I saw a billboard the other day. It was an advertisement for real estate services, the kind which usually goes unnoticed, but a misreading of the text caused this particular billboard to stand out. What had at first glance appeared to be a subtle call to action—one of unimaginable existential depth—was merely a marketing tagline whose value extended no further than its surface: Explore realty. Even after catching my error, I couldn’t shake the misreading from my brain.
Coincidentally, predictions about virtual reality transforming the real estate market have been a topic of much discussion in the media over the last long while. Agents are increasingly moving toward a model of taking clients on virtual tours of properties as opposed to physical visitation, removing restraints that time and space insert into the real estate hunt. Prospective buyers can walk through—virtually speaking—properties in other parts of their country, or on the other side of the world. This also opens the door for agents to give remote tours of proposed and unfinished properties to their clients; tour a living space that doesn’t actually exist—yet.
Virtual reality is something we understand through its relationship to reality. If you look up a definition of reality you will find phrases such as: the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them; having existence or substance; or something that is actually experienced or seen. The problem with these types of definitions, and the problem with talking about reality in general, is that it is entirely subjective. How can the existence of something be given objective status when all diagnostic methods require that an individual mind takes in data through sensory inputs, then stores and catalogues this data into memory? No matter how scientific or sterile a test environment you create, you are always reliant on faith in faulty systems. Your senses can be tricked and your memory is biased. Even in trying to relay or report on so-called objective findings, language itself creates barriers, limitations, and all manners of interpretation. And yet, much of what we accept as reality are things that we ourselves have never actually experienced first-hand; we take the words of others as proof of historical events unlived and destinations untraveled.
It’s not outrageous to imagine that technology will one day reach the point in which a virtual visit to a remote space is able to satisfy all aspects of the sensory experience. After the immediate event ends, that moment exists within the memory of the visitor, much like the non-virtual moment does. When recalling the memory or relaying its various aspects to someone else, is there a difference? The recollection of the complete sensory virtual event may be indistinguishable from its non-virtual counterpart. Does it even matter?
If someone visits a virtual space which feels to them wholly convincing and authentic, does it not fulfill its reality? Will that memory be any less vivid than the memory you will have of the room you are in right now? If the resultant memory is just as emotionally communicative in all respects, has one stepped outside of reality? Should that particular memory exist separate from all others—disconnected from all physical spaces encountered—or is it equally valid?
We take it as fact that history exists, and though we cannot recall future events in our memory as we do with past, there is general consensus that future events will also exist as a reality in our linear understanding of time. Although one could virtually visit a space that does not exist during their own lifetime, it’s impossible to conclude definitively that it has never or will never exist, as an authentic object or an exacting replica of it. Considering our observable universe—one which science suggests and most agree, is very much a part of our reality, or alternately we are a part of its reality—probabilistically, if you were to search all possible spaces on all possible planets orbiting all possible stars in all possible galaxies, that space is quite likely to exist at one point in time or another. It is, was, or will be a non-virtual reality.
Technology stretches and distorts the parameters of reality beyond what would have been considered “real” in previous eras. Dialogues, relationships, and experiences can unfold entirely online, in cyberspace. Connections may be human to human, human to bot, bot to bot; deciphering the true nature of individuals in any connection can often prove difficult, and perhaps unnecessary. The reality of the connection may differ on each end, but the feelings and memories experienced from the situation cannot be classified as unreal just because they are conducted electronically instead of physically. Rather, technology has given us increased awareness of the elasticity of reality and difficulties associated with pinpointing its properties.
Attempts to classify reality as a universally objective truth are misguided. Reality is fluid. Reality is subjective. Reality is impossible to grasp. Far from being universal, reality is deeply and incomprehensibly personal.