1993 VR Conference Proceedings

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Virtual Reality, Human Evolution, and the World of Disability

Alexander H. Meisel
Harris Meisel, MD
C. Hugh Marsh


The conventional view of Darwinian evolution is "survival of the fittest." While the concept has meaning in biological parlance, the term may need to be reexamined because man-made tools and systems have influenced adaptability. In general, "fittest" means the ability to be the most adaptable. The technologies of virtual reality as a potentially powerful tool may soon allow society, for the first time, to explore alternative realities, select the best from any number of possibilities, and use the findings to create a new "real" reality. Within the greater context of survival of the fittest, disability becomes far less arbitrary as humankind's adaptations become increasingly tool related. Different social constructs within which conventional disabilities are not necessarily handicapping can be explored, refined, and ultimately implemented. In practical terms, virtual reality can bring new meaning to the nascent concepts of universal design, rehabilitation engineering, and adaptive technology. This paper explores some of the implications of the impact of virtual reality on the world of technology and disability.


Virtual reality, in 1993, has an element of mystery to it, and its potential seems to be vast. Its power is not always well understood by the public leading many to dream of possibilities both trivial and grand. Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury bimbo Boopsie has discovered virtual reality as the ultimate shopping trip. Movie moguls and computer scientists are forming alliances that will soon be bringing sensory overload to a theater near you. Even the most blase computer hacker gets a faraway look and waxes lyrical about the brave new world of electronically altered reality where Dungeons and Dragons are truly scary-not just jerky gnomes on video screens at local pizza parlors. But its not just the world of games and entertainment that is driving the technology: psychologists, medical researchers, and government agencies such as NASA and the Air Force are showing keen interest.

Virtual reality is shaping up as an all-pervasive tool occurring in a time of social transition with applications that may affect us all. Why? Because virtual reality, even in its infancy, is a powerful tool that has many cross-disciplinary applications. Its many potential user groups make it a tool that could influence the very infrastructure of society.

Like all tools that humans have devised, virtual reality can be used for good or for ill. To keep the positive potential of virtual reality in perspective, its important to look at some of the more constructive aspects of this "pliant technology," as Jaron Lanier (1) calls it. As we near the 21st Century, we need to step back a few paces and examine how we have evolved as a species of tool users. We have reached a point where virtual reality is not perceived as dreamy science fiction, but rather as a technology that is expected to further the advancement of our species.

EVOLUTION, Darwinian style Darwinian theory is based on a simple biological principle: the most adaptable of natureÆs creatures pass on genetic material that promises that the progeny most similar to these most adaptable creatures will also be the most likely to survive. "Survival of the fittest," this principal is popularly called. In fact, the concept of survival of the fittest has so captured the minds of the people of the century now drawing to a close that we apply it with equal assurance to any number of social phenomena.

Capitalism-that is, the economic and social contrivance that seems to have "won" at this particular fin de siocle-has adopted survival of the fittest as a measure success. It must be remembered that "survival of the fittest" describes the survival of those species that best adapt by whatever means, including instinct, intellect, strategies_and tools.

Among the earliest of tools was, perhaps, the ability to communicate. Communication, in whatever form, can be a powerful tool. The other tools that we humans have developed have increased in their complexity since the moment when that primal human fashioned the first chipping stone. We mark epochs of human history by the materials we used to fashion tools: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. As our tools became more elaborate, "age" was replaced by "revolution"-the First Industrial Revolution, the Second Industrial Revolution, and the Computer Revolution. And that has brought us to another age-the Information Age, in which survival of the fittest among humans may no longer require an able body (other than to simply pass on genes) to function as a principle of successful evolution.

Reinterpretation Of Survival Of The Fittest

It is ironic that the world of technology and economics that has developed through the biological functions of the mind and the five sensory modes has created tools, environments, and policies that are so complex that we forget their biological origins. Put another way, the artificial world that has evolved as a result of humankinds mental expressions has often buffered us from threats in our natural world, thereby obscuring our connection with our essential nature. To survive in todays increasingly "manufactured" society, we canÆt retreat to simpler times, for it is impossible to go backward to a less complex phase of social development. Biological evolution drives us-whatever we have become-immutably forward; times arrow does not fly backward.

Therefore, we must change our view of science and use the new skills and technologies to unite the mind with the spirit, or, if you will, the head with the body. Virtual reality on a technical level utilizes a mind-body relationship to function. Similar to biofeedback, virtual reality mathematically digests physiological information to evoke a physiological response which is mathematically digested to evoke another physiological response-and so on, iteration after iteration. This progressive dialog requires a mind-body orientation in which humans and their tools interact to explore possibilities. Virtual reality, with its potential to allow us to explore possibilities before committing to any of them, offers exceptional promise as a tool that can let us participate in our own evolutionary future.

Jaron Lanier put his finger on it during one of his "rants," as he calls them, at the Technology and Disability Conference in Los Angeles this past March. He said, "Virtual reality reflects human activity at a basic level; its at the new frontier of our ways of understanding each other. Think of virtual reality as a tool that forces understanding."(2)

Never before have we been able to view ourselves and our context so imaginatively as we can now. Virtual reality relates to the world of abilities because it allows us to think in terms of what is feasible, and not simply of what is possible. Perhaps the most exciting-and for many the most disturbing-aspect of the virtual reality potential is its capacity to access dimensions of the human spirit and incorporate them with the traditional scientific inputs of the five senses. This is, possibly, the key to changing our frame of reference to the realm of ability rather than disability.

Virtual Reality In The World Of Disability

The focus of this paper, however, is to point out the opportunity to explore virtual reality's potential impact on the human capacity to function and adapt. The term "disabled" in our society tends to be used to denote the inability of an individual to perform a function at an expected level-or so-called norm. However, in a highly technological society, achieving the accepted norms for important functions depends progressively less on physical strength and skills and progressively more on appropriate tools, environments, and knowledge.

The potential power of virtual reality to provide sensory feedback and remote control (note the application to robotics), extension of the senses (note the applications in both audio and visual displays in aeronautics), and new and experiential knowledge-acquisition methods, may create a whole new set of tools to increase the ability and adaptability of everyone-"able bodied" and "disabled" alike. This is at the heart of the concept of universal design. The challenges to those in the fields of rehabilitation engineering and adaptive technology have never been more clear-or more diverse.

In a technologically ever-more-complex universe, our species will need the skills of those who can best adapt to new, often nonphysical, demands. We may find that some of the "fittest" -because they can function expertly in the world of technological and intellectual tools-come from the group who, at present, are considered "disabled" by virtue of certain physical limitations.

A prime and inspiring example is world-famous theoretical physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, who has revolutionized our knowledge of astrophysics, and the nature of time and the universe, while living with a severe paralysis where function depends on assistance by equipment designed for mobility and speech synthesis. Jaron Lanier has said that "the idea of an able person doesn't exist-it's a myth."(3)

It can, therefore, be said that, if ability depends on environmental and tool design, then disability is by design; that is, what we design and how we design it can determine our ability-or inability-to function. It can also determine the adaptability of all of us as individuals, and as a species. Virtual reality appears to have the potential to be one of our most powerful tools for extending abilities and, again, extending our adaptabilities: the very essence of evolutionary success.

Many cultures in the history of the world have examined humankind's differing perceptions of multiple realities. We are living at a time of rapid change, a time when discoveries in quantum physics rain new questions regarding our perceptions of the very structure of our physical world at subatomic levels. It is a time of great need to be able to adapt.

To repeat, never before have we had the tools to view ourselves and our world as imaginatively as we can now. For the physically disabled as well as the able bodied, there may be, here in the technology of virtual reality, tools of ability and adaptation that increase the realm of possibility open to us. Used with intelligence, these tools can improve realities for many by creating appropriate universal designs to meet our collective human needs. In so doing, virtual-reality stratagems have the potential to increase effective adaptation and meaningful living for everyone-a most virtuous reality.


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