This section aims to provide a condensed and reduced map of related sources and points to those that are important to our context. We will take a brief look into philosophy, neuroscience, human-machine interaction design and virtual reality, and we ill try to reveal starting-points that will explain the B_BODY experiment later.
Naturally, this article does not include all the resources taken into consideration during the research, and so we strongly suggest to visit the links section at this microsite and take a look into the extended list of the related material.
Let's start our overview with David Chalmers, who is an Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist specializing in the areas of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. His “The Virtual and the Real” pamphlet clarifies and defines a number of important terms related to Virtual Reality, such as:
• Virtual bodies are distinct from physical bodies, and virtual space is distinct from physical space. We really have these virtual bodies, as well as having physical bodies. There is nothing fictional about this.
• Disembodiment. A common worry is that VR is disembodied. One does not really have a body, and the body is the source of much value in life. Now, I think it is not entirely correct that one lacks a body in VR: one has a virtual body (an avatar), and this virtual body may in principle play many of the same roles as non- virtual bodies. Of course in the present day virtual bodies are much more limited than non-virtual bodies. In some sophisticated virtual realities one can control their movements in considerable detail (for example by moving and tracking one’s physical body), and one may also perceive the world from a perspective that depends on one’s virtual body.
• Virtual reality is not a second-class reality. Or at least, virtual reality need not be a second-class reality. In the short term, of course, virtual realities may be inferior to physical realities in all sorts of respects (while perhaps being superior in others). But even in the short term, virtual reality may be real, non-illusory, and valuable. In the long term, and in principle, virtual reality may well be on a par with physical reality.
Chalmers clearly defines that all experiences happening in virtual reality do not fall as less real to our mind, and therefore they are fully comparable and fully exchangeable with those we encounter in physical reality. This claim correlates with the work of George Lakoff (An American cognitive linguist and philosopher,) especially the "Embodied mind". When Lakoff claims the mind is "embodied", he is arguing that almost all of human cognition, up through the most abstract reasoning, depends on and makes use of such concrete and "low-level" facilities as the sensorimotor system and the emotions. Among the other things, George Lakoff says: For real human beings, the only realism is an embodied realism.
In this paragraph, we are going to scratch the surface of the recent findings in Neuroscience, and add an evidence to philosophical concepts of the previous one.
David Eagleman, an American writer, neuroscientist, and Stanford University professor, is known especially for his practical work at sensory substitution field. He has also published two books that we want to bring to your attention: "Incognito: The secret lives of the brain" and "The brain: The story of you". Let's take a look at some of his quotes:
“Through practice, repeated signals have been passed along neural networks, strengthening synapses and thereby burning the skill into the circuitry."
― David Eagleman, The Brain: The Story of You
“Our perception of reality has less to do with what’s happening out there, and more to do with what’s happening inside our brain.”
― David Eagleman, The Brain: The Story of You
“You´re not perceiving what's out there. You're perceiving whatever your brain tells you.”
― David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain
Another neuroscientist, professor Anil K. Seth, share the same opinion: "We’re all hallucinating all the time; and once we agree about our hallucinations, we call it the reality."
As we can see, Neuroscience seems to support philosophical statements presented on this page. It seems to be true that our perception of reality happens in our brains, and our bodies serve as an interface to given reality. Hypothetically, any virtual reality experience may then properly contribute to our inner understanding of that reality, even though it may be far from what we face in physical reality.
"The mouse was just a tiny piece of a much larger project, aimed at augmenting human intellect." Doug Engelbart, inventor of the mouse.
The human body, with its sensors and motion apparatus, on one side, and the machine, where the only limitations are those set by its creator. Although it looks it makes perfect sense to follow the dogma of human-centered design approach, it might be unnecessary. Observing human activities, analyzing them, and identify their strengths and weaknesses in order to define our way how we interact with machines sounds more than reasonable. However, it may bring the limitations where they are not needed. What if we design the interface to follow its purpose, without putting a man first?
Let's take a look at the example: Bill Buxton published the paper describing "Marking Menu" user interface. Here is what he said: "The first couple of times I went into the restaurant I got a menu and surveyed my choices. I generally ordered vermicelli and barbecue pork by saying "dish number 30, please". On my fifth or sixth visit, I knew what I wanted and was in a hurry. I didn't wait to see a menu. I looked my waiter in the eye and said, "Lloyd, bring me a number 30". Things happen faster when you know what you want."
The "Marking Menus" was an alternative way of selecting items from the menu, where instead of "natural" pull-down menus, multi-level gestures were used. Instead of pointing at menus, their submenus, and lower level submenus, the user draws a zig-zag line, that represents a path through the menus. Something the users had to learn, adapt, but something that made them ultimately faster. This UI was later implemented into Alias, Maya or Studiopaint and became the key feature of the former Alias|Wavefront.
So, let's do not exclude the human, but instead of making things easy to use, we can make users learn to do things more efficiently.
Jaron Lanier offers several definitions of what virtual reality is in his book "Dawn of the new everything." Here is one of them: “Virtual reality is the technology that exposes you to yourself.”
Whatever the reasons are, the direction taken by most of the developers focuses on simulation of the physical reality. There are new hand trackers, controllers, omnidirectional treadmills, body rigs and other hardware being announced every day. It looks like that "we", the user community, we only want to replace the physical reality with the virtual one. Or even better said, we want virtual reality to be same as the physical one.
So, are there any VR experiences that reach beyond the simulation of the physical world? Regrettably, not too many. With the exception of few esoteric or psychedelic abstract experiences, there were only few that were exploring the unlimited possibilities of VR.
One of them was the project "The virtual bat: echolocation in virtual reality", published in 2001 by Dean Waters and Husam Abulula. These two scientists focused on the mathematically accurate simulation of the echolocation, using the high-end technology available that time. and among the other things, they introduced us the work of Thomas Nagel, especially his philosophical pamphlet "What it is like to be a bat."
What it is like to be a bat
Thomas Nagel's philosophical essay on what it is like to be a bat asks whether it is possible for a human to perceive the world as a bat would. Nagel addressed the essential philosophical question of mind-body problem and reductionism with his text, and he shows that materialist theories of mind omit the essential component of consciousness, namely that there is something that it is (or feels) like to be a particular, conscious thing. He claims that an organism has conscious mental states, "if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism to be itself."
Nagel uses the metaphor of bats to clarify the distinction between subjective and objective concepts. Bats are mammals as we humans are, yet they are so different. Bats use echolocation to navigate and perceive objects. This method of perception is similar to the human sense of vision. Both sonar and vision are regarded as perceptional experiences.
Interesting fact: There are more than 900 species of bats in the world. Some experts estimate the number to be as high as 1,200 species. Bats make up one-fifth of the mammal population on Earth, according to Bat Conservation International.
It turns out that humans are able to learn to echolocate, and it activates visual parts of the brain. Additionally, a research run by Bo Schenkman, an associate professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm reveals that echolocation is rather a skill than the special sensor, and so it makes echolocation a perfect candidate for our experiment.
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