Why virtual reality cannot match the real thing

March 14, 2018 by Janna Thompson, The Conversation

Suppose you were offered the opportunity to hook yourself up to a machine that would give you all the experiences you desire. Using this technology you could have the sensations of climbing Mt Everest, enjoying great sex with a good looking partner or visiting the Taj Mahal.

The philosopher Robert Nozick used the idea of an "experience machine" to refute the view that good experiences are all we want from life. He thought that most of us would choose not to hook ourselves up to the machine. He assumed that we prefer reality. "But why?" he encouraged us to ask. Nozick's experience machine existed only in his imagination. There was no such thing as in 1974 when he was writing. But we are now able to give ourselves computer generated experiences that are like the real thing.

Researchers at Monash University can give you the sensation of standing in the midst of Angkor Wat as it was in the late 12th century when the Khmer kings ruled. You can look around you and see people fishing, tending gardens and looking after their rulers. Soon there will be technology that enables you to smell the cooking fires of the inhabitants and to feel temple stones by reaching out your hands.

Through virtual reality you can not only visit famous tourist sites like Angkor Wat, Niagara Falls and the Taj Mahal. You can also explore a sunken ship, go to the concerts of your favourite group, suspend weightless in space, put yourself in the shoes of an immigrant crossing the Mexican/US border, become Batman or land on Mars.

The question posed by Nozick has become a real issue. Why should you prefer the trouble and expense of actually visiting Angkor Wat or Niagara Falls when you can get all the experiences of being there by putting on goggles and a body suit?

We want the experience of travel and not merely what we see on arrival. But there is no reason why virtual reality cannot eventually give us these experiences. We want to interact with our environment. But computer programming allows this to happen and it is bound to increase in sophistication. To answer Nozick's question we need reasons for preferring reality no matter how good the technology gets.

It's true that you can achieve something only in real life. Your virtual reality climb of Mt Everest may be realistic, but you cannot get the satisfaction (or the bragging rights) that you would get from the actual climb. Still, achievement is not always so important. Perhaps all you want to do is to see Angkor Wat or Niagara Falls. So why is the real experience better?

Cheap emotions

One answer is that the emotions you feel when you have a virtual experience are not as valuable. When you actually see Niagara Falls, especially if you get up close, you feel awe and even fear in the face of an overpowering force of nature. Being in the presence of something that causes you these feelings is part of the pleasure. Romantics called this the experience of the sublime and thought it was aesthetically valuable.

Visiting a virtual Niagara Falls may also cause you feelings of awe and fear but they are subverted and cheapened by your knowledge that the danger is not real and that your mind is being tricked into thinking that it is.

An extract from the VR experience The Blu.

Reality also holds a potential for making discoveries that virtual reality lacks. Those who visit Angkor Wat hope to see more than they anticipated from tourist information, perhaps even discover something about the place that others have missed. If they are archaeological experts then there is no substitute for an actual visit. Computer simulations, however good, contain only what photography, laser technology and pre-existing expertise put into them.

There is a further reason for preferring a real experience to virtual reality. Real connect us to the deeds of past people and place us in contexts where history was made. Viewing an actual painting by Rembrandt is a more valuable experience than viewing a copy, however good. The genuine painting was the work of the man himself. We see his brush strokes on the canvas. We are in the presence of genius.

For the same reason we find value in being in the very place where Khmer kings walked. Our experience is enhanced by being physically present in places where ancient people lived or where history was made. Virtual reality lacks this aspect of experience.

Virtual reality can take us to places we can never go. It can teach us by putting us in the place of others. It can be exciting, amusing and a good way of spending leisure time. But it will never be a substitute for encounters with the real thing.

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6 comments

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ET3D
5 / 5 (2) Mar 14, 2018
I think it's quite the contrary. VR has the ability to offer experiences that you can't get otherwise. Visiting a virtual location, you can get to places that the public can't visit in real life, see things which are under lock and key, or even get an idea of how the place might have looked in the past, like 'Discovery Tour by Assassin's Creed: Ancient Egypt' lets you visit ancient Alexandria and learn about it.

Lets face it, most people experience other places, danger, romance and adventure through TV and movies, or video games, or books. Good VR would take this to a new level. We could travel abroad without paying thousands of dollars, experiencing cramped flights or airport checks. We could have great sex without having to go through the ordeals of finding a partner.

This is all just theoretical at this point, but if we ever get realistic VR, I'm sure that a lot of people would use it simply because it would be so much easier. Some would not, but I think that most would.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (1) Mar 14, 2018
Hey, I already get all this in my orgone box.

It's called imagination from experience. With the additional realism of remembering the stenches of where I have been.

Unplug, get out of your Mommy's basement. Go live Real Life...

Yeah! Who'd have imagined that?
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Mar 15, 2018
Viewing an actual painting by Rembrandt is a more valuable experience than viewing a copy, however good.


No. It's the idea that you're viewing the original that you find valuable, mainly because you were told by someone that it's special.

Replace the original with the copy and tell nobody - people will still derive this "value" out of the copy.

The true value of reality is that it's not under anyone's control. You can scratch your initials on the rocks and no system administrator can press Del to erase -you- out of history. Likewise, VR runs the danger of false histories where people are taken to "places" that are altered and adulterated to make them more "tourist attractive", or for political purposes.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Mar 15, 2018
Virtual reality lends itself easily to deception, but the real issue is that VR is always going to be a poor imitation of reality, a cardboard village

https://en.wikipe..._village

You can never get too close to the virtual thing or the illusion breaks. When 3D glasses first came to the market, existing games were using all sorts of tricks to make the scenery look real on a 2D screen, and the instant you put on the glasses everything actually went flat. Trees and grasses were just pieces of colored paper sticking up, and brick walls became painted sheets of veneer. The more immersed you got, the more flawed it became because of the sheer computing requirements of imitating reality itself.

If in your VR simulation you can pick up a handful of sand and throw it in the air, your computer runs out of RAM just describing those sand grains. That's why they have to be "compressed", and the sand dissapears from your hand.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Mar 15, 2018
To illustrate the problem, imagine an 8 oz cup of fine sand.

It contains approximately 100,000,000 grains of sand. If each grain of sand is associated with no other property that its location in space to the accuracy of the size of the grain itself, about 0.1mm, described by a 32 bit number, the amount of memory required is 12 bytes per grain, and the whole cup requires about 1.2 GB of RAM to keep track of where each grain ends up.

However, each of those grains can only be dispersed over a volume described by a cube some 430 km in size. It means, if one of those grains of sand is in your virtual shoe and you take a virtual airplane from Spain back to England, it runs out of bounds and there would be walls of sand stuck in mid-air somewhere above southern France.

A hypercomputer can spend all its resources just to simulate a child building a sand castle.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Mar 15, 2018
This memory precision limit is already a problem in existing simulations.

Take for example, Kerbal Space Program. It deals with distances measured in billions of kilometers to describe the movement of the planets, yet it has to deal with millimeter accuracy or the spacecraft you're flying would glitch and explode (a problem known as "The Deep Space Kraken"). The physics of the game has to deal with two immensely different scales simultaneously.

The solution was somewhat of a hack. Instead of moving the ship through space, the programmers made the spacecraft stay absolutely still and instead moved the space around the ship. Now all the parts of the ship had low velocities and the math didn't glitch.

However, since there are multiple ships, it became possible to pass another ship at high relative velocity, and the physics engine calculating the ship the player was not controlling would run out of bounds, and the -other- ship would blow up to bits.

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