I am Gregor Samsa

Eric Korn

  • Virtual Reality by Howard Rheingold
    Secker, 415 pp, £19.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 436 41212 8
  • Cyberpunk by Katie Hafner and John Markoff
    Fourth Estate, 368 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 1 872180 94 9
  • Glimpses of Heaven, Visions of Hell: Virtual Reality and its Implications by Barrie Sherman and Phil Judkins
    Hodder, 224 pp, £12.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 340 56905 0

In the novels of William Gibson and other writers of cyberpunk, the new SF sub-genre, in the glittery non-realism of the movies, cyberspace is crystalline and neonlit and shiny, a place of infinite depth and detail, of towers and canyons and technicolor hypergeometry, the ‘consensual hallucination shared daily by billions ... a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity ... clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights receding.’

It wasn’t much like that at the Virtual Reality Centre near Piccadilly Circus. But then Gibson’s man is coupled to the computer, brain to brain, while we had to make do with lumpy goggles, like a high-tech condemned man’s bandage over the eyes. We waited in line like brave sheep while the preceding flock of cybernauts sat in steadfastly motionless dodgem cars, their heads swaying and turning wildly as they hunted and hid and ducked and dodged invisible monsters. It was like watching a ward full of alcoholics in simultaneous delirium. Overhead monitors showed us each player’s separate delusional view of the world, a treeless landscape of lumpy hills and squat smooth-walled buildings in which crude cartoon robot-creatures prowled.

This is the available face of virtual reality, some way behind the current state of the art, as practised in research laboratories (academic, military, commercial), and also by the technocrats of various spook, criminal and world-domination-by-2011 organisations. ‘Virtual reality’ is a computer-generated multi-sensory interactive display, a world (a perceptual universe, a phase-space, a game, a matrix, an array) which responds to the commands of its operators (players, citizens) according to the laws of physics, economics or morality or according to alternative rules if the programmer prefers.

The simplest example is the flight simulator, a device that began life as the Link trainer, an enclosed cockpit with stubby wings that dipped and pitched and banked and bucked and generally obeyed and thereby demonstrated and hopefully taught some of the rules of aerodynamics. (Mr Link’s imagination was limited by the technology he was supplanting. There was no need even in the Thirties for the joystick to have moved actual flaps.) Now anyone can sit in a factitious cockpit and watch the clouds obediently dip or wheel, can dodge or destroy the images of enemy aircraft, can go into a spin and at least visually burst into flames. (Doubtless someone will add a seat-of-the-pants heating unit for extra verisimilitude.) The saving in lives and hardware is considerable. And the programmer can import his own morality or not into the heuristic device: in some advanced car-chase games players are penalised for hitting bystanders. The imaginary vehicle can mimic every detail of the response of an F-15: or it can possess everlasting fuel tanks, planet-busting weaponry, or anti-gravity; it can obey the rules of any paradoxical physics you care to choose. (As early as 1971, Myron Krueger was setting up rooms in art galleries with glowing displays that responded to the watchers’ movements, or didn’t, in entertaining ways.)

Currently VR involves head-mounted displays, wrap-around screens, or rooms, involves mainly sight and sound; touch – despite all the talk – can’t yet be convincingly digitised, and smell and taste are still beyond us. Virtual toe-sucking must be a dismal affair. But the sixth sense, muscle proprioception, is available: the Dataglove is a mitten which responds to pressure of the fingers and presses right back. From this to the bodyblanket or the interactive ewe is a short step of the imagination for the psychonauts and futurologists of the California-based magazine Mondo 2000 (ex-pharmacophiles who have seen the light from an LED) but a giant leap for development and marketing.

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