyover that would move it seamlessly from fictional social representations into equally fictional physical ones: from believing to be with superpowers into trusting the actual reach and strength of his hand performing corresponding deeds. At least that’s the theory, because if such a “suspension of disbelief” is the essence of fiction and art, the practicality of its mundane actualization remains to be confirmed.
Augmented reality goes the other way and can be seen as bottom-up, relying on actual physical experiences before moving up to fictional extensions. Such schemes are meant to be fed with trusted actual perceptions adorned with additional inputs, visual or otherwise, designed on purpose. Instead of straight leaps into fiction, beliefs can be kept anchored to real situations from where they can be seamlessly led astray to unfolding wonder worlds, or alternatively ushered to further knowledge.
By introducing both continuity and new dimensions to the design of physical and social identities, augmented reality could leverage selfies into major social constructs. Combined with artificial intelligence they could even become friendly or helpful avatars, e.g as personal coaches or medical surrogate.