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Escapism and Virtual RealityABSTRACT

The use of computers in society provides obvious benefits and some

drawbacks. `Virtual Reality’, a new method of interacting with any computer,

is presented and its advantages and disadvantages are considered. The human

aspect of computing and computers as a form of escapism are developed, with

especial reference to possible future technological developments. The

consequences of a weakening of the sense of reality based upon the physical

world are also considered. Finally, some ways to reduce the unpleasant

aspects of this potential dislocation are examined. A glossary of computing

terms is also included.

Computers as Machines

The progression of the machine into all aspects of human life has continued

unabated since the medieval watchmakers of Europe and the Renaissance study

of science that followed Clocks . Whilst this change has been

exceedingly rapid from a historical perspective, it can nevertheless be

divided into distinct periods, though rather arbitrarily, by some criteria

such as how people travelled or how information was transferred over long

distances. However these periods are defined, their lengths have become

increasingly shorter, with each new technological breakthrough now taking less

than ten years to become accepted (recent examples include facsimile

machines, video recorders and microwave ovens).One of the most recent, and hence most rapidly absorbed periods, has been that

of the computer. The Age of Computing began with

Charles Babbage in the late 19th century Babbage , grew in the

calculating machines between the wars EarlyIBM , continued during the

cryptanalysis efforts of World War II Turing,Bletchley and

finally blossomed in the late 1970’s with mass market applications in the

developed countries (e.g. JapanSord ). Computers have gone through several

`generations’ of development in the last fifty years and their rate of change

fits neatly to exponential curves Graphs , suggesting that the length of

each generation will become shorter and shorter, decreasing until some

unforeseen limit is reached. This pattern agrees with the more general

decrease of length between other technological periods.The great strength of computers whether viewed as complex machines, or more

abstractly as merely another type of tool, lies in their enormous flexibility.

This flexibility is designed into a computer from the moment of its conception

and accounts for much of the remarkable complexity that is inherent in each

design. For this very reason, the uses of computers are now too many to ever

consider listing exhaustively and so only a representative selection are

considered below.Computers are now used to control any other machine that is subject to a

varying environment, (e.g. washing machines, electric drills and car

engines). Artificial environments such as hotels, offices and homes are

maintained in pre-determined states of comfort by computers in the thermostats

and lighting circuits. Within a high street shop or major business, every

financial or stockkeeping transaction will be recorded and acknowledged using

some form of computer.

The small number of applications suggested above are so common to our

experiences in developed countries that we rarely consider the element which

permits them to function as a computer. The word `microprocessor’ is used to

refer to a `stand-alone’ computer that operates within these sorts of

applications. Microprocessors are chips at the heart of every computer, but

without the ability to modify the way they are configured, only a tiny

proportion of their flexibility is actually used. The word `computer’ is now

defined as machines with a microprocessor, a keyboard and a visual display

unit (VDU), which permit modification by the user of the way that the

microprocessor is used.Computers in this sense are used to handle more complex information than

that with which microprocessors deal, for example, text, pictures and large amounts of

information in databases. They are almost as widespread as the microprocessors

described above, having displaced the typewriter as the standard writing tool

in many offices and supplanted company books as the most reliably current form

of accountancy information. In both these examples, a computer permits a

larger amount of information to be stored and modified in a less

time-consuming fashion than any other method used previously.Another less often considered application is that of communication. Telephone

networks are today controlled almost entirely by computers, unseen by the

customer, but actively involved in every telephone call phones . The

linking of computers themselves by telephone and other networks has led

people to communicate with each other by using the computer to both write the

text (a word-processor) and to send it to its destination. This is known as

electronic mail, or `email’.The all pervasive nature of the computer and its obvious benefits have not

prevented a growing number of people who are vociferously concerned with the

risks of widespread application of what is still an undeniably novel

technology comp.risks,ACMrisks . Far from being reactionary prophets of

doom, such people are often employed within the computer industry itself and

yet have become wary of the pace of change. They are not opposed to the use of

computers in appropriate environments, but worry deeply when critical areas of

inherently dangerous operations are performed entirely by computers. Examples

of such operations include correctly delivering small but regular doses of

drugs into a human body and automatically correcting (and hence preventing)

aerodynamic stability problems in an aircraft plane1,plane2 . Both

operations are typical `risky’ environments for a computer since they contain

elements that are tedious (and therefore error-prone) for a human being to

perform, yet require the human capacity to intervene rapidly when the

unexpected occurs. Another instance of the application of computers to a

problem actually increasing the risks attached is the gathering of statistical

information about patients in a hospital. Whilst the overall information about

standards of health care is relatively insensitive, the comparative costs of

treatment by different physicians is obviously highly sensitive information.

Restricting the `flow ‘of such information is a complex and time-consuming

business.Predictions for future developments in computing applications are notoriously

difficult to cast with any accuracy, since the technology which is driving the

developments changes so rapidly. Interestingly, much of what has been

developed so far has its conceptual roots in science fiction stories of the

late 1950’s. Pocket televisions, lightning fast calculating machines and

weapons of pin-point accuracy were all first considered in fanciful fiction.

Whilst such a source of fruitful ideas has yet to be fully mined out, and

indeed, Virtual Reality (see below) has been used extensively

Neuromancer and others, many more concepts that are now appearing that

have no fictional precursors.Some such future concepts, in which computers would be of vital importance,

might be the performance of delicate surgical procedures by robot, controlled

by a computer, guided in turn by a human surgeon; the control of the flow of

traffic in a large city according to information gathered by remote sensors;

prediction of earthquakes and national weather changes using large computers

to simulate likely progressions from a known current state weather ; the development of

cheap, fast and secure coding machines to permit guaranteed security in international

communications; automatic translation from one language to another as quickly as the words

are spoken; the simulation of new drugs’ chemical reactions

with the human body. These are a small fraction of the possible future

applications of computers, taken from a recent prediction of likely developments

JapanFuture . One current development which has relevance to all the above, is the concept

known as `Virtual Reality’ and is discussed further below.Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality, or VR, is a concept that was first formally proposed in the

early Seventies by Ted Nelson ComputerDreams , though this work appears

to be in part a summary of the current thinking at that time. The basic idea

is that human beings should design machines that can be operated in a manner

that is as natural as possible, for the human beings, not the computers.For instance, the standard QWERTY keyboard is a moderately good instrument for

entering exactly the letters which have been chosen to make up a word and

hence to construct sentences. Human communication, however, is often

most fluent in speech, and so a computer that could understand spoken words

(preferably of all languages) and display them in a standard format such as

printed characters, would be far easier to use, especially since the skills of

speech exist from an early age, but typing has to be learnt, often painfully.All other human senses have similar analogies when considering

their use with tools. Pictures are easier than words for us to digest

quickly. A full range of sounds provides more useful information than beeps

and bells do. It is easier to point at an item that we can see than to specify

it by name. All of these ideas had to wait until the technology had advanced

sufficiently to permit their implementation in an efficient manner, that is,

both fast enough not to irritate the user and cheap enough for

mass production.The `state of the art’ in VR consists of the following. A pair of rather

bulky goggles, which when worn display two images of a computer-generated

picture. The two images differ slightly, one for each eye, and provide stereo

vision and hence a sense of depth. They change at least fifty times per

second, providing the brain with the illusion of continuous motion (just as with

television). Attached to the goggles are a pair of conventional high-quality

headphones, fed from a computer-generated sound source. Different delays in

the same sound reaching each ear provide a sense of aural depth. There is

also a pair of cumbersome gloves, rather like padded ice-hockey gloves, which

permit limited flexing in all natural directions and feed information about

the current position of each hand and finger to a computer.All information from the VR

equipment is passed to the controlling computer and, most importantly, all

information perceived by the user is generated by the computer. The last

distinction is the essence of the reality that is `virtual’, or

computer-created, in VR.The second critical feature is that the computer should be able to modify the information

sent to the user according to the information that it received from the user.

In a typical situation this might involve drawing a picture of a room on the

screens in the goggles and superimposing upon it a picture of a hand, which

moves and changes shape just as the user’s hand moves and changes shape. Thus,

the user moves his hand and sees something that looks like a hand move in

front of him.The power of VR again lies in the flexibility of the computer. Since the

picture that is displayed need not be a hand, but could in fact be any created object

at all, one of the first uses of VR might be to permit complex objects to be

manipulated on the screen as though they existed in a tangible form.

Representations of large molecules might be grasped, examined from all sides

and fitted to other molecules. A building could be constructed from virtual

architectural components and then lit from differing angles to consider how

different rooms are illuminated. It could even be populated with imaginary

occupants and the human traffic bottlenecks displayed as `hot spots’ within

the building.One long-standing area of interest in VR has been the simulation of military

conflicts in the most realistic form possible.The flight simulator trainers of the 1970’s had basic visual displays and large hydraulic

rams to actually move the trainee pilot as the real aeroplane would have moved. This has

been largely replaced in more modern simulators by a massive increase in the amount of

information displayed on the screen, leading to the mind convincing itself that the


movements are occurring, with reduced emphasis on attempts to provide the actual


Such an approach is both cheaper in equipment and more flexible in configuration, since

changing the the aeroplane from a fighter to a commercial airliner need only involve

changing the simulator’s program, not the hydraulics.


Escapism can be rather loosely defined as the desire to be in a more pleasant

mental and physical state than the present one. It is universal to human experience

across all cultures, ages and also across historical periods. Perhaps for this

reason, little quantitative data exists on how much time is spent practicing

some form of escapism and only speculation as to why it should feel so

important to be able to do so.

One line of thought would suggest that all conscious thought is a form of

escapism and that in fact any activity that involves concentration on

sensations from the external world is a denial of our ability to escape

completely.This hypothesis might imply that all thought is practice, in some sense, for

situations that might occur in the future. Thoughts about the past are only

of use for extrapolation into possible future scenarios.However, this hypothesis fails to include the pleasurable parts of escapist

thinking, which may either be recalling past experiences or, more importantly

for this study, the sense of security and safety that can exist within

situations that exist only in our minds. A more general hypothesis would note


separate concepts of pleasure and necessity as equally valid reasons for any

thought.Can particular traits in a person’s character be identified with a tendency to

escapist thoughts that lead to patterns of behaviour that are considered extreme

by their society? It seems unlikely that a combination of hereditary

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