The missing link in the simulation equation is not any general sense of realism, but rather the problem of transition from one world to the next.
When we read a novel we rarely finish it in one entire sitting without a break, meaning that our experience of the simulation is interrupted by stops and starts that don’t necessarily coincide with narrative beginnings and endings. In any case, we abruptly travel from the real world to the fictional one, each time being awoken from the spell almost clumsily, through no fault of the writer’s own.
In static media such as the printed word or image, it is the audience that ultimately decides when, how, and if the simulation is to end. That is to say, how long someone decides to stare at an image or read from a book is the determining factor in how the simulation is experienced. The narrative flows and halts on command, and is very user-dependent. Literary characters are more like skeletons upon which the reader hangs their own particular set of skins. Compare this to cinematic representations that relatively speaking, force these traits upon their characters, and in turn, upon us. We cannot imagine the visual and auditory aspects of a movie to be anything other than what they are. The faces, voices, accents, gestures and body language are fixed elements that we are not allowed to imagine for ourselves.
The continual flow of a movie also means that our experience of its content is also determined for us. For example, the length of time that our gaze rests upon someone or something is a function of the editing process, and whether we see the characters as they talk, or whether words and images are disjointed is also a result of editing decisions.
These are just some of the ways in which static and dynamic media differ in their representational abilities.
The fact that a movie is perhaps without exception, designed to be digested in a single sitting (ignoring sequels, prequels and spin-offs that make up a greater narrative), means that there is greater opportunity to more gracefully transition into and out of its simulated reality.
Sitting in the darkened room of the cinema, the pause between the introductions and the film itself is a brief, but noticeable period of transition that cinemagoers come to recognise and expect.
As the darkness lifts to reveal the first few frames of an alternate world, we are expected to have left the old one behind us, along with all of our humdrum thoughts and petty, everyday baggage, somewhere with our detached bodies rooted to our seats eating popcorn on autopilot.
While the cinematic ritual maintains its atmospheric traditions, storytelling has become a remote and impersonal affair, stripped of ancestral attachment, to be dipped into on a whim and a commute, leaving it prone to numerous environmental disturbances.
All simulations are vulnerable and fragile for one reason or another, but none more so than static media that rely heavily on the user, their state of mind, and energy levels.
Like a reel of cinematic film combusting, outside influences have a way of interrupting and intruding on our simulations, for better or for worse.
With the rise of virtual reality headsets and associated technologies, the possibilities for smoother transitions and less distraction outweigh all those of previous media. A headset allows us to watch a film without someone walking in front of us and blocking our view, in effect, stabilising the visual aspect of the simulation.
Stories once required someone to tell them, but later they only needed to be told once, and any literate person could replay them through the act of reading. Cinema reduced this reliance even further by rendering the experience mostly passive, rather than an exercise in and of the imagination.
What virtual reality offers is the prospect of a narrativeless simulation, an alternative world without meaning, consequence or sacrifice. It also offers a lucid alternative to the seamless transitions of dreams. We could enter a virtual world that directly mimics the real one we have entered from, blurring the boundary to the point that we are unable to detect or remember if we are inside a simulation or not.
Suppose that as you place your VR headset on, the world you see before you is one in which you are wearing a VR headset, in a place that resembles where you physically are. From that point onwards you can remove the simulated headset (or not) and continue as if you were in the real world.
The transition stage or area could be confined to a single room, so that beyond these walls, the virtual world no longer imitates the one we have transitioned from. In this way the transition can be stretched across space as well as time, creating a seamless experience. The same process can also be created for the exit from the simulation.
Just as sleep can seem like closing one’s eyes to awake in a dream world, similar techniques could be used to transition into virtual realities.
The most robust simulation is one with undetectable boundaries.