It’s overcast and windy today. Looking out to our backyard from the kitchen window this morning, I was reminded of being in Mendocino or Fort Bragg, the Northern California Coast. When I see the wild roses and green vines growing over the old wooden fence, the weedy lawn, the flat grey sky framed by the fence and telephone poles on either side, I feel like I’m there. In memory, for a moment, I’m there.
A few months ago I dreamt I was in Mendocino. I knew I was dreaming as I looked across from a perpendicular side street to the horizon before me. I couldn’t see the ocean, just the open meadow in front of Front Street that is the beginning of the Mendocino Headlands State Park. The land drops off here to rocky cliffs and sea spay below. Then there is nothing but open ocean for miles and miles, as far as the eye can see or the mind can fully imagine. I could feel the presence of the ocean in my dream. I felt cool air and open space, and knew I was not only next to the sea, but at this particular place near it.
These two experiences made me think that what makes reality “virtual” has nothing to do with computers. Humans have been creating virtual realities for as long as we’ve been telling stories, creating art, even as long as we’ve been able to dream. What makes something “virtual reality” is it’s ability to evoke a sense of immediate presence in our minds. Memories and dreams are not defined as virtual reality, because they exist only within our own minds. A read or spoken story isn’t defined so, because the part that feels real to us is also unique within each reader’s or listener’s mind. Movies aren’t defined as virtual reality, maybe because they exist on a flat screen in front of their mostly passive audience. When a digital creation seems to the viewer to exist in 3 dimensional space around them – and also evokes a feeling of realism and immediacy for them – then it can be defined as virtual reality. By definition it also has to be able to be experienced objectively by different people – even though the memories evoked for each person by this creation will of course be unique for each of them.
Technically speaking then a memory or dream is not “virtual reality”, though it is for the person experiencing it. It feels real, so to our mind it is real. When we get immersed in a book or movie, we also experience a kind of virtual reality. We are transported into a semblance of a world imagined by the author or director. Think of your own thoughts after reading a good book. Don’t you feel like you were just part of a different world than the one you normally live in? When you think back on a favorite move or movie franchise, doesn’t that world seem like it really existed or exists somewhere?
Even though I haven’t been in Second Life nearly as much as I used to be and haven’t been there lately for over 2 weeks, I still find myself spontaneously remembering places and people from that virtual world. These are memories without scent or taste, but they still seem very real to me – more real than memories of a book I’ve read or a movie I’ve seen. I feel like that place and experience was a real part of my life. It’s odd to be driving my car, look at a building in physical reality, and feel a longing for the virtual buildings of Second Life. I’d love to be able to stand on the shore of the real Pacific Ocean, but I also long to stand as a avatar on the virtual cliffs and beaches of Second Life.
Beauty is beauty, whether it’s created by nature or by the mind and hand of human beings. It calms or stirs our soul either way, and it resides in our memories as something real, whether it’s built from physical molecules or digital data, pixels and photons.