Based on the preceding section addressing physical reality, it appears that humanity may already be living in a virtual reality created by the limitations of our senses from which our brains build a construct of reality. On examination the human perception of physical reality suggests a very different 'world' from the physical reality of atoms, let alone the wave functions of quantum mechanics. If you accept the basic premise of this argument, it should not be a major step to imagine that a virtual reality superimposed onto the human senses might adapt and extend our current perception of reality.
Of course, developments in technology, like evolution, will still proceed in the form of a series of incremental steps. While, today, fully immersive artificial reality (AR) does not yet exist, the foundations of the technology that could ultimately lead to AR is already being developed in the form of brain implants. However, we should accept this statement with a note of caution, as the future 'marketing' of technology can itself sometimes seem like a product of an alternative reality, preceding the actual delivery by many years and what is finally delivered proves to bear little resemblance to what was originally promised. So, in order to review the basic state-of-play in the development of existing virtual reality (VR) technology, it might be useful to first position the discussion in the wider framework of what different types of reality might be possible, now and in the future.
- Reality Types:
While possibly not an accepted definition, the development of reality simulations will be divided into just 2 classes that basically separate present-day technology from future possibilities:
- Virtual Reality:
In its most basic form, present-day VR may start as a simple model of an existing environment that can be projected onto one or more of the senses. This model can then be extended by adopting one or more of the reality modes described below. Today, immersion into VR still required the active use of your imagination, as the projection of the virtual world onto human sense is limited.
- Artificial Reality:
This type of reality represents the potential future development of VR. In principle, the immersion into AR is essentially a total superposition of a simulated world directly onto all human sensory input, i.e. sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Again, the laws of physics that define this artificial reality depends on which of the following modes is adopted.
- Virtual Reality:
- Reality Modes:
Again, the following definitions are only intended to reflect the basic classes of reality models that might be adopted in either present-day virtual reality simulations or future artificial reality worlds.
- Baseline Reality:
This mode is essentially a model of the 'real' world, as perceived by human senses. As such, it may represent a specific place or environment that conforms to the normal laws of physics.
- Augmented Reality:
This mode can enhance a view of reality by adding information or objects that do not exist in the original environment. For example, avatars might have access to visual displays of information, on demand, about any aspect of the reality being simulated.
- Released Reality:
Finally, this mode frees reality from the normal laws of physics, e.g. time can be reversed or gravity suspended. While, by definition, any form of fantasy might be simulated, in practice, the scope of this mode might depend on the level of immersion into the reality in question. This aspect will be become more apparent in the examples to be discussed.
- Baseline Reality:
In this context, virtual reality is restricted to being a present-day technology that projects onto our existing senses so that we might more easily imagine an extended reality of a virtual world. In its most primitive form, virtual reality may be little more than the imaginary world we can created in our head when reading a book or listening to the radio. However, in its modern form, virtual reality can be more immersive as it can trick our existing senses, especially sight, to perceive an extensive and interactive reality generated by computer software.
Possibly one of the most well-know virtual reality worlds is called
Second Life, which was
launched in 2003 and made accessible to anybody via the Internet. A
free client program has to be download onto your home PC, which then
allows you create an avatar of yourself that then exists in an interactive
3-D virtual world. While the immersion into the Second Life virtual
world is restricted to a 2-D PC screen, a computer simulated world
is generated that allows its inhabitants, i.e. avatars, to socially
interact with each other, and in some cases, even earn a living within
virtual reality. Clearly, the concept of extending physical reality
is appealing to many people who use it and presumably may become even
more widely attractive, as and when, the technology progresses.