From the


Howard Rhiengold's Virtual Reality
Originally Published September 1994 by Mark J. Jones

Howard Rhingold
Meeting Howard Rheingold can't be too far off from going on a psychedelic trip. On the evening I finally met him face to face, he was wearing a deep purple shirt, rainbow suspenders, bright red pants and jacket, a pair of boots he had painted multicolour designs on, and a funky fedora.The editor of The Whole Earth Review and author of such books as The Virtual Community and Virtual Reality, Rheingold is known as a writer on the cutting edge of technology and society. He was experiencing prototypes of virtual reality and cyberspace long before the two phrases managed to ooze their way into popular culture. Here he talks about his thoughts on VR and the similarities between it and theatre.

How did your first experience in cyberspace affect your ideas of creativity?

Well, simply the excitement of seeing the birth of a new medium. It certainly wasn't anything that anyone I knew could creatively use at that point. It was sort of like the first television transmission; [it] was really really crude, but you could see in your mind's eye what it would be like to transmit pictures through space to people's homes. And that's a new medium and therefore something that an artist could use, but it wasn't something that I could see and say, "Oh I want to do something with this."

So where are we at right now in the research and development end of virtual reality?

Clearly all of these laboratory prototypes have proved to be useful, and the possibility of using them to do useful things in various businesses has proved to be accurate. We're just beginning to see the tools others might use emerge from that. Harvard is going to create a virtual reality test-bed for their Graduate School of Design. Ford Motor Company is just beginning to use virtual reality to design automobiles. So all that stuff I was predicting [in Virtual Reality] -- that these are the things that might be useful to do in the commercial world, and that those commercial developments would drive the technology to the point that artists could use it -- [is beginning to happen]. That's what's happened with computer graphics. If General Motors didn't need to use Computer Aided Design (CAD) we wouldn't have artists doing computer graphics today. So that necessary step of industry adopting it has happened.

Why do you think society has developed such a pop interest in VR?

Well, I think part of it is this old dream that theatre and cinema and the other arts have been striving towards, the creation of this artificial experience. And I think part of it is people's hopes and fears about what technology has done to the world. We're replacing many of our genuine experiences with artificial ones. And like I said, people's hopes and fears; some people think it's a great thing, others feel it's a terrible thing.

How do you see the relationship between virtual reality and theatre?

Ultimately [VR] is a theatrical medium, and the question is can you create a first-person experience? And that's a big challenge. Also, mimesis, which is what Aristotle said an audience gets out of a drama through suspension of disbelief and of participation in that event, creates an emotional reaction. And I think that properly done, a virtual reality experience will have a greater sense of mimesis and of participation in the events.

Is it fair to say that theatre serves as an example of what VR can become?

In a sense. I think that in theatre you wilfully suspend your disbelief, and that you believe that these people up on the stage are in a castle in Denmark, and therefore it asks you to participate in creating that. In virtual reality you're in a castle in Denmark, so the audience really has less to do with participating in the suspension of that disbelief.

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