WHAT DOES ‘VIRTUAL REALITY’ MEAN?

When we are not working hard at Staramba to create MATERIA.ONE, we occasionally look to test each others’ knowledge by asking trivia questions within the office. Previous questions have included:

  1. How many actors have played The Mountain in Game of Thrones? (Three)
  2. Who is the current drummer in The Who? (Zak Starkey, son of Ringo Starr)
  3. What are your favourite virtual reality headsets?
  4. Is the United Kingdom going to leave the EU? (Yes, if it ever gets its act together)

But, recently, we asked ourselves where the phrase ‘virtual reality’ actually comes from. Unfortunately, nobody knew so we had to go and research it. And we found that for something created in the twentieth century, and undergoing refinement in the twenty-first, the term ‘virtual reality’ has a surprisingly-vague origin in the real world.

It is easy to find any number of definitions of ‘virtual reality’, and there are only minor, semantic differences between various entries you find. Below, I’ve listed a few from the most-popular resources in the world. There are more, but I doubt we would find any significant differences.

HOW DOES THE DICTIONARY DEFINE ‘VIRTUAL REALITY’?

For example, the Cambridge dictionary defines it as, “[…] a computer system that creates an environment that looks real on the screen and in which the person operating the computer can take part.1

Likewise, Merriam-Webster has this entry, saying VR is: “[…] an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one’s actions partially determine what happens in the environment2

And says Dictionary.com: “[…] a realistic and immersive simulation of a three-dimensional environment, created using interactive software and hardware, and experienced or controlled by movement of the body.3

But the genesis of the term is murky. The first printed reference using the term ‘virtual reality’ comes in a 1958 translation of The Theater and its Double4, a French book of essays originally published in 1938. In the original French, the phrase used is ‘la réalité virtuelle’. Nevertheless, it’s a phrase that is used only once and has no relation to computers, VR systems as we understand them, or anything computer-generated, but more to the milieu of the theatre. Even trying to apply the definition of ‘virtual world’ is a bit of a stretch here.

THE FRENCH PHILOSOPHER’S CONTRIBUTION

As written by Antonin Artaud, the translated passage containing the phrase, says, “[The] perpetual allusion to the materials and the principle of the theater found in almost all alchemical books should be understood as the expression of an identity (of which alchemists are extremely aware) existing between the world in which the characters, objects, images, and in a general way all that constitutes the virtual reality of the theater develops, and the purely fictitious and illusory world in which the symbols of alchemy are evolved.5

It’s an intriguing origin for the phrase, but rather serendipitous. As mentioned, there is no relation to computers, computer-generated imagery, video gaming, virtual reality applications, or immersive experiences. Instead, it’s just an intriguing first appearance that has no relation to its modern-day use to describe the use of reality systems.

FIRST USE OF ‘VIRTUAL REALITY’ IN FICTION

Perhaps the first traditional use of ‘virtual reality’ as we understand it comes in 1982’s The Judas Mandala6, written by Australian science fiction author Damien Broderick and the second part of the Faustus Hexagram series.

The blurb for that book reads as follows: “Maggie Roche is an unemployed poet and single mother in 2009. Before the day’s done, she is spied on by a robotic rat, physically attacked, drugged into panic and rapture, seduced, drawn into conspiracy, then flung four thousand years into her own future.”

It continues: “In the alien world of the Upload Lifeform Lords, who are human-machine hybrids of overwhelming power, she learns that she is the first true time traveller in history, hunted by friend and foe. More than her own survival is at stake — the entire future of the cosmos will be reset by these terrifying events.”

For a work that could be considered seminal, there’s very little to be found relating to plot and story. Its last publication was by the little-known imprint Fantastic Books and there’s not much information out there about it. The best description we could find of its plot is that its very similar to The Matrix. So our best guess is that it’s about a virtual reality system that keeps people trapped in a VR world, giving them a reality experience.

MYRON KRUEGER AND THE ‘ARTIFICIAL REALITY’ OF ‘VIRTUAL REALITY’

While The Judas Mandala is the first use of the term ‘virtual reality’ in fiction, the idea of ‘artificial reality’ in a scientific, non-fiction context came to prominence in the 1970s, coined by Myron Krueger. Krueger later wrote Artificial Reality, published in 1983 (with an updated version in 1991).

In an interview with the journal CTHEORY7 in 2002, Krueger said of the term ‘artificial reality’, “I deliberately made the term provocative and liked the fact that it was an oxymoron. When I started, the term was more loaded than it is now. Then, the artistic and intellectual default position was outright hostility towards technology and ‘dehumanizing’ was assumed to always precede ‘technology’.”

But perhaps the most-resonant quote from Krueger’s interview with CTHEORY is the potential for VR in the context of that eternal human yearning for connection. Said Krueger, “One theme of modern life is the desire to maintain human relationships over distance. [We] strive to feel we are together when we are not. One of my key contributions was the idea that virtual reality provides a context in which we can interact physically as well as verbally with distant companions.”

That’s an interesting idea, that virtual reality technology could use implements such as the Oculus Rift to provide users with a social VR experience. Within a VR platform such as MATERIA.One, the main component of the virtual environment is the ability to meet and communicate with others.

Sources:

  1. ‘Virtual reality’, Cambrdige Dictionary (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english-german/virtual-reality)
  2. ‘Definition of virtual reality’, Merriam Webster (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/virtual%20reality)
  3. ‘Virtual reality’, Dictionary.com (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/virtual-reality)
  4. ‘The Theatre and its Double’, Google Books (https://books.google.de/books/about/The_Theater_and_Its_Double.html?id=bmf8CMzu3kIC&redir_esc=y)
  5. The Theatre and its Double. Antonin Artaud (https://fabbula.com/artaud/)
  6. ‘The Judas Mandala’, Fantastic Fiction (https://www.fantasticfiction.com/b/damien-broderick/judas-mandala.htm)
  7. ‘Myron Krueger Live’, CTHEORY (http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=328)

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