week ago I was a Norwegian fisherman.
Yesterday I was a twelve-year-old girl from Peru.
Today I am a designer of virtual worlds.
It’s okay to have dozens of personalities online. Apart from having the ability to easily change genders, it is no different from the chameleon-like behavior of people in offline life.
You might only start worrying when you perceive no difference between the two.
There are certain characteristics of virtual worlds. One of them, if we talk about simulated realities, is game-like environments. The physics of virtual worlds are often based on the real world, and designers have to develop symbols and visual language in order to display familiar concepts in a simulated environment. Yet, the beauty of virtual worlds lies in the fact that the behavior of elements within them depends on a programmer’s imagination rather than the way things really happen on this Euclidian-Newtonian Earth. If I drop an object in the virtual world, it might just go up or even multiply and go sideways—the laws of such a world can be logical and consistent while not necessarily being in accordance with real physics.
There is another distinctive feature faced by visitors of digital worlds, especially when using virtual reality headsets. These devices are meant for immersing your physical body in the simulated reality. In the past, actions taken in the real world would often only be reflected in the virtual world following a noticeable delay, creating the sense of dissonance that was sometimes followed by dizziness. Though this has already been solved through the advancement of computational power, for a long time this side-effect was a common issue, and there was even an element of danger in having constant access to virtual reality headsets or augmented reality glasses.
This is because when you take the display off, you might not only feel slightly nauseated but also experience an effect which Michael Heim, the so-called “the philosopher of cyberspace”, referred to as “Alternate World Syndrome”. According to Heim, after spending hours immersed in a 360-degree simulation in 1994 (one of the first virtual reality artworks, ‘Virtual Dervish’, which was made by Marcos Novak, Diane Gromala, and Yakov Sharir), “everything seems brighter, even slightly illusory. Reality seems hidden beneath a thin film of appearance”. He felt like the world was vibrating as if something was about to break through an illusory film. I can’t say that I’ve ever felt such a tension after spending hours in simulation, but I can acknowledge that the world outside of virtual glasses transforms into a strange surface that feels like a flat screen, and it loses its sense of perspective. Yet, flat screens have also become portals of sorts, providing windows into virtual worlds made manifest by desktop that still leaves its viewer confused when their assumptions about the behavior of things mismatch reality. Highly experienced visitors of virtual worlds often have peculiar sensations when they deal with physical objects. Images and expectations generated by virtual worlds blend together with the real, and we tend to make more mistakes or improper gestures. I lost track of the number of times that I unconsciously tried to mentally press the cmd+z shortcut after doing something wrong with a physical object—when writing or drawing something on paper, for instance. Things can become even more bizarre. Every time I use a right-click context menu to copy something, I feel a slight pressure on my right hand, as if something ephemeral was inserted into it. This feeling can, in a way, be very useful. Sometimes, due to my lack of attention, I might forget what I was doing and start browsing things or switch to another project. However, once I notice that this feeling is still present in my right hand, I realize that I actually forgot to paste something. The proprioceptive senses of my body developed in conjunction with my indistinguishable computer prosthesis.
As a designer of worlds that are becoming increasingly more intertwined with reality, I tend to decide to what extent I want them to be connected to our daily lives. There is of course an easily imaginable dystopian option—numerous novels and movies describe the possible consequences of a world that is closely connected to, or even dominated by, virtual reality. The very first movie involving VR as a central component to its plot was probably World on a Wire, a 1973 television series. The story is based around so-called ‘identity units’ that inhabit a computer program as human beings but do not realize that the world they perceive as real is in fact completely simulated.
The Lawnmower Man from 1992 foresaw the emergence of VR therapy, which is already beginning to appear. In the movie, however, the therapy’s consequences were taken to the extreme, transforming the main character from a mentally challenged man into a high-tech being, capable of blending the virtual with the real and controlling all computers around the world. One of the most prominent science-fiction films, 1999’s The Matrix, depicts humanity not as wiling participants but slaves of a VR environment, and The Congress from 2013 provides a dark but not entirely out of reach perspective of a society that has kept their bodies but substituted their sight and senses for an animated alternative reality.
We’re not yet close to a scenario in which most of population will massively drop out of the real world in favor of an idealized and preprogrammed environment—unless it will become obligatory and be politically supported. Of course, we have online multiplayer games in which players may spend vast amounts of time as their alternative identities, but this isn’t a common phenomenon.
The actual situation is not as negative as it is often imagined.
I live at a time when complete immersion in a virtual realm became something that we are not afraid of. If people spend too much time in a VR headset, they indeed need some time to get used to their original environment when they come back, but it is not that different from the readjustment that astronauts or submariners go through when they return to the Earth’s surface. You just open a door to a hidden part of reality, but you can close it at any time and recalibrate for the primary world. In movies, VR and cyberspace in general are often visualized as a place overloaded with information, moving images, pop-up banners and messages, and they exaggerate the disorientation its users may face. In fact, in their early stages, VR and AR were indeed abundant with all kinds of visual experiments; these were brand-new forms of media, and after they were opened to a mass audience everyone sought to explore their potential and limits. A similar situation unfolded when people got introduced to the World Wide Web in the 1990s and started to explore HTML and CSS. Most websites were filled with all kinds of colorful banners, background images, animated gifs, and loud hyperlinks demanding to be clicked on. However, a few years later the internet gradually redesigned itself, adapting to people’s intrinsic need for orderliness and easily accessible information. No one wants to get an epileptic seizure after few minutes in VR — nausea-inducing software wasn't sustainable, and eventually designers adjusted it to a point where it could be used comfortably without affecting our mental and physical states.
I took my headset off and removed my glove controllers. For a moment, everything became dark and I felt my spirit lift a bit, then firmly grasping my body again. I always have this feeling when I wake up — it means that my body finished dreaming and needs to be recalibrated for wakefulness.
I opened my eyes slightly and felt a soft pillow under my cheek. That was a funny dream. What a silly thing, this VR. An artificially designed environment that tries to convince you that you are actually in another place. Someone writes code that attempts to substitute my normal sensory inputs with predefined ones, primarily vision. Well, transforming reality through visualization is a quite old alchemical tradition; we actually have access to it, but it’s so close to us that we can’t even notice it. Replace VR technology by dreams and you will get exactly the same effect. Most of the time, you are convinced of being in another location, except your sensory inputs are replaced not by a computer but by your unconscious wishes and desires.