Samsara Squared

Buddhism and Virtual RealityTracy Cochran

I GAZE UP AT A GALAXY of cartoon stars. Turning my head to the right I see five checkerboard platforms linked by staircases and studded with simple geometric pillars and arches. Pressing a button on my hand control, I "fly" toward this gameboardlike space station, zooming closer and closer until I'm "walking" on an upper platform. Human and inhuman enemies are hiding.

Darting around, weightless, in a bare, bright, mechanically uniform world, I try to steady the cartoon gun extended in the cartoon hand before me. The scene shifts with my gaze, though there's a tiny perceptual lag that makes me feel like I'm trying to focus underwater. A geometrically muscular cartoon man in blue pants appears. I squeeze the trigger on my hand control. Rocket grenades fall in slow white arcs.

"Time to die," intones a cold computer voice. Amidst booming quadraphonic heartbeats, squawks and screams, I try to aim my gun but a huge, limegreen cartoon shadow descends and engulfs me. The pterodactyl sweeps me higher and higher into space until I explode into brightly colored confetti and vaporize into the computer-generated space that William Gibson called "cyberspace" in his seminal 1984 novel Neuromancer (Doubleday/Dell).


Back in the everyday world, I'm standing on a small circular platform at the South Street Seaport in downtown Manhattan. I've just finished playing "Dactyl Nightmare" on the Virtuality system, one of the first mass-market applications of the technology called virtual reality (VR). So far, even in the most sophisticated systems the simulations that VR can produce are crude, slow, and gaudily superficial. They play to the eyes and the ears and the jumpy, calculating "monkey mind"—as the Buddhists call it. Yet, in spite of these limitations—or perhaps because of them—virtual reality may transform, in the next decade, the way we construct science, architecture, engineering, education, medicine, communications, and art.

Virtual reality yokes human attention to a computer mind in order to generate three-dimensional worlds that a human being can inhabit. This extraordinary technology has attracted interest particularly from Buddhists because of the claim that it mirrors and amplifies the way we build up illusory worlds in our own minds. And within the whole spectrum of Buddhist traditions, it provokes parallels with those traditions that employ visualization practices.

"I think the cyberspace experience is destined to transform us because it's an external mirror of something that Buddhists have always said, which is that the world we think we see 'out there' is an illusion," says Howard Rheingold, author of Virtual Reality (Touchstone, 1992). "We build models of the world in our mind, using the data from our sense organs and the informationprocessing capabilities of our brain—only we're hypnotized from birth to ignore and deny it."

Can virtual reality really make it easier for people to penetrate the nature of mind? Or will it just help us drown in our peculiarly American dukkha (suffering), or unsatisfactory experience, by expediting our catastrophic break with nature and the larger world of humanity, which isolates us in expensive little electronic capsules?

As a cybernaut you must wear an uncomfortable plastic helmet that shuts out the outside world and makes you look vaguely like a human fly. Each eye is covered with a tiny liquid-crystal display screen that feeds you continuously updated, computer-generated imagery—a slightly different perspective for each eye. You are not watching a pre filmed movie but participating in an ever-changing, real-time computer world. A flexible DataGlove threaded with fiber-optic cables registers your hand position and pressure, creating the illusion that you are grasping virtual objects.

Virtual reality is a complex set of devices that were the result of developments in computer graphics, personal computers, and other sensory devices. Many breakthroughs were made by maverick visionaries working outside the mainstream, yet research into virtual reality has been funded and nurtured by NASA and the military as well as by major universities including MIT and the University of North Carolina. No single pioneer of this emerging technology stands out, though many computer scientists cite the work of Ivan Sutherland, who in the sixties built the first head-mounted displayvirtual reality goggles-and invented a groundbreaking computer-graphics program called SketchPad. But it wasn't until the mid-eighties that the potential of VR as an all-encompassing experiential universe became apparant.

Today, one of the most articulate champions of VR is Jason Lanier, CEO of VPL Research (a leading VR equipment company): "Virtual reality," he says, "is a technique for creating simulated experience, or rather, an experience of a simulated external world. It does this with the help of computerized clothing that covers your sense organs."

At the moment, that clothing is rare and costly, and Lanier's firm is reportedly making a fortune marketing black-rubber head-mounted displays called EyePhones and DataGloves that measure the position and movement of your fingers. Within ten years, however, virtual reality is going to become sleek and cheap, and it's going to be everywhere.

Soon, for example, a surgeon will be able to practice removing a tumor or repairing a heart valve by putting on goggles and a glove. A perfect computer-generated simulation of a body will appear, and by simply grasping the scalpel and cutting, a new technique called force-feedback will allow the doctor to feel the liquidness of the patient's blood and the resistance of tissue and bone.

Still, these simulations of VR are theoretical constructs. They look realistic but they aren't "truthful," and they raise serious practical and spiritual questions.

For example, training doctors or scientists to trust tactics they learned from simulations rather than real-world practice may further blind them to the unique and interdependent value of each body, each molecule. The map is not the territory. A cartoon body is not a life. From a Buddhist point of view, the scientific visualizations of VR could operate either as a great tool for healing or as just one more dazzling force in the Western world that will conspire to reinforce smug intellectual certainties and inhibit compassion and real spiritual search. Clarity about the nature of the medium is crucial, because VR will soon offer forms of entertainment so all-absorbing that one observer has called them "samsara squared." Mattei has already brought out the "Power Glove," an $89 toy version of the $8,800 DataGlove II. And it enables its wearers—usually kids—to box with virtual opponents and to cause virtual death and destruction with a wave of their "real" hands. Meanwhile, Lanier and MGM have a deal to develop" virtual movies," or "voomies," using telepresence to bring a comic "changeling" into a theater space to keep you laughing. And, in the ultimate application of computer self-satisfaction, eventually you may be able to climb into a full-body contact suit and indulge in "teledildonics"—virtual sex between one or more consenting simulations.

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