Virtuality+: The physical body in virtual reality and the path toward augmented virtuality
Philippe Bédard, McGill University
I would like to begin with an anecdote. On various occasions, either in conversations with colleagues or during conference pres-entations, I heard someone decry the fact that when they looked down at their body when immersed in a virtual reality (VR) envi-ronment, they were surprised, even disoriented, by the absence of a body; either theirs or even that of an avatar. I have since found several forceful assertions to that effect in scholarship on VR from the 1990s to this day (see Balsamo ; Murray, Sixsmith ; Popat ; Dalmasso ; Zimanyi, Ben Ayoun ). I am of a differing opinion. Namely, that we do really have a body in VR, albeit one whose nature and qualities merit more thoughtful consid-eration. In the following essay, I want to argue that the body — and the physical reality which it embodies — is not so much «missing in action», as the title of Sita Popat’s insightful article puts it, but perhaps simply misunderstood. By extension, my analysis of the body will lead me to make broader claims regarding the potential of consciously integrating physical reality in one’s experi-ence of virtual reality.In what follows, I take the body as a central object of study, but also as a tool for approaching physical and virtual «realities» in VR. That is to say that while this essay is inspired by David J. Chalmers’ recent work on the (techno)philosophy of virtual worlds and the issue of «reality» therein (Chalmers ), I also make use of a phenom-enological toolkit to analyze how different realities appearto and function for an embodied user.To begin, I borrow from Chalmers’ discussion of what I will call the «reality status» of virtual entities, namely the issue of if and how these special entities may be considered real. This will allow me to argue for a similar rejection of the outmoded distinction between «virtual» reality and what some might call «real» reality. I depart from Chalmers, however, in my focus on a phenomenological approach to the experience of virtual environments from the perspective of my own corporeal body. Central to this approach is the belief that being attentive to one’s perception of virtual worlds, objects and bodies can reveal the complex intermingling of the physical and virtual entailed by VR, or by any experience on the reality-virtu-ality continuum (Milgram et al. ). In fact, to dispel the idea that our bodies are absent in VR, I will put forth an alternative to the typical oppo-sition between virtuality and reality by suggesting that bodies are best understood as occupying a liminal position and as contributing to a form of «augmented virtuality», a term I borrow and adapt from Paul Milgram et al. (Ibid.). This will entail refocusing the presence of the body as an important vector toward immersion in virtual worlds, rather than as a distraction from the virtual, as it so often has been considered.