"Virtual presence is indistinguishable from real presence."
The subject lowers a light-weight cap onto his head, adjusts it, and thinks a short series of digits, one at a time. This puts the cap into calibration mode, allowing the subject to compare normal sensations (sights, sounds, kinesthetic feels, emotions, and so forth) with those originated by the cap, and transmitted to him directly, via cortical implants, bypassing his eyes, ears, taste buds, and other organic sensory organs.
The calibration consists of simple "A/B" tests, in which the synthetic data are compared, one percept at a time, to the natural data. Only when these data are indistinguishable, one from the other, is the device thought to be successfully calibrated.
The cap is a reality simulator, operating in its most basic and perhaps its most important mode, Being-here, now. In this mode, the device generates and transmits to the subject all those sensations which a normal, sentient subject would receive if located at that particular point in space, at that particular time. The cap creates virtual presence for the wearer.
When properly calibrated, the subject reports no difference when, in A-mode, he thinks "B," or when B-mode, he thinks "A." Virtual presence is indistinguishable from real presence.
It is in basic "here-now" mode that reality simulators will be delivered to the congenitally blind and deaf, allowing them to make their way around the world just as though they had eyes and ears. Robotics engineers will "front-end" their creations with such devices, when these creations are expected to act as men. Voyagers to perilous environments, where it may be too hot or cold for people to go, or where there may be no air to breathe, will let the reality simulators go the last mile, resulting in fewer singed eyebrows for people like Red Adair, the oil-well firefighter, and more visits to places like the planet Triton, where people have never been able to visit before.
Perfected versions of the "here-now" cap will be vanishingly thin, and will be worn in swimming pools, and in bed, just like the best artificial hairpieces are today. You'll not know you have it on, unless of course you would be otherwise blind, or deaf, or unable to feel your legs because you didn't have any. For some people, the "here-now" caps will make a big difference.
For others of us, the differences may be less miraculous—less life-giving—but not much less exciting. For a start, corrective lenses (eyeglasses) and hearing aids will all be scrapped as early, crude versions of the cap, which attempted with varying degrees of success to compensate for defective operation of the aboriginal sense organs themselves. With the cap on, calibrated vision will be 20/20, and everyone will be able to hear 20 thousand cycles—even burnt-out recording engineers.
Veridical (normal) sense perception will be not just equaled, but improved upon, using the cap. Obvious enhancements will include the visual "zoom," by which apparent distance between the subject and object being viewed will be adjustable, internally, at the thought-command of the subject. Telescopic and microscopic vision will thus become possible. Infra-red enhancement of low-light level environments will be switched in automatically, yet remain defeatable for walks under the stars, naps, and romantic interludes.
Certain optional modes of operation will respond to aesthetic whims and preferences, such as the auditory harmonizer, which will boost all even-numbered harmonics, and hence make all the things we hear somehow "more musical," just like early (pre-CBS) guitar amplifiers and vacuum-tube microphones used to do. A "Super-Tylenol" mode will screen back all but the most compelling aches and pains, with an adjustable threshold level which will be cherished by the terminally ill.
On-board cap data storage devices will allow for "buffered," or time-altered perception. Particularly pleasurable interludes could be "slowed down" in order to better savor the moment; the very best moments would become instant replays, and even repeated instant replays, creating powerful, new addictions by which the authorities will be baffled for some time.1
"Here-now" cap wearers will have no reason to think that, by putting on the cap and enjoying the enhancement features it conveys, they are entering into a world which is somehow "unreal." The artificially perceived world is the "same" world we perceive directly, with the cap turned off. That's what the "A/B" calibration test showed: first, the world through conventional eyes and ears; second, the world through the cap. There was no difference. The external world of objects thought to exist on the basis of normal perception is the same place thought to exist on the basis of machine perception. Virtual presence in a world is no different from real presence. The world is as real in one case, as it is in the other. Once calibrated, the machine is perfectly transparent.
This conclusion, that the external world is the same place whether we perceive it using eyes and ears, or an electronic cap, becomes particularly provocative once alternate modes of operation of the simulator—each equally transparent as the basic "here-now" mode—are considered.
Being-here, then, or living in the past, consists of the recall of memory traces. This is what we do on our own when we "remember" past experiences; machine-aided recollection would involve the re-presentation of sensory data which we had already experienced, and which had been preserved, or recorded, in storage devices similar to computer hard disk drives, or CD-ROM platters. These earlier moments would be re-lived with perfect clarity. User interaction with such past personal environments would give us insight into what would have become of our lives had the road not traveled actually been traveled—had we made our life choices differently.
Being-there, now happens when the cap is put at the end of a cable, which might be very long by everyday standards. Boston to Los Angeles, for example. In a more flexible version, data from distant "caps" would be received via electronic transmission, recreating a distant there, here. That of course is the full equivalent of traveling there, from here, at the speed of light, which has been called "teleportation" by writers of current science fiction.
Being-there, then is what we call travel into the past, and becomes possible when we play back sensory information, not necessarily our own memory traces, which had been generated and stored at an earlier date. It is this mode of operation which educators will use to make history come to life. Electronic news magazines will serve to memorialize the present for all time, in the sense of allowing as-yet unborn generations to participate in that instant of time, at their option, forever, at the flip of a switch. User interaction with these environments will allow lifelike participation in not just actual, but all possible adventure sagas, subject only to limitations imposed by the availability of archived sensory data.
Being-there, later, which we will recognize as travel into the future, can be seen in terms of complete information imported from all points of distant space, taken up within a framework of physical laws which allow the prediction of future occurrences. These events could be rendered as information, and the information made to simulate the future environment, which then could be experienced by the observer-subject as real.
However, putting our tongue in our cheek, should we not provisionally declare that it would be only "here-now" simulation that involves us with the real world? Should not the alternate modes hinted at here be qualified by the adjective "virtual," in order that we keep our apples and oranges straight, and our real things separate from phantoms and gossamer stuff?
1 It is almost certain that sensory replacement systems of the sort envisioned here will be made illegal for a time; at another stage, only gendarmes and politicians will be authorized to wear them. Finally, everyone will be wearing them, without knowing it, since the "caps" will be issued at birth, in the form of manipulated genes.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.