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Record Type: Review   ID: 695

Virtual Reality

Rheingold, Howard

 Although Howard Rheingold writes for the general reader, Japanese business pioneers read him avidly. Everyone should, for we are in a time period when scholarship is so fragmented that generalists are badly needed. Rheingold is on the cutting edge of what is happening in virtual reality (VR), a field that could be very important for exceptional human experiences, as Rheingold himself recognizes. In preparation for this book, he visited all the major laboratories in the world where pioneer research in VR is being conducted and tried out the equipment to gain firsthand experience. In the course of his visits all over the U.S. but also to England, France, Germany, and Japan, he began to serve as a cross-pollinator and catalyst, keeping each lab informed of what was happening elsewhere. He became a participant in VR conferences, not only soaking up information, formally and informally, but speaking himself. Reading this book, therefore, is the closest thing to being there yourself—barring the active four-dimensional actuality of being there—or else virtually being there. For that is what VR is all about—using technology to place a person three-dimensionally in an environment (cyberspace) where he or she is "out" of him or herself and into new surroundings that are experienced as if he/she were actually there and with which he/she can interact—not only through vision and hearing but through touch and action. One not only can move about in the virtual environment but one can move things and affect them—virtually interact. Where do EHEs come in? Timothy Leary, who pioneered a means of experiencing self-transcendence subjectively via drugs, is quoted several times in this book, pointing out how VR enables humans to grasp reality via illusion, but because the "illusion" is virtually "there," I put quotation marks around it. If it can affect you and change your life, how illusory is it? By the same token, the many forms of exceptional human experiences have been dismissed as illusory, but as we are attempting to show in this Journal, that which changes lives as they are lived in the world should hardly be called an illusion. It is the viewpoint that dismisses them as such that is out of touch with the reality of what is. Now, with VR technology, some researchers are aiming to create an environment that the VR participant may enter into that is similar to the Eleusinian mysteries—an environment that is conducive to mystical experience and other EHEs. Participation in VR, if not now then in the near future, will at the least be experienced as an out-of-body experience, for while seated or standing in place, one will be able to move and act in an environment that is not distinguishable from what we call our "real" surroundings (Rheingold even has a chapter entitled "Out of the Body"). As the sage Chung-Tzu asked—which is our reality—that of human being or that of a butterfly? VR may bring us closer to answering that age-old question, each in his or her own way. In fact, Rheingold points out that at a certain moment, several VR researchers themselves have experienced what he is constrained to call "conversion," as they glimpse the promise of VR technology. In the concluding chapter, "Cyberspace and Human Nature," Rheingold discusses "the use of cyberspaces to influence, educate, and trigger ecstatic experience" (p. 385). A leading researcher in this area is Brenda Laurel, who Rheingold says, is convinced that cyberspace, as in the case of earlier media, will be used by humans "to conjure up transformative powers, to propel us beyond the boundaries of our minds and push our cultural evolution into new territories" (p. 385). Simply reading this book had the same effect on this reader.
Publisher Information:New York: Simon & Schuster (Touchstone), 1991. 415p. Chap.bibl. Ind.
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