““The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
Slartibartfast hails from the planet Magrithea, being a designer of planets, and is particularly renowned for (and proud of) his award winning work on coastlines. Notably “the fjords of Norway....were mine”.
Oh to have the power to create worlds...
Well you can. With a little acumen for programming anyone can indeed be the architect of their own environment. Virtual Reality interfaces are readily available and via open source software such as Unity one can embark on a journey literally creating the context in which that journey takes place.
To a citizen of a more anachronistic age such technology may seem to be ‘indistinguishable from magic’ as one Arthur Clarke would have put it. But it is here, it is open to access, and it can be embraced, and immersed within.
From a perceptual and philosophical standpoint this puts us in a fascinating position. We can explore the mechanisms behind how we perceive our own reality by actually engaging in the construction of it! Which in itself is a perfect literal analogy for the basis of perceived reality being a construction of the brain anyway...
At our fingertips is a medium that allows for the generation of scenes in real time letting us place objects in situ, and explore the interrelationship of these to one another and in their own place within that scene background. And once we have done this, by donning a set of goggles we can then supplant our physical environment with a virtual one, and thence to physically move about within it. And even to interact with those objects therein! That’s quite a proposition to consider right there!
We can realise our own personal Narnias. We can create the wardrobe then step right on through into the snowy wastes beyond.
How might this assist in solving ‘problems’ encountered in the real world one might ask (I.e. to get past the ‘gimmick’ phase allowing one to infinitely exterminate zombies...)? One avenue I am currently exploring is to replicate my own working environment (currently my living room/office space). The constraints of physical space coupled with a disorganised system employing sheets of paper, post-its and wall space lead me to wonder how I can better organise my workspace in the virtual realm. By replicating this space I can potentially recreate an infinite variety of similar workspaces in which I will never be short of space to ‘organise’ my thoughts (on virtual post-its). And the very process of doing so will help me improve my capacity to organise, and my ability to connect thoughts together, seeing intersections of disparate ideas that may catalyse creative innovation in my own thought processes. I will never, in effect, need to ‘tidy up’, and risk losing my thinking as the post-its go into a figurative bin.
A further benefit of this virtual realm being used in such a way is to physically navigate throughout it. The act of moving through a scene can in itself significantly contribute to learning, to memory, to general cognitive ability. In acting (I.e. moving) my brain will galvanise it’s motor areas, engaging sensorimotor functions that enrich the perception of the world with which I am engaging, and the thinking processes that are collectively being operationalised. Consider the idea of the ‘memory palace’ (also known as the ‘Method of Loci’). This was a mnemonic device utilised in the ancient world as a means to commit to memory various facts by virtue of imagining key cues to said facts being ‘placed’ in an imagined ‘palace’ that the individual could then reconstruct in mind and ‘walk down the corridors’ as it were of such a personally significant realm. Thereby revisiting the various locations of these facts and conjuring a vivid environment in which memories could be readily accessed.
Such a device was also employed by the character Hannibal Lecter and referenced throughout Thomas Harris’s (2000) novel ‘Hannibal’, as well as being written about by historian Jonathan Spence (1984). Naturally, the technique lends itself to the medium of Virtual Reality. A team led by linguist Aaron Ralby has explored the potential for this, devising a PC/Virtual Reality platform in which one can construct one’s own memory palaces in virtual environments, thereby employing the technique of spatial learning to perhaps learn new languages or string together facts as an aide-memoire. (see Wired article)
All this points to exciting possibilities for the utility of virtual reality technology to enhance our cognitive capabilities, extending more traditional media (eg. written diaries, mnemonics). Furthermore, as a tool to uncover the basic mechanisms of perception, and notably our own brain’s propensity to derive a notion of ‘veridical experience’ from the constituent elements of the environment in which we are immersed, this is potentially invaluable. As a somewhat strange ‘coincidence’ today, as I sought to get to grips with some basic geometrical scene properties, I constructed a simple environment with various geometric shapes. At centre stage (well actually off to one side) was what I intended to be a sort of plinth acting as a bridge that one could walk along, and composed of various objects embedded within it (obstacles as it were). When I interfaced with this for the first time in the VR headset, the scale and position that I had somewhat randomly selected, just so happened to correspond uncannily with the table at which I am sat typing. The ‘plinth’ became a table, being exactly the right height, and even the same colour and texture. I reached out (virtually) and was able to touch in the right proportions the surface in front of me (physically). Unwittingly I had constructed a virtual environment that effectively corresponded to my physical environment, despite intending something quite different (the positioning was totally by chance as I am a complete novice so far). Perhaps this is my unconscious acting as the architect of my environment, very much in the way that my unconscious brain functions act to likewise construct the nature of ‘reality’ that I come to perceive in a conscious fashion....Boundless potential exists when we begin to explore how far we can mix our realities in this way, further consolidating the brain's capacity to engage with it's environment and extended cognitive functional capacity out into the virtual realm but coupled with physical sensory feedback as to that interaction...
Hopefully before too much longer I shall be working on fjords of my very own. And then finally determine what is the actual question for which the answer is, by all accounts, 42.
VR 'memory palaces' could help you master a new language. Wired magazine:
Harris, T. (2000). Hannibal. Arrow Books: London
Spence, Jonathan D. (1984). The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. New York: Viking Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-008098-8.
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.