In Vivo Silico
January 29, 2015
Unfortunately, I don't get the opportunity to visit art museums often during the school year. But recently I found an interesting piece of modern art that's pretty relevant to the growing population of the Internet -- "In Vivo Silico" by a Korean artist Roh Jin-Ah. When talking about biology, in vivo is an experiment done on a living specimen -- traditionally speaking, in contrast to a dead one. But a more recent, related term is in silico, in which experiments and simulations are run on computers to determine possible results, often when observations are not feasible because of size or scale. So In Vivo Silico is an interesting combination, of the living and the virtual worlds -- in other words, the "Digital Life". That may sound absurd on its face, but think about it: how many hours of the day do you spend connected to the Internet through some device? If you have a smartphone, my guess is that your time disconnected is less than that connected. So by the sheer amount of time, are we not already living in the virtual?
One of the most striking things about this piece of art is that it's interactive. The blue dots on a display on the wall moves around, following the shadows of whoever may be looking at the work in front of it. I think at the present time, that's the most fitting analogy for the digital world: a shadow of reality. You don't really see or directly sense the online objects, but they still follow us around, like some omniscient being watching our every move.* Last Saturday, I went to a coffee shop, to find that my phone was aware where I was, and offered suggested menu items based on the ratings of other people online. When I took a trip down to Indy, my phone buzzed yet again to let me know that there had been an accident on I-65 that would delay the trip several minutes. On my trip to Boston two weekends ago, my phone let me know of "Popular photo locations" and highly rated restaurants near my hotel. The Internet isn't just about webpages and downloading movies anymore, as easy as it is to fall under that illusion. When we carry pretty powerful computers in our pockets and sometimes on our faces and wrists, we're toting around the entire Internet with us as well. In the strange, present mix of the digital and the actual, I could set up my thermostat to adjust to my sleep cycles, my car to know where to go before I do, and my phone to know to turn all the lights off, alarms on, and room temperature down exactly when I fall asleep. Right now, the Internet is mostly an invisible veil that exists, superimposed on the reality that we see every day. But as with all things tech, we're not even scratching the surface.
There's the reality, and then there's the Virtual Reality. A few years ago, around the beginning of 2013, a company called Oculus (now owned by Facebook) brought to the table what seemed unpolished and gimmicky at best at the time -- the Oculus Rift (below, image by Sebastian Stabinger). This isn't exactly the sexiest pair of goggles in the world, but it does exactly what it says it does -- create the image of a 3D virtual reality around you that you can see and interact with, that responds when you move your head around or walk around the room. As with anything, it was jittery and hardly realistic when it first launched. But by year 2 and 3, the clarity and speed of the image that you see through the virtual reality may well be just another reality. Rather than relying on screens and square windows to interact with the virtual, we can literally, physically imagine ourselves existing within the digital world. Not only does this bring some interesting uses of Virtual Reality from psychological therapy to gaming, but it also gives the phrase "digital life" an entirely new meaning.
That brings us to one of the most futuristic ways of bringing the Internet to real life, the HoloLens, from Microsoft. Although this isn't a fully realized product just yet, this is probably the best-of-both-worlds scenario of a merger between the digital and the concrete. Nothing much is known about the augmented reality technology, since it's fairly new, but in essence, you would be able to see through the headset (pictured below)** and see virtual objects overlaid onto the reality. If you were gong somewhere, instead of a screen showing you a map and arrows to follow on the map, the same arrows would be directly projected onto the roads in front of your eyes. Instead of a digital manual showing you a picture of what to do, through the headset, you would see visual instruction that's directly overlaid on top of the object that you're trying to learn how to use. Instead of wondering how a piece of furniture would appear in your room, you would be able to see an image of that furniture as if it were already in your room. In this kind of an environment, there's really no distinction between digital and virtual objects. Instead, there's only one reality, that's the combination of both digital and concrete objects that work together to create effects that are greater than the sum of its parts.
I think we tend to think of the digital and the concrete worlds as two separate, mutually exclusive ones. We tend to think what happens online is related to, but separate from the "more real" reality of the concrete world, and it feels as if there's a solid dividing line between the "real world" and the virtual. But especially as our society learns to accept more and more technology into our lifestyles, I think it's a fault to draw a line between the virtual and the actual worlds. Because the digital objects aren't fake. When online communities and media are shaping the physical world just as much as concrete objects and offline communities, I don't think we do them justice to somehow minimize their role by saying they're less "real" than the physical world because one is composed of bits of information on a hard drive somewhere. The story of a digital lifestyle isn't one of existing in two different worlds, but rather about reconciling two sides of reality to blur the dividing line that separates two sides of the same coin. Living In Vivo Silico should be a story not of opposites, but instead one of unity.
* In physics, we call this Laplace's Monster
** Arguably a lot better looking than the Oculus