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Virtual Reality
Apr 1, 1997

Nobody remembers the day on which he was born. As he gets to know himself, he learns from his immediate physical environment, as also from his family, from the other people around him, and from the events he experiences on his own. If he is born normal and sound, he sees and hears, smells and tastes, touches and feels. As he grows, he does some reasoning from and about his sense-experiences, and he begins to seek meaningfulness. He asks, as countless millions have before him, the basic questions: Who am I? How did I and the world come into being? What am I doing in it?

For every normal human being, there is awareness of himself and of a world outside. Through a learning process a child recognizes the existence of different types of colours and shapes around him. Example: there are some red apples which his mother has just washed and put on the table; he recognizes their likeness to the ball his father bought him to play with: the likeness is one of outward form, roundness and some degree of firmness or solidity. His sight and touch of the objects in question suffice for him to attain the general concepts of a colour called ‘red’ and a shape called ‘sphere’. But is there ‘red’ for a child who is blind? And if the blind child also has an impaired sense of touch, what is the meaning of ‘red’ or ‘round’ or ‘solid’? Few of us who do not ourselves suffer, or have direct contact with, such disability spend much time reflecting on its consequences for perception and understanding.

If the child in our example could understand what it means to be blind or to have impaired sense of touch, he would be inclined to ask: Is the red that I see inside or outside me? Is the roundness that I see and touch inside or outside me?

At school most of us are taught that a red apple is made of atoms which have neither the quality of redness nor of roundness. We are also learning from recent developments in studies of the brain that neither light nor sound reaches our brain: what the brain receives is certain electrical quantities produced by our eyes, ears or other senses. [1] It, the brain, then processes these electrical quantities into meaningful sense-impressions like colour and shape. If we stimulate the brain with an artificial electrical source, it soon becomes apparent that the brain cannot distinguish between a real or artificial stimulus. Using this technique we can make the brain ‘see’ wholly imaginary pictures which it processes and responds to as if they were wholly real. During brain surgery some patients can be excited by artificial impulses and ‘see’ quite unreal pictures (something like what we see in dreams) and even, having seen, giggle at them. To return to the child of whom we said, he sees red apples. What, in fact, does he see? What is the meaning of the reality of the red apples? Are they there outside him, or do his senses play a trick on him, or is the world presented to him in some other way?

Throughout history most scientists and philosophers have started from the assumption that space and time are absolutes, as defined by Aristotle [2] and formulized by Newton [3]. According to this assumption, the space we inhabit existed before us and will continue to exist after us, and time flows over and through it at a uniform rate. However, developments over the last hundred years, particularly Einstein’s relativity theory [4], have undermined that assumption. Time and space are not absolute; they exist with us, in part because we ourselves invest them with reality and meaning.

Now, with the latest developments in computer and multimedia technology, we are able to understand the relativity of time and space much better. We are able to make a human brain believe that it is experiencing the real world by exciting the five senses attached to it. The excitement to the brain is provided by a computer of the latest techniques of simulation and modelling can almost handle all five of our human senses. How is this done? And what are its implications?

It is done, essentially, by applying advanced forms of imaging familiar from 3D virtual reality games like DOOM and Heretic. In order to train F16 pilots, LCD-masks or helmets have been designed that show the pilot a three-dimensional picture of the aircraft such that, as he moves his head up and down, it feels to him as if he were really in the aircraft. With the addition of a perfect sound system and a seat that moves in sensitive accord to what is represented through the LCD-helmet, all the thrills and sensations of flying can be ‘experienced’ by the trainee pilot. [4,5]

A current PhD project in Manchester is experimenting with virtual reality imaging using a robot 40 miles away from the laboratory [6]. The robot’s ‘hand’ is equipped with sensors to read temperature, pressure and humidity. It is wired to send, via a fast communication net, the data it obtains to a glove worn by a technician/operator in the lab. The operator wearing the glove ‘feels’ what the robot ‘feels’. The system is communicative both ways: the operator can send commands to the robot and cause the robot ‘hand to move by moving the glove. Also, through two video cameras positioned in the robot’s ‘eyes’, the operator can see whatever the robot ‘sees’. So, when the operator wants to touch an object near the robot, he needs only to move the glove to the image of the object: this movement sends a command to the robot’s ‘hand’ which grabs the object. As before, the operator really feels the object as the robot-hand’s sensors pass on the relevant data in real time. Once the robot touched a hot object and the operator’s hand felt the burn.

This robot-hand, cameras and glove combination is being developed for medical applications. When the technique is perfected, it is hoped that a surgeon in Houston will be able to operate on a patient in St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester. In this research project there is a real robot obtaining and relaying data about a real patient or other real objects around the patient. The operator receives that data and the associated images and sensations thanks to a computer programme. But it is entirely possible for the computer programme to generate the data, images and sensations without reference to a real robot or real objects. In other words, if the computer sends to the glove temperature, pressure and humidity data (just as the robot ‘hand’ did), the operator wearing the glove will be none the wiser. He or she will operate as if there were a real robot at a certain location communicating real data through its real hand’. In fact, everything would be not real at all, but only ‘virtual’: the surgeon in Houston could thus be made to perform a life-saving operation in Manchester, to undergo all the tension and drama thereof, whereas in fact only a virtual life, not a real one, would be saved if the operation was successful.

In the Manchester research project, only the hand communicates a virtual world through the glove worn by the operator. Scientists are now studying the feasibility of extending the idea to a garment that would cover the whole body. Suppose that I put on such a garment, with the attached LCD-helmet and a perfect sound system, and go to a place (underwater, for example) where there is no gravitational force. Since every part of my body is covered by the garment, every part of it will feel the virtual world as generated and managed by the computer. For example, when the LCD-helmet shows me that there is a nail sticking up on the ground and I tread on it, the sensor worn under my foot will actually feel pain. I will start responding to and behaving in my virtual world as my helmet commands me to: any outsider seeing me underwater will think me crazy, as I will be making strange movements that make no sense. However, within the virtual world, all my movements are perfectly sensible and rational.

Let us now suppose two such garments. I wear one, and my friend the other. If the programmes running in our helmets communicate, we can speak to each other, even shake hands. Although I cannot really see my real friend underwater, I can, while wearing that special garment see him virtually, as my helmet shows him to me: the programme running in the helmet communicates to me what my friend is wearing and what he is saying and how, and the conditions and changes in our environment, etc. But the computer could also introduce me to other, imaginary friends in the helmet-run world. If it did so, it would not be easy for me to distinguish the real from the virtual beings. Actually, it would be impossible. Let us take the example further. Imagine a shepherd who is asleep on a mountainside near his flocks. Let us go to him and, without waking him up, dress him in that special garment. Then, let us simulate every person and object the shepherd has a relationship with in his real world of the sun, the mountains, his flocks, family, friends, and so on. Our programme starts by waking the shepherd up. When he wakes, he looks around and is seeing his flocks, the mountain side, the sun, etc. all virtually. Everything seems to him quite normal. In fact, of course, the flocks, the mountain-side, the sun, etc. have all been produced by our computer, the shepherd is nowhere near his flocks, he is in our underwater laboratory, wearing the special garment. And in that virtual world, he duly goes home, sees his virtual wife, and lives his life normally, as before. It is assumed that a normal brain stores at least 1018 bits and processes information at about 1015 bits per second [7].

This is how the shepherd"s brain can easily handle a time adjustment done by the programme running in the helmet. The shepherd, let us say, spends one our in the lab but thinks in his virtual world that he has lived a year. He truly believes he has aged whereas he has hardly been absent long enough for even his sheep to notice. We simply simulate a world for him, and if we do it well enough, he must think it real. He sees his sheep, touches them, smells the odour coming from them, hears them bleat, even tastes their milk — all virtually. He looks up and sees the sun simulated by the helmet and thinks it real. He sees the shadows of the trees shrink or lengthen and he thinks the sun makes them do so. As the programmers of the computer running in his helmet, we know that in fact the shadows of trees and the sun are drawn quite independently of each other, but the programme displays them according to the familiar cause-effect rules so that the shepherd will not be worried. Otherwise, if in designing the programme we had forgotten those familiar rules, if we had forgotten the sun-shadow relationship we are used to, the shepherd would start to think he was growing crazy, seeing trees without shadows, or shadows without trees, etc. Here, a particularly relevant Qur'anic verse (25.45) comes to mind: Have you not seen how your Lord spread the shadow — if He willed He could have made it still — thus We have made the sun its guide. The meaning of the verse is that as the sun rises towards midday, the shadow shrinks, then begins to lengthen again as the sun declines. Here, it leads us to affirm that the whole of our real world in all its complexity and fullness and actuality is created, not by itself, but by One hidden from it, outside of it and other than it.

As long as, in the shepherd"s virtual world, the virtual sun and the virtual shadows of trees are designed perfectly, the shepherd will believe that he is living in a real world. Of course we do not, perhaps cannot ever, design our simulation perfectly or completely — the shepherd"s body has its internal mechanisms and, to put it bluntly, the shepherd could not live very long on virtual food (the only kind we could supply him within the virtual world) even if we could make his brain believe that he had really eaten. If our shepherd said that the sun in his world created the shadows of the trees, causing them to shrink or lengthen, we would know for certain that the shepherd was wrong. Because we know that the trees and the sun are merely images drawn by our computer. The shepherd"s statement is as incorrect as if he had said the shadows created the sun or the mountians created his flocks of sheep. It is only the perfection of our designing into the programme the rules of light and shadow that lead the shepherd to believe that it is the sun that creates the shadow. We can make the shepherd understand the meaning of the light-and-shadow rules written into the programme by ordering the programme to stop generating shadows. Underwater, the shepherd has only the capability of willing. He can want something to happen or not happen according to the terms and within the limits of the computer programme. For example, if he wants to throw a stone at the mountain, he only wills it and the computer generates the necessary images and sensations: he thinks and feels as if he sees and picks up and then throws a stone.

Of course, he in fact only throws virtually: all he really does is to make some strange-looking movements underwater. Again, a verse of the Qur'an (8.17) comes to mind for its striking relevance to our discussion: You killed them not, but God killed them. And you threw them not when you did throw, but God threw — that He might test the believers by a fair trial from Him. Surely God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. While the shepherd is still under the control of our programme, let us apply a test to him. Let us design a virtual person and send him into the shepherd"s virtual world with this mission: to explain to the shepherd that he is not really living his real life now but, instead, living a virtual life in a laboratory; that the programmer who designed the virtual world he is living in desires him to conduct his life according to certain rules — for example, the shepherd must not commit any crimes such as theft — and if he transgresses these rules, he will be punished directly there and then or, after the programme is stopped, at the discretion of the programmer. Clearly. it would be a major mistake on the shepherd"s part to deny the virtual messenger we have sent to him: if he denies the possibility of any such event as the whole programme terminating, or denies the existence of a programmer who could or would take him to task for transgressing the programmers rules, none could rescue the shepherd from any punishment we may decide for him. We may have powerful, irresistible guards obedient to our commands, ready to lay hold of the shepherd, should we command it. Or we might so amend the programme that the virtual sun will not rise on another virtual morning, and the shepherd is left in the darkness of a perpetual virtual night.

It is reasonable to imagine that, after the programme is shut down, we can explain and demonstrate to the shepherd that he has been living in a virtual world which we projected for him. Then, no doubt, he would accept that the virtual messenger we sent to him was telling him nothing except the truth, that, behind the virtual world that seemed so real to him, there really was a programmer with a will who could, at his choice, invite or compel the shepherd"s obedience. Finally, two verses from the Qur'an (6.71; 2.28) which show that our speculations on virtual reality have led us to the conclusion that our experiences of the reality of this real world are not so different from the shepherd"s in the virtual world underwater: Say: "Tell me, if God made night perpetual for you until the Day of Resurrection, who is a god beside God who could bring you light? Will you not then pay heed? How can you reject faith in God? Seeing that you were without life and He gave you life; then He will cause you to die and will bring you again to life; and to Him you will return?


  1. The Brain Tumor Foundation of Canada.
  2. Aristotle, METAPHYSICS, 350 BC, translated by W. D. Ross,—hawk/aristotle.html
  3. Isaac Newton, Mathematicians/Newton.html
  4. The Virtual Reality Store, main.htm
  5. Information about 3D-MAX,
  6. Kocak, Osman Ph.D Project, 1996, Salford University.
  7. Adam, J. A., Bert Kasko., IEEE Spectrum, February 1996.