The history of human technology is, to a large degree, a drive to create virtual reality.
Language -- the manipulation of symbols and sounds to convey experience and make reality malleable--is one of the simplest forms of virtual reality. Story-telling is an expression of language and an immediate form of virtual reality.
Radio, television and the internet are all increasingly complex and immersive forms of virtual reality.
In the next decades, technology experts predict that the latest forms of virtual reality, even the detailed gaming environments like World of Warcraft and Second Life, will be considered primitive. Just as the combined advancements in electronics, chip design and physics played a role in the creation of the early virtual environments of the internet and telecommunications industries, rapidly advancing technologies in an even wider range of technologies -- everything from nanotechnology and quantum physics to biotechnology to artificial intelligence, and robotics to brain control interfaces -- will create new realities that are interactive and indistinguishable from our current reality, these experts say. In fact, our current reality may be a mere staging ground for deeper, more expressive, and more immersive forms of reality where the imagination and experience finally meet.
There seem to be three trends in the development of these simulated realities: internal, external and transcendent. Although, most experts tend to lay bets down on one form of virtual reality -- internal, external, or transcendent -- or the other as the basis for virtual reality development, it could be a combination. This doesn't have to be exclusive. Inventor and futurist, Ray Kurzweil, believes that virtual reality will become highly immersive--in more ways than one.
In the next few decades, researchers will be able to release billions or trillions of nanobots directly into the brain and body. These nanobots can interface with neurons to create experiences that will be no different from the external reality. He describes it this way.
"Virtual reality and virtual humans will become a profoundly transforming technology by 2030. By then, nanobots (robots the size of human blood cells or smaller, built with key features at the multi-nanometer—billionth of a meter—scale) will provide fully immersive, totally convincing virtual reality in the following way. The nanobots take up positions in close physical proximity to every interneuronal connection coming from all of our senses (e.g., eyes, ears, skin)."
There are other forms of brain-computer interfaces. Kurzweil, again:
"We already have the technology for electronic devices to communicate with neurons in both directions that requires no direct physical contact with the neurons. For example, scientists at the Max Planck Institute have developed “neuron transistors” that can detect the firing of a nearby neuron, or alternatively, can cause a nearby neuron to fire, or suppress it from firing. This amounts to two-way communication between neurons and the electronic-based neuron transistors. The Institute scientists demonstrated their invention by controlling the movement of a living leech from their computer."
New research is paving the way for people to use their brains to interface with robots. This work is especially helpful for those with physical limitations, who may one day rely on robots to literally become their legs and arms, eyes and ears.
Internal forms of virtual reality ignore external reality and focus on the reality interface--the brain or mind, depending on who you talk to--to create new environments. But that isn't the only path. Surrounding the user in sights, sounds, smell, and feel could create deeply immersive, interactive environments. The development of this could range from holographic television to screens that completely surround the user and suits designed to mimic feelings and sensations.
Some researchers believe that reality itself can be made malleable and, hence, virtual.
Programmable matter and nanotechnology could literally create new environments, designing and redesigning on the atomic level. Nobel Prize Winner Richard Feynman suggested this when he said, "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big."
And that could be just the start. Deep futurists see these abilities as the first step in completely changing time-space through scales below nanotechnology, through femtoengineering, for example.
We probably can't predict how new technologies and the coalescing of current, but separate, technologies will affect virtual reality.
For example, quantum computing may be able to create simulations of high complexity using either modes -- internal or external. Imagine nanobots that use a quantum processor... Or, quantum computation tied to a holographic display system.
Pretty far out stuff, for sure, but this isn't the end of the quest for virtual reality.
Reality--the stuff you see around you--may actually be virtual reality.
Nick Bostrom, Brian Whitworth, Jim Elvidge and other philosophers who back the simulation hypotheses believe that highly immersive virtual reality is possible. In fact, we're in it.
Elvidge, in his book "The Universe Solved," gives four reasons for his "programmed reality theory." The discrete nature of quantum physics, the exponential growth trends of computational processing power, the fine-tuned aspects of reality and anomalous activity are all evidence that we could be living in a virtual reality.
The simulation assumption is ancient, though, and shows how integrated this transcendent view of virtual reality is with spiritual beliefs, especially Gnostic and Eastern religious beliefs. The Hindus called virtual reality, Maya, and believed that it, too, had internal, external, and transcendent qualities. Maya was a veil of consciousness between Brahman and Atman (dual aspects of the unitary godhead), as well as the projected external world.
So, are current virtual reality technologies just tools to discover and transcend the programmed reality?
Will virtual reality lead us to a new state of understanding about "reality" and our place in it?
These are questions we are just starting to ask.
Matt Swayne is a science and research writer at Penn State, as well as an author and freelance writer. Always interested in technology and fringe science, Matt became interested in the technological singularity after reading Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near. He also writes for the Singularity Symposium. Matt hopes the future will include automated cars so he no longer has to wait in line at the DMV.
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