Feature: Telepresence: A Technology Transcending Time and Space
HIROSE Michitaka and MINATO Chihiro

Between Virtual Reality and Reality

MC: Steering the conversation back to telepresence, it's that it only requires the concept of presence that you are able to seem both here and somewhere else at the same time. For this reason, it is not@absolutely essential that this is something which began with VR. Rather, this is something which every person who has ever made a telephone call has experienced. As long as here and there are connected in some manner or another, only the smallest leap of the imagination will take one into the realm of out-of-body experiences, mystics and other phenomena. At this juncture what I find interesting is that, in either case, one never seems to fail to eventually return to the original place. In all of the literature there are no examples I'm aware of where the individual@crosses over. For example, in shamanism, they beat on drums until they fall into a "blessed"(trance) state, even losing consciousness in some cases. The shaman's body remains with us, but their soul has gone somewhere else. Eventually, however, the spirit always comes back to the body it originally resided in. It's as though it were all borderless, though once they've gone they always come back. I find this fascinating.

HM: With VR, you often hear of people becoming disoriented and not knowing where they are, but nobody loses sight of the fact that it is their body that carries the experience of reality. Returning to your self is a sign that the unreal world we've fabricated is not yet enticing enough to mind coming back from, I suppose. There are some essential differences between the worlds of the fabricated and the actual. In the VR field recently, "mixed reality" technologies have been garnering a lot of attention. Perhaps your line of thinking touches upon something in their approach, in that it is not a matter of virtual reality and actual reality mixing, but rather of speaking of both at the same time, or of following their parallel course in one's observations. A virtual reality grounded in the actual world, you might say.

MC: I once heard an interesting story: Until the 70s, consciousness was considered a point after which linguistic faculties had developed, and infants were considered "pre-conscious."It was only after the popularization of video cameras that infants were seen to be consciously moving their hands, fingers and eyes. Through recording infants'hands and finger movements, and their changes in expression, and then analyzing long periods of this footage it became clear that they were occurring in a type of coordinated effort. They found verifiable awareness in infants as young as one or two months old. They are still looking into what the nature of this "consciousness"is, but what relates to your conversation is that the hand movements seem to be Walking through a virtual city created by CABIN the key to unlocking this puzzle.

HM: The VR effect is synthesized by computers stationed nearby the CABIN space. When they malfunction, we get the sense that you mention, of seeing our hand in the wrong section of the room, conflicts in our awareness of how things ought to behave. The user is forced into reconfiguring their body.

MC: There is certainly a moment where physicality and reality are dismembered.

HM: When confronted with gaps in reality fault tolerance, we are forced back into relearning what we learned as infants.

MC: And our hard-won concept of our body image gets torn to shreds! (laughs)

HM: And it works both ways; that this body image is consciously toyed with, and that it is made unfit by pure chance. Artists are often in the former position, taking stereotypes attending body apart in order to reveal the fact of the body, our subconscious images of it, and bring it up before us to experience anew. The latter is something that researchers like myself encounter regularly when trying to work with the body image. There are a lot of interesting experiences to be had in developing something like the CABIN. To return to our original discussion about reality, I recently infuriated a philosopher by proposing the same questions to him that we've been discussing. (laughs) "The problem of the nature of reality is something that philosophers have been debating since antiquity, and I don't appreciate your reducing the issue to such easily solvable terms." (laughs) He was concerned that vectors of such weighty issues can be shaken by technological advances, and odd means of disproving them simplified. As soon as one philosopher asserts that "what we can reach out and touch is reality," we can ask: "then, is what occurs in a haptic display reality?"... In this sense, VR proves to be a bothersome presence. (laughs)

MC: Well, it certainly seems like a good stimulus to me. (laughs) At least it is a technology which tosses some interesting monkey wrenches into long standing presuppositions.

HM: That's why, said another way, this is the time for philosophy to come to the fore. Not confining their questions to their own periphery, like the ancient issues of whether or not the world is round, questions that had little seeming resonance to the rest of us. Today, of course, it is important, from an engineering standpoint, to ask whether or not the world is round. Asking, for example, what is the shortest distance between two points on the globe requires that we factor in the curvature. Drawing a line on a map will not produce the correct answer. Calculating air traffic routes is a good example. This curvature becomes an extremely pragmatic issue. The time differences that occur due to this curvature, too, are something that was beyond the experience of nearly all humans a mere century ago. Today, knowing time differences well enough to obey the etiquette of not calling someone in the middle of the night is assumed, and being called an idiot for doing so entirely justified. (laughs) Saying "sorry, I forgot about the time difference" is bad form. The kids of today are, in a sense, well acclimated to electronically altered bodies or realities or what have you.

MC: Telepresence serves to eliminate things like time differences or the necessity of traversing spatial distances

HM: As an alternative to motion. And in this sense produces a physical experience which betrays intuition.... I wonder if the question should be phrased as telepresence providing an alternative to motion, or rather as a parallel to motion?

MC: I think that things have gotten to the point where it is time to reset the parameters of reality and existence, from the global level to the level of our neural structure. It's an interesting and challenging age that we live in.

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