© Mark Platten 2006
Chapter Two: How Far Could It Go? - Technical Limitations
"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.
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)
- 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).
(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.
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)
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...
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.
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.
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)
'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)
'...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
'...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 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)
'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