This post is part of an ongoing series about writing, storytelling, and critique in VR, in partnership with Galatea, a writing and project management tool for immersive stories.
VR has already impacted so many areas of modern life, and is poised to influence so much more in the coming years. Right now, I’m most excited about the ways it’s causing us to reflect on the very notion of reality. Bear with me—this isn’t half-baked rambling.
What is Reality?
VR has already begun to help us analyze the ways we construct our own realities. More and more, it’s also illuminating the ways we have the power to construct new ones.
Despite a hefty name, the idea of a “reality tunnel” is actually pretty simple. Each of us has lived a unique life with unique experiences, and our minds have crafted an understanding of “reality” around these subjective experiences. The sum of these experiences is our reality tunnel, our individual expression (and perception) of “the world as we know it.” Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins’s keynote at Unity’s Vision Summit does an excellent job revealing the many ways that reality is created in the mind:
As you can see, “reality” has never been an objective given. VR is just helping us realize how we can analyze and learn from these “reality tunnels” we each create in our minds. Guerrilla Ontologist Robert Anton Wilson explains it this way:
…the brain receives billions of signals every minute, and out of them we select a small portion and make a picture, which we project outside and call reality—that’s our reality tunnel.
One of the interesting side-effects of our rapid technological development has been to help us collectively realize that reality is fluid. With a communication tool as powerful and disruptive as the Internet, we’ve been given both a telescope and microscope to witness how varied each person’s idea of reality really is.
What Does This Have to do with VR?
The expression “Virtual Reality” is, in its way, redundant. It’s the equivalent of saying “wet water”—it implies that there are instances where reality is not virtual. This may sound like semantic tomfoolery, but it’s not. The “real” is, in essence, also “virtual.”
Our reality tunnels are virtual constructs consisting of language, names, emotional habits, and cultural contexts. The “bricks” of our reality tunnels are themselves pieces of information—from your memory of what you ate for breakfast this morning to your grasp of abstract concepts like the passing of time. The fact that these elements are “virtual” does not mean they are irrelevant, quite the contrary. One could even say that we are that information, that we embody and we act out those virtual strings of data.
Why am I telling you all these things? Because I want to design reality, and I’m excited by the ways VR gives us a framework to do just that.
When, thousands of years ago, our ancestors painted on cave walls or told stories around campfires—or even when, as a child, we listened to fairytales—our minds and our hearts believed the content of those stories. We reallybelieved there were dragons and princesses in castles, or that there were half-human half-beast beings lurking in the dark of night outside the cave.
The key thing was that we wholeheartedly believed those things. Sometimes they entranced us; sometimes they scared us. Our undeveloped intellects trembled before the prospect of an unknown, and dealt with it using fantastical stories and metaphors and dream readings. Even today we must personally deal with what we don’t know—it’s an inherent feature of life.
I remember, as a child, waking up terrified in the middle of the night scared of the “hooded ones” who were coming to get me. I still do to this day.
And the whole point here is to say that, to design reality, one must dissolve its current foundations before reassembling it. And for that we need Animism.
See the Life Force in Everything
Animism is defined as the attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena. In other words, Animism is when you’re optimally immersed—in a VR kind of way—in the world around you. You see the life and meaning in all things. This may sound a little granola, but when we can acknowledge this life force, our reality tunnels suddenly become fluid and malleable. The imaginative possibility in every space and interaction skyrockets.
That’s what we have to consider as we build apps, games, and any other experiences for immersive technologies. This is akin to psychedelic experiences, where the bricks of our reality tunnels are reshuffled and recombine themselves.
I’ve written in the past about the notion of “Post-Architecture.” To recap:
…it’s the Metamodern design philosophy that is not about designing space in itself, but about designing people through space. In Post-Architecture, space is the story, and you are the (narrative) design.
So, does Post-Architecture propose a methodology that uses VR, AR and MR to reclaim this reality-shaping power? I argue that it does.
This is the power to recombine belief; the power to manipulate perceptions of the world and of realities for yourself and others; the power to participate in building your own reality tunnel, to enter worlds where everything around you is volatile and alive and magical in ways that currently only exist in your imagination.
The simple act of drawing on a cave wall was one of the first truly magical actions, whereby our ancestors interfered with the prevailing order of the world by tweaking with their media and information environment. It was a higher order of action than responding to base-level needs (ie. fetching water). They took the first, heroic steps into a world that was totally unknown and external—their informational environment—by naming it and giving it meaning. They cast “light” out from “darkness,” in a sense. This was the metaphoric birth of the Logos. For several major world religions, this is described as, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Where- and however that high-order gesture took place, it was the first brick in the great, virtual building that is the Human Enterprise—our collective meta-reality tunnel.
Ideas are virtual, but in a way they’re also the most persistently real thing we have. David Abram, in “The Spells of the Sensuous,” tells us that:
As a Zuni elder focuses her eyes upon a cactus and abruptly hears the cactus begin to speak, so we focus our eyes upon these printed marks and immediately hear voices. We hear spoken words, witness strange scenes or visions, even experience other lives. As nonhuman animals, plants, and even “inanimate” rivers once spoke to our oral ancestors, so the ostensibly “inert” letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless—as mysterious as a talking stone.
And indeed, it is only when a culture shifts its participation to these printed letters that the stones fall silent. Only as our senses transfer their animating magic to the written word do the trees become mute, the other animals fall dumb.
Time to Believe in Magic Again
This is exactly the ethos of Augmented and Mixed Reality—bringing the world back to life. Only in this case, we are making our imaginations real to our other senses. To effectively create immersive stories and engender presence, we need to create the preconditions for belief to occur. We have to invite each other into powerful showcases of a reimagined realities.
To make sense of the coming New Reality Revolution, we’ll need to conquer nihilism and cynicism, and believe in the meaning of the world again. As naive as it might sound, we must bring back animism and magic, shamanism and fairies. Creators need to act as shamans and magicians, the mediators between the realms of the Gods and the realms of Man.
When we, as creators, become shamans, our stories gain the power to sway heart, mind, and soul. This has always been true, but in the coming era, our stories will be everywhere, all around us, and eventually: impossible to separate from base reality. So there’s never been a more important moment to internalize these ideas—at the onset of a totally new paradigm.
We’ll begin to climb the stairway that leads to the masterpiece of the 21stcentury—a masterpiece which is well on its way. A masterpiece that will, in “reality,” be “virtual.”