Enthusiastic exploration of how virtual reality is impacting human consciousness, perception and social interaction.
Humans have been engaging with virtual realities since the dawn of storytelling, write the authors, experiencing them as printing, theater, radio and film and other mediums. Blascovich (Psychology/Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) and Bailenson (Virtual Human Interaction Lab/Stanford Univ.) focus on digital-technology–based immersive virtual reality, 2-D and 3-D environments that the mind buys into and responds to as “real”—although the authors are clear in their distinction between “grounded” (the natural or physical world) and virtual realities. While they provide an illuminating introduction to the processing cycle that generates today’s virtual realities, and an overview of appropriate social theory used therein, they hit their stride with their discussions of shaping and using avatars: digital representations of ourselves. The experiential possibilities of avatars are vast: “virtual worlds offer an unprecedented opportunity to separate people from the physical identity, and to role-play in a variety of manners.” Virtual classrooms help eliminate such problems as overcrowding and lack of direct teacher contact. Creating an avatar is also a step toward immortality: Your biological self may not be present, but future generations can engage with your likeness, where 3-D digital modeling sculpts your face and body, motion-capture technology acquires your gestures and soon-to-be artificial-intelligence technology will frame your personality traits and idiosyncrasies. On the downside, there is the spooky idea of someone pirating your avatar; indeed, the authors introduce a number of serious virtual-reality pitfalls, from over-identifying with your avatar to privacy violation through tracking. And there is a serious weakness with the lack of touch in the virtual world—yet behold forthcoming teledildonics, “sexually stimulating devices that can be controlled by others via the Internet.”
A sweeping presentation of virtual reality’s ability to create new and multiform experiences and perspectives—likely to beguile more than a few skeptics.