Kim J. Trull
University of Houston--Clear Lake
The late physicist Erwin Schrodinger described the cat in a now famous thought experiment designed to demonstrate the absurdity of quantum reality. The thought experiment, referred to as "Schrodinger's cat," is now believed to represent something much more profound: we are experientially unprepared to deal with the dynamics of quantum reality. The discordance between quantum reality and "macroreality" is so stark and disconcerting that many physicists have refused to accept it in the face of overwhelming evidence. Schrodinger himself stated, "I don't like it, and I'm sorry I ever had anything to do with it." Albert Einstein generated the famous quote, "God does not play dice with the universe." Niels Bohr captured these feelings with, "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it."
Schrodinger's cat is a wonderful example of a transreal experience. Transreal experiences -- experiences across realities -- serve to conflict with, punctuate, or distort our understanding of our perceptions. The quantum cat is quite obviously an example of transreal conflict, a scarce phenomenon since experience with alternative realities has, to date, been limited. But what of a world where access to radically different realities is commonplace? How will transreal technology be used to augment "real" reality and what are the societal, psychological, and philosophical implications? How will transreal experiences alter our understanding of existence, knowledge, perception, and of course, reality?
The air in the park smelled sweet -- Santiago found it hard to believe that it was merely an olfactory sensation created by the computer and fed through the helmet of his transreality bodysuit. As he pondered this marvel, he glanced down at his hand... "Esteban! I'm a cat!" Santiago exclaimed to his unseen trainer.
"Yes," replied a disembodied voice. "The last user was running simulations on quantum physics. Your simulation isn't loaded yet, so I left that one running."
"Great! I've never been a cat before."
Suddenly, Santiago panicked. His vision doubled as his virtual paws began to vanish and reappear alternately -- as if the program wasn't sure if he was there or not.
"I'm not just any cat -- I'm a quantum cat!"
Click! Click! A low sound came from behind, as if someone had tossed pebbles on a sidewalk. Santiago turned. A stately, white-haired man sat facing away from him, vigorously shaking something in his hands and then tossing it onto a nearby stone table. Dice!
Santiago's paws reappeared and he crept forward. The dice fell again, and his body disappeared. Click! Click! And it reappeared, although it did not seem as solid as before.
The man turned and gazed upon Santiago. Santiago's vision cleared and his paws returned to a comfortable opaqueness.
"Ah, yes! The cat," replied the old man. "Nice to SEE you again," he said with a giggle.
"This is the quantum world, my friend. Everything here exists only as probabilities," his grin widened. "You are but a roll of the dice until I look upon you. You owe neither life nor death to me, for here each are but mere probabilities. Your precious existence requires some gratitude, though, for without a kindly glance cast in your direction, your atoms would just as soon remain undecided. An observation to take the dice out of your diet, if you will."
"How can I exist, yet not exist? Dice out of my diet? I'm not sure that I understand..."
"Santiago," the tone of the man's voice changed as he spoke. "Your simulation is loaded and will begin immediately. This one is now over."
"But Esteban..." Santiago sighed as one reality suddenly faded into the weightlessness of low-earth orbit.
The "zero-g" experience is as remarkable as it is alien. As organisms evolved to exist in a gravity-based environment, nothing in our Earth-bound experience has prepared us for the airless freefall of space. This is not to suggest that efforts to simulate zero-g on Earth are non-existent -- astronaut training, for example, averages thousands of dollars per hour utilizing a large water tank or WETF (weightless environment training facility) and KC-135s simulating weightlessness during parabolic flights. These simulations, however, have serious limitations: the WETF simulates the weightlessness, but not the physics (water, unlike space, is a rather thick medium); and the KC-135s provide a maximum of 30 seconds of zero-g at a time. Hence, long-term zero-g simulation -- the kind astronauts will ideally need in order to prepare for space station assembly -- is unavailable here on Earth.
Can long-duration, authentic zero-g simulation exist on Earth? The variables involved in creating such simulations are threefold: (1) time, (2) weightlessness, and (3) physics. Drop towers (free-falling elevators) and parabolic flights provide the weightlessness and physics, but are grossly lacking in duration. The WETF provides an effective long-duration weightless environment, but fails to effectively simulate the physics. Transreal technology could potentially provide effective long-duration simulations which accurately depict the physics of a true, zero-g environment. It would, however, fail to overcome the conflicting stimuli which remind the user that he or she is not 150 miles above the Earth, but rather on the Earth, both feet planted, wearing a rather unwieldy VR system.
This type of transreal experience occurs when sensory faculties perceive stimuli which are out of alignment; for example, I perceive that I am floating above the Earth visually, aurally, etc., but the tactile sensors in my feet record a pressure consistent with standing upright. Transreal experiences like this certainly challenge our abilities to adapt and innovate our mental models of the way reality works, but in the case of creating simulations, such conflicts need to be suppressed. Reality is, afterall, no more than consistency. Consistency of the senses. Consistency of our memories. And, consistency between our memories and our senses. It is when inconsistencies arise that reality becomes less real -- or, more properly, less familiar. Thus, an effective, long-term zero-g experience will require either the elimination of gravity, or, more likely, the elimination of the sensation of gravity.
A pen floated free of a pocket. Santiago reached for it, lost control, and flew against the wall of lockers. Unfamiliar to the absence of gravity, he had exerted too much force in his reach.
"Almost time to dock with the station," Esteban reminded him.
"On my way." Santiago pushed from a locker and flew through the narrow craft, marvelling at the simulated experience. Reaching a control panel, he struggled to get his feet into supporting straps, and looked out a nearby window. A cloud-streaked Earth seemed to fill Santiago's vision. A dark blot appeared on the distant curve of the globe as the space station came into view. Meanwhile, 3-dimensional holograms of both his spacecraft and the station appeared, orbiting above the control panel. Santiago removed a pair of gloves from a drawer and pulled them over his hands and connected their trailing wires to sockets on the control panel. He flexed his fingers and the sensors lining the gloves sent test patterns to the control panel, which beeped at Santiago, signalling that the gloves were working properly.
Reaching his hands into the holographic display, Santiago grabbed the miniature spacecraft with a gentle hand. He felt it -- like a solid model held between his fingers. Gently, he turned the craft, aligning its airlock with a docking port on one side of the space station. Santiago felt the motion of the spacecraft under his feet, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the Earth move out of sight. Satisfied that the alignment was correct, he brought the holographic craft closer to the miniature station. Carefully, he brought them together until he felt a click! The two had met. With a sigh, Santiago released the model spacecraft and withdrew his hands. He'd done it. He had successfully docked his craft to an orbiting station.
"Very good!" Esteban almost sang. "One of your best docking maneuvers."
"What was the deviation from target dock lock-on? Was it less than 5 degrees?" Santiago asked.
A moment of silence. "Roger, that," said Esteban, "3.5 degrees. Outstanding!"
"Whew! I have never docked in zero-g before. It was nothing like the simulations at the academy." "They didn't have SDTs (sensory deprivation tanks) at the academy, Santiago."
Santiago leaned back and caught sight of the Earth below. He turned and focused on the spiraling whiteness named "Marie," just a few hundred miles from his hometown. Was his family safe? Did they go to a shelter? His thoughts raced.
Thoughts are interesting phenomena. They are personal in the sense that we generate them, but they often remind us that they retain an air of independence -- a dream in which we have no control or, perhaps the solution to a difficult problem magically suggesting itself long after we have ceased thinking about it. Thoughts instill us with the confidence that we know and understand reality on one level, and yet remind us that they are, themselves, no more than the thought-assisted translations of stimuli past. Ultimately, our knowledge and perception of reality exist as intimate threads within that same metaphysical fabric.
This realization suggests that transreal technology represents more than a new development in simulation or entertainment; it suggests an extension of our already active role in the construction of reality. Presently, the "objective" stimuli perceived by our senses impose a syntax on our translations of what reality means. Transreal technology, however, permits the construction of environments in which the stimuli are, in principle, completely controllable by the perceiver -- as in the pre-Copernican universe, reality, once again, revolves around the person. The epistemological and ontological questions of old re-emerge: what is reality? what can we know of it? what is our place in it? Questions argued in the abstract for thousands of years become the object of controlled, empirical enquiry. Transreal technology, as result, will represent the first, true empirical medium for studying the fundamental epistemological and ontological questions of reality and our roles within it.
What answers lie within the transreal experience? Perhaps we will discover the neutral, deterministic universe of Newton: clean, objective, and mechanical. Or, perhaps, we will again discover our quantum cat lounging about in his probabilistic world, watching the dice, and anxiously waiting to be perceived. Regardless, reality will no longer be self-evidently real, perception no longer self-evidently accurate. Transreal experiences will likely not provide all the answers, but they will provide the most experientially challenging and intellectually enlightening phenomena ever encountered by human beings -- they might very well lead the greatest ontological and epistemological revolutions since Copernicus and Darwin.
Santiago watched as the moon disappeared behind the horizon, travelling its perfectly circular orbit around the Earth.
He stood on the edge of a virtual cliff. The Earth revolving below and nothing but a sheer, empty drop between it and the spacecraft in which he stood. In a moment of panic mixed with excitement, he hesitated. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and stepped out...
But there was no fall. At least not the fiery plummet towards Earth that his brain had envisioned in its panic. Instead, he felt the gentle pull of Earth's gravity on his body, pulling him as he floated from the spacecraft, taking him into an orbit like a tiny, human moon.
With a deep sigh, Santiago relaxed and felt along the arm of his maneuvering unit. He pressed a button on one side and turned away from the Earth. Now he saw a seemingly endless space, broken only by the bright glare of sunlight bouncing off of the malfunctioning remote sensing satellite. He moved closer.
Suddenly, the satellite vanished! A loud roar boomed somewhere nearby and Santiago spun around. No Earth! Nothing! Only blackness. Total darkness.
"Esteban!" he screamed. "What's happening?"
Esteban didn't answer.
Alice Grumann sat up and removed the helmet of her transreality suit. She shook her head to free it from the heavy, hazy cobwebs that seemed to fill it. The room remained dark around her with only a faint glow entering through the window. She eased her legs over the edge of the sensory deprivation tank and stood.
"Oh, Esteban!" she murmured, laying a hand on the computer sitting nearby. "I hope the power outage didn't hurt you."
Distant thunder and the soft tapping of rainfall on the window. Alice sighed and pulled a blanket from her bed. Wrapping it about her, she walked over and stared out the window. She put a hand on the glass, half thinking to reach through and calm the trees swaying in the garden. The cool pane of the window stopped her hand. Indifferent, raindrops continued their steady drum against the glass.
Kim J. Trull is an Academic Computing Laboratory Supervisor at the University of Houston--Clear Lake. She is completing her M.S. in Studies of the Future at the University of Houston--Clear Lake.