Actual, Mixed and Virtual Realities

Alphonse de Neuville or A. Jahandier. 'Interpretation of Robertson's Fantasmagorie' (detail) 1867 in F. Marion L'Optique 1867
Sasa0403. ‘Photos at teamlab planets tokyo’ 2020 CC BY-SA 4.0


Virtual Reality is often considered a recent development, which is dependent on digital technologies. But if it is defined as a ‘type of experience’ – viz. an experience of immersion in a ‘mediated environment, rather than in the immediate physical environment’ (Steuer) – then histories of virtual reality ‘can be traced back to (European and non-European) antiquity’, which has merely been ‘revived and expanded’ in the digital age (Grau).

In the course of these long histories, modern forms of virtual reality first appear in London in the late 18th and early 19th-century, where they are found in immersive entertainments, picturesque garden and landscape designs, Enlightenment schemes for managing the real; and Romantic literature, architecture, and art. It is arguably in these developments that modern forms of viewing and reading first emerge. Further, it is during this same period that ‘the virtual’ is understood, for the first time, as ‘the space of emergence of the new, the unthought, the unrealized’ (Grosz).

As all this suggests, the roles played by contemporary virtual realities are to a surprising degree anticipated and shaped by assumptions about the virtual, and by the relations between real and virtual/fictional worlds, that first emerge during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Rather than being superseded by digital technologies, this pre-history of modern virtual realities, and the longer European and non-European histories of which it is a part, are a crucial resource for understanding the present and, just as importantly, for shaping the futures of virtual reality.

Reference: Steuer, Jonathan. "Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence," in Journal of Communications 42(4), 1992, p. 76
Grau, Oliver. Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion (Leonardo Book Series). Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2004
Grosz, Elizabeth. Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2001, p. 78