A Pale Shadow of Reality: Virtuality as a Second-Best Option

This rant kicks off with a Tech Republic article on telepresence that was linked in the February ’08 Litmus. I’m reading Litmus because the lovely people at ACID have been kind enough to chip in on my research, and they went to the trouble of putting it together, so it’s clearly something I ought to be doing. Fortunately it’s an interesting read, at least to someone of my peculiar interests.

The linked article on the other hand, while being bang-on to my research topic, only serves to annoy me. It’s not that the article is wrong; it’s more that it expresses a widely-held but misconceived view of what telepresence is for and how it should be developed.

The headline sums it up nicely: Telepresence: The next best thing to being there. This reminds me of the early Virtual Reality hype. The idea is that the aim is to perfectly replicate what we already have – perfect photo-realism! Stereo vision! Touch! Taste! It’s what Baudrillard might call the simulator’s obsession with reality. And since we’ll never quite perfectly simulate reality until we have Gibsonian neural interfaces, then whatever we make will always be second best.

No need to draw this out. I am tired of this obsession. Reality is interesting, but human minds do not need to be tricked into a full sensory illusion in order for a technology to be useful. Text is immersive, when well written. Bodies moving in space is part of it, but it’s not the whole ball of wax. We construct our everyday mixed realities as we inhabit our own minds while simultaneously modeling the minds of those around us; considering our own context and the other contexts available to other people and systems that we are connected to. And not only in the moment; we include the potential availability of other connected realities, for example when we plan to pick up the phone when we get off an aeroplane.

Telepresence is its own thing; augmenting and interoperating with our other modes of communication and interaction just like the telephone and the post. It does not need to perfectly mimic reality, any more than virtual environments must be “virtual reality” (in the sense of realism). This conflation with realism is why I don’t use the term VR. I prefer VE, or even Ivan Sutherland’svirtual worlds” when talking about a self-contained virtual place. But really the key for me is that unless you’re planning to wipe your users’ brains and create for them an entirely new self-contained context then you’re never making a new reality, you’re just making something that will be part of the rich and multifaceted realities that we already inhabit.

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