View Electronic Edition

Virtual Reality

Sometimes, when you make up a metaphor, it goes out and has adventures. It mixes with the wrong crowd. It forgets where it came from and changes so you hardly recognize it. A metaphor can decay into a mere word. The metaphorical heritage of a term usually dims with familiarity. But once in a while a metaphor is levitated by its richness and ambivalence and refuses to resolve into a narrow concrete term.

Decades ago, I suggested a metaphor that has turned out to consume much of my adult life. I called a type of computer-user interface technology "Virtual Reality." I thought it would have aged into a mere term by now, but it hasn't.

I still get requests almost every week to speak to some group and explain what VR is, exactly. It has taken on a life of its own. This is extraordinary, because there hasn't been all that much money or promotion involved. The idea of Virtual Reality for the most part propelled itself. I've occasionally tried to contain its extravagance, but it has leapt over every fence I've attempted to erect. It has been claimed by pop culture as a virtually universal metaphor.


Long before I showed up, the brilliant computer scientist and father of computer graphics, Ivan Sutherland, had been building what he called "virtual worlds." In 1965 he wrote a paper referring to an "ultimate display"—the head-mounted display. These are the familiar Virtual Reality goggles.

Sutherland was motivated to make an "ultimate display" in part because he had experienced the difficulties of designing graphical user interfaces within the confines of a conventional screen. He wrote what might be the best computer program of all time, Sketchpad, in 1963. It was the first computer graphics application. You could draw directly on the screen with a lightpen, and could modify the program with a graphical programming language.

The problem was you couldn't see enough at one time. The human mind loves concreteness and visual/spatial representation, but that requires screen space for each thing or concept to be represented. Screen space becomes cluttered and then runs out almost instantly. So Ivan imagined an ultimate display that could allow the user to move about through a potentially infinite virtual world instead of a real screen with hard boundaries.

Ivan, a card-carrying nerd, drew his terminology from the metaphors popular in the sciences at the time. "Virtual" indicated a substitution that has no impact within a certain frame of reference. In computer science, a "virtual machine" is a perfect substitute for a machine within the context of abstract computation. There are also "virtual particles" in physics. For something to be "virtual," it has to be indistinguishable in some practical context, while it remains distinguishable in another. If it were always indistinguishable, there would be identity, rather than virtuality. A virtual world doesn't fit this definition exactly, since we can't ever perfectly simulate physical reality; so Ivan was using the term metaphorically.

Birth of a Metaphor

It turns out that the two words, virtual reality, had appeared in that sequence before I coined the term. The earliest example I have found is from French surrealist Antonin Artaud, who described effective theater as creating a virtual reality of the scenario being depicted.

Back in the early days of our company, VPL, I thought we needed to differentiate our work from Ivan's "virtual worlds." First, we were networking people in virtual worlds together. The implications of this are more dramatic than you might initially realize. If two people are poking around in the same virtual world, they can look at each other. So each user has to be represented. This is a big deal. Should a person be represented as accurately as possible? Or rely on metaphor, turning into an animate raven, for instance? Or should a virtual person be as abstract as possible—merely arrows to indicate to others where the real person is looking?

Second, we wanted, with available technology, to re-create the most basic physical relationship of a person to an environment that we could. To do that we used gloves in the place of pens or mice. That way we could create the illusion of any possible tool. We also built whole body suits.

These two qualities, social and somatic, together created something quite different from a solitary virtual world. It functioned as the interstices or connection between people; a role that had been previously taken only by the physical world. The term "reality" seemed appropriate. A "world" results when a mind has faith in the persistence of what it perceives. A "reality" results when a mind has faith that other minds share enough of the same world to establish communication and empathy. Then add the somatic angle: A mind can occupy a world, but a body lives in a reality—and with our somatic interfaces like gloves and body suits, we were designing for the body as well as the mind.

When I first proposed "Virtual Reality," Chuck Blanchard, who used to be in charge of software at VPL, complained. "It sounds too much like RV—Recreational Vehicle. People will think it means old folks taking vacations in virtual worlds." I went with the term anyway.

Pop Culture Fantasia

We now leave the actual technology behind for a while and follow the adventures of a metaphor as it skips out of the lab into the big wide world. Virtual Reality's potency as a metaphor is so great that it is almost impossible to track.

Here is an incomplete survey of the current usage—as of summer 1999.

A delinquent disassociation from the truth . In the last presidential election, each of the four national candidates at one time or another accused his opponents of "living in Virtual Reality." This was when they were being nice; at other times much more aggressive language was in play. The implication seemed to be that Virtual Reality was the failing of a mind that might be well intentioned and clever, a delusion rather than a manipulation.

A protean, all-encompassing triumph of creativity . The cover of a Frank Sinatra CD brags that "Frank creates a virtual reality when he sings." The term has appeared in this usage in a great many blurbs for novels, movies, and recordings.

Pervasive alienation; mental removal from natural reality brought about by technological civilization . Rather than the mere Marxist alienation from one's work, a person is alienated from all of natural life by the devilish confusion of mass media and other pervasive technologies. I was given a Gen-X faux-fifties refrigerator magnet with a Norman Rockwell family overlaid by "Virtual Reality" in a sinister font. In this usage, Virtual Reality is essentially treated as an ultimate form of television by people who hate and fear television.

An ecstasy or epiphany brought about by technology . The first cover story about the technology in the Wall Street Journal referred to it, incredibly, as "electronic LSD."

A transcendent perspective brought about by technology . Hollywood scripts have frequently used Virtual Reality as a device to give a character, and the audience, privileged knowledge versus others. The idea is that he with the goggles sees farther. In the early days ( Lawnmower Man ), the knowledge was often used to either rule the world or solve a crime, while in more recent incarnations ( The Matrix ), the hero uses Virtual Reality to become a Buddha-like figure, wiser than the common mortal.

The Ambiguity at the Core of the Metaphor

Now why would a metaphor about a user-interface technology take on such luminous pop overtones? I think the reason is that "Virtual Reality" evokes unresolved mysteries about the status of computers and all things digital.

Computer scientists like to think of the whole world as a big computer or collection of computer-organisms like trees or humans. Some don't believe this is just a simile ("world as or like computer") but more literally true, reality. They have entertained the public with the question: Is there ultimately a difference between reality and a very good computer with very good input and output devices?

This explains both sides of Virtual Reality as a pop metaphor. Virtual Reality is transcendent, because if reality is digital, it is programmable. Everything becomes possible. You can enjoy a universe as varied as dreams AND still share it with other people who are plugged into the equipment, instead of being trapped in your own head. To all those connected, a tree can suddenly transform into a sparkling waterfall. On the other hand, if reality is digital, everything is the same as everything else. Claustrophobia quickly sets in—a bit is a bit. As you watch the tree change into a waterfall, you realize there was nothing essential about the bits being a tree or a waterfall, or potentially being you, for that matter.

A Metaphor Takes Flight

"Virtual Reality" is really propelled by the ambiguity of the familiar word "reality."

"Consensus" and "reality" are often strung together. Here, in Marin County culture, this pairing suggests that external reality is a mental medium—that reality only seems stubborn about such things as following the laws of physics because enough minds cannot get together to agree to change them. In other societies, the phrase might merely suggest the degree to which multiple minds contain mutually coherent models of the world. In either case, "reality" becomes a medium for communication. If reality is a medium, do we read from it and write in it as if it were a book?

Metaphors are luxuriant, youthful, optimistic. Every time we make a metaphor we are returning to the Eden of meaning, before meaning decayed into frayed words.

The computer will probably be a part of the human environment for as long as people exist. At the present time, the culture of computing is dominated by greed, politics, and banal design. The Virtual Reality metaphor enjoys popularity because it leaps over the current bland mess and expresses what is fascinating, inspirational, and terrifying about computers. As long as it lives as a metaphor, instead of a term, it cannot be contained, boxed in, owned, or controlled. When Virtual Reality falls out of use as a vague metaphor, and becomes known as a specific thing, that will be an indicator that people have become comfortable with computers as they are. And that might never happen.