Blending reality: putting virtual technologies into practice
Over the past two years, my friends (you know who you are!) have listened to me as I tangled with, obsessed over, and written about the phenomenon of “blended reality” for two reports on innovative work in that area being done at Yale. I thought that some of my readers might be interested in learning about everything from the potential for using virtual reality to teach anatomy to medical students, to how acoustics can be used to test materials for 3D printing. So here is a slightly tweaked version of my introductory essay for this past year’s report; the link to the full document is in the final paragraph.
The introduction of the telephone in the 1870s was not greeted with universal enthusiasm; responses ranged from awe and excitement to confusion and terror. A disembodied voice emerging from a wire was spooky, and who knew whether actual ghosts might be lurking in the lines? There was concern that telephones might be dangerous, drawing lightning in thunderstorms, and zapping everyday users and innocent bystanders with electrical shocks. As late as 1933, a New Yorker article noted that people were intrigued by the ingeniousness of the devices but “no more thought of getting one of their own than the average man now thinks of getting on an airplane.”
And besides, what was the point of the contraption? A high-ranking official at Western Union, the telegraph company, declared the device “practically worthless,” and a 1907 New York Times essay warned that: “The general use of the telephone, instead of promoting civility and courtesy, is the means of the fast dying out of what little we have left.”
Nearly a century and a half later, we wrangle with similar concerns about our latest technological innovations. What is this thing? What can it do? What can it not do? What should we do with it? How might it change the ways we live, work, learn, and play? Will it enhance or detract from our lives?
During 2017–18, teams of students and faculty at Yale University applied these questions to mixed, or “blended” reality — applications and experience that explore the intersections of the physical and the virtual environments. The teams worked on projects that included integrating virtual reality technologies into the study of anatomy — both botanical and human; exploring the possible applications of immersive technologies to music-making; and rethinking the ways that bodies can function in virtual spaces.
As you will read in the following pages, most of the projects are, by design, in process. Blended reality is not simply a medium, but a field of ongoing and rapid transformation. What is learned from all the projects will offer valuable insights as we continue to embrace, refine, and challenge these technologies.
© Rhea Hirshman 2019