Virtual, Interactive Literature

by Norman Desmarais


Systems designers are working on developing products that will integrate a variety of consumer electronic commodities such as stereo systems, televisions, and computers. These devices will give rise to a new dimension in learning and entertainment. We can expect these two activities to eventually merge into a new field that some analysts refer to as "edutainment". Some people describe this process as "nintendizing information". Others refer to "artificial reality", an oxymoronic term, otherwise known as "virtual reality", or "cyberspace".

A branch of science fiction called "cyberpunk" has developed in recent years. This literary movement concerns itself with the intrusion of the computer (technology) into our lives. It deals with the synergy between human and artificial intelligence. Particular attention to vividness and texture characterizes this form of literature.

Virtual reality, on the other hand, reverses this process. It takes our lives into the technology. It suggests that life, like film, video, and computer data can be edited so as to become "post human", radically reprogrammed through artificial evolution or redesigned by technology.

One enters this artificial world by putting on special clothing wired to a computer. Gloves and suits with sensors and transmitters send and receive data. The glove resembles Mattel's power glove for its Nintendo games. Goggles include two tiny video screens. Headsets provide three-dimensional stereo sound. Helmets could include both audio and video output. The computer generates sounds and images either of the real world or of an imaginary one that appear to the viewer in three dimensions.

The equipment required to create these effects will initially extend beyond the means of the average consumer. One will have to go to certain places, like theaters or arcades, to enjoy these experiences. Some afficionados of artificial reality have proposed the term "Cyberia".

On October 6-7, 1990, the Whole Earth Institute sponsored a 24-hour Cyberthon in San Francisco. They billed it as a "continuous experiential conference on virtual reality and culture".

In a way, artificial reality is like watching television; but it's more lifelike because it allows for action. A user can sit in the cockpit of an airplane or swing a club on a golf course. With a flick of the gloved wrist, he can pick up an object or fly or chop off the head of a monster.

Software programs exist, or soon will, to allow people to see the world from many vantage points. For example, in a module about the Civil War, one could examine a particular battle from the point of view of a Northerner or Southerner, officer or recruit, civilian or soldier, slave or freeman, industrialist or laborer. One could also experience what it's like to be a cat or a mop.

One can also interact with real people connected to the same virtual world. Following our example, one "player" could become General George Meade while another assumes the role of Robert E. Lee. Together, they can relive the battle of Gettysburg.

Virtual reality may seem just fun and games right now; but it will gain popularity when it appears in the video arcades. However, the concept has a serious purpose. It will let people transcend their identities and experience things from different viewpoints without much effort and not much time. Simulated experiences offer opportunities for safe activity in a risky world.

It can serve to train pilots to fly dangerous missions or expensive aircraft. It can teach a surgeon how to handle a scalpel without drawing blood. It can educate workers how to handle situations that may be too expensive or hazardous to reproduce in real life. It can also create a "workplace" for employees separated by thousands of miles.

While current efforts might seem disappointing, work in virtual reality remains at the experimental stage. It has the potential for producing great changes. Part of the mystique stems from the difficulty of conveying the experience through printed words or pictures.

Novels, plays, and films attempt to create an artificial experience. "The new technology allows that symbolic world to become concrete" says Myron Krueger, a computer scientist based in Vernon, Connecticut. Besides providing opportunities for experiencing alternative lifestyles or for exploring a variety of situations, whether real or imaginary, the concept could give rise to a new form of literature such as interactive novels. The "reader" would control the action; and the plot would change depending on the reader's choices or actions. This will require writers to compose several parallel plots that intertwine.

The technology permits mixing real life with animation or computer generated graphics. The computer could take photos or full motion video sequences and modify them to create a variety of special effects such as we see in television shows and movies. Video effects such as superimposition and matteing can now come down to the user level.

Studies have shown that people who view films or play computer games can experience the same sensations and emotions as if the events were actually happening to them. Virtual reality would take this a step further and bring audience participation to a new level. The individual now becomes the controlling force behind the story. The plot changes with every decision the "reader" makes.

For example, a reader could begin in the "real world" as a modern-day Alice and enter into virtual Wonderland. Here, she could meet the various characters who could appear as her real-life friends and acquaintances. As Alice travels through Wonderland, she would encounter a variety of characters and participate in several adventures. She could even experience different adventures if she returns to the same location more than once.

Travelogues and guide books can open new horizons by letting readers travel through time and space. One could "visit" modern London; and, with a single keystroke, see what it looked like in Shakespeare's time. Or one could study the stamp tax debates in the American colonies and immediately compare them with the debates at the parliament in London. Such tools would allow readers to experience different countries and cultures and select points of particular interest.

"Visitors" to a museum or art gallery could select items that particularly appeal to them to pursue with more in depth study. Upon viewing a painting or sculpture, one could learn more about the artist or sculptor, the school, influences of and effects on other artists and sculptors. The armchair traveler could even take virtual vacations while getting a tan at the electric beach.

The cost of the technology and the accoutrements it requires will place it out of range for the average consumer for quite some time. One will have to go to special centers to get the experience, just as one goes to movie theaters or to arcades. However, just as consumers can rent movies to view in their homes or buy arcade games to play on their computers, the day will come when they will also be able to buy or rent virtual reality modules or virtual literature.

While the developers of virtual reality sytems begin with a serious purpose, the technology will have far reaching possibilities that will affect many areas of our lives, including our "literature" and entertainment.

Web this site