As research in virtual reality and in the real life of my virtual friends has shown me, how relative our idea of seemingly exclusive reality is. By Eva Wolfangel
I feel the sun on my skin and it feels warm. Even though it’s the middle of the night. Can that be? When I travel to virtual reality for the first time in the summer of 2016, I am amazed. And many of these “Can it be?” questions will accompany me through this research, until today. At first, many things seem familiar, like in the real world: I am standing under a tree in the evening sun. The leaves draw a pattern on the ground. I hear the murmuring of people who look like robots but sound like people. The sky is incredibly deep.
Actually my body is in my living room and yet I am somewhere else. I have put a bulky headset over my head, thick headphones with it, and suddenly I find myself in this other world. It is called “Altspace VR”, this world, and it is a social meeting place in Virtual Reality. This is not about games, but about the social. There are three or four similar meeting places of this kind in the Virtual World at this time.
I look around in amazement and can hardly believe how real it all seems. My brain tells me that this is reality. You’re really here. I still don’t know how much this research will change my life and lead me into realities, into the real lives of other people who seem more unreal to me than all this.
So this is supposed to be one big deception, like in The Matrix? In the film, life takes place in a parallel world that doesn’t really exist. It’s the brain’s imagination. The people in Matrix don’t know this – precisely because this parallel world feels so real. But it only exists in their brain.
The world I am in at the moment does not really exist either, but I must consciously tell myself that as I enjoy the evening mood on this day.
Some researchers say: With virtual reality we have the possibility for the first time in the course of mankind to choose between several realities – beyond fantasy journeys, delusions or drug trips. “Virtual reality is as real as the physical world,” says philosopher David Chalmers. For years, the philosopher has been dealing with consciousness and the question of how real the real reality is.
How do we know that the world around us is not just a simulation? Philosophers have been arguing about this not only since René Descartes’ thought experiment in the 17th century, when he asked: How can we know that we are not controlled by an evil demon who merely makes the world around us seem real?
Virtual reality forces us to deal with this question again. The immersion, the feeling of total immersion, is so high that doubts arise as to whether there are any relevant differences to the real world. Chalmers clearly says “No”: “Virtual reality is not second-class reality.” It is in no way inferior to the real thing.
This can also have negative consequences, as I realize on my first day in the other reality. I am standing rooted to the virtual ground when a big red man comes towards me, much too close. I cannot avoid it, because behind me there is a staircase going down. He grabs my chest and laughs dirtily. I am frozen. I know, it’s “only one Avatar”. He didn’t really touch me. But when I look down at myself in virtual reality, I see this man’s strange hand, and I ask myself: What is real?
Diese Schlüsselerfahrung lässt mich auf unangenehme Weise spüren: Diese virtuelle Realität ist viel realer als ihr Name vermuten lässt. Sie mag nicht materiell sein, aber sie ist real. Von Begegnungen im Internet, von Chats, von Computerspielen ist es ein Quantensprung zur virtuellen Realität. Hier bin ich mittendrin und nicht nur auf einem zweidimensionalen Bildschirm dabei. Die Erfahrungen hier gehen nah, sehr nah. Ich frage andere Frauen, und ich recherchiere und finde heraus: sexuelle Belästigung in der virtuellen Realität ist ein häufiges Phänomen.
When someone hugs me for the first time in virtual reality, I feel a fine tingling sensation on my back. That’s not possible! Or can it?
To find out, I visit Thomas Metzinger, philosopher at the University of Mainz. For many years he has been dealing with the question of how real our reality is. He points to the red sofa in the corner of his office. “Is that real?” he asks. He waits – and shakes his head. “This red of the sofa, these are characteristics of a model in our brain.” The red is created in each individual’s head. What we experience directly and unexpectedly is far less real than we think. “That something feels real means the brain is creating a model with high predictive accuracy” says Metzinger. We step under the cone of a lamp and now see everything brighter – as expected. We hear people from far away and the closer they come, the louder their voices become. I sit down on the red sofa, and it is soft. It feels exactly as I expected it to. So it must be real.
It is similar with the model of our self, Metzinger explains: “According to my theory, the feeling of being oneself is a simulation of the brain, an inner model with many layers. The brain, says Metzinger, calculates from all the information available to it what is the best hypothesis, the most probable variant of reality. This it presents to us as reality. “If we do it skilfully, it’s quite possible that you believe you’re in another body.”
As early as 2007, Metzinger and his colleagues transferred test persons into a virtual body during an experiment: Back then, they created an image of the test person from behind. Through virtual reality glasses, the test person appeared to be standing two meters behind the image. Then the researchers stroked the participant’s back. At the same time, the test person saw how the virtual body in front of him was also stroked. “This makes the brain believe that the avatar is somehow part of his own body.”
Thomas Metzinger speaks of a “myth of authenticity” that is attached to our seemingly real world. “Our real world is, of course, not real, but completely distorted.” That doesn’t argue against there being physical bodies and the outside world. But it does question the claim that our material reality is the only reality.
When I put on the headset, my body remains in my small dark study. But my consciousness is beamed to another world. One day, for example, in Sana’s room: she calls it “Time Machine”, she has sad poems on the walls, and in one corner there is an open fireplace. I feel the warmth of the fireplace fire, and I hear the warmth in Sana’s voice. She sounds sad, but I don’t know why.
We philosophize for nights on end, me, the German science journalist and her, the widow from Kuwait, a strictly religious Muslim. In these moments, I am really there. I enjoy these evenings with Sana because I like her and we learn so much from each other. Would we ever have met in so-called real life? Probably not.
I realize that this parallel world, into which I immerse myself more and more deeply, is just as much my real life as the material variant, which most of us call reality. It changes my real life. The melancholy after a thoughtful VR evening with Sana mixes into my real next days. I worry about her when she has said goodbye in a particularly sad way and I feel the warmth of our encounter the very next day.
How can it be that on the one hand there is no world, but the encounters there trigger very real feelings? I want to know all this more precisely and I move into this reality. Every free minute I put on the headset and the headphones, my consciousness says goodbye to the real world.
Sometimes it’s a little breathless. I become a child again and find new playmates every day: We explore the many different rooms in Altspace, we beam and fly, wander through a labyrinth and fight sword fights that really take up the whole body: When I swing a sword in the tavern, I also swing my arm with the controller in my study. If another fighter breaks through my cover, I duck away and crouch on the room floor, which for me consists of the creaky wooden boards of the tavern. Luckily nobody is watching in this real world, I sometimes think.
Once I stand on a rock, in front of my feet it goes hundreds of meters into the depth. I turn my head carefully: behind me is rock, there is no way to escape. I am trembling, cannot move my legs. In short I think of this other world, where I stand on a solid floor. The thought does not calm me down. The view from the rock feels more real. I freeze. My body signals me: Danger.
Researchers call what triggers my fear of heights “place illusion”. The feeling of being real on the spot is not dependent on a graphic that is as perfect as possible. Even if the place I am in doesn’t look real, my brain completes everything that is missing so that it is perfect. So even a fake-looking place feels real to me. The fact that the avatars in Altspace look more like robots doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, it actually makes it easier for the brain to concentrate on what’s important: The interaction is important for the “here” feeling.
Initial studies confirm this: Keisuke Suzuki from the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex let users try different virtual worlds and found that “as soon as I can interact with people or things, it feels real”. Because then our brain can test its hypotheses, such as whether it becomes brighter when I move closer to the lamp or whether the people I see in the distance become taller when I approach them and their voices become louder. “The brain wants a coherent story.”
At the same time, exactly that which pushes me to my limits here – although I am not particularly anxious in real life – offers great opportunities for other people: anxiety disorders of all kinds could be treated in virtual reality in the future. And one of my virtual acquaintances has started her own therapy: Crystal has social phobia in real life, but in virtual reality she is one of the most networked people I have ever met. Everyone knows her, and she organizes the best parties: For 48 hours she celebrates with anyone who feels like it. It must be so long because of the many time zones, she tells me. And no, she has no problem getting close to people virtually – it is much easier for her than real life. So that each of her party guests can have a rest, she has built a virtual campsite with a starry sky that makes me wonder. Some of them actually sleep here for a few hours during the parties and then continue to party.
The more time I spend in the virtual world, the more the doubts come. They are the doubts of my friends and family. “You spend so much time in this virtual reality, you don’t even know these people.” “How do you know they’re not lying to you? How do you know they’re not completely different than they say they are?” I’m getting defiant. Of course I know them. I hear their voices, I see their gestures, we’ve talked all night – I’m not naive!
I decide to prove it. “Sana, I’ll come visit you in real life!” But my girlfriend isn’t happy at all. She evades me, doesn’t show up for days. It takes me a while to convince her – then I quickly book a flight to Kuwait, where a few days later we lie in each other’s arms in a hotel lobby under heavily rattling air conditioners. And it’s all like virtual reality. Her voice. Her gestures. I feel her warm body. She looks strange with her headscarf and is so familiar at the same time.
In Kuwait City I often have to think about how important these new realities are for people like Sana. Sana says she cannot meet men because of her religion. She also has the feeling that she does not belong in this world. I feel this during my visit: she wants to show me Kuwait City, but we always get lost. She refuses this reality by not normally leaving the house. But now there is this visitor, and she feels obliged to show her home town. “I don’t belong here,” she then says. This is different in the virtual reality. There she feels at home.
This loneliness becomes even clearer as we stand in front of a plaque for the fallen heroes of the Iraq war, on it the photo of a narrow young man, Sana’s husband. He fought and died fighting Saddam Hussein. “I miss him so much,” says Sana. I don’t know what to say. I am ashamed of my tidy life.
At the airport, as I leave, I ask: “Sana, why didn’t you want me to come?” “I have no friends in real life, and I was afraid of what would happen if you came into my real life now.”
Back in my real life and thus within reach of my VR headset and the reality of the competition, I get to know Cattz. He is a guy, he has rough slogans in store, Sana thinks he is a lout. Cattz, who always talks about his three ex-wives, his five children and his deadly illness. But with him you can have fun. He is extremely helpful and shows me all the tricks in different virtual worlds. Together we steer a spaceship and swim in virtual pools.
Later, I celebrate the engagement of Ben and Shoo. They met and fell in love in virtual reality. Ben has built an entire virtual house for his sweetheart, on the ground floor a bar, on the counter a cake, on the first floor a romantic marriage bed with dark red satin bedding and a warm glowing bedside lamp.
I finally meet Ben in Atlanta, his mood is depressed because he recently visited his fiancée in London for the first time in real life. No, she was not a stranger to him at all, but during the long hours in the plane above the clouds, he realized that he was having a long-distance relationship. In the cuddly shared house in virtual reality, there was no trace of this distance. He says, “Reality sucks.”
“I don’t see why one shouldn’t be able to lead a life in a virtual environment that is as fulfilling and meaningful as in reality,” says philosopher David Chalmers. Some aspects of real life were still missing, some things like sex, hunger, birth or death might not be transferable, “but give it a few years, then at least we will have a matrix-like VR that is hardly distinguishable from our kind of reality.” And for some, it might even be better, says Thomas Metzinger from Mainz, “It’s not as if what we have now works particularly well.”
I learn how much better the virtual is for some people when I visit Cattz. He suddenly seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth when I try to meet him. The virtual world has already pronounced him dead, he hasn’t shown up for three months.
I finally find him, after a painstaking search for digital contacts, in Spokane, Washington, in a place that could hardly be more bleak. American upstate, between the malls and Taco Bell. Cattz lies in a littered house vegging out on a stained mattress, eating nothing but toast, coke and heart pills. It’s the first time I’ve cursed this research. What am I looking for here in my virtual friends’ real lives? Cattz’s real life is so little life that it seems much more unreal to me than his funky, funny, sometimes a bit rough way in VR.
It’s hard to get up off this mattress. I painstakingly reconstruct what has happened: His house has burned down, he has nothing left, no place to stay, no headset. He hitchhiked for months across the USA in search of his life.
But reality is not his reality. He doesn’t want to be here. After weeks of being homeless, he finally rented this basement hole. He can’t afford anything but early retirement. Walking the streets of Spokane, I realize how important virtual reality was to him. His real life is in the other reality. But it spat him out. He’s gonna have to save a long time before he can afford a new headset and go home.
In this research, it has become clear to me not only how relative the term reality is, but also the potential of these new realities. Virtual reality has torn me out of my filter bubble. I met people I probably would never have met in material reality. And I made a similar journey as my protagonist Ben: I felt close to people, I hung out in a room with them for weeks – and only on my long journey to Kuwait, Israel and the USA did I realize how far away these people are “in reality”. And that this distance need not hinder us. In VR it disappears.
This subject has not left me alone since then. I have met Cattz and Sana in VR again and again since then – it remains our medium. And as a journalist I can’t help but see great opportunities for our industry in this medium. I am currently working on such a project as Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. Because I think that especially we journalists and communicators urgently need to become more creative in the use of VR. After all, VR offers much more than 3-D films, in which – let’s be honest – usually only one perspective is interesting. And even unique experiences in VR do not use its full potential. Why should our audience look at things silently and mostly passively, when it can also be social and interactive?
Educational research shows that we understand and learn things better and more sustainably when we work on them together and interactively. There are already the first educational projects in social virtual reality, but many are replicating classic classrooms. This in no way exploits the advantages of the medium! Education in VR does not have to be frontal teaching. On the contrary. My idea is to invite an expert, say a quantum physicist or a brain researcher, together with my audience. We meet in a social VR space and have three-dimensional models with us (which we have created before): an atom, Schrödinger’s cat or the human brain. While I interview the expert as a journalist, we can travel together with the atom, with Schrödinger’s cat or through the brain and explore it.
And there’s something else: VR ripped me out of my filter bubble. The technology makes you open to new people and new topics. I have met many people who are quite sceptical about journalists, and who were surprisingly open. I have answered many questions, and I have asked many questions. That has taken us forward together. As far as I know, this has not yet been researched, I only have anecdotal evidence for this: my experiences and those of my virtual friends. But many have confirmed to me that they have talked to people with whom they would not come into contact in real life or whom they are quite sceptical about.
Journalistic research and experience shows something else: The only thing that reliably helps in the current crisis of confidence in the media is personal meetings. Many publishers have created elaborate dialogue processes with readers. In VR we can meet in person without having to travel far. Without flying, without polluting the environment. Even without transmitting viruses. And after the first experiences in “remote learning” at Harvard and at MIT in the face of the corona crisis, one thing is certain: anything that helps to make this learning “real spatial” and the feeling of really meeting each other makes digital learning and communication over distance more successful.
We should be quite optimistic about virtual reality.
In times of social distancing, we often make do with video conferencing. But it would be so much nicer in virtual reality.via riffeporter.de