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Virtual Realism

Author: Michael Heim
Publisher: New York: Oxford University Press, 1998
Review Published: January 2000

 REVIEW 1: Steven J. Schneider

"Virtual worlds are works of art as much as they are feats of engineering" (93).

In The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (1993), Michael Heim -- techno-philosopher, Tai Chi instructor, translator of Heidegger -- stresses the need for a balance between primary and virtual worlds, citing empirical evidence to the effect that repeated and undisciplined forays into the latter "can threaten the integrity of human experience" (131). He also calls attention to the artistic nature of virtual reality ("VR," for short), focusing on the still-incipient technology's transformative potential. As he writes: "Perhaps the essence of VR ultimately lies not in technology but in art, perhaps art of the highest order. Rather than control or escape or entertain or communicate, the ultimate promise of VR may be to transform, to redeem our awareness of reality-something that the highest art has attempted to do and something hinted at in the very label virtual reality, a label that has stuck, despite all objections, and that sums up a century of technological innovation" (123).

Five years later, in Virtual Realism, Heim picks up on these two, seemingly disparate ideas, and weaves them together in a work that is at once autobiography, instructional handbook, exhibition catalogue, and VR manifesto. Such eclecticism of style and content is only fitting for a book dedicated "to those minds at large who find no home in the established schools." Heim's basic thesis, as laid out in the Preface, is both intuitive and elegant: "social and technological changes stir debate about the future. On one side are network idealists who promote virtual communities and global information flow. On the other side are naive realists who blame electronic culture for criminal violence and unemployment. Between them runs the narrow path of virtual realism" (7). One might question Heim's claim that the path of virtual realism is especially narrow -- it seems a safe bet that most people, while excited about VR's fantastic (and phantastic) possibilities, remain somewhat skeptical of the hype surrounding its "revolutionary" import. Nevertheless, at a time when advances in VR technology come a great deal faster than our ability to reach informed conclusions about their social, ethical, and political consequences, virtual realism as a normative claim makes a lot of sense.

Chapter One of Virtual Realism -- "VR 101" -- is, as the title suggests, a beginner's guide to the subject. "Because virtual reality belongs to an important part of the future," Heim writes, "we need to understand it not only as an undercurrent affecting cultural developments but also as a powerful technology in its own right" (4). Along these lines, Heim introduces the "three I's" of VR: immersion, interaction, and information intensity. "Immersion" is a psychological/phenomenological effect resulting from devices which "isolate the senses sufficiently to make a person feel transported to another place" (7). Heim admits that, at present, immersion is "a complex and elusive phenomenon" (19), but he floats the idea of a scale of immersive experiences corresponding to the varying degrees of engagement delivered by different media. "Interactivity," in Heim's sense of the term, points to "the computer's lightning fast ability to change the scene's point-of-view as fast as the human organism can alter its physical position and perspective" (7). This requires computers powerful enough to convert data in two directions: from a person's sensory input to virtual world output, and back again. Finally, "information intensity" is the notion that "a virtual world can offer special qualities that show a certain degree of intelligent behavior" (7). One of these "special qualities" Heim labels "telepresence," the ability to carry out operations in remote locations while remaining immersed in a simulated environment. Heim's non-technical introduction to virtual reality is helpful, and makes for good reading; the only criticism is that he could have taken more time to differentiate the three "I's" or better yet, discuss the extent to which they are mutually interdependent notions.

Chapter Two -- "Virtual Realism" -- lays out Heim's middle path between the excesses of "naive realism" (exemplified by the technophobic writings of Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber) and "network idealism," the prophetic assertions of futurists such as Alvin Toffler and the "digerati" celebrated by Wired magazine. In order to "survive well," Heim believes we must come to understand "this dual nature of our passion": "We have to live with it. We must balance the idealist's enthusiasm for computerized life with the need to ground ourselves more deeply in the felt earth affirmed by the realist as our primary reality. This uneasy balance I call 'virtual realism'" (43).

How is this "balance" (the "uneasiness" of which I have already called into question) to be achieved? Through what Heim calls "technalysis": the practical, albeit critical, analysis of technologies. To help get us started, Heim provides a list of "signposts" along the path of virtual realism. These signposts range from the trite ("Refuse to fear an all-pervasive technology monster"), to the therapeutic ("VR can help us look closely at the bio-psychic imbalances created by computer technology"), to the theoretical: "virtual worlds do not re-present the primary world. They are not realistic in the sense of photo-realism. Each virtual world is a functional whole that can parallel, not re-present or absorb the primary world we inhabit" (47-8). This last claim is interesting but contentious -- just because virtual worlds are not yet "realistic in the sense of photo-realism," surely this remains an empirical possibility. As VR technology continues to improve, the likelihood/risk of "re-presenting the primary world" increases. To be fair to Heim, though, he would probably accuse me of network idealism on this point.

In "The Art of Virtual Reality" (Chapter Three), Heim shifts gears, describing and commenting on a number of art installations which utilize VR technology. Color photos accompany the text, but (and this is no fault of the author's) they fail to do justice to the complex experiential qualities of the works in question. In Heim's view, "the art of virtual reality shatters the modern aesthetics where we sit back as passive spectators or jaded listeners or bored manipulators. The transhuman aspects of VR can approximate something that shamans, mystics, magicians, and alchemists sought to communicate" (67).
By "transhuman," Heim has in mind various artistic and psychological strategies which enable us to "break through well-worn perceptions" (219-20). Works like Topological Slide (1994-95) by Michael Scroggins and Stewart Dickson, in which the "rider" stands on a swivel platform wearing a head-mounted stereoscopic display, exemplify the transhuman in art. The platform responds to the rider's movements by translating them into navigational commands which control the graphics environment; as a result, "the rider experiences a vivid sense of motion and the ability to surf a surreal ocean of geometry" (65).

Chapter Four -- "Interactive Design: Tunnel or Spiral?" -- is the most interesting one in the book. Heim begins by presenting brief biographical sketches of Doors' lead singer Jim Morrison and classical pianist Glenn Gould, a pair of musicians who "belong together as two sides of future interactivity. The rebellious body protests its exile by seeking participation; the mind's inner ear forsakes physical contact and uses technology to merge with other minds" (88). Though some readers might feel that Heim is leaving his professed subject matter too far behind here, his point -- an important one -- is that the virtual worlds we construct in the future must avoid the excesses of these two geniuses, and effect a union of mind and body. Heim goes on to pose the crucial question, "What is it that makes a world a world?" Tantalizingly brief forays into the philosophies of Martin Heidegger and Nelson Goodman lead him to conclude that worlds are "functional wholes" (91) which can only be defined contextually. Just what kind of "functional whole" is a virtual world? That depends on what its creators have in mind for it, but insofar as the virtual world in question is intended for human consumption/involvement, more than just technological know-how is required: "structural design is only the beginning of world building. Software architecture must become interactive. The human interaction side of world design is art" (93). It is here that Heim's notions of virtual realism and the artistic nature of VR begin to merge in a way only hinted at in his earlier book.

The next two chapters -- "InfoEcology" and "Nature and Cyberspace" -- can be read as one. "InfoEcology" is a word Heim uses to denote the "graft[ing] of information systems onto planetary health" (125). To illustrate this idea, Heim explains in some detail how one forward-looking company uses photogrammetry to map remote objects onto virtual image space, thereby enabling the safe clean-up and dismantling of toxic sites via teleoperation (a species of telepresence utilizing robotics). This real-world application enables Heim to restate his position that VR is a pragmatic, rather than mimetic, technology: "the engineer is not trying to reproduce or even re-present reality inside the VR system. The engineer works in the broad context of the world for toxic clean-up where the goal is to get the job done" (141). In "Nature and Cyberspace," Heim shifts gears yet again, telling of his youth in Shawano County, Wisconsin, where he spent time close to nature with his grandfather. Concerned to show how computers and nature "belong to each other," Heim adapts environmentalist Svend Larsen's six features of the natural world as a way of "cataloging the psychic framework of cyberspace" (156). These features are: infinite, inaccessible, overwhelming in power, fearsome, wild, and primal. Finally, Heim recommends a virtual reality cure for the "technology sickness" that comes from spending lots of time with the lower halves of our bodies immobile while our upper nervous systems are overloaded. The VR he has in mind combines HMD (Head-Mounted Display) technology with projection-room immersion. The latter, as opposed to the former, allows for collaborative group viewing, no cumbersome headgear, low viewer fatigue, and user mobility. The former still has the edge in terms of information intensity, however, which is why Heim concludes that "the harmony of both types of immersion could produce virtual environments for alert and self-aware human beings" (171).

The final chapter of Virtual Realism, "AWS and UFOs," presents Heim's views on such phenomena as Alternate World Syndrome -- "the relativity sickness that comes from switching back-and-forth between the primary and virtual worlds" (182) -- and reports of alien visitation. Despite its New Age sound, AWS appears to be a legitimate condition: forms of it have been identified in pilots who spend too much time working with flight simulators. Heim's contribution is to hypothesize a connection between AWS and accounts of alien abduction. Using Jungian archetypal analysis as a starting point, Heim concludes that at this stage of human evolution, "we experience our full technological selves as alien visitors, as threatening beings who are mutants of ourselves and who are immersed and transformed by technology to a higher degree than we think comfortable and who are about to operate, we sense, on the innards of our present-day selves. The visitors from outer space descend from our own future" (188).
Heim believes that the psychopathology of abduction "reveals what is written large in AWS" (188). Interesting speculation, but speculation nevertheless. For a book purportedly written about new, empirically grounded technologies, empirical grounding is what this chapter sorely needs.

In the final analysis, Virtual Realism is a timely, occasionally frustrating, often fascinating book. Timely because we can all hear the footsteps of "strong" (i.e. fully immersive) VR coming towards us, and awareness of the practical and theoretical issues at stake will be essential if we are to use this incipient technology safely and soundly. Occasionally frustrating because Heim's literary pretensions, though appreciated, sometimes lead to stylistic self-indulgence, and because the various chapters (written at different times, for vastly different sources) can give the impression of being stuck together rather arbitrarily. Often fascinating because Heim draws on a wide range of source material, makes a number of pregnant assertions about the marriage of art and technology, and prioritizes understanding over information. Heim is a unique voice in the field of cyberculture studies, and Virtual Realism serves as a welcome corrective to the many narrowly-conceived VR books currently on the shelves.

Michael Heim. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York: OUP, 1993.

Steven J. Schneider:
Steven J. Schneider is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Harvard University, and a masters candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. On-line publications include "Monsters as (Uncanny) Metaphors: Freud, Lakoff, and the Representation of Monstrosity in Cinematic Horror" in Other Voices, "Mind: Type Identity Theories" in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and "The Means and Ends of Screen Violence" in Film-Philosophy

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