Monday, 26 January 2009

Soap Life - a playful history part 3

In my previous two posts I have been looking at computer gaming history and how it relates to the upcoming phenomenon of virtual reality worlds. My conclusion so far has been that virtual worlds like Second Life potentially supply a cornucopia of opportunities for the public sector. Examples include service delivery, citizen engagement and consultation (and many more).

But why should we take notice of this opportunity? Surely it’s just another channel? And surely we should concentrate on what our customers / citizens want now (which is still largely telephone, with online self-serve still dragging behind)? Whilst there is some truth in this, I’d argue that we ignore the developing channels at our peril. Yes indeed let’s continue to develop and support existing channels, but let’s also develop the new ones – especially those that have a great potential.

So why do virtual worlds have potential? I’ve already alluded to the two main factors, and in this post I want to develop these further.

Virtually brainy

In my post of 23rd December, in my penultimate paragraph I wrote ‘Perhaps … at heart we are virtual reality creatures… By this I mean that everything we experience has to be modelled in our brain. The things we see, hear, touch, smell and taste are all converted into electrical and chemical impulses that travel through our body to the brain where this information is processed into what we perceive as "reality"’.

I have to admit this idea is not my own. The IT columnist Dick Pountain introduced me to this in his column in the UK PCPRO Magazine of November 2008 (Idealog, issue 169, p.11). He explains very lucidly that “the external world is full of unevenly distributed, moving matter that exhibits forms (shapes, colours and so on) imposed by the basic attractive forces of physics. Living organisms sample these forms via their sense organs, store and process them encoded as electrochemical signals” and goes on to relate that therefore organisms’ “knowledge” of reality is based entirely on these sensory samples. The reconstruction they create within their brains (and in our case, within our consciousness) could potentially be very far from what reality actually is. We already know, for example, that our senses have limits so we cannot see the infra-red spectrum. Thus the visual images our brain translates are limited samples of the range of light waves that are actually impinging upon us. In other words, our reconstruction of reality is a part of what is actually out there and our reality is entirely dictated by the reconstruction within our brains.

Pountain goes on “While many of our stored samples originate as perceptions from the outside world, our brain can dismantle, rejig and distort these images and construct new ones from them that correspond to no external object. An almost infinite number of forms are physically possible that aren’t manifest in matter right here, right now, but our brain can construct them for itself (as, for example, when we remember a dead friend’s face). Also, some forms not physically possible can be conjured up by the brain, as with demons or angels.

Thus we truly live with a virtual reality already: the mixture of memory, imagination and sampled reconstruction that is our experience of life.

My take on this is that we are predisposed towards virtual reality because in fact that's the currency our brains deal in: we are virtually brainy creatures!

Soap life

The second factor I alluded to in my post on 20th January, where I noted when writing about The Sims game “it feeds on the thing we are most interested in: ourselves”.
Second Life is a virtual reality world that we can immerse ourselves in to a far greater extent than The Sims. The Sims, at the end of the day, have no real intelligence and we cannot really engage with them. In Second Life we are “in” the game and all the other players are other people. Maybe Second Life should be called Soap Life because we can play out the sort of “real life” fantasies that so engage the millions who watch TV soaps.

My point here is that TV soaps are interesting because on the one hand they are like real life – the situations are realistic and the people are “ordinary”. But they also have this fantasy element where things are played out more intensely than in real life. The success of UK Channel 4's Big Brother is aligned to this, and it's even more alluring because the people in the Big Brother house aren't playing to a script, they're living a real (if not exactly normal) life in front of us. This kind of thing is intensely interesting to us because it's all about who we are and the lives we live.

So a virtual reality world like Second Life allows us to be in our own soap opera. We can create our own persona and interact with the created personas of other real people. We know, when we talk to another SL resident, that the chances are they don't look at all like their avatar (though boringly, mine does look a bit like me – see Jan 20th post), and we also know that they may not act in the same way they do in real life. But in all other respects it is a real engagement with another person live in our own “soap”.

On the holodeck

The creators of Star Trek knew this when they dreamed up the Starship Enterprise's holodeck. That place where the crew could go and live out their fantasies in a real world 3D environment. And it's interesting that most of the crew chose to create environments that were close to their own rather than very different: Captain Picard's detective Dixon Hill is the perfect example of this.

That's why I think virtual reality is so important: it's, more than anything else we have at present, an opportunity for us to create environments which are richly familiar and creative for our “virtually oriented” brains, and in which we can recreate the things that we love best: ourselves. And we're right back where I started (23rd December 2008) with films like Tron and The Matrix!

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