A few months ago, I pulled on an Oculus Rift headset for the first time and stepped into a virtual reality meeting room. I was there to tape an early screen test for Conundrums, Slate’s new virtual reality talk show. My role was simple: I had been told that I was going to play the part of a famous comedic actor and that I just had to answer questions about his favorite sports teams. Though I am rarely funny and know almost nothing about sports, I was game to pretend. What else is virtual reality for?
Alone in the space, I started fiddling with the tools. Before long, I had figured out how to change the appearance of my environment. Soon my original surroundings vanished, replaced by a photographic 360-degree panorama of a gorgeous plain. I was somewhere far in the north. In the sky above me, the aurora borealis rippled like a living crown. When a colleague appeared a little later, he was transfixed. “This will end civilization,” he said. “No one is ever going to leave home again.”
I suspect he was being hyperbolic, but there was something earnest in his awe. He would hardly have been the first to detect a sinister edge to the appeal of virtual reality. In her book Magic and Loss, Virginia Heffernan writes, “Sometimes when I listened to developers talk about their eagerness to ‘immerse’ audiences in multisensory experiences, I thought I detected a less savory desire to imprisonthem in programming, to leave them with no sensory exit.”
If they’re desperate to pull us in, it may be because virtual reality always seems to be pulling away. After all, futurists have been promoting the supposedly inevitable rise of VR since at least the ’80s, always telling us that it would be everywhere within a few years. While the Oxford English Dictionary’s lexicographers trace the term itself to 1979, technologists have been working to realize its promise for much longer. In the ’60s, cinematographer Morton Heilig debuted the Sensorama Simulator, which sought to give users the look, feel, and even smell of experiences such as riding on a motorcycle. Later that decade, a heavy headset known as the Sword of Damocles allowed users to traverse wireframe virtual environments. By the ’90s, the technology had gone commercial with Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, a personal display with red-on-black graphics and a propensity to cause headaches.
Each of these innovations stumbled in time, but they still fed into the popular imagination, at once inspiring and drawing from science fiction’s VR dreamscapes. The most recent spike of enthusiasm accompanied Facebook’s 2014 purchase of Oculus VR, a company that promised to finally get VR right, for $2 billion. As Will Oremus wrote at the time, the social networking behemoth hoped to turn VR “into a platform that would allow you to do anything from shopping at a virtual store to consulting with your doctor to taking a courtside seat at a basketball game—all without leaving your couch.” The sale may have ultimately landed me in that VR conference room this year, but the surrounding enthusiasm still felt all too familiar for some. “[I]t just feels like they’re recycling the same old press releases and nonsense that people were talking about 20 years ago,” market researcher Ben Delaney told the Verge.
As this condensed history suggests, virtual reality has long been something of a stand-in for all forms of digital technology. Maybe this is why we’ve been expecting it for so long: VR’s coming apotheosis would mark the arrival of a seemingly inevitable moment, the time when our electronics will be so pervasive as to occlude the sun itself. Each new device—the Sensorama Simulator, the Nintendo Virtual Boy, the Oculus Rift—offered a vision of what technology could be, even if it wasn’t quite there yet. The era of VR, whatever shape it took, would be the one in which our world was more digital than organic, our every experience filtered through computerized lenses. The capacities of our own bodies would be replaced by the limits of our interfaces. They would enchant us, surround us, dictate the very parameters of our lives.
So perhaps to speak of virtual reality has long been to anticipate a loss: the disappearance of a world through which we move under the power of our own limbs. This strangely enticing fear speaks to a paradox all but inscribed in the term virtual reality itself. When we use it to speak of computers, virtual typically means “simulated.” But the virtual, as we commonly understand it, describes that which isn’t actually real. The first word therefore undermines the second, the very concept destabilizing the ground on which we walk.
Diving into the etymology of virtual, however, suggests another set of meanings implicit within our use of this peculiar term. In its oldest sense, virtual derives from the Latin virtualis, which the OED defines as “of or relating to power or potency” or, somewhat later, having “the power to produce an effect.” Closely aligned to potentiality, virtual referred to the internal, but as yet unexpressed, capacities of a thing. If those capacities were opposed to reality, it was only in the sense that they had not yet shaped the world.
This anticipatory valence of virtual predates our more common understanding of it—the one that opposes it to reality—by centuries, though it has largely fallen into disfavor today. Those who have continued to use it in that original sense are mostly philosophers. Many of them draw inspiration from the Nobel Prize–winning Henri Bergson, one of the early 20th century’s most popular intellectual celebrities, who made the virtual central to his speculations. In his 1896 treatise Matter and Memory, Bergson suggests that we rarely experience the material world as it really is. Instead, he claims, we pare away at the excess of our surroundings, discarding “what has no interest for our needs,” such that we perceive only the “virtual” qualities of objects—which is to say, their capacity to serve some function for us and our capacity to use them. If this is true, our very experience of the world is virtual, since we see objects on in terms of the ways we might manipulate them. Perception, Bergson proposes, is itself a prophecy about our own capacity for action.
Though virtual reality research remained distinct from such speculations, it may be at its most valuable when it inspires us to reflect on the body. Jaron Lanier, who helped popularize the term virtual reality in the ’80s, has argued that the technology encourages computer scientists to remember the importance of “physicality.” He claims that in the labs of VPL Research, his early VR company, they would sometimes show visitors a real flower after they emerged from a demo. The contrast with the digital environments they had just left would, he says, lead them to see the blossoms in a “hyperreal way.” A strikingly similar scene also provided the kicker to a notorious Murder, She Wrote episode, which likewise suggests that the true power of VR is its ability to refocus us on the vivid qualities of everyday sensation.
Some have, of course, warned that virtual reality can only impoverish our sense of the world. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek is careful to distinguish the virtual (in its philosophical sense) from VR in his 2004 Organs Without Bodies. “Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing its experience in an artificial medium,” he writes. It is “miserable” because it is organized around the fantasy of our ability to occupy another body. By contrast, the virtual, which Zizek writes with a capital V, is the story I tell myself about the capacities of my own body. It involves an anticipation of our corporeal agency, rather than a rejection of our innate capacities.
For all that, the virtual and virtual reality may yet correspond as the latter comes ever closer. If they unite, it will likely be through our understanding of virtual reality as a kind of simulation—something that we attempt in theory before we put it into practice. Even if virtual reality is inevitable, we may yet have something to learn from Bergson’s work. This was his lesson: The future isn’t what happens to us; it is what we see ourselves eventually doing. Our virtual moment may be coming, but in the constant reopening of virtual perception, there is always room to change our course.
This article originally appeared in Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture.