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JISC 3D Visualisation in the Arts Network

3DVisA Bulletin, Issue 3, September 2007

ISSN 1751-8962 (Print)
ISSN 1751-8970 (Online)

3DVisA DISCUSSION FORUM: ILLUSIONS OF VIRTUAL REALITY
by Hanna Buczynska-Garewicz, Professor Emerita, Holy Cross College, Worcester, MA, USA.

Keywords: time, space, illusion, virtual reality, phenomenology.

Time and Space

The experience of a moment of time or of a fragment of space is essentially an act of understanding in the human sense. Our temporal and spatial experience is never simply given as a pure sensual perception (vision, touch, sound, etc.), but its sensual aspect is always dominated by intellectual and emotional meanings. In other words, the sensual is conveying the spiritual. Moreover, in our perception of the time past (a historical event such as the Battle of Waterloo) or of the remnants of the place which no longer exists (e.g. the ruins of Forum Romanum) a sort of imagination or empathy is frequently at work. We see and feel more than that which is really present: in a magical way, due to the ability of emphatic understanding the non-present is presencing itself as well. This presencing of the non-present is originated by an observer, never by the physical thing itself. The purely physical space as a point on the map is spiritually empty. Without our 'colouring' by the emphatic historical understanding it has no spiritual content at all. The greatest pleasure of travel in territories with a long and rich history consists of the emphatic insights into something which is physically absent and can be experienced only due to our spiritual ability. Empathy brings back, i.e. is presencing, something absent.

Such a nature of human experience of time and space must be taken under consideration when questions regarding virtual reality are asked. The new technologies of computer simulation and the use of 3D visualisation help us to recreate the past of places lost. Thus the illusion is born that the computer can 'visualise the invisible'. Can it really? Or, more precisely, what can be visualised and what cannot, and what are the limitations of 3D from the point of view of human experience of time and space? Here are some sceptical notions regarding the utilisation of 3D visualisation.

There is a lot of enthusiasm about this technology and a sort of cult is spreading. Certainly, the achievements are impressive. And the computer modelling will get better. However, I am not interested in the technology of 3D. Basic philosophical problems concerning virtual reconstruction cannot be overcome and solved through technical improvements. My doubting deals with the devastation of human historical experience which is brought by this new visualisation. Yes, devastation. A visit to the ruins of Forum Romanum and the emphatic experience of the real place (now only ruins) is cognitively and emotionally more fruitful than the vision of the possibly best computer model of the presumably 'original and past' shape of the place. The virtual reality constituted by computer pretends to be 'the reality as it truly was'. Of course, it is not and it cannot be. It is only such as we can imagine it and with all the new tools we cannot make it a 'true objectivity'. So, illusion replaces reality. I have two, closely related, objections to the numerous abuses (not use, but abuse) of the 3D visualisations of cultural historical heritage. One is against the pretentious claim that the model is (or can be) a faithful and complete copy of a no longer existing reality. The second speaks about the impoverishment of human experience of time and space by an attempt to 'visualise the invisible'. Here is a brief explication.

The Spiritual Value of Ruins

It was Romanticism which promoted the cult of ruins. It discovered the creative inspiration originated by the incompleteness of ancient places. Incompleteness and uncertainty constitute a positive environment for the work of imagination and spiritual, poetic creation. This romantic teaching is worthwhile to be recalled when we discuss the value of modern, computer-generated reality of ancient places. Those are two radically opposed approaches. Someone who romantically enjoys the ruins is from the beginning aware of the fragmentation: ruins are only parts and the totality (they belonged to) is not and never can be given to us, because it is lost. So, to see a ruin as a ruin means to presume necessarily an unknown totality. And the understanding of this partiality is an important experience from which a work of imagination and interpretation starts. In other words, the fragmentality of a ruin has a stimulating power for the human mind. It invites us to an active fulfilling of many gaps between that which still survives and is seen, and that which is lost and invisible. Moreover, it shows that every interpretative fulfilment is only hypothetical and uncertain, so that the other interpretations can be also meaningful, because an absolute reconstruction is not possible: it is only an interpretation. Invisible cannot be replaced by visible; it can be brought back only by interpretative imagination. The sensual (visible) and the spiritual coexist in a complementary way and the game between them constitutes the area for creativity. And whatever is the result of this creativity is not real and never pretends to be such. It is obvious that a poetic vision is different from any physical or material reality, not only from the presently fragmented ruin, but also from what it was in the past. No confusion between real and 'virtual' (created) can happen. Imaginary does not claim reality but finds its own appreciation.

All these are different in the case of 3D visualisation of cultural historical artefacts and monuments. New approach intends to recreate a monument through reconstruction of parts which are missed or destroyed. Re-create stays in opposition to interpret or to understand. In terms of romantic enjoyment of ruins it means to replace the still real ruin by a newly constructed product. This product is supposed to be 'better' than the surviving original fragment (a ruin) because of it offers a totality, which leaves no uncertainty. There are two hidden presumptions taken for granted in recreation of historic spaces. First, that the totality has a higher value than a fragment. And second, that certainty with no gap left for doubt is needed and welcome. I cannot discuss here the invalidity of these presumptions, it would be too long. My purpose is only to emphasize the difference between the romantic and the 3D visualisation approaches.

Moreover, I am not even claiming that one approach is better than another. However looking at them together helps to see more clearly what we gain and what we loose with the new technological progress. The gains are frequently mentioned, so I am not going to speak about them, but my main concern is with the disadvantages of computer modelling.

Historical Reality

3D visualisation pretends to recreate historical spaces. The project Cerveteri Reborn speaks about 'making a virtual entity believable and perceived as objective'. In other words, it intends to present its own creation (computer model), which is only an interpretation, as a 'true reality'. This is a false claim. It constitutes an illusion that the past in its totality can be brought back, that the invisible the no longer present past can become again present and alive due to visualisation; that it can be 'reborn' technologically. A model is presented 'as if' the real Cerveteri. But its reality is only the reality of a computer product which tries to copy something unknown and hidden: the totality is recreated by fulfilling the missing parts of the existing ruin. And this is the sense of 'virtual reality'. Virtual but not real. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the attempts to reconstruct. But false and illusive is the claim that reconstruction can replace the real reality, that Cerveteri can be 'reborn'. There are at least two main arguments here. Technological tools are mediating in the process and they make all the process of recreation only a case of interpretation, i.e. one of many possible presentations, not certain and not absolute. 'Reborn Cerveteri' is a product of computer technology, never a real Cerveteri. Second, the space of human culture is not only a purely physical phenomenon, but this is a lived space with all its spiritual (cognitive and emotional) meanings and this aspect of it is missed in the 'reborn Cerveteri'. So, 'reborn Cerveteri' is never identical with the past one, which is lost for ever. Computer modelling of historical places is only an interpretation of them, as a romantic poet was interpreting a place, finding inspiration in the ruins. Certainly, it is a very different interpretation, but it has no right to the claim of being a real lost place. There is no ground to believe that the new construction is the real thing, while it is only 'as if' real. So, there is a dangerous illusion created by 3D visualisation. The illusion that the invisible (spiritual) can be visualised.

The illusion of historical reality embodied in a virtual reconstruction brings us to the second main disadvantage of visualisations of cultural heritage. The romantic poet was individually inspired by the ruins. The potential interpretative stimulation of ruins was rich and diversified (as rich is the scope of romantic poetry). It was possible because the ruins have many points of indeterminacy and they open a broad area for different complementary interpretations. That is why their impact on the creative imagination could be so fruitful and productive as it was. Now, this is lost with the 3D visualisation. Its goal is to reconstruct the parts which are missing, to replace the incomplete fragments by a new virtual totality. So, 3D eliminates the incompleteness of ruins. A fragment becomes a basis for a complex digital reconstruction. What was done before by our individual imagination and emphatic understanding, what could be a product of an individual mind, becomes presently given to us as ready made by the computer and identical for everybody. The use of computer substitutes our individual spiritual activity and work. This digital reconstruction negates and annihilates many aspects of the lived time and space. No room is left for an individual live emphatic experience, and the past becomes really lost and hidden behind the modern computer products. We are no longer participating in long-lasting human experience, because each past time becomes reinterpreted in our present terms (presented as a technological product). The term 'reborn' kills the every possible distance between the present and the past. Subsequently, the participation in a tradition is replaced by passive external observation of a digitally remade past. The digital reconstruction does not mean bringing closer to us the historical space but, by eliminating a distance between the past and the present, means annihilating the past. The past as such can be experienced only as alien and distant from now, or there is no past at all. Physically completed the Forum Romanum would become a dead part of modernity rather than a live past of our human predecessors. The spiritual acts of emphatic understanding can never be achieved by our eyes the invisible cannot be translated fully into the visible; such a replacement would only lead to destruction of the human mind.

So, 3D visualisation is practically useful because it simplifies the past, but it brings with itself also some cultural dangers.

Experience of Time and Space

In contemporary philosophy it was the school of phenomenology Husserl and Heidegger who elucidated the sense of lived time and space as different from, but not contradictory to, physical concepts. Their analyses of conceptual problems of modernity are as well very helpful for understanding some present, postmodern, questions. The rich and broad phenomenological analysis of diversified plurality of human acts of mind, in which space and time experience is given, provides good lenses to see many problems related to computer science. And for 3D visualisation of the past the works of Dilthey and his notions on historical understanding and empathy may be very helpful. Phenomenology has the theoretical tools to put the sense of virtual reality in a broader perspective.

© 3DVisA and Hanna Buczynska-Garewicz, 2007.

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