© Mark Platten 2006

words concoct  



thesis: note  
thesis: abstract  
thesis: contents  
thesis: introduction  
thesis: chapter one  
thesis: chapter two  
thesis: chapter three  
thesis: chapter four  
thesis: chapter five  
thesis: chapter six  
thesis: chapter seven  
thesis: chapter eight  
thesis: conclusion  
thesis: bibliography  
thesis: acknowledgements  

Chapter Two: How Far Could It Go? - Technical Limitations

Unsurprisingly, the notion of virtual sex has been leapt on by spreadsheet and top shelf magazine alike. Whilst such speculation guarantees reader interest, the idea is also a perfect extreme with which to confront the problems of a literally physical interface: If physical intimacy can be achieved, then the majority of other physical sensations, essential for other authentic fully-immersive experiences, could be reproduced to a highly effective level. At present, the technology is very much in its infancy.

"Dildonics users - so far they lack a generic name - will apparently don rubber suits equipped with sensors and effectors connected to their computer" (1)

Howard Rheingold speculates:

"Picture yourself a couple of decades hence, dressing for a hot night in the virtual village. Before you climb into a suitably padded chamber and put on your 3D glasses, you slip into a lightweight (eventually, one would hope, diaphanous) bodysuit, something like a body stocking, but with the kind of intimate snugness of a condom. Embedded in the inner surface of the suit, using a technology that does not yet exist, is an array of intelligent sensor-effectors -- a mesh of tiny tactile detectors coupled to vibrators of varying degrees of hardness, hundreds of them per square inch, that can recieve and transmit a realistic sense of tactile presence, the way the visual and audio displays transmit a realistic sense of visual and auditory presence.
You can reach out your virtual hand, pick up a virtual block, and by running your fingers over the object, feel the surfaces and edges, by means of the effectors that exert counterforces against your skin. The counterforces correspond to the kinds of forces you would encounter when handling a non-virtual object of the specified shape, weight, and texture. You can run your cheek over (virtual) satin, and feel the difference when you encounter (virtual) flesh. Or you can gently squeeze something soft and pliable and feel it stiffen under your touch." (2)

Various bodies of research have already made considerable steps toward achieving some of the above.....the prototypical data glove (Figures. 8 & 9) is currently being refined in England at establishments such as the National Advanced Robotics Research Centre, which has collaborated with Jim Hennequin, developer of the pneumatics which make Spitting Image puppetry possible, by which means the glove also works.....

".....it is dotted with minute air bladders on the inside of the fingers, each connected to a tiny tube. These little sacs can be inflated, individually or in groups, to give the sensation of touching something which is not there. It is a weird, rather sensual experience." (3)

'Today's technology is very far from achieving such capabilities. (The most serious technological obstacles that make it an early-to-mid-21st century technology rather than next year's fad lie in the extremely powerful computers needed to perform the enormous number of added calculations....' (4)

Horizon's 'Painting By Numbers', BBC, 1989, observed that computing power would increase "1000-fold over the next 20 years or so", however, and currently, in Japan, the race is on to design the 64-bit DRAM, essentially 16 times as powerful as existing chips, which 'will be the key component in televisions, computers, office telephones and video games, continuing into the next century' (5)

At its high rate of evolution, information technology will surely eventually provide the vast memory capacities needed for detailed; effective immersive experiences.....the real challenge to physical interfacing will be mechanical. Ezio Manzini considers the progress of development of materials and applications in 'The Material of Invention' that suggest the way forward for 'data suits'.....

"The flexible object may be the forerunner of the intelligent object. If, by this term, we mean something that has been manufactured and programmed so as to interact with the user and the ambient, flexible objects in many ways meet this description.
In them, unlike in information-rich objects, the operating program is not contained in a digital memory, but is inscribed in their shape and in the very structure of the material of which they are made. They contain, as it were, an analogue program which permits them to modify themselves simply and directly and to alter their form (and therefore their performance) in relation to the needs of the ambient." (6)

- positing the intriguing idea of synthetic material that is able to operate with its own innate 'intelligence', independent of an overseeing, electronic autonomy; in a sense like the human body's own autonomic reflex system. This would free valuable memory space within a computer governing the virtual experience; ('Reality Engine' is its generic term).

"In nature, there are living organisms without structure, but there are none without skins....Skin, with its specializations, is the privileged location of the exchanges of energy and information that characterize life.
It is no accident, therefore, that at a time when technical development creates artificial products that rival the organic world in complexity, the surface of objects should grow in importance, becoming itself an interface, filter and privileged location of exchanges of energy and information.

(See Fig. 10)

Technology has reached this stage after re-capitulating the avenue of biological development -- beginning with membranes and reaching organisms with rigid structures (vertebrates); technology began with simple structures and in the end has developed dynamic surfaces.....the future behaviour of sensitive and communicative skin is entirely inscribed within miniaturized components, whose operation posesses physical aspects that escape our perception.
The design of this skin, and therefore of the objects that are made with it, is chiefly the design of interactivity with the environment -- a scenario for which we must prepare the stage, the sets, and the actors. Imagining the nature of these "individual objects" is another, new chapter in the history of design." (7)

Here, Manzini, considering the emergence of synthetic intelligent materials, raises some interesting points. The diagram of "artificial skin" (Fig. 11) immediately suggests a body suit that could readily be wired to computer, a perfect digital information to analogue sensation conversion. He implies the modelling of man-made systems on organic systems evolved through the logic of natural selection. Another example of the so-called 'intelligent material' has been researched for some time:

"For more than 50 years, scientists have known that certain fluids solidify when they apply a voltage, the so-called electrorheological effect.....ER fluids are 'smart' because they set to a jelly-like solid when a high voltage is put across them....ER fluids could usher in nothing less than a "third machine age". The first two ages came with mechanisation and electronics. With microelectronic equipment now commonplace and able to operate with a greater capacity every year, anything that works with moving mechanical parts begins to look clumsy and inflexible....ER fluids will create a more elegant interface between the electronics and the moving parts of technological appliances.....artificial limbs, for robots or humans, are an attractive application " (8)

(See Fig. 12)

A cursory investigation implies that the challenge of achieving a convincing set of synthetic sensory impressions may be successfully met, but this is only one approach. There is certainly no problem in achieving sensors that will collect information from and about a participant, but human senses are so sophisticated, having evolved organically with the body as long as they have done, that it feels somehow churlish to dismiss the current artificial realities as 'less-than-100%-'real', considering how embryonic practical VR currently is. Nevertheless, synthetic reality is an ultimate goal. I could find no suggestions for duplicating the chemical senses of smell and taste...

VR research has focussed on exploring physical interfaces, to convince our physical senses, so our bodies will send appropriate messages to the brain. If the consciousness itself could be interfaced, the need for cumbersome, expensive equipment that must be physically worn could be dispensed with. Surely if the brain is regarded as the repository of consciousness, it might be more effective to bypass its 'container', the body, and implant the appropriate information direct to intended destination, instead of 'interfacing with an interface', in effect. If this smacks of science fiction, this is because in the lurid paperback-cover world of Science Fiction, one particular writer stands out in recent years. William Gibson's novel 'NEUROMANCER', 1984, Collins Publ., broke boundaries, contributing to the creation of a new Sci-Fi genre, and walked away with Hugo, Nebula, & Philip K.Dick SF awards. His name is now periodically invoked in contemplating VR... (Fig. 13)

In 'Neuromancer', a highly engaging thriller of the future, cyberspace has become an everyday event :

'..."The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games", said the voice-over, "in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks."....cold military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts ... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity." ' (9)

Neuromancer's protagonist, a computer hacker of the future, or 'console jockey', is unencumbered by present-day limitations of clumsy suit/gloves/headgear. Having placed an arrangement of electrodes on his head ("Dermatrodes" - implying stimulation of the cortex through localised electrical/magnetic field) that connect him to the computer or "cyberspace deck" and activating the system, it "projected his disembodied consciousness" into the 'matrix.'

'Matrix' here invites crude comparisons with present-day 'public domains' in computer networks, wherein any operator with the hardware can communicate with others and exchange information. Gibson visualises a system wherein all the intricacies of a physical interface have been neatly sidestepped, physical travel is regarded as "a meat thing" and even the body itself to some extent treated with contempt by these cyberspace 'cowboys'. But where exactly lie the real advantages of directly accessing the consciousness ? Perhaps the knowledge that with a physical interface one is still only being given the synthesis of an alternate reality.....that somewhere just outside whatever virtual environment one happens to be in, the escaped-from reality ( ! ) will be back just as soon as the interface is stepped out of, or a power cut occurs....

Entry into 'Gibsonian cyberspace', which offers more than mere illusion:

" He closed his eyes.
Round the ridged face of the power stud....Please, he prayed, now-
Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler grey. Expanding -
And flowed, flowered for him....the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity....
And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face. " (10)

Once the consciousness is interfaced with such a powerful data system, anything seems possible. Gibson's cyberspace users enjoy the option of "SIMSTIM", whereby the consciousness can then access another living body, or its recording, through a 'broadcast rig'....

'...Then he keyed the new switch.
The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and colour....she was moving through a crowded street, past stalls vending discount software; prices feltpenned on sheets of plastic, fragments of music from countless speakers. Smells of urine, free monomers, perfume, patties of frying krill. For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes." (11)

Far-fetched, and fiction it may be - all credit to Gibson for presenting the concept on the printed page - the idea of such ultimate immersive interactive VR is provoking speculation. On both sides of the fence reside attitudes that make for interesting debate.

To be able to influence the consciousness, some comprehension of its process first seems desirable. To sum up the countless findings and theories of scientists and thinkers driven for centuries to discover how the mind works is beyond my scope here, however, some recent work is of particular interest. Research into Artificial Intelligence; achieving thought with silicon, has involved much investigation into the process of thinking. Philosophical, moral inferences and implications are vast. Debate rages. A misconception still widely circulated today and often reinforced as popular metaphor is that of the human brain as a computer itself, running on electrical signals and controlling the body from its driving seat within the skull.

'...Consciousness and human memory are associated with synaptic/neuronic processes: computer information and AI (artificial intelligence) with electronic processes. A quantum universe may indicate for these processes a common ground or field, lending some plausibility to Gibson's imaginings' - K.V.Bailey (12)

Encouraging. But Roger Penrose, in 'The Emperor's New Mind', argues compellingly, through examining such complex fields as quantum theory, that we will never fully understand the workings of the mind because of a fundamentally incorrect grasp of sheer physics, and even presupposing that this is attained at some point, physics still does not promise to answer all the questions that AI raises. As is now understood, the brain operates both electrically and chemically: the intriguing suggestion has been raised that some thinking, endocrine-based, may actually occur outside the brain, by Richard Bergland, MD....not unreasonably disturbing, considering our own kinaesthetic sense of thinking; our consciousness feels to be within the cranium:

'Scientists now regard the brain as a hormonally driven gland, not an electrically driven computer. Holism replaces reductionism in a new paradigm that gives human thoughts qualities that are warm, soft, wet, colourful, qualitative....regulatory hormones control both brain and body functions...join in holistic patterns that may be understood by organs other than the brain. The mechanisms that drive thought are found all over the body....they function at their highest level by recognising the molecular patterns of the combinations of hormones that regulate thought' - R. Bergland(13)

In February 1991, US scientists sought approval for a project to create

'...the world's largest 'atlas' of the brain'; including 'a series of computerised maps of the brain's anatomy, function, physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology'(14)

- intending to use silicon to model these physical and biological processes, thereby compiling a world research database. Geoff Simons, in his works - 'The Biology of Computer Life' and 'Are Computers Alive ?' even goes so far as to argue that contemporary cybernetics has, in a sense, already gained a life of its own, on the basis of certain criteria
In the first week of September this year, Japanese scientists demonstrated a parallel computer that proves that so-called '5th generation computing' is possible. Such machines " handle words and images by a process of logical inference similar to human deductive reasoning"(15)

'...Thanks to 'fuzzy logic', computers are now coping with ambiguities in a very humanlike way', writes D. Kilburn, describing the application of what may be the first tentative steps toward artificial intelligence, and who goes on to describe vacuum cleaners which "can modify their suction power according to the conditions of the floor", or even televisions which will detect the room's brightness, and "adjust the picture according to the distance between the viewer and the television."(16) Domestic trivialities these may be, but the commercial angle furthers the necessary research. (Fig. 14)

Whatever does develop in the future will doubtless bear great implications for virtual reality. The 'reality engines' that manage and govern the VR systems currently available could benefit from an innate sentience where users are entering what is supposedly an artificial world. Even fuzzy logic could be highly useful to VR; if for example a user is acting in an ambiguous way that could otherwise confuse a system. Computers are essentially still dumb beasts, after all. In Gibson's fiction, Artificial Intelligence has conveniently been realised, but he has still had to try to envisualise its impact :

"For thousands of years men dreamed of pacts with demons. Only now are such things possible."(17)

For the moment, such esoterica is a long way away. We must contend that technology can forseeably supply us with our virtual body suits, but for want of Gibson's version of cyberspace, we must content ourselves with 'mind machines' from America, that offer the supposedly enlightening audio, visual, electrical and magnetic stimulation of our cortexes (Figs. 15, 16), and the sheer energy of some of the more radical ideas being put forward. Eg. Bruce Harrah - Conforth, PhD:

"...various EEG frequency states seem to correspond to psychological states. Whilst the actual meanings of brain waves are not understood, this research has permitted a concensus to be adopted....by demonstrating that the brain, our most sacred and mystic of organs, is a piece of hardware that can be hotwired....the new technology of tools and concepts such as chaos theories, fractals, consciousness tech, virtual reality, and the new physics have all allowed us to take several steps further along the lines of charting our personal psycho-Utopia" (18)

alternatively we can adopt the more sober viewpoint, ironically that of science fiction writer Bruce Sterling :

'Today it is quite common to see tenured scientists espousing horrifically radical ideas: nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, cryonic suspension of the dead, downloading the contents of the brain....Hubristic mania is loose in the halls of academe, where everybody and his sister seems to have a plan to set the world on its ear.' (19)

At this stage it becomes apparent that a great many different disciplines, none of which are fully understood, have been examined, all of which are, or seem likely to be, playing a role in the future of VR. As John Coops writes,

"VR is an example of convergent technology. Almost all the components exist, and VR is combining them to provide the broadest possible interfaces."(20)

When I briefly met Howard Rheingold, I sought his opinion on this convergence, and whilst he could shed no light on the phenomenon, he agreed it was bewildering the way so many diverse fields were coming together. I feel it is significant, particularly because within its own convergent technology, still in infancy, VR contains the blueprint for the future forms of its own development....I would suggest that here is a self-perpetuating field that may soon be able to pull itself up by its own bootlaces....


(1) Coops, John, 'Take Your Partners For The Dildonics Tango', in Guardian 10/10/1991, p.35
(2) Rheingold, Howard, 'Reaching Out to Touch Our Fantasies', Guardian, 26/8/1991, p.26
(3) Schoon, Nicholas, '3-Dimensional Close Encounter', in The Independent, 3/6/1991, p. 4
(4) Rheingold, H, 'Virtual Reality', Secker & Warburg, London, 1991, p. 346
(5) Jackson, Tim, 'The Tiny Chip With the Megabyte', in The Independent, 18/2/1991, p.16
(6) Manzini, Ezio, 'Intelligent Flexibility'; in
'The Material Of Invention', The Design Council, London, 1989, p.156
(7) Manzini, Ezio, 'Sensitive and Communicative Objects'; in 'The Material Of Invention', The Design Council, London, 1989, p.204
(8) Aldersey-Williams, Hugh, ' A Solid Future for Smart Fluids' in New Scientist, 17/3/1990, pp. 37-40
(9) Gibson, William, 'Neuromancer', Collins Publ., London, 1984, p. 67
(10) Gibson, William, 'Neuromancer', Collins Publ., London, 1984, pp. 68-69
(11) Gibson, William, 'Neuromancer', Collins Publ., London, 1984, pp. 71-72
(12) Bailey, K.V, 'CYBER - and some other - Spatial Metaphors', in 'Vector - The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association', issue 159, publ. BSFA, March 1991, p. 10
(13) Bergland, R, 'The Fabric of Mind', Viking Publ., Middlesex, 1985, pp.107 - 109
(14) Hendricks, Melissa, 'Neuroscientists Plan 'Atlas' of the Brain', in New Scientist, 9/2/1991, p.27
(15) Dayton, Leigh, 'Japan's Thinking Computer Goes On Show', in New Scientist, 7/9/1991, p.31
(16) Kilburn, D, 'Fantastic Voyage', in 'Intersect', Vol 5 No. 7 (77) May 1991, p.39
(17) Gibson, William, 'Neuromancer', Collins Publ., London, 1984, p.193
(18) Harrah-Conforth, Bruce, 'Accessing Alternity With Consciousness Technology'; , in bOING-bOING 'neurozine', No.6, 1991, pp.13 - 15
(19) Sterling, Bruce, 'Cyberpunk in the Nineties', in INTERZONE No.48, 6/1991, p.40
(20) Coops, John, 'Take Your Partner for the Dildonics Tango', Guardian 10/10/1991, p.35