Virtual Reality

Virtual reality systems use computers to generate an artificial model of reality, and the output is then fed to the senses, as if the person were experiencing the scene directly. Data about visual aspects of the artificial reality are fed to miniature video screens in front of the eyes; sound data to headphones; touch data to gloves or even a body suit that simulates feelings of pressure. This is then relayed back to the brain exactly as would sensory data from a real scene. There it is processed and a picture of reality generated just as in normal sensory experience. The principal difference is that this "virtual reality" has no real existence other than in the computer's memory. But it is still just as real in our minds. Indeed after a few minutes of experiencing a virtual reality, most people find themselves imagining they are "in" that space.

As computing power increases and more detailed and realistic simulations of physical reality are created it will probably become possible to create virtual realities as convincing as the one we create from our perception of the physical world. As this happens

In his novel Neuromancer, William Gibson coined the word "cyberspace" (literally, information space) to refer to an artificially induced reality whose subject matter was information rather than physical objects. He foresaw people circumventing sensory input with plugs feeding data directly into the brain. People would then see clusters and constellations of data laid out in cyberspace much as we see physical objects laid out in physical space.

But we do need neither cumbersome headsets nor direct jacks into the brain to see information space; most of us are already experiencing it. As I write this I see the layout of the ideas; I see how one idea flows on to the next in my personal information space. If I am working on paper the layout I see may have some relation to the pieces of paper in front of me. When I am working on the computer the structure is more similar to the structure of the files on my computer screen. Indeed it is easy to assume that is how the data is organized in the computer; it isn't it is just the layout created on my "desktop". This layout is an elementary cyberspace„a spatial representation of information.

Within in my computer I have many other files, databases, images, movie clips and bits of software. Through some of this software I reach out across the world to text, images, sounds and software held in other people's machines. In my mind I create an image of this rich information resource that, like my image of physical reality, is laid out around me in space and time. But this image has little relation to the physical word or the location of the hardware. I do not see a web site to be located, say, in Chicago but in a section of my personal cybermap relating to those themes. Here association is by meaning rather than physical location. But the framework is still one of space and time.


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