On secondlife.com you can create identity of your choice, visit any number of virtual destinations, perform super human tasks like flying, have interaction with other virtual beings and perform many other similar tasks. Basically you imagine who you want to be, whom you want to interact with, the places you want to visit, and there you go you can have all that on this site. Seems, if you visited secondlife.com, you just experienced virtual reality.
Well, maybe not… Imagine there was a major market crash today and you are dead scared about your financial future. Out of habit, you log on to secondlife.com and spend an hour navigating your dream virtual reality. But in fact, your mind is too occupied with market crash and potential financial worries, you are just mechanically clicking away your mouse but nothing in secondlife.com is making any impact on you. Did you experience virtual reality today! Probably no. Have you noticed how sometimes you totally get immersed in a movie? The tragic scenes bring tears into your eyes. Scary scenes frighten you. What will you call this experience of watching movie – real or virtual? Is it not another example of virtual reality! You are on a hike with your girl friend. The hike is known to have some dangerous animals and you love adventure. It is evening, partly dark. Suddenly, you see a wild wolf in front of you. You are dead scared. Your girl friend, who is usually very scared of any wild life, seems normal. Couple of seconds later she is laughing at you. Soon you realize that the animal in front of you is actually just a dog which looked like a wolf in darkness… Did you just have a very lively virtual reality experience! Taking above examples further, if you take drugs and go through hallucinations, you experience virtual reality. If you day dream and fantasize about your dream house, you again experience virtual reality. If during your meditation session, you are visualizing that you are walking on a beach, it is also virtual reality. Dreaming is another good example of virtual reality.
In future (probably distant), we might have technologies to directly provide stimulus to selected neurons in brain in order to enjoy desired experiences. That would be a very efficient way of experiencing virtual reality. So then what is virtual reality? Here is how I define it. “If what your brain experiences, is directly coming from this physical world, experience is real. Any experience that is created by pure thought, by virtual environment or by any other stimulus, is virtual”. (By the way, one could argue that the world we live in is itself not real. It is a valid argument, but that level of abstraction is beyond the scope of this article.) Yes, based on this definition, experiences can be partly real and partly virtual. So environments like secondlife.com are merely enablers of virtual reality. They make it easier for you to experience virtual reality. But they don’t guarantee virtual reality experience in all situations.
If virtual reality environments do not guarantee the intended experience, then what else do we need to get this guarantee? Did human beings anytime in past, going back to primitive times, indulge in virtual reality? In future, when virtual reality environments become vastly advanced and very real and safe, to what extent will human beings indulge in it? These are some of the questions I plan to address in future blog posts. Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with secondlife.com and not even sure if it is the best site for virtual reality. Any references to it are merely to illustrate the point. Neeraj