It takes great vision and knowledge to tackle such broad questions as those associated with the future of virtual reality (VR), but on September 19, scholars from various departments and disciplines at the U of T came together to do just that during the September evening at Technophilosophie.
Professor Karina Vold of the Department of Philosophy – specializing in the philosophy of artificial intelligence and applied ethics – organized the event, which was sponsored by the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society and the Institute for history and philosophy of science and technology. The event brought together a diverse group of speakers at the Isabel Bader Theater to discuss what virtual reality will change in our lives in the future.
Pre-digital origins of VR
A major theme that surfaced throughout the discussion is how the roots of what we now call virtual reality go back to a pre-digital era. Avery Slater, assistant professor in the Department of English specializing in 20th and 21st century literature, noted how the conceptual roots of virtual reality are found in literature, with books like Neal’s science fiction novel Stephenson. Snowfall providing both the vocabulary and the ideas behind it.
In an interview with the university, Adrien Zakar, who works in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies with a focus on cartography and geography, noted that “there is something very interesting about the fact that new technologies are at both presented as revolutionary, but at the same time raising questions that we already know, and that we know very well. During the event, Zakar highlighted cartography as another pre-digital precursor to virtual reality, as the field offers a 2D representation of a 3D space that we process much like the world around us when we apply our imaginations. .
Zacar said the university that maps are also an example of technology subtly entering our lives, slipping under our noses, much like virtual reality has and may continue for years to come. “I think what’s valuable about bringing maps into the picture is observing the fact that we use them every day without really realizing it and without necessarily being even curious about how it is. become so,” Zakar said.
Create an immersion in virtual reality
Another major theme that dominated the discussion was the role of the human imagination in creating immersive encounters with virtual reality. During the discussion, Professor Karan Singh, whose research focuses on the development and study of virtual and augmented reality, argued that virtual reality is currently not immersive enough to be too different from television. . With his research, however, Singh found implementations of robotic arms in conjunction with virtual reality that were “very engaging”, making it easy for people to believe that virtual objects are real.
Professor Brain Cantwell Smith, Reid Hoffman Chair in Artificial Intelligence in the Department of Philosophy, responded that although virtual reality is limited to sight and sound, we still interact with the people and ideas behind the virtual representation. and can be immersed in it, much like how we interact with a writer and not ink when reading a letter.
When it comes to sensory perception, David Rokeby, assistant professor at the Center for Drama, Theater & Performance Studies and associate director at BMO Lab, illustrated that we may need to dim certain parts of our senses to be fully immersed, turning off certain thoughts. .
Professor Jessica Hall, whose work is in the philosophy of computing, has pointed out another problem with virtual reality immersion: there seem to be some things whose constituent characteristics escape virtual representation. This is evident when exploring meaningful experiences and relationships in virtual reality, as well as when considering whether accomplishments and experiences in a virtual world have the same meaning as in the real world.
Towards the end of the event, the panel took questions from the audience. One person asked if virtual reality would eventually reach a point where we could see the world in ways we weren’t able to see before, such as understanding the experiences of non-human animals.
It puts philosophical theories like those of Thomas Nagel — and his work on what consciousness is — in the spotlight. Nagel argues that we can know everything about a creature, like, say, a bat, and know specific things about how it experiences the world, like that it uses sonar for vision. However, we will not be able to understand the phenomenological experience of actually being the bat. Virtual reality has the potential to change that by giving us experiences that humans wouldn’t have had before.
With virtual reality as it is, it seems the technology isn’t as immersive or impactful as people might expect. As many panelists pointed out, VR has a lot of potential, but that comes with some potential issues that we’ll need to watch out for. However, if some things are simply not possible to represent in a virtual world, it may be impossible to completely immerse ourselves in virtual reality.
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