August 1998

Understanding Virtual Technologies

Book Review:Virtual Realism
By Michael Heim
Oxford University Press, 1997
264 pages
$26.00 (US)
ISBN: 0-195-10426-9

In his latest book, Virtual Realism, Michael Heim builds on and extends his writings on the cognitive and cultural shifts created by computer technologies in the twentieth century by considering the "new aesthetics" created by virtual reality (VR) technology. He advocates "virtual realism" as a philosophy to aid us in a balancing the role of VR in our lives, and begins by emphasizing the need for a clear understanding of the meaning of the term VR. Heim differentiates strongly between an understanding of virtual reality (VR) in a "weak" and "strong" sense. He considers a separation of the two essential to a true understanding of VR ("The point is not semantics but clarity of thought about where we are going...". p. 4). Heim refers to the "weak" meaning of VR as the common usage of VR that pervades everyday usage and is hyped by the media. He focuses rather on what he calls "the strong sense" of the term, which refers to VR as "first a technology (and) secondarily an experience" (p. 6). As a technology, VR is distinguished by the fact it is a computer-based immersive, interactive, and information-intensive technology. Through these three "I's" computers create the experiences of VR by simulating both physical space or real environments, and/or mental space, or telepresence.

In reading his extended definition, anyone with an interest in computers and computer-mediated communication might find his articulation of the meaning of VR as common sense. Heim, however, seems to feel that accepting his conceptualization of the "strong" meaning of VR is essential to an understanding of virtual realism; He states that "understanding the strong sense of VR is the first step towards being realistic about virtual reality" (p. 32). He goes on to describe in some detail several applications of VR with an "empirical bias" (p. 20) that illustrate the strong meaning of VR. These applications include helmets or HMDs, networks and simulators, the CAVE, BOOM, desktop VR, and VRML. While interesting as illustrations of the computer-based and experiential nature of VR technology, Heim neglects to cover the topics in enough depth to interest the expert, yet he provides more depth than is needed to effectively illustrate his point about VR in the "strong" sense. However, a reason for this emphasis appears in the second chapter, where Heim begins to deal with virtual realism. His usage of the term is individualistic enough to necessitate a grounding in the accepted technological uses of VR.

Heim's discussion of virtual realism is the meat of the book, with the rest mere garnish. Virtual realism, according to Heim, is a need for balance between the two extremes of "idealism" and "naive realism." Those who welcome technology optimistically are idealists, while those who reject it in favour of immediate experience and physical reality are naive realists. Heim feels that these perspectives are "two sides of the same coin, binary brothers" (p. 42) in that they both arise from a "cyberspace backlash." His solution is virtual realism -- a balance or middle path between "the idealist's enthusiasm for computerized life with the need to ground ourselves more deeply in the felt earth affirmed by the realist as our primary reality." (p. 43).

Heim's conception of virtual realism is one that deserves further consideration as it is an important and timely one. The term "virtual realism" itself does not follow conventional usage: the term is not used in its conventional sense of "seeming" but rather refers to VR technology. Heim implies that he chose the term purposefully and carefully as language use is important to understanding. "The right name illustrates and enlightens. .. [it] goes beyond utility" (p. 49.) The term "virtual realism" appears to have been chosen to reflect the balanced path between technophilia and technophobia, as Heim is not advocating either simple realism or pure idealism. Rather, he emphasizes finding a balance "that swings neither to the idealistic blue sky where primary reality disappears, nor to the mundane indifference that sees in VR just another tool" (p. 44). Such a balance will allow for critical thought and communication in our acceptance of VR in our world.

These thoughts are an important contribution to the field. Here Heim displays the perception that distinguished The Electric Language and parts of The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality by giving technology a deeper relevance to the human condition and considering its effects on human consciousness and culture. Unfortunately, Heim does not develop in any great depth VR's contribution to shifts in culture and human consciousness (introduced in The Electric Language), nor to the changing human psyche (introduced in Metaphysics ). Fortunately, his ten "signposts" to virtual realism are an effective consolation prize. Some of these signposts are:

  • Be clear about what VR is in the strong sense.
  • Acknowledge the new layer of reality and the complex relationships with computers it brings about.
  • Refuse to fear an all-pervasive technology monster.
  • Virtual worlds do not re-present the primary world.
  • VR transubstantiates but does not imitate life.
  • Realism in VR results from pragmatic habitation, livability, and dwelling. (For details, see pp. 46-49.)
While these signposts are consonant with a balanced and realistic view of technology, they are particularly interesting because of their current parallels. It seems that Heim's "balanced" view has inspired (or is a part of, depending on one's perspective) an increasingly popular trend towards a "realistic" view of CMC and computer technologies. For example, a group that has gained much press recently is the Technorealists. Like Heim, the technorealists (initiated by David Shenk of NPR, Andrew Shapiro of Harvard and Steven Johnson of the e-zine Feed) promote technorealism as, according to Shapiro, a "way to think about technology that avoids both the extremes of high-tech doom and cyber- elation." Like Heim, the technorealists formulate principles of realism in their "Technorealist Manifesto," some of which are remarkably similar to Heim's signposts (For example, their principles include statements that the Internet is not utopian, and that information is not knowledge).

That Heim's conception of virtual realism has already caught the popular imagination attests to the need for a balanced view on the place of technology in our lives. And Heim's basic premise is a strong one: that we need to understand VR in its technological sense, and then to accept the realism of the existence and impact of VR technology on our society and culture. Heim develops the theme of virtual realism in the remainder of the text as he considers some of the "aesthetics" of VR. The variants of virtual technologies considered here cover a wide range and include the visual aesthetics of art in the world of VR; virtual world building through interactive design; planetary ecology and photogrammetry; VR as a means to experience nature; and experiences of alternate worlds and realities through VR.

The discussion of these variants of VR make up two-thirds of the text of the book. Although Heim provides enough detail to inform the uninformed, and provides information in a focused and interesting manner, the strength of this material is largely the development of Heim's conceptualization of virtual realism. When realism is seen as an "approach that treats cyberspace as an actual phenomenological world with its own particular kind of entities." (p. 218), then a detailed exploration of some of the "entities" of cyberspace strengthens the conceptualization of realism.

In spite of Heim's professing to take a "realistic" rather than a technophilic or technophobic approach to VR, the sense one gets in reading about these VR applications is an idealistic (though not quite technophilic) one. However Heim does maintain a scrupulous recognition of the computer-based immersive, interactive, and information-intensive nature of the VR technologies involved throughout, from the discussion of art world to alternate worlds. In this Heim remains consistent to his own creed of virtual realism. What distinguishes Heim from other "realists" (such as the Technorealists) is his continued development and discussion of the cultural and cognitive shifts brought about by computer technology. This is evident in Heim's own definition of "realism" as the "metaphysical theories that attribute priority to abstract entities" (p. 218). While a more detailed consideration of such metaphysical theories would have strengthened the book, Heim still manages to remain true to his philosophical roots, and thus provides a unique perspective to what could otherwise be yet another book about technology.

Sharmila Pixy Ferris ( is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson College. Her research interests revolve around issues in computer-mediated communication, and she has published in this area in both online (such as Interpersonal Computing and Technology) and off-line journals.

Copyright © 1998 by Sharmila Pixy Ferris. All Rights Reserved.

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