VR: a telescope for the mind

What happens when technology changes how we see

Virtual Reality fever is sweeping the globe and dividing commentators into two opposing camps. The first are skeptics, amused by the images of early-adopters wearing ungainly goggles. They dismiss VR as an expensive technology that will never expand beyond a small market of gamers and hobbyists. The second group sees glimmers of a new era— one that will profoundly change the way we learn, think and live.

We tend to think of VR as a concept tied to computing but it actually originated far earlier. Stanley Weinbaum’s 1935 story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” features goggle-based devices that immerse the user into a multi-sensory world of holographs.

The term “virtual reality” itself was coined by playwright Antonin Artaud. His 1938 essay “Theatre and Its Doubles” describes “virtual reality” as the ephemeral plane connecting the real and imagined worlds.

By the 1960's, science had caught up with sci-fi and actual computer screens could be used as both input and output devices for projects like flight simulators and simple, wireframe room models. The earliest head-mounted displays coincided with the Moon Landing, foreshadowing a pattern of both inward and outward exploration, the intersection of “space” and cyberspace.

Apollo Mission Control 1969. Alex Kipman, Microsoft Hololens TED 2016

By the early 1980's, Jaron Lanier had constructed an entirely immersive VR system. Each decade since has brought a new wave of VR hope and hype: VRML in the mid 90’s, Second Life and other virtual worlds in 2000's and the current fervor driven by Facebook (Oculus), Microsoft (Hololens) and Google (Magic Leap) and hundreds, if not thousands, of companies across the spectrum from hardware to software, cameras to glasses.

There are many ways to think of VR but the one I prefer is as a visual tool with magical properties. At first read this may sound obvious — there is clearly a threshold that must be crossed in order to fool the eyes and brain into believing images are real. But while VR will become ever more realistic, its enduring value lies at a much simpler level. I believe that the essence of VR lies in its basic visual nature and the fundamental relationship between how we see and how we think.

I use this relationship between sight and mind every night when I put my children to bed. Before telling them stories, I ask each about their day. Instant amnesia ensues, until I prompt them to imagine a very specific time of day. By honing in on a single moment, whether 10 minutes before lunch or the bell at the start of first period, suddenly they recall every detail — what the teacher was saying, whether they were hungry, bored or daydreaming — precise memories unfold like a film.

This is no accident. We are visual creatures. Our brains are hard-wired to process and make sense of life as a series of images over time.

Virtual Reality is the only the most recent descendant in a long lineage of visual media from ochre handprints on cave walls to medieval manuscripts brought to life by the vibrant scenes painted within their intricate calligraphy.

I often imagine our earliest ancestors huddled around a fire as the dancing flames glimmered on cave paintings, animating images of the hunt. As they roasted their kill amidst the plumes of smoke, did they imagine the sounds hooves and recall the smell of beasts and blood? Surely this imagined scene was as much a virtual reality as those we see today. The context and technology is immaterial, once triggered any scene experienced in the mind’s eye is recalled and replayed in full visual fidelity.

This begs a simple question. If we can innately reconstitute experiences with scant input, why does VR even matter? After all, even in non-visual experiences we can be tricked into perceiving that the virtual is real. For example, although MP3 songs use only one-tenth the data found on a CD, we are unable to tell the difference. Our brains fill in the gaps between notes — the virtual feels real. To uncover the power and promise of VR — it’s true significance — we need to return to two visual tools that preceded it.

Both the telescope and microscope illuminated the invisible and altered not only what we saw but also how we saw the world. Invented in the first decades of the 17th century, they opened both cosmic and microcosmic frontiers. Like VR, each was the product of dramatic advances in optical technology. Strangely, the inventors of both tools have been largely forgotten. They will forever linked with the men who used them to explore and discover great wonders. Their names? Galileo Galilei and Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek.

Then as now, the science of sight was driven by curiosity and these were tools to explore uncharted territories. The microscope peered inward to reveal life’s origins while the telescope looked up at the heavens for clues about our place in the universe.

These tools arrived at a time when Europe’s attitudes towards exploration were changing. Vermeer’s 1665 painting “The Geographer” best illustrates this shift. A mere twenty years earlier, a painting with such a title would likely have featured an explorer like Abel Tasman who had crossed oceans to discover Tasmania, Fiji and New Zealand — unknown physical geographies. Now the picture showed a scientist, Van Leeuwenhoek, a insider’s wink and visual pun about a man mapping invisible worlds.

Geography’s shifting frontiers. Jakob Gerritz Kuyp: Tasman Vermeer: The Geographer

In both astronomy and biology, enhanced vision had replaced physical travel. Lenses, not ships were the vessels used to explore undiscovered worlds.

The first telescope is credited to Hans Lippershey in 1608. Within a year Galileo had modified it into a refracting version, capable of 30x magnification.

The tool was a means to an end — answering the defining scientific question of the time, heliocentrism — Copernicus’ controversial idea that the earth orbited the sun. Resolving the issue was more than an intellectual matter — it did push the known limits of mathematics and physics it also imperiled Galileo and his contemporaries for challenging the beliefs of the Catholic church.

Because theoretical proof lay beyond the scope of existing knowledge, some like Galileo’s contemporary Johannes Kepler created entirely new branches of geometry, mathematics and optics to prove their case. No less a scientific polymath, Galileo’s proof was stronger for a single reason: he had visual proof.

Galileo demonstrates the Telescope for the Doge of Venice

Through a lens of his own devising, Galileo saw Jupiter’s moons. The fact that they orbited the planet shattered the foundation of Aristotelian cosmology. Yet knowing that all heavenly bodies did not circle the Earth was both wondrous and terrible epiphany.

In 1616 Galileo was tried by the Pope and found guilty of heresy — ordered to “abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it… to abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves.”

The tragedy of Galileo was visual: seeing was more than believing, it was knowing. 15 years later he was tried again, found guilty, tortured and imprisoned until his death. From the ashes of tragedy grew wondrous seeds — the Enlightenment, scientific method, modern physics and astronomy. And, as the first to see the mysteries at the edge of of space, Galileo reframed our place in the cosmos and the relationship between the earthly and the divine.

If the telescope reframed our place within the infinite, the microscope illuminated the mysteries of the infinitesimal. In the late 1600’s the field of microscopy was hotly contested and something of a dark art, dominated by one man, the Dutch businessman and scientist Antonin Van Leeuwenhoek. His method of grinding lenses endured to the grave — he made 500 lenses capable of up to 275x magnification but the technique was not reproduced until 1957.

1) Van Leeuwenhoek’s Microscope (2) Vermeer’s “Geographer” (3) nhabitants of the Microcosmos

Like Galileo, Van Leeuwenhoek’s invention opened a window into an unseen universe. While his peers were examining cork cell structure, he observed and diagrammed the first microorganisms, bacteria and blood cells. The letters and drawings he sent regularly to the Royal Society remind one of views of life from distant galaxies. Their interpretation was even more exciting. Not only was ordinary water teeming with tiny unseen creatures — those organisms held secrets about the origins of life itself.

Before coming under the lens of Van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope, the exact mechanisms of procreation and reproduction was unknown. Of course farmers and biologists had long understood the general principles of mating but the details regarding the “spark of life” were a mystery.

In 1650, the details of the “birds and bees” was a “chicken and egg” puzzle. Scientists generally agreed with the Church that tiny life forms were spontaneously generated (presumably divinely so). As for larger animals, two separate groups of scientists began a frantic quest to discover the roots of life and rather than cooperating, they competed.

One school, known as the Ovists, was convinced the secret lay in eggs but they struggled to find these eggs in various animals. The other, the (epically named) Spermists, was led by Van Leeuwenhoek who was baffled to see thousands of tiny squiggles when he placed rabbit sperm under his microscope. He dubbed these squiggles “spermatozoa” but believed they were merely another example of the ‘animalcules’ he could see everywhere else.

Armed with the microscope, his quest inwards revealed the keys to the origin of life. By showing bacteria procreating, the Dutch scientist dispelled the religious doctrine of the time of spontaneous generation.

Yet despite all the visible evidence available, science failed to understand that the answer to the sperm vs. egg debate was “both”. The era’s microscopes were simply too weak to reveal the essential structure behind the mystery — DNA — leaving the world perched at the edge of solving the life’s greatest riddle. Only 150 years later, through a combination of cell theory and Gregor Mendel’s work on heredity, did the answer emerge. Sometimes the answer lies just beyond the limits of our vision.

As a child, a single film changed my life. Charles and Ray Eames’ “Powers of Ten” is a visual journey from a lakeside scene in Chicago to the furthest reaches of the universe and then back again and into the center of a carbon atom. The movie’s visual effects and pacing are stunning, the camera moving away from the scene at an exponential rate and then returning to tunnel inwards at the same pace. I still remember my pulse rising second by second as the magnitude and majesty of existence became clear. This was my first glimpse of what lies ahead with VR.

Virtual Reality will change what we see and how we see the world. It will do this by altering a single aspect of the visual experience — perspective. Just as our brains are hard-wired to create meaning from images over time, our relationship to those images is transformative.

The telescope let us look up and out — it reconfigured our relationship with the infinite and divine. The microscope expanded our horizons by looking in, revealing the secret of life and eventually, the actual code. VR is a telescope for the mind — with it we magnify our own imaginations, dance within the creations of others and explore galaxies unknown.

My greatest hopes for VR are for our children. While learning about biology, they will journey inside a blood cell. Our children will reenact historical events and fight wars from both sides. Rather than just observing filmed events with detachment, they will feel empathy. And when they finally read Shakespeare, they will play every role, from Hamlet to Juliet — as director, audience and actor.

Don’t believe me? Wait and see.