This weekend I finished the new book Infinite Reality (William Morrow, 2011), by Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson. Infinite Reality , subtitled "Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution," examines how digital technologies will "free the potential of the mind and change our understanding of what it means to be human." Blascovich and Bailenson go into the science behind what makes virtual environments so compelling and powerful.
As someone who has been working in the field of virtual worlds for several years, I feel fairly well-versed in the main arguments for why virtual technology is so revolutionary. What Blascovich and Bailenson bring that is new to the table is their understanding of how simulated 3D environments and avatars interact with our minds in ways that go well beyond other communications media. In their estimation, these virtual tools will change the nature of business, romance, education, and entertainment in ways we are just starting to understand.
This is so not just because the technology is getting better, faster and more widely distributed (i.e. the Microsoft Kinect, 3D without glasses, etc). But more fundamentally, virtual environments key into how we are hard-wired to interact with the world : through our bodies -- our kinesthetic sense of our environment --combined with what we see and hear around us. When we are fully enveloped, immersed in stimula, created by these digital tools, we react to them as real. A simulated fall off of a cliff engenders essentially the same autonomic fear response as an actual fall. The same can be said of falling in love (or lust) online.
Infinite Reality presents a wide range of scientific research in this area, but in a way that is accessible and enjoyable for a lay audience. An ideal introduction for someone curious about virtual worlds but not sure why they are so important. Head to their website for more, and get your copy on Amazon here.
[Full disclosure: I was provided with a free copy for producing a virtual book talk with Jeremy Bailenson a couple of weeks ago.]