Thursday, October 28, 2010

How is the Virtual World Redefining the Real?

The news this week that Italian police were investigating a virtual "burglary" started me thinking about all the ways that virtual reality, and virtual worlds specifically, are redefining and reshaping the boundaries of the real world.

For example, the "burglary" in Italy didn't involve anyone breaking into an actual place, as we traditionally define it. No building or dwelling was actually entered, but a representation of a place certainly was invaded. Real property, at least as we've always known it, wasn't taken either, but a representation of that property was, and the loss had real consequences.

So, we're moving toward a time when reality, as we've typically defined it, is taking on new definitions. The boundaries are expanding to include places and things that exist only in software, but that nevertheless hold importance for us.

Equally as interesting, though, is the use of virtual reality to treat medical conditions, as described in this vid.

And, to treat addictions.

Or, to teach students in a "classroom."

In each case, representations of reality takes on convincing aspects of actual reality that engage users in novel ways. What was previously just an animated version of the real has become an actual place where interaction can occur and meaning can be made.

Virtual places can now be burglarized, patients can overcome pain by viewing an imaginary scenario, alcoholics can explore triggers for drinking in an imagined universe, and students can interact and learn without entering a classroom.

The face of work is potentially changing, too. Byron Reeves and J. Leighton Read discuss the convergence of games and work in their book, Total Engagement, and suggest that, in the future, businesses will cater to "gamers" who will work and play in virtual worlds. They believe the line between the two will be blurred, and that business will be "rewired" to provide an engaging and entertaining work environment where individuals and teams will do "serious work" through game-like interfaces.

While none of these ideas are necessarily new, it is striking how far we've come in this process of virtual creation without any significant social discourse. We have yet to define what a virtual place actually is, or what rights individuals have to such places. We don't have a handle on virtual goods, what defines them, what legal rights people have to them, or how our infrastructure can be redesigned to account for them.

As the virtual continues to redefine the real, we need to become active participants in that process. We're not just "playing" in virtual worlds, we're actually on the cutting edge of a new way of engaging with reality. I'd argue that we need to take the lead in defining what that means before others do that for us.

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