I recently revisited that damp little corner of cyberspace created by Rand and Robyn Miller after a long absence. Drawn into the grip of Myst shortly after I first discovered it in early 1994, I eventually lost interest, stranded on some god forsaken rock somehow improbably embedded in a wooden sailing ship.
Stepping back into the virtual world which I had psychologically inhabited with great intensity almost a year ago was, for a moment, a surprisingly disorienting experience. As the Myst theme music played softly in the background, fading into the quiet lapping of waves, I was transported back to an existence left suspended. The temporal discontinuity faded but left me with the lingering impression that this virtual place had continued to exist even in my absence.
In a handful of years we will likely look back on Myst as an interesting, perhaps ground-breaking, but nonetheless crude first effort to create a virtual world. If such a crude early effort can so effectively draw us into its existence, even briefly, surely the technologies of tomorrow will create virtual worlds which will affect us on a far deeper level. Myst may be giving us a taste of the kind of emotional and psychological pull which virtual environments of the future will exert.
William Gibson, in his Neuromancer trilogy, envisions "sim stem" technology in which virtual reality (VR) simulation software is piped directly to our sensory cortex via bio-mechanical implants or external perception-inducing hardware. Although perhaps most fully developed by Gibson, this type of implant VR has been a staple of science fiction novels for many years. Science fiction cinema and TV have also explored the implications and possibilities of ultra realistic VR environments. The film Total Recall featured a VR plot twist which repeatedly rearranged the boundaries of simulation and reality.
In the context of "Virtual Communities," I wish to question to what extent, if any, these hyper-realistic software driven realities of the future will relate to our "real" existence. If they begin to approximate reality in terms of their psychological and emotional impact, are they less real that our hard wired reality? An interesting issue was raised recently when a woman claimed that she had been "raped" on a MOO. Although one of the central themes of the MOO was "virtual intimacy" between the MOO characters, this woman claimed she had been involuntarily violated. In the very crude, text-based virtual realities of today it is easy enough to dismiss such a complaint-- what harm could possibly be done by a few ASCII characters....
Well, given the recent arrest of the umich newsgroup stalker, that may not be such a simple question. To make it even more complicated, fast forward 10 years and place the online rape in the context of a virtual world created in a 24+bit, 32+frame per second, 360 degree completely immersive environment (Myst on Silicon Graphics steroids). Will this make such a virtual assault more serious? Fast forward another 10 years and add suits capable of sensing motion and providing tactile feedback to the equation. What kind of crime has been committed now? What social rules, law, or government would apply in such a "space." Is everything virtual a "game" or is something more? Something more but not quite reality? How much less than reality?
Myst, despite its sometimes glaring technical shortcomings, gives us a very small glimpse of the potential for virtual environments of the future. It is perhaps the first widely accessible step towards the kinds of technologies vividly portrayed by Gibson and others in works of fiction. As such it begs the question of virtual vs. real. I don't have any pat answers but I suggest that we should permit ourselves to consider virtual reality as something more than a glorified version of "Pong" or "Adventure" and prepare ourselves to deal with its social implications.