Monday, December 8, 2008

The Holodeck Paradox, Part 2

Location: Real-Life Front Yard

A little before 7am this morning, I caught this image from Nature's graphics engine on my camera. It's an exceptionally nice sunrise for this time of year; I use it not to illustrate what virtual worlds lack (sunsets can be stunning) nor what we humans should be doing instead of using virtual worlds.

It is a marker, however, for the distance we must travel if these illusions are to seem real. I'm tired of the hackneyed "get a first life!" from folks who probably rush home to see a certain TV show or structure their lives around a football season. Neither of these pastimes, pleasant though they may be, are half as interactive as virtual worlds. Yet they share one characteristic at least: they do not yet engage all of the senses.

Castronova's notes about Star Trek's Holodeck, in his book Exodus to the Virtual World, have me thinking of what many gamers and virtual-world residents fail to notice in the world of matter. The Holodeck delivered convicing simulations that stimulated all five senses. So far, virtual worlds and games engage speech, sight, hearing, and in very limited ways (feedback on game consoles) touch. If Castronova is correct, when we add pleasant smells (this is a hyperreal world a la bad smells) and ratchet up the level of stimulation sufficiently, the exodus from our world to virtual worlds will become complete.

"More room for me," I'm tempted to say, since I'm embarking on my usual fall activities that get me out of doors a lot to see nuances in the landscape. But we might try somthing else, even as we stop to say "great build" (as I did recently when I peeked at Dartmouth's virtual version of Dante's Inferno). So join me in my autumnal musings on the following real-life phenomena:

  • The Antitwilight: Earth's shadow rises up the sky on clear morning and afternoons, just at sunrise and sunset, when the air is not humid. Look for it opposite the sun; a purple band of shadow, in colors no virtual world can yet render, appears.
  • A Thousand Shades of Brown: Leaf-watchers often give up when the branches are bare; think again. "Brown" is not as boring as one might think. Walking the boundaries of a twenty-acre lot recently, I started checking the hardwoods and the forest floor. The bright sunlight of early December gave way to twilight, and I noticed how leaves go from their fall hues gradually to a rich brown (oaks are particularly nice). Even on the ground, there are more variations in color than I'd never seen before. In virtual worlds, ground textures, even when rendered from photos, cannot capture this nuance yet.
  • Silence: The silence of autumnal woods is not complete; it is punctuated with small sounds...a Red-Headed Woodpecker's hunt for food, a single call from a squirrel or a distant hawk. While virtual worlds have a good soundtrack in the best regions I've visited, the sounds are usually not this subtle or startling when they break the screen's silence.
  • Winter Skies. The dance of Jupiter and Venus a few days ago was stunning. With clear skies, Orion burns bright over our house every winter. Even in town the sky is amazing. In the country, it becomes a work of art so bright that when the moon is down, the stars cast their own shadows. Last month in the country, I watched the Milky Way in all its subtle infinitude arch over my head.
That's four gifts, from the best graphics engine of them all, that virtual worlds are no where close to matching. I'd welcome suggestions of others.

At present, however, I would guess that without a couple more generations of comuting power and increased bandwidth, a Holodeck-type simulation is a distance promise (or threat, if you please). The first ones will only be able to render, say, a single building's interior or a small natural space in all their complexity.

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