The Virtual Reality Paradox: Oxymoron or Pleonasm?

In a public email message addressed to Wired Magazine, Nicholas Negroponte (1993) stated that “if prizes were awarded for the best oxymorons, virtual reality would certainly be a winner.” Negroponte supported his statement by referring to the neck-jerk reaction. A habit VR consumers display, in order to evaluate the response-time of the VR graphics-engine by quickly moving their heads from one side to the other (Negroponte, 1993). Even today, a virtual reality experience still appears to be more virtual than real. “But virtual reality – or VR – is becoming a pleonasm. If the words ’virtual reality’ are seen not as noun and adjective but as ‘equal halves,’ the logic of calling VR a pleonasm is more palatable,” Negroponte (1993) argued. In the summer of 2016 Elon Musk made a similar claim, on stage at Recode’s Code Conference. “’If you assume any rate of improvement at all then games will become indistinguishable from reality’ Musk said,” (McCormick, 2016) shortly after stating that we’ve gone from Pong to photorealistic VR in forty years, which is nothing on an evolutionary scale. Therefore, Musk concluded “the odds that we are living our lives in base reality – that is, ‘real’ reality – is one in billions” (McCormick, 2016). With this statement Musk obviously attempts to support his conclusion that games will become indistinguishable from reality, with the help of Bostrom’s simulation argument. Bostrom (2003) argues that:

At least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a ‘posthuman’ stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation. (Bostrom, 2003)

When looking at the concept virtual reality from Bostrom and Musk’s point of view it is easy to argue that VR is or will be a pleonasm and a true simulacrum, an experience undistinguishable from reality. If only because Bostrom demonstrates how difficult it is to establish what reality actually is, by arguing that even the reality we experience on a daily basis might be a simulation itself.

Originally the grand questions concerning the meaning of life, consciousness and reality were only to be answered by sages and religious leaders, but nowadays physicists dare to participate in the debate as well (Rubenstein, 2014, p.1). However, the big question of what reality actually is, remains one that is difficult to answer for both quantum-physicists and philosophers. Science Fiction author Philip K. Dick (1995) said that, “reality is that which if you stop believing in it, does not go away.” Yet according to Wilson (1983), Timothy Leary on the other hand, said that “with a subconscious set of mental filters formed from his or her beliefs and experiences, every individual interprets the same world differently.” Where Dick suggests that reality is something absolute, Leary’s reality tunnel proposes that these observations are highly individual and subjective. While statements like the ones made by Dick and Leary provide great food for thought, from an academic point of view they seem hardly useful in accurately determining what reality is. In order to establish whether VR will one day be a true simulacrum though, a proper academic perspective on reality is required. We should first fully comprehend the object we are trying to indistinguishably reproduce, before we can attempt to create a lifelike reproduction of said object in a virtual environment. In other words, we have no choice but to pursue the grand question of what reality actually is. We will do so by having a detailed look at research on representation-, interpretation- and simulation of reality. By connecting Webb’s view on representation and Kant’s theory of perception with Baudrillard’s definitions of hyperreality, simulation and simulacrum, we should get a clearer perspective on reality and its prerequisites for a VR simulacrum. Lastly, the current state of development of the technology required should also be assessed. The integrated research on reality and technological requirements for virtualisation, should enable the prospect of the inevitable invention of Star Trek’s holodeck. It is only a matter of time before we have sufficient representational resources. With this prediction we presume that VR indeed shall no longer be an oxymoron, but instead VR experiences will become a true simulacrum, thus remodelling the oxymoron into a pleonasm.

Since this essay questions the prospect of a VR experience as a reality-simulacrum, reality itself should be considered the starting point of our quest for answers. Given that a VR experience is supposed to deliver a photorealistic imitation of reality, we should commence our journey with an analysis of research on representation, after which it makes sense to continue and investigate the concepts interpretation and simulation. Jen Webb (2009, p.18) asserts that: “The reason that no simulacrum can in fact perfectly stand in for the original is because there must always be a gap between the sign and what is signifies.” Webb (2009, p.18) supports his claim with an argument by Plato, who stated that “all we see and do is but a pale imitation of the ideal Form for the things we see and do, that exists in some transcendental realm, and is the origin for everything in our world of simulacra.” In other words, Plato and Webb both propose that there is a disparity between the original in our mind and the original in reality. A difference between the original in reality and the simulacrum is seemingly unavoidable. In relation to VR, this is interesting as it suggests the existence of a phenomenon in the original that we are unable to virtualise in the simulacrum. Both Webb and Plato suggest that a certain loss of data occurs as a direct consequence of representation processes. VR therefore, could never be as real as the reality we experience at present time. On the other hand, “representation defines reality (…) it also makes and shapes our understanding of reality. We can know and access the world only through language, or representation.” Even our comprehension of reality itself is defined and limited by representation, according to Webb (2009, p.4). Further understanding of the origins of our perception of reality is therefore required. Our knowledge of the external world is founded on both experiences and a priori concepts, according to Immanuel Kant (1781). The external world serves us with the phenomena we experience, but it is our mind that structures this sensory data utilising a priori concepts, in order to understand and give meaning to these phenomena. Hence the famous statement, “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” (Kant, 1781). With this statement Kant underscores that interaction between the real world and our perception of the real world occurs and that they are interdependent. Our perception of reality is influenced by the concepts we have constructed in our minds during the course of our lives and is therefore individual (Kant, 1781; Wilson, 1993). Given this fact, a successful VR simulacrum requires adequate accommodation for Kant’s a priori concepts or Leary’s conceptual reality tunnel and is therefore always personal. Aldous Huxley (2004, p.4) made an analogous yet even more eloquent statement when he wrote that: “The mind is its own place, and the places inhabited by the insane and the exceptionally gifted are so different that they (…) belong to mutually exclusive realms of experience.” Apparently, both perception of reality and the meaning contributed to the phenomena experienced, may vary greatly from one individual to another (Huxley, 2004; Kant, 1781; Webb, 2009; Wilson, 1983).

Whenever the mind is unable to distinguish a simulation from reality, hyperreality transpires (Baudrillard, 1994, p.1). A virtually induced state of hyperreality is exactly the type of experience we aim for in a VR simulacrum. The obvious question therefore is how to transcend to this illusive state of hyperreality, where a distinction between the real and the virtual can no longer be made. Both Plato and Huxley hint at the existence of “some transcendental realm” (Webb, 2009, p.26) or “realms of experience” (Huxley, 2004, p.4), where Kant’s a priori constructs are conceived. Huxley (2004, p.6) describes in great detail how such a state of hyperreality could easily be induced by the administration of mescaline. In this essay though, we choose to ignore Huxley’s suggestion and remain clear-headed in our pursuit of the hyperreal in VR. The term liminal, Latin for threshold, is used by Murray (1997, p.292) to identify the brink of the real and external, where our thoughts and mind emerge. “When a storyteller captures our attention and induces a deep state of absorption, we are in a threshold state, filled with real sensations and emotions for imaginary objects. This is immersive trance” (Murray, 1997, p.292). Murray evidently suggests that storytelling in some way has the magic ability to allow us to seamlessly fill the gap identified by Webb and Plato. Favourably doing so without the demand for the hallucinogenic agents suggested earlier by Huxley (2004, p.6). The representation gap itself might still exist but rather its void is inundated by the storyteller, altogether distracting us from the fact that it is even there in the first place. Murray’s state of immersive trance comfortably allows for incorporation of Kant’s a priori concepts in the VR simulacrum. The liminal closely resembles Csikszentmihalyi’s state of flow, where “in that state of deep concentration, consciousness is extremely well ordered. Thoughts, intentions, feelings and all the senses are focussed on the same goal. Experience is in harmony” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008, p.41). The state of flow experience is also called optimal experience and is one that we are intrinsically motivated to attain, as a result of the provoked neurochemical processes.

During flow, the brain releases an enormous cascade of neurochemistry. Large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin flood our system. All are pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing chemicals with considerable impacts on creativity. Both norepinephrine and dopamine amp up focus, boosting imaginative possibilities by helping us gather more information. They also lower signal-to-noise ratios, increasing pattern recognition or our ability to link ideas together in new ways (Kotler, 2014).

The aspiration to this state of flow in which all senses are supercharged on natural drugs and focussed on the same goal, is highly desirable and should therefore be accommodated in the design of a VR simulacrum. Not only as it bridges the representation gap identified earlier by Webb and Plato, but no less important it increases our ability for lateral thinking in a most enjoyable way. Even though we still are unable to universally define reality at this moment, Murray and Csikszentmihalyi assure us that this is not a problem and the chasm between reality and our perception thereof, may well be overpassed in a state of flow or immersive trance. Nevertheless, the fact that this essay does not provide a concise definition of reality, although perhaps anticipated is still regretful. Though of great academic relevance and conceivably entertaining too, we feel however that reasoning for an exact definition of reality simply for the forecast of a VR simulacrum, is to be considered overdone. Simply knowing that the threshold between the inner and outer world can in fact be crossed in a state of flow or immersive trance will suffice, for now. “Systematic reasoning is something we could not (…) possibly do without. But neither, if we are to remain sane, can we possibly do without direct perception (…) of the inner and outer worlds into which we have been born” (Huxley, 2004, p.49).

We perceive the outer world Huxley refers to, using our sensory organs. These organs; ears, eyes, nose, tongue and skin, contain receptors that encode and transmit data through neurons to the nervous system. (Pediaopoulis, 2013) This is Huxley’s realm of experience, the inner world where meaning is given to the individual interpretations of experiences. It follows that flow and immersive trance utilise our sensory organs to cross the threshold between the inner and outer world. In fact, we might even consider the possibility that the sensory organs themselves, combined with creative abilities for expression, constitute the actual threshold between the outer and inner world. All of this raises the question whether technology can artificially stimulate these sensory organs in such a way that this stimulation becomes indistinguishable from the original, thus converting the simulation into a simulacrum. In this paragraph we will scrutinise the level of development of the technology that is required for representation of reality in a virtual environment. The human ear to start with, encodes vibrations in the air also known as acoustic waves, which we then interpret as audio (Weiss, 2013). A pair of these ears allow for the perception stereoscopic sound, which enables us to determine where the soundwave originated. The quality of reproduced stereoscopic audio is outstanding these days and has already been virtually indistinguishable from reality since the invention of the Compact Disc. However, innovation progressed and tailor-made audio recording- and playback technologies for cinematic- and VR experiences have been developed since then. Specifically, binaural- and 3D audio technologies such as Dolby Atmos and Realspace 3D are very effective and quickly convince the mind of being present in an alternate reality (Lalwani, 2016). The human eye is able to distinguish millions of colours and thankfully technology is quite able to deliver. The number of colours we are able to see is not the only criterion, though. Also, working together a pair of eyes is able to perceive depth and provide a stereoscopic view of over 190 degrees wide (Miranda, 2016). Furthermore, the illusion of motion requires the interpretation of at least 24 images per second, though 60 or more are generally recommended (Bakaus, 2014). Lastly, display-technology should theoretically deliver the astonishing resolution of 2190 pixels per inch, in case the distance between the display and the eyes is only four inches (Sudhakaran, 2012). In comparison, an iPhone6 display offers a resolution of a mere 326 pixels per inch. The human eyes are indeed a remarkable piece of technology, notably considering the fact that roughly 70% of our sensory receptors are dedicated to vision (Miranda, 2016). Consequently, developing technology for artificial stimuli that meet their real-world match seems quite a challenge. Two well-known companies that are up for this challenge are HTC and Oculus (O’Brien, 2016). Both produce a Head-Mounted-Display which contains motion sensors and audio-visual technology intended to reproduce reality. The HMD is designed to block real-world stimulation of the ears and eyes in order to use artificial stimuli to their maximum effect. Though the HMDs manufactured by HTC and Oculus provide a very lifelike VR experience (Lalwani, 2016), they lack technology to artificially stimulate the nose, tongue and skin. Therefore, we may assert that consumers today are unable to acquire their own personal holodeck, as a result of unavailable technology to reproduce scent, taste and touch. This is regretful as incorporation of these senses in the VR simulation would be of significant impact in resembling the holodeck experience. Gravity or the lack thereof, is also difficult to experience in VR. A couple of Dutch students have invented a VR parachute experience though, that is said to be quite lifelike (De Gram, 2016). Still, the contraption is rather large and not yet available on the market. Also, although it is more or less able to simulate negative g-force, the device is unfit to generate the sensations of being propelled by a rocket, known as positive g-force. Lastly and equally important, the enchantment of the VR spell is instantly broken when the HMD is turned off or malfunctions. Once the state of flow is disrupted, it takes several minutes before an individual again reaches the same level of engagement (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008, p.66). Summarising the current status of technological development, we may safely assume that technology in general is not yet able to provide artificial stimuli that are of the same high fidelity as their real-world counterparts.

The state of technology could very well lead us to concur with Negroponte (1993) that VR still is an oxymoron, although development takes place at a staggering rate and the VR experience is quickly becoming more realistic. Grove’s Law states that “technology always wins” (Kanellos, 2005) and considering the current rate of development we believe that Intel co-founder Andy Grove is right, in this case. Technology will eventually come up with the means required for a holodeck. When looking at VR through the lens of a philosopher on the other hand, we could state that the simulacrum is already accessible and VR already is a pleonasm. The representation gap identified by Webb and Plato, which occurs during decoding of the sign and encoding of signifiers, does not interfere with a conceptual VR holodeck. The human mind is very capable of compensating for the missing bits of information, especially when under the heightened influence of satisfying neurotransmitters. Also, it seems that the neural data that is lost as a result of encoding and decoding the real world, is very similar to the data lost as a result of encoding and decoding the virtual world. As long as there are enough real-world similarities in the virtual experience, the mind will gleefully be tricked into believing that the virtual is real. H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds provides a great example, where radio-show listeners were tricked into believing Earth was being invaded by Martians (Schwartz, 2015). “We shall see that the existence of VR does not indicate that the human capacity to understand the world is inherently limited, but, on the contrary, that it is inherently unlimited” (Deutsch, 1997, p.103). The key element for a VR simulacrum lies not in high fidelity technological resources for representation, but rather in the enchanting abilities of the storyteller and the flexibility of the human mind. Murray’s threshold state in which we are filled with real sensations and emotions for imaginary objects is the holodeck and it is widely available at your local bookstore. It is not the medium; it is the message that matters, “for ‘the message’ of any medium or technology is the change (…) that it introduces into human affairs” (McLuhan, 2015, p.20).



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