Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Selfhood and video collaboration

The sense of being outside of one's physical body (an out-of-body experience) has generally fallen within the realms of neurological dysfunction, either organic or pharmacologically aided, or of paranormal phenomena. The advent of virtual reality has offered a noninvasive and reproducible approach to inducing out-of-body experiences in normal subjects. Head-mounted displays were used to demonstrate that subjects would reliably report the sensation of inhabiting a virtual body, from which vantage point they would be looking at themselves. In addition, they reacted autonomically in response to harm directed at their virtual body and displaced their bodily sense of self toward their doppelganger and away from their physical body.

Fourteen years ago I had the opportunity to experience most virtual reality (VR) systems developed by various companies here in the Silicon Valley. The displays in the goggles or helmets were very crude, with low resolution and washed out colors. The refresh rate was very low and lagged behind my motions by a second or so. Finally, the machines running the models were able to compute only primitive scenes. The result was that the systems made me sick and I had to get out.

I also had the chance to try out the system in Canon's Artlab in Roppongi, which was using an SGI Reality Engine for each eye and a third system to manage the model. It still took me a while to get used and I had to grab for the handrail.

So much for 1993.

Today, one of HP's most spectacular products is the Halo Collaboration Studio, also called HP's Time Machine by the marketing people. The key feature is that it creates an illusion of telepresence by mirroring the two studios. Because travel has become so painful and concomitantly companies have slashed travel budgets, there is a strong demand for high quality video collaboration systems.

Where are we today? VR systems have gotten so good that they can be used to create out-of-body experiences. Science magazine of 24 August 2007 has two articles and a perspective on the state of current research. The illusory self-localization to a position outside one's body shows that bodily self-consciousness and selfhood can be dissociated from one's physical body position.

However, we are still far from teleporting our selfhood across the Internet.