Real World and Virtual World

*This article was published in contribution to the new frontier of Intelligent Reality (IR). Click here to learn more about the 2022 IEEE 2nd International Conference on Intelligent Reality (ICIR).

You might think it would be easy to separate the real world and the virtual world, but it is an increasingly blurry distinction. As computers and software have permeated our society, the line between bits and atoms has become very blurred. A smartphone seems like a very real device, but without the software to make it function, it’s useless. Similarly, some physical products, like newspapers, maps, CDs and video tapes, have been replaced with purely digital playlists and links. Traditional communication, from postcards to letters and phone calls, has largely been superseded by social media. The atoms have been replaced by bits.

Using virtual reality, we can create an entire virtual world to explore. Using augmented reality, we can overlay the virtual world on top of physical reality. Any virtual environment, whether used in VR or AR, can create its own reality, regardless of the actuality of the physical world. As the concept of the metaverse evolves, we may find that the distinction between real life and virtual life becomes as blurred as the line between bits and atoms. Early attempts at virtual worlds, like Second Life, are easy to make fun of, but they may well prove to be the neolithic ancestors of future virtual worlds used by billions.

Differences between the real world and virtual world

The lines of delineation between the real world and the virtual world used to be very clear. No one playing Pong in the 1970s thought they were actually playing tennis. When video games made the transition to 3D with groundbreaking titles like DOOM, no one was fooled into thinking they were really on an alien world battling monsters. Even today, the most compelling virtual reality simulations can be very convincing, but no-one forgets they are in VR.

Similarly, for most of human history, the devices and substance of the world around us was simple, and largely mechanical in nature. A car had an internal combustion engine and mechanical controls, a thoroughly physical and real combination. There was no hidden “brain” making our devices function. But now, much of the real world relies on physical properties that are augmented by digital elements, such as embedded software or connected web services. A car’s engine is most likely controlled by a microprocessor, controls may be fly-by-wire, and the days of the internal combustion engine are clearly numbered. Even something as obviously physical as a car has become something that cannot function without an array of virtual components.

The question of what are the core differences between the virtual world and the real world is no longer easy to answer. You might argue that the real world is persistent, but so are many virtual worlds. You might argue that you can touch the real world, but virtual worlds offer haptics. You might claim that the real world contains people and social interactions. But you can certainly engage in social behavior in the virtual world just as readily as in the real world. And some virtual worlds are home to millions of people at a time.

In the case of augmented reality and mixed reality, both act as an expansion to the real world, potentially adding new functionality to the physical world. If virtual objects exist in a real location, they effectively become an extension of the real world, especially if their purpose is to add a new feature to the physical world. Virtual content in the form of AR technology can easily provide a control interface for a complex machine. This is an increasingly common use case for a simple reason: physical interfaces are fixed, and relatively expensive. A virtual interface can easily be updated and changed on the fly, sometimes even by the user. Once the software framework is in place, such updates and modifications are almost free.

In some ways, virtual reality technology provides the opportunity to actually control reality. There are things you can do with a VR device that just cannot happen in physical reality. For example, there is no easy and safe way to run a combustion engine with its internals fully exposed in reality, but in VR it’s easy. You can even stick your head inside the engine as it runs. Similarly, virtual content can explore any inaccessible space that can be simulated, from sub-atomic scales to the size of the entire universe.

While the connection of the real world and the virtual world offers many advantages, it also has its challenges. Complex systems tend to be more fragile. Many mechanics will grumble that older cars are much easier to work on because they don’t rely so heavily on computerized systems. When your device or experience relies on countless lines of code executing flawlessly, there is a greater risk of failure. The simple truth is that ancient civilizations made buildings that have lasted for millenia, and we have yet to create a smartphone with more than a three to five year lifespan. Another significant concern is the acceleration of the digital divide. As devices become more complex, integrating the real and the virtual, they increasingly rely on foundational infrastructure that not everyone will have access to. Millions of people in the world barely have access to water and electricity, nevermind broadband internet and edge computing. There are also many unanswered questions about accessibility and education, and ensuring that everyone has ready access to the future as it arrives.

Current uses for the virtual world in the real world

When we talk about the virtual world it is easy to get caught up in the hype of the metaverse. We are still a long way from the experiences depicted in movies like “Ready, Player One”. However, whether we are talking about virtual reality, mixed reality or augmented reality, there are a range of current uses in both the consumer and business world.

For consumers, most current uses revolve around social interaction and games. Social media already made the transition to virtual reality through platforms such as Altspace VR, Horizon Worlds and others. Many games now offer a virtual reality experience too. The latest generation of affordable VR devices was partly inspired by the Oculus Rift, but there are now a number of competing VR platforms that deliver credible immersive experiences.

In some ways, augmented reality is lagging behind virtual reality. There are no low-cost, widely available AR headsets with growing user bases. However, augmented reality has found a home on the smartphone. Games like Pokemon Go, and entertainment apps like SnapChat, have introduced augmented reality to hundreds of millions of people. While many would argue that the smartphone is not a great platform for augmented reality, it’s a simple fact that far more people have used AR than VR.

For business users, perhaps the great promise of VR technology lies in virtual reality training. Almost every type of business struggles to train new employees effectively. Early tests with virtual reality indicated that it had great potential as a learning platform. If training material can be cost-effectively created in VR, it could revolutionize employee onboarding and training. A less commonly considered VR application is data visualization. The sheer volume of data produced by organizations every year is staggering. Visualizing that data in a virtual environment using immersive technology could greatly improve our ability to extract meaningful insights from large volumes of data. Humans are fundamentally visual creatures, so making data more visual simply makes sense.

Academic and scientific settings can use a virtual experience for learning and advanced simulations. Coupling virtual reality or augmented reality with existing research can be very valuable. Many complex concepts are far easier to grasp when presented as an immersive experience. 

Connecting the virtual world to the real world

One vision for the metaverse looks a lot like a 3D version of the world wide web. It would act as a seamless “space” of connected servers, content, and applications accessed through a common set of apps (the equivalent of web browsers). Just like the web, the servers would all use standardized protocols and common formats to ensure that the user has a seamless experience. The digital world would exist alongside the real world, accessible as a virtual reality, mixed reality or augmented reality experience.

Delivering on this vision takes a broad range of standards that span the entire stack of technologies involved in making the metaverse real. Using the web as an analogy, the web would not function without the concept of the URL, or Uniform Resource Locator. Human readable URLs wouldn’t work without DNS (Domain Name System), and the whole system relies on TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). There is a reasonable argument to be made that the modern server and data center would not exist without hardware standards such as Ethernet, PCI and many others. Coming back to the more user facing aspects of the web, we also need HTML (hypertext markup language) and a slew of other pieces. Last, but certainly not least, we need tools that can be used to create content for the virtual world. Anyone who remembers the early days of HTML authoring knows just how far those tools have come. Today’s tools for creating VR content have a long way to go.

But when it comes to the metaverse, many of these standardized components simply do not exist yet. Standards groups like IEEE, Khronos Group, ITU and others are actively working in this area. Major corporations like Epic Games, Meta, Microsoft, Nvidia and others are also active in the metaverse, but the history of voluntary cooperation in the tech industry is not particularly encouraging.

Beyond the tools and protocols, an immersive metaverse quickly gets into questions of identity, data privacy, ethics and accessibility, the new norms for social interaction and its impact on the real world. All of these topics and many more will need to be addressed before this vision of the metaverse can truly come to life. 

Challenges with the virtual world vs. the real world

There are many challenges inherent in establishing a virtual world. Some of them are technical in nature. How do you build and support a vast and persistent world? How do you ensure that millions of people can interact seamlessly with each other? What hardware or VR system will you support? What standards can you use in the development of your application or platform?

However, many challenges also lie outside pure technology. For example, where does the world physically reside i.e. where are its servers located? Do virtual worlds recognize geographic boundaries? On the one hand, there is an argument to be made that a virtual world should be free of such constraints. On the other hand, any virtual experience that ignores national and international law, especially around data privacy, is unlikely to survive.

Many questions exist about digital rights, from privacy to property. Who owns a virtual object? The company running the platform or the user that created it? If the user owns it, what happens if the company shuts down? Where can I advertise? In a real world environment we have rules and laws that determine where fliers can be posted and how access to public property can be restricted or impeded. None of this exists yet in a VR environment. As artificial intelligence advances, and virtual avatars become more autonomous, many questions will arise about the differences between a virtual person and their real counterpart. What rights will digital citizens actually have, if any?

There are also questions of user safety, accessibility and cost. A large virtual world will be a prime target for a cyber attack. In the early 2000s, Second Life was repeatedly hacked with results that ranged from merely comical to significantly impactful, both in the virtual world and the real world, A virtual life is not detached from real world harm.

Accessibility, in every sense, is critical to broad and equitable adoption. That also means we must consider cost. What is the real benefit of an enabling and engaging metaverse if only the wealthiest and most privileged can enjoy it? The metaverse and intelligent reality should be available to all.


2022 IEEE 2nd International Conference on Intelligent Reality (ICIR)

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