It's an anecdote that brings home the fragility of presence, the fact that it is so dependent on a multitude of factors: our many senses, our complex expectations of the world around us. In virtual reality, a range of stimuli compete to convince the brain of a constructed perceptual reality, but that perception is at the mercy of the very neural sensitivity which makes presence possible in the first place: We may feel, hear, or see something that drops us right back into the cognitive reality which is fully aware that what we perceive is but a colorful lie.
Stuart Cupit, co-founder of London-headquartered tech studio Inition, has been experimenting with VR demos for years and is acutely aware of the technological restrictions which coexist, as they have always done, alongside captivating science-fiction fantasies of what might one day be possible.
For Cupit, the crudeness of what is still somewhat clunky, "strap-on hardware" remains obvious. "What you want to be doing," he says, "is tricking the senses at a base level."
And isn't that the essence of the virtual? It certainly seems to be what rests behind this powerful line from The Matrix (1999): "How do you define 'real'? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."
And Cupit, though excited about how the field is developing, is, like most long-term practitioners, aware of what still needs to be achieved before the total immersion offered by something like The Matrix is even conceivable. "We've got to realize that the peripherals we're seeing now aren't the ones our kids will grow up using," he argues. "These are the embryonic steps towards a new way of interacting with media."
To date, the narrative of virtual reality is still little more than a history of many embryonic steps. But tantalizing opportunities to feel presence, even for brief moments, have been there throughout. This alone has propelled so many currently working in the field. They have stories both of their early experiences and their subsequent dreams of how to make VR more stable and more accessible.
It's a wonderful example of how the very idea of futuristic technology is an enabler, how it becomes an irresistible inspiration for the tinkerer. Allan Latypov, of the VirtuSphere, told me about growing up in Uzbekistan with his two brothers, Nurali and Ray. The Latypov's parents were science teachers who encouraged educational creativity and, although the family did not own any computers, they had "the best private collection of technical literature in town."
Eventually the brothers moved to Moscow and it was there that their collaborative work on virtual-reality devices began. "VR unlocked our creative energy," Latypov comments. And, in a remark which seems to sum up everything about the long, meandering battle to make this stuff work, Latypov states, simply, "This fantasy became a part of our lives. We couldn't stay away from it."