Appeared in the Viewpoints column of the Communications of the ACM - February 2000

Exploring Virtuality

 Information Design

On whether we are dealing with an autonomous virtual realm or merely with an aspect of the mental realm.

F. Castel

It is useful to think of our interactions with the world around us as being within different realms: we physically interact with things of the world in the physical realm; we viscerally interact with the world in the biological realm, we cognitively interact with the world (including with our own inner representations) in the mental realm. Each of these realms has its own character and its own laws. The computer age has ushered in two new realms: the virtual realm in which we interact with virtual elements in artifactual worlds, and the informational realm (we are just on the threshold of it) in which information becomes decoupled from human processing.

We are currently in the midst of this transition of realms, and we are perhaps too close to it to appreciate the place of the new realms in the scheme of things. We continue to associate the virtual realm rather narrowly with entertainment and edutainment possibilities, despite the high impact of a much broader vein that fiction continues to announce (Stephenson's Snowcrash remains the best exemplar of the genre).

As we enter more practically into this realm, we need to ask some deep questions regarding its nature and how our interaction with the world (indeed the worlds) around us is changing. We need not address the normative issues regarding whether this is a good thing or how our human place under the sun should evolve. But it would be scientifically appealing to describe and model this new realm and the human interactions it makes possible. The French have a good start in this analysis (consider Pierre Levy's Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age. Plenum, 1998) but it is merely a start, with much to explore ahead.

Getting at the nature of virtuality, we might begin to contrast it with the mental realm. For indeed, the virtual realm could be thought of as simply a sophisticated and high-impact cultural change within the mental realm, rather than a new realm in itself. Virtuality rests on its bringing about a new potential for two domains of interaction, involving digital reconstructions of our natural world and imaginary worlds. Both deal in representations, i.e. in digital artifacts that we are invited to interact with.

As humans, we have always traveled imaginary worlds in our imaginations (mentally that is). Given the proper stimulus, such as a novel, off we go. At times, we can even get very deeply involved, in the same way that virtual reality builds on the presential feeling of participation and involvement in the virtual world. Indeed, the blurring of realms is the new phenomenon that adolescent psychology is having to explore as society becomes impacted by its effects, such as violent outbursts in public places. Computer games are but a new form of the age-old imaginative participation in the reading of novels.

So is the virtual realm, through human imagination, but the super-charging of the traditional mental realm? No, for virtuality offers more than mere mental promenading. It involves a level of participation that is physical, i.e. it involves actions of the participant on elements in the virtual world, with effects of some kind (as determined by the particular laws built into that world).

We need to remind ourselves that, even though virtual worlds are populated by digital representational artifacts (overlooking for now multi-participant worlds involving avatars), the supposed ephemerality of it all is misleading. The ever present Reset button only slightly reduces our feeling that we are acting in a realistic context with power over the elements presented to us in that virtual world.

We get to do so seemingly physically (through high-sensory experiences, even though they are at base artifactual) and actively (through decisive manipulation of elements within the virtual world) what we might just do in our everyday world. This feeling of physical presence and active involvement brings about a whole new dimension of interaction which mingles real and virtual elements and lets loose the highly-charged imagination. We have gone far beyond the mental realm.

A virtual world places before us a situation calling for action and which is reactive in making real changes to the state of the situation. Sounds like life, right? Now, it is all virtual in its ephemerality (remember the Reset button). And indeed, like a novel, one can delve into it and come on out again when supper is ready. In our current state of the art, yes. In what we can expect, we must not be so sure.

There are already a number of ways in which virtuality impacts reality well beyond its entertainment value. Skill is one: the pilot trainee who flies the simulators builds skills that carry over to flying real planes in real contexts, that being the whole point of it after all. Personality impact is similar to skill, although much more contentious and in need of much study: how much do the attitudes encouraged in virtual world interactions carry over to real social interactions? Go to it, psychologists!

The impact of virtuality, however, will truly explode on the scene of computing and its social context through the mingling of virtual and real worlds. And I mean beyond the virtual pet craze, itself a timid precursor of what is to come. For one, add other people to the mix. Hiding behind an avatar is another real person with real feelings and his/her own plan of action. The social dimensions of virtuality, while they will develop their own laws to an extent, are not unlike those of the world outside your own home.

And now add business and other transactional processes to the mix. Virtual gambling may all be truly digital, but hardly ephemeral - there is very real money to lose. As we continue to digitize our world, including the processes it involves, and as we begin to transact in all facets of that digital world, we in effect totally mingle the virtual realm with the other realms. We thus become more versatile, more powerful, but at the same time more open to surprises. No gain without risk, right?

To conclude, it seems evident that the virtual realm is indeed far different from the mental realm, from which it initially grew out of. The virtual realm, and we are really just getting going in it, offers much in possibilities and in risks. The learning curve will most likely be steep and there will be casualties on the way. Virtuality is a truly exciting realm.

And yet it pales in comparison to the informational realm that will follow it! Such is the potential of computing.

Felipe Castel specializes in information design theory in the context of the virtual Information Design Atelier.