Virtual Reality vs. (Actual) Reality: Your Mind’s View of Reality Isn’t Often “Real”

“Virtual reality” means different things to different people. Is virtual reality necessarily based on modern digital computer technology? The simple answer is no. In our book, “Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution,” Jeremy Bailenson and I argue that in fact, people inhabit virtual reality endogenously, via dreams and daydreams, as well as via exogenous means, since the invention of storytelling and extending through subsequent media technologies such as paintings, sculpture, theater, manuscripts, printed books, photography, radio, television, and now digital media, including immersive virtual reality technology. The latter enables researchers and others to perceptually envelop individuals via 3-D tracking, visualization, and audio technology. “We put people in the matrix,” we say.


To absolutely answer the question, “What is virtual reality?” presumes one knows what reality is, which no one seems to know for sure. But the question can be answered in a relative way; that is, contrasting virtual with what we call grounded reality. Pragmatically, nearly everyone considers the physical world as grounded, or “real.” Any other environment, whether created via a bedtime story, novel, cartoon, television, or game platforms such as Nintendo’s Wii, Sony’s Move, or Microsoft’s Kinect, is considered virtual reality. Hence, we conceptualize virtual reality in a relativistic way; that is, in contrast to what is considered grounded.

Palo Alto Post Office

Ask passersby what they see from the sidewalk across the street from the Palo Alto, California, post office, and they quickly answer, “A young boy with a fishing pole.” Ask people using mobile phones with whom they are speaking, and, if they’re not too engrossed in their conversations, they will often tell you without delay. These anecdotes illustrate the ease with which humans are immersed in social media-facilitated illusions they perceive as real, especially if they are unaware of, or not thinking about, how the visual, auditory, and other stimuli were created.

People’s awareness of the connections between their reported perceptions and the nature of the actual stimuli differ in an important way across the two illustrative situations. The youngster is really a trompe l’oeil illusion created by painter Greg Brown on the post office wall. Viewers are astonished when they confirm that fact close up. If pressed, most cellphone users will admit at least some awareness that they are not really speaking directly to another person in real time, but rather to a somewhat impoverished, digitally mediated, nearly synchronous representation of that person’s voice. In neither case does such awareness typically make any difference in people’s perceptions or behavior. In fact, the other “individual” involved — the boy or the mobile conversant — doesn’t even have to actually exist to socially influence the perceiver.

Merely availing people of so-called immersive technologies, even digital ones, doesn’t guarantee psychological immersion. How do scientists know when people’s minds are truly immersed psychologically in illusory or virtual reality? We can ask users to tell us how immersed they are, but such questions are disruptive to any actual immersion and users’ answers are not always veridical. We can record and study users’ movements in virtual reality, searching for naturalistic behaviors that indicate psychological immersion, but movements in virtual reality are sometimes constrained by space and tracking technology, and we don’t always know if such movements are automatic or consciously driven.


To begin solving this problem, Cade McCall, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and I conducted an experiment at the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We used a neurophysiological research paradigm that allowed us to inconspicuously track “where” (physical versus virtual world) participants’ minds were during their social interactions with avatars (online representations of others in near real time) in a technologically immersive virtual world.

People’s minds are affected by all sorts of external stimuli in grounded reality, including other people. Some of these effects reach people’s awareness, many more do not. But awareness is not required for a person to be affected by external stimuli. For example, there is a corpus of work on the effects of social stigma (e.g., race, ethnicity, physical deformity, socio-economic status, etc.) on interactions between stigmatized and nonstigmatized people. This work shows that social interactions between stigmatized and nonstigmatized people are threatening whether people consciously know it or not.


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