Jeremy Bailenson & Jim Blascovich:
"Infinite Reality" (William Morrow, 2011)

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
This is a study of the human mind done using the technology of virtual reality.

The US psychologists Jeremy Bailenson and Jim Blascovich open the book by questioning the very nature of reality. As psychologists, they know well that my "reality" is created in and by my mind, regardless of what is really out there. The mind is an inaccurate machine, that goes for plausible (but quick) hypotheses rather than perfect solutions. It uses its knowledge to "expect" that something will happen and those expectations allow it to quickly reach conclusions about what is going on. Those conclusions are usually good, or, at least, good enough to get by, regardless of what the reality out there "really" is. Hence the various optical tricks that magicians and psychologists have devised over the centuries to fool the human mind: all you have to do is create the expectation for something and most minds will tend to "see" that thing if they see something that looks like it. If you expect a duck in the pond and you glimpse a duck-like shape floating on the water, you see a duck... which upon closer inspection may turn out to be just a piece of wood. Therefore the mind creates its own reality. In a sense, we live in a virtual world all the time. Our reality "is" a virtual reality.

The authors make the point that this is probably more natural than we would guess. Daydreaming accounts for a large slice of our cognitive life. And all civilization have used chemical substances to foster hallucinated states of mind, i.e. virtual realities. Last but not least, humans have invented religions, most of which promise eternal life in other worlds. We have now entered an era in which virtual worlds can also be achieved via technology.

The authors identified five factors that characterize people's behavior in virtual reality: theory of mind (what we think of whom we meet), movement realism, the unconscious reactions, relevance of the interaction, and the context.

They performed a number of experiments that follow the guidelines of well-known psychological phenomena: the proxemic effect, the conformity effect, the social-inhibition effect, the chameleon effect, the proteus effect, etc. All of these can be studied in virtual reality. What is new is that virtual reality can also create an avatar of you (a virtual doppelganger) For example, it is well. documented that we tend to like people who look like us and behave like us. A virtual reality system can create an avatar of you, not just someone who looks a bit like you, and then make you coexist in the same environment. All those effects are now on steroids. If all of those effects had, ultimately, the power to change you, imagine when they are on steroids. Virtual reality is not only a tool to analyze your psyche, but a tool to change it too. By creating the appropriate situation and immersing your avatar in it, virtual reality can convince you to eat healthy food All those psychological effects mean that our psyche is malleable. Virtual reality is an efficient tool to shape it. To paraphrase Sherry Turkle, virtual reality gives people the chance to express unexplored aspects of their self and to experiment with new identities.

In particular, psychologists such as Peter Salovey and Robert Sternberg argue that socializing is a key aspect of intelligence, and virtual reality is useful to study and improve those skills. There are unwritten implicit tacitly-accepted rules on how to behave, both in terms of body movements and in terms of verbal communication. This is precisely the area in which the discipline of Artificial Intelligence has failed: we can build programs that solve complex problems, but we never saw a program or a robot that can be socially acceptable. Virtual reality can lead to the design of an agent that will actually behave and sound like a human being. It can also help people improve their social skills. And it can improve communication by creating a world in which the human agent is seen by everybody else in her/his most effective behavior. For example, the authors discuss how more effective a teacher is when establishing eye contact with a student. Unfortunately, most teachers teach large classes: the physical teacher cannot keep staring at each and every student, but a virtual teacher (the avatar of a physical teacher) that the students watch in virtual reality could do just that. Ditto for mimicry, another powerful way to get attention from a listener: you are more likely to be influenced by me if i sort of mimick your attitude. In the physical world the teacher can only do that to one student at the time, but in a virtual reality environment each student could be interacting with the same teacher mimicking each of them simultaneously.

The authors correctly point out that we already create avatars of ourselves: we "augment ourselves" with cosmetic products, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and so on. And we even replace body parts when they malfunction or break, for example with artificial hearts. The trend is towards immortality: we try to manufacture a body that will last forever. Virtual reality has a humbler but perhaps more realistic goal: to preserve your behavior, if not your body. Once cloned in an avatar, your avatar can continue to exist forever and interact with the rest of the world, e.g. with your grand-grandchildren.

Virtual reality can even multiply you: make copies of you that can perform all sorts of tasks at the same time; the ultimate case of multitasking.

In the short term virtual reality can already create a better "digital footprint" of a person. A digital footprint is a formal model of who you are. One can create a digital footprint of you by simply monitoring what you do on the Internet. (Facebook does it routinely with its OpenGraph technology in order to target you with customized advertising). Virtual reality can bump this up to the level where your movements are used to create your digital image, i.e. the digital tracking data include the way you behave in general and not just what you type on your keyboard.

Whether we like it or not, the day will come when a lot of our life will take place in a virtual world. These experiments show that it won't just be a game: interactions in virtual reality will be as powerful or more powerful than the social interactions that have shaped people for millions of years. The authors make the point that online dating is de facto making single bars obsolete. That might be remembered as the beginning of a rapid slide into virtual lives.

A minor flaw of the book is that it works well only in the USA. There are too many references to the popular culture of the USA, and often the old-fashioned ones, as if it were written by a teenager from a Midwestern high school. There are references to "Super Bowl" (a popular event for a popular sport in the USA, but a sport that is played only in the USA), to the Terry Schiavo case (that became notorious in the USA but perhaps not so much in the rest of the world), to the song "When you are Smiling" (that i confess even i never heard), and to Matt Groening's comic strip "Life in Hell"; and later we find references to the tv series "The Sopranos" and "Twilight" and to "baseball legends" (perhaps "legendary" only in the USA?). Among the great people of the past we find a "Jefferson" inserted after Jesus, Leonardo and Michelangelo. And the authors have a passion for Hollywood blockbusters (in just two chapters they name "Back to the Future", "Cast Away", "Star Wars" and "Toy Story", which may or may not be as famous as they think around the world, especially for the younger generation), and of course "The Matrix" (its whole story is de facto a remake of a much older and better German film by Fassbinder, "World on a Wire"), but not for many stimulating films made in Europe and Asia on similar subjects (usually earlier and perhaps by more competent filmmakers).

Another good read from Stanford psychologists involved in high tech: "The Media Equation" by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass.

TM, ®, Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi