The flat, usually rectangular, images which are photographs make a claim to be true that painting can never make.
Sontag 1977 p86
Photographic images have a reputation for showing things as they really are. This is not the place to debate the truth or otherwise of photography, nor to dwell on the practices which can assist photography in being untruthful (Sontag p115 passim is useful on the various claims made for photography's relationship to knowledge). Many have stood in front of a painting of a historical figure and thought, 'I wonder what s/he really looked like?' and have had little doubt that a photograph would have helped to answer this question. Whatever the truth or otherwise of photography, when it comes to belief, it is unrivalled. Academics would encourage a student to treat with some scepticism a photograph from, say, an electron microscope, or from a historical archive of 1930s Britain, but not the same kind of scepticism that we would adopt towards a drawing. We believe in what photography shows us.
It is interesting to speculate what the 'belief value' of VR will be in future. While VRs remain clearly constructions, they are likely to be regarded as low in believability, however realistic (in another sense) they may look. But if a practical means can be made available whereby VR models can be created as a counterpart to reality (whether using multiple cameras, laser-scanning or whatever), in the same way that photographs are perceived as an unmediated response to the light-values of a scene, then the perceived authenticity of such models will receive a major fillip.
Of course the question of authorship and the status of the author will also be influential: the triad - authorship, authority, authenticity - will continue to be an issue as it is in relation to any medium.
Interestingly, the belief we have in photography seems to illicitly carry over into our appreciation of overtly fictional works, so that films are seen as in quite a significant way 'more real' than plays (despite the fact that in a play the actors are really there).
Some VR systems may resemble photography in the respect that whatever appears in the environment (the stored model) will be seen (rendered). If the mapping of a complex 3-space construction onto the visual display is done wholesale, without any ability to suppress detail, to render some objects translucently or omit them altogether, then the user may be oppressed by irrelevant data. To avoid this, we will again want to take liberties with our virtual realities, deciding what to show and what to suppress, in essence, 'filtering' the model. Levels of detail go a small way toward implementing this concept.
One of the reasons why drawing and other forms of 'constructed' representation still have a role since photography is that they allow constructive filtering. The technical illustrator knows when to omit whole parts of a machine in order to reveal concealed mechanisms. The structural engineer strips away all the irrelevant aspects of a building to show the bare bones of a structure. Here we are touching again on the issue of abstraction - the omitting of inessentials and the representation only of what is important for the purpose - which is (or should be) of overriding importance in discussing the application of any technology to Education. It suggests that the effect of VR (and particular kinds of Virtual Environment and Virtual Object) on educational processes and learner perceptions requires more research.
The relevance to VR is that, like most computer representations, Virtual Environments and Virtual Objects have a precision and a finality which may be difficult to resist - the 'real presence' which is one of their strengths could, used inappropriately, be their weakness.
We are not suggesting that either of these specific techniques should be applied in rendering virtual models to the display, but they are intriguing examples of visual distortion which serve the purpose of making things feel more real.
A more prosaic example is given in Sarkar and Brown (1994), where productive use is made of the distortions of 'fisheye' views. Within the restrictive space offered by a conventional display, their aim was to reconcile the demands of providing maximum contextual information, with the largest, clearest possible view of the current topic of interest. The material to be displayed was a network diagram of linked notes. The solution adopted was to provide a central zone displayed in the standard way, and to progressively compress the image nearer to the perimeter of the screen. Of course, one of the advantages of digitally simulating this 'lens-like' behaviour, is that we can instantly abandon it when it does not serve our purpose, or adopt a view which, for example, compresses only at two edges rather than all four.
Graphics Multimedia Virtual Environments Visualisation Contents