The Multiple Meanings of ‘Virtual’

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What might a blog called “The Virtual Space Theory” actually be about? The range of expectations raised by such a name is extremely wide: The Internet? Computer technology? Social networks? The growing culture around them? Online 3D worlds? All forms of 3D graphics? Imaginary worlds in general? The realm of human imagination? Human perception? Human consciousness? Collective consciousness?

Mix all of the above and you get a rough idea of the problematic common notion of the ‘virtual’, as well as an overview of some of the topics that are confounding contemporary civilization – all strangely expressed in one vague multi-purpose word. The aim of The Virtual Space Theory, then, is to try to bring clarity to this field and to propose a particular understanding of it.

If we observe the matter closely, we find that most of the uses of ‘virtual’ fall under a few specific categories. Furthermore, we discover that most of these categories actually have an existing word that conveys their meaning much more clearly and consistently. This will help us narrow down the possible meanings of ‘virtual’ in search of the essence of what this term might most accurately be used to refer to.

Virtual as meaning ‘digital’

Computers. Digital devices. Internet technology. Online services. In such contexts, referring to anything as being ‘virtual’ is usually just a way of saying that it is created and facilitated by digital means. As detailed in a separate post, this is not what this blog is about. Besides, the term ‘digital’ addresses such cases much more directly.

Virtual as meaning ‘metaphysical’

Non-real. Non-existent. Abstract. ‘Virtual’ has become a blanket term for referring to all kinds of phenomena and ideas that somehow seem to exist, though on some other level they actually do not. This is quite a complex matter which is discussed in a separate post, and much better covered by the term ‘metaphysical’.

Virtual as meaning ‘mental’

The human mind. The imagination. Dreams and visions. We can visualize them, we can experience them, but they are not part of the world ‘out there’. It is a topic thoroughly discussed in my book “The Architecture of Virtual Space”, and mentioned also in an article derived from it. In short, the point is that calling them ‘virtual’ is rather inaccurate – the term ‘mental’ captures their essence far more precisely.

Virtual as meaning ‘perceptual’

This is a much more elusive use of the term ‘virtual’, since it seems to combine several of its common uses into yet another distinct meaning. In that sense, it is a way of referring to things that may have an independent existence of their own, but used when we wish to express how the particular way we experience them might be different from what they actually are. This is the topic of a current research project of mine which will be published in the future, and which the term ‘perceptual’ covers with much more accuracy.

Virtual as meaning ‘what we perceive through pictorial images’

3D Worlds. Video games. Film special effects. 3D graphics creation tools. In that sense, ‘virtual’ is used to describe what we see in images of a particular kind: These are images which present pictorial content, which were produced and presented digitally, which we experience as presenting things that are outside of our immediate world, and which are often the product of their creators’ imaginations.

And yet there is something ‘virtual’ about them beyond any of the meanings of ‘virtual’ discussed above: It is not only ‘digital’, it is not quite ‘metaphysical’, it is not just ‘mental’, nor is it ‘perceptual’. Rather, it is the experience that what we see through such an image is not merely a flat pattern of light and color – but a living, existing, and visually accessible place.

The Virtual Space Theory, therefore, proposes that the key to clarifying the term ‘virtual’ is to arrive at an understanding of it as meaning ‘what we perceive through pictorial images’. And to achieve this, the inevitable path goes way beyond digital techniques, and requires a thorough exploration of the experiences given by former techniques and the traditional theories that support them.

For this reason – and despite the multiple meanings typically associated with ‘virtual’ – the central themes of this blog are pictorial images, on one hand, and the use of architecture as a means of creating an experience of place through them, on the other. The common uses of ‘virtual’ will obviously still remain – at least metaphorically – but The Virtual Space Theory complements them with a coherent, systematic, and well-defined meaning as a proposed point of reference.

Reconciling the Old and the New

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One of the key approaches of The Virtual Space Theory is to provide an interpretation of the visual arts which would reconcile the apparent rift between old media and new media. Such reconciliation is achieved by proposing a wider context which seamlessly encompasses the old as well as the new.

The technological developments of recent decades and their effect on visual media can easily give the impression that everything has changed: The creation tools are different, the means of presentation are different, and the visual language is different – not to mention the differences in values and subject matter. Accordingly, new theories have increasingly been developed in an attempt to understand the nature of these ‘new media’. From this perspective, older theories of art that were based mostly on the medium of painting seem practically outmoded, archaic, and irrelevant.

The Virtual Space Theory proposes that while the new theories of visual media are of course valid, they are still a matter of choice. That is, if one wants to understand recent developments by using the mindset of older theories, it is actually possible to do so. What is obviously missing for doing that, however, is the availability of an adapted version of these principles which would successfully also incorporate the contemporary vocabulary and phenomena. Such a proposed adaptation is exactly what The Virtual Space Theory is about, as fully elaborated in the book The Architecture of Virtual Space.

The Virtual Space Theory, as its name suggests, surely approaches contemporary topics such as virtuality, digital technology, and the latest visual media – yet it does so by relying heavily on the traditional approaches to the arts. The Virtual Space Theory is founded on the writings of art theorists such as Ernst Gombrich and Erwin Panofsky, who clearly represent the classical tradition of European art between the Renaissance and the early 20th century. Such a choice of references may seem peculiar to someone who is versed in the contemporary art discourse, which considers itself free from these older mindsets. And yet, a careful review of the old principles proved them to be surprisingly useful for understanding the latest media as well.

Let us look at a couple of straightforward examples to demonstrate the point. From a contemporary view of art, a painting such as Il Guercino’s ceiling fresco Aurora would initially seem to have nothing in common with current trends in visual media, to the point of being perceived anywhere from inaccessibly remote to downright boring.

Similarly, a film such as Tron Legacy (the upcoming sequel to the original Tron from 1982 – one of the first major films to employ digital techniques), when seen from the point of view of the classical tradition, might very well be suspected of superficiality, irreverence, and a lack of substance.

From the point of view of The Virtual Space Theory, however, both of the above examples can be understood along the exact same set of principles. These examples may obviously differ in their artistic intentions, production techniques, or forms of presentation, yet they also have much in common: Both of them generate an experience of space where in fact there is none (and as well populate it with their own idea of a hero on a two-wheeled vehicle), and both provide a physical object in the physical world through which to give access to this created space. In terms of The Virtual Space Theory, they are equal in that they both result in the creation of a virtual place in virtual space.

Such an observation, along with further observations that stem from The Virtual Space Theory, is the direct consequence of having a single overall model for understanding all forms of pictorial images – free of the constraints of various periods, mediums, techniques, or purposes, as well as the respective theories that come along with them. Thus, by introducing a wider context that is common to both the old and the new, The Virtual Space Theory allows the old to be revealed as fresh and fascinating, and the new to have depth and merit.

Proposing an Alternative Model of Thought

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The approach of The Virtual Space Theory is to present a different way of thinking about familiar topics, as well as to bring together topics that might otherwise be considered mostly unrelated. This theory, however, is neither true nor false – it is simply a model of thought. Its goal is to provide a tool with which it might be possible to understand and explain phenomena that might not be explainable by other ways of thinking.

To clarify what I mean by the term ‘a model of thought’, a useful analogy is that of the different ways physicist have developed for explaining various phenomena. For example, from my secondary school days, I clearly remember studying the challenge of classical physics with regard to determining what the phenomenon of light might actually be: is it a wave or a particle? On one hand, some behaviors of light (such as interference or polarization) suggest that it can only be a wave: the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. On the other hand, the fact that light has energy and momentum (such as in the photo-electric effect) suggests that it can only be a particle: a flow of photons.

So which is it, then? I do not have the conclusive answer, and as far as I know, neither do physicists. The point of this example is not to try to engage you in the study of light in physics, but rather to demonstrate the power and value of having alternative models of thought to choose from.

In the case of The Virtual Space Theory, the subjects being tackled are pictorial mediums and virtuality. Its opening conditions are: A wide range of mediums – old and new – each with their separate theories, and the widely undefined topic of virtuality. Its tasks: To present an alternative model of thought that would be equally applicable to all pictorial mediums, as well as provide a consistent definition of virtuality.

The cost? In its proposed model, The Virtual Space Theory marginalizes the importance of technique, and disregards matters of style, meaning, or the social role of pictorial images – which happen to be at the heart of most existing media theories (as well as the main dividing factor between mediums). However, even though this theory does not address such issues, it does not necessarily negate them either – it rather recontextualizes them.

For example, let’s take the matter of the meaning of symbols in pictorial images, and demonstrate it using Arnold Böcklin’s symbolist painting The Isle of the Dead from 1883:

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, Third Version, 1883

Now, let’s also consider the following video:

These two examples are from different mediums, and as such, they might normally require very different theories in order to discuss them. Yet from the point of view of The Virtual Space Theory they are just two types of windows towards the same virtual place. Therefore, whatever the symbolic meaning of the cypresses you see, it is no longer associated with the art object of the painting or the video, but is rather to be found inside of virtual space. Deciphering what such symbols might mean, however, is a task that is left to other existing theories.

Elucidating Abstract Ideas through Visual Examples

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The topics discussed in The Virtual Space Theory are often very theoretical, yet this does not mean that the discussion about them needs to remain detached or purely academic. Rather, its approach is – whenever possible – to reinforce the presentation of any theoretical idea with a matching visual example: a painting, a photograph, a video, etc.

For example, in the book there is a large section which addresses Western culture’s fascination with the possibility of experiencing other worlds that may lie beyond the physical world in which we live. This is a vast topic, which can be – and surely has been – debated on from various psychological, sociological, and philosophical points of view. However, in the book I chose to approach the topic from the point of view of how it has been expressed in popular culture, and particularly in film.

This method of presenting a theory provides challenging examples with which to question the discussion and drive it forward. In the particular case given here, it demonstrates the central role of the pictorial arts in this cultural dream of accessing other worlds, and leads to conclusions which might not have been arrived at otherwise. The following are film trailers for two of the films which are involved in this discussion.

The film The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985) provides an example of crossing-over from a film into the physical world:

The film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988) provides a curious example where a crossing-over from film into the physical world is not even necessary:

The approach of basing a theoretical discussion on visual examples has several reasons that support it. First of all – especially in the book – the visual contents form the counterpart to the theory anyhow, and are therefore just as relevant to the discussion. Second, as an author, following this approach makes sure that I do not get lost in the high spheres of pure theory, and that I keep The Virtual Space Theory anchored in what it was actually developed for: a theory of the pictorial image. Third, for the readers, it broadens the discussion from being just an abstract academic debate, thus inviting into it anyone who is interested in its subject matter – yet without compromising the depth of its analysis. And finally, it is simply much more fun. :-)

Instilling Clarity by a Systematic Use of Language

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The topic of virtuality and virtual space is one of the most confused fields in contemporary culture, to the point that, for many people, its elusiveness is considered to be an inherent part of its nature. From such a point of view, any attempt to define virtuality is considered to be pointless, since what defines it – so it would seem – is precisely that it cannot be defined. However, that is not the point of view of The Virtual Space Theory.

The Virtual Space Theory is based on the approach that our ability to understand anything (as opposed to experiencing it) is enabled by the language we have for describing it. Furthermore, any viable communication is dependent on the accuracy of the language as well. And so, if we experience confusion with respect to a certain aspect of the world or its phenomena, what we need is to first sort out the language we have for it. Therefore, the core of The Virtual Space Theory is the creation of a systematic language capable of handling the complexities of virtuality and the whole range of phenomena that are related to it. Once the language is sorted out in such a way, a clear understanding of what is going on follows it almost automatically.

The first step to creating a systematic use of language is a careful and consistent choice of words, down to their finest details. For example, an expression such as “a virtual place that is found in a painting” might seem completely harmless at first. However, in some contexts, it might actually defy the principles of The Virtual Space Theory: Since this theory proposes that a painting is a window to virtual space, then by definition nothing can be located in the painting. Rather, there are dabs of paint on the canvas, which create a virtual place that can be seen through the painting. The location of this place, then, is in virtual space. A major difference – arising just from the use of different prepositions: ‘in’, ‘on’, and ‘through’.

The second step to creating a systematic use of language is to define terms that might not have existed before, or to tighten the definition of relatively loose terms. For example, in many texts discussing similar topics, expressions such as ‘virtual place’, ‘virtual world’, and ‘virtual space’ are often used interchangeably as if their meaning were the same. According to The Virtual Space Theory, however, these are three distinct phenomena: A virtual place is the place you see through a particular pictorial image; A virtual world is a set of virtual places which are presented in a context which suggests that they are continuous with respect to each other (such as different scenes in a film); And virtual space is the overall visible space that contains all virtual places and all virtual worlds (whether they are continuous to each other or not).

Such a tight use of language sometimes leads to expressions that may sound a bit strange, or not quite ‘correct English’ at times. The point, however, is that the use of language in The Virtual Space Theory is not so much descriptive as it is generative. It is unlike most forms of writing, where the words are merely an approximate description of an essence that already exists outside of them. This kind of writing, in contrast, requires absolute precision, since the essence of what it discusses is formed by the words themselves. Consequently, when such a demanding procedure is successful, a clearly formed language can lead to a more clearly understandable world.

Distinguishing Phenomena from Techniques

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One of the basic approaches of The Virtual Space Theory is that it separates the discussion of pictorial phenomena from that of the technical procedures used to create them.

Let’s take the following TV commercial as an example:

A common reaction many people have when watching it, especially for the first time, is to immediately ask “How did they do that?” or “Is it real?” In other words, the improbability of seeing thousands of colorful balls bouncing down the sloped streets of San Francisco makes us wonder what it is exactly that we are seeing. Is it a filmed report of an actual event, or some computer-generated wizardry? Before I give the answer, let’s take a look at one more video:

As you might have guessed by now, the first video was filmed on location in San Francisco, and the technique which was used for it was to dump rubber balls from trucks located further uphill. The second video is computer-generated, demonstrating a real-time rendering application called Cryengine (‘real-time’ means that rather than preparing the images in advance, such software is capable of producing each frame of this video as it is viewed – or roughly in 0.04 seconds).

And yet, from the point of view of The Virtual Space Theory, the virtual places created by these videos are essentially identical. In both cases, what we see is a virtual space version of San Francisco with colorful balls bouncing down its streets [update 02/2010: The CG video originally discussed here is no longer available, so I replaced it with another version of it which shows bouncing teapots instead of balls, but the principle remains the same]. Just like in the case of the Eiffel Tower discussed in an earlier post, the fact that the first video was filmed in San Francisco, does not make the physical city of San Francisco somehow float behind your computer screen. In both of them, all you are actually seeing is a virtual place which looks like San Francisco. The only difference between them is in their techniques of production.

Now let’s extend the point further to also cover the phenomenon of motion, by using another example from the same series of TV commercials:

The question, this time, is whether or not there actually are colored plasticine bunnies hopping about sidewalks in New York City. The visual style of this video hints to us that it was made using the stop-motion technique, since the movement of the bunnies is continuous, whereas that of the passers-by and shadows is rather erratic. In the physical city of New York, then, what was actually there were pre-made models of bunnies in different poses, which were interchanged and moved around by the film crew in between the shootings of each frame. The hopping bunnies you just saw as a result, however, are not and never were in physical New York. These are virtual bunnies, and they exist only in virtual space – as part of the virtual New York City of this TV commercial.

Therefore, as you watch the following final video, see if you can look at it beyond the automatic tendency to ask “…but how did they do it?!” Instead, how about considering it to be nothing more than a visual Concerto for Paint and Apartment Blocks played out inside of a virtual place in virtual space. From the point of view of this discussion, then, you might find that the answer to your question about the technique is another question:

“Does it really matter…?”