Virtual Learning Learning Virtual
Updated: Oct 1, 2019
Comparing virtual and physical reality, I focus on the qualities that one of them has, but the other one lacks. One might say that there is no point to compare, but I would have to disagree. At the moment, the majority perceive virtual reality as an entertainment tool, some – as a working tool, and only a few – as a new paradigm of existence. By such a comparison, I try to understand whether virtual reality carries some added value, whether it has an ability to solve problems that we cannot solve otherwise.
As with any technology, the potential and the constraints of virtual reality come from its underlying principles. Virtual reality is actually visual virtual reality. The technology on its own does not immerse the individual into a completely different environment. It is not capable of the fullness of auditory, tactile, olfactory, kinaesthetic, and other cues which are crucial for spatial legibility. Virtual reality is based on the principles of visual perspective. When the viewer puts a headset on, they experience a visual illusion that is very similar to those images previously produced by a stereoscope. The technology represents the physical world by creating copies of its objects and spaces in the virtual environment.
During four weeks in the spring 2019, I took part in a research project initiated by Peter Maloney and Cyril Shing at the Chelsea College of Arts in London. Their main goals were to establish the ways for knowledge exchange between the tutor and the student in the virtual environment, and to explore the opportunities for two or more students to design collaboratively in the virtual space. Our experiment did not go that far as the one in which Jim Blascovich was measuring the performance of pupils - he discovered a way of improving the performance via spatial arrangements in the virtual classroom. Instead of measuring any objective metrics, we observed on displays the behaviour of the participants in the shared virtual environment. One of the most fascinating results of the project is that the absence of materiality in a virtual space is replaced by cognitive processes in our brain. Indeed, when one of the participants sees an avatar of another one in the virtual space, they try to avoid colliding with it as if they were in a physical environment and saw a real person. Moreover, the same behaviour is observed when the participants create objects, whatever formless and unrecognisable. Thus, virtual reality does not only create a copy of the physical world, but in some cases creates a visual illusion so powerful that the immersion into this illusion makes people forget the qualities of the physical space in which their bodies are. The illusion can force us to believe that we are present in a time, weather conditions, season, and place completely different from those where we actually are. The more advanced technologies associated with virtual reality are even more powerful – augmented reality and mixed reality allow blurring the boundaries between the physical and the virtual.
Some people are so excited about these technologies that they overestimate them. One of the participants in our project raised the question of the immortality of the virtual world and the transiency of the physical world. Here, another trick of cutting-edge technologies is hidden – people tend to forget that those consist of physical matter. Virtual reality creates an immortal illusion in our brain, but the technology still needs silicon, glass, plastic, metal, and so on. It is immortal or transient at the same extent as the physical environment is. Making a copy of a virtual environment is much easier than it is for a physical one, but any new virtual copy needs more physical matter supporting its existence. Thus, the physical and the virtual are intrinsically interdependent.
The technology of virtual reality will soon prove its importance as a tool for a wider audience. Bed patients having an opportunity to travel not only in their memory or imagination; researchers scrutinizing psychological and social aspects of human behaviour under precisely tuned conditions in accurately calculated systems; students provided with shared environments for knowledge exchange with their tutors and with each other; designers and architects collaboratively working on concepts with the user; the industry of art and entertainment reshaped by the participatory experience; and so on.
But I believe that the issue is much deeper. The technologies of virtual reality, including augmented and mixed reality, is one of the first steps of creating a new way of living - the way leading to the emergence of a new human. It is the human whose identity is undefined, flexible, and easily changeable; it is the human constantly travelling between this and that reality; it is the human whose wellbeing is stretched out and more dependent on the brain than on the body; it is the human with new rights and responsibilities; it is the human whose behaviour is based on yet not discovered social norms and relations. In spite of all the risks carried out by such a human and the limitations of these technologies, they are an opportunity for restarting the world.
Ellard, C. (2017) Среда обитания. Как архитектура влияет на наше поведение и самочувствие. Москва: Альпина Паблишер.