Virtual Realism

Virtual Realism

Virtual Realism

Virtual Realism


From the simple VR games found in upscale video arcades, to the ultimate "immersion"--the CAVE, a surround screen, surround sound system that projects 3 D computer graphics into a ten-foot high cube--virtual reality has introduced what is literally a new dimension of reality to daily life. But it is not without controversy. Indeed, some say that a collision is inevitable between those passionately involved in the computer industry and those increasingly alienated from (and often replaced by) its applications. Opinions range from the cyberpunk attitude of Wired magazine and Bill Gates's commercial optimism to the violent opposition of the Unabomber. Now, with Virtual Realism, readers have a thought-provoking guide to the "cyberspace backlash" debate and the implications of cyberspace for our culture. Michael Heim first offers a thoughtful discussion of what virtual reality is "in the strong sense." He outlines its essential characteristics -including the "Three I's" of immersion, interactivity, and information intensity--and introduces readers to such virtual reality technologies as head mounted displays; SIMNET, a networked simulation of tanks rolling over a virtual terrain; and flight simulators in which a trainee can experience conditions approximating those of actual flight. He also leads us through a fascinating gallery of virtual art experiences, including Marcos Novak's Virtual Dervish, in which the viewer wears a head mounted display and is immersed among and interacts with drifting, shifting "transhuman figures" and other virtual entities. And he describes various side effects of immersion in virtual reality, including types of relativity sickness known as Alternate World Syndrome (AWS) and Alternate World Disorder (AWD). Perhaps most important, Heim suggests ways of living with technology and harmonizing computers with culture. For instance, he offers a philosophical reconciliation between the conflicting views of "naive realists," who regard computer systems as a suppression of reality rather than an extension of it, and "idealists" who seem to think computers and software can cure all ills. Heim argues convincingly that in order to have an accurate view of the relationship between "natural nature" and cyberspace, we must balance the idealist's enthusiasm for computerized life with the need to ground ourselves more deeply in primary reality. This "uneasy balance" he calls virtual realism. In this wide ranging exploration, Michael Heim draws on an incredibly eclectic range of sources, from the lyrics of Jim Morrison, to the wisdom of the Tai Chi masters, to the works of philosophers and writers as varied as Heraclitus, Descartes, William Gibson, and Jacques Ellul. The result is an ambitious and provocative commentary on the ways in which virtual reality and associated technologies are increasingly influencing our lives.


Virtual Realism is an art form, a sensibility, and a way of living with new technology. Since the advent of personal computers, our offices and homes have increasingly dimmed to display glowing, colorful screens. The bright, open space of modern art museums now plays occasional host to electronic exhibits housed in closed dark rooms. The networked nation increasingly incorporates the language and lifestyle of virtual reality into daily life. While computer technology introduces its distinctive style, the Information Society copes with rapid changes in economics, education, and politics.

These social and technological changes stir debate about the future. On one side are network idealists who promote virtual communities and global information flow. On the other side are naïve realists who blame electronic culture for criminal violence and unemployment. Between them runs the narrow path of virtual realism. In Virtual Realism, I explain the technology of virtual reality, examine several new art forms, and suggest ways of adapting the technology to create a more balanced life.

My aim is to point out the crossroads in current transformations and to find some guidance for walking the path I call virtual realism. For guidance I look to recent art works, cultural traditions, and my own experience working with computer inventors, art students in electronic design, and students of philosophy and Tai Chi Chuan.

My previous books deal with the merger of computers and human life. Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing (1987) was the first treatment of the merger of computers with reading and writing. Electric Language describes the three shifts in the psyche when software guides reading and writing. It analyzes writing that has become automated (no longer in-scribed or printed in resistant materials); as well as productivity-based writing (as opposed to contemplatively focused on linear wholes); and writing linked through hypertext networks (as opposed to the private space of traditional books).

The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (1993) measures the reality shift that occurs when human perception merges with computerized simulations to . . .

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