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From Digital Reality to Reality – I

The IEEE Digital Reality Initiative, looking at the intersection of Augmented, Mixed and Virtual reality and now getting ready to expand its horizons to … make it happen. Image credit: IEEE FDC

It is now over 25 centuries that philosophers have been discussing about the meaning of reality, someone stating that there is not such a thing as reality, since what is now was not what it was a moment ago and it will no longer be a blink of an eye from now, others claiming that reality is something that we can only perceive through our senses and our senses introduce a distortion, hence what we perceive is just a shadow of reality.

For the lay man, and each of us is a lay man, reality is clear, is the fact that we wake up in the morning and we expect to see what we saw as we went to sleep. If not, we are surprised. Reality is the space in which we live and which makes sense to us, we just leave the obscure debates to the philosophers.

This sense of real “reality” is so intertwined in our perception of the world that it is our perception that is creating (our) reality. In the last 100 years physicists came up with a scientific, measurable, view of the world, of reality that doesn’t match with our perception: the fact that there is an absolute limit to speed, so that once you get close to that limit 1+1 equals 1, not 2!, or that something can be in several places at the same time, that its existence is not an absolute but it depends on whether we are observing it or not…

Curiously, these esoteric characteristics of reality have a real effect on our life! GPS can only work because engineers take into account the dilation of time, as consequence of different speeds in a given reference frame, our eyes can see because quantum effects make possible to rhodopsin in our retina to intercept photons converting them into electrical signals for our brain. Just few days ago a researchers explained to me the working of a gyroscope based on optical fibre that exploit the Sagnac effect: basically the fact that a beam of light will always travel at the same speed “c” independently of its direction (which is very counter-intuitive by the way) and what changes is the phase, so by having difference in phase we have interference among two light beams and this interference can tell us the relative position in space of those two beams.  I just mention a few examples but as a matter of fact there are many.

However, as we disregard the obscure discussion of ancient time philosophers we similarly disregard the physical reality behind our everyday life, sticking to “what I perceive is what it is”. Perception leads.

In these last few years technology has become more and more able to trick our senses and this creates a new problem If what we perceive is what we feel as real, what happens when this perception is distorted by technology?

Before jumping into that, let’s backtrack for a moment. At the Future Direction Committee, FDC, of the IEEE an initiative was set up two years ago to study the technologies that in a way or another create and distort our perception of reality: welcome to Digital Reality.

As the name would suggest, we recognise this is not “reality”, it is a digital creation, using bits and a variety of ways to render those bits so that they can be perceived, seamlessly, by our senses. Sometimes it is a full digital reality, or virtual reality, with no ties to the “real” reality, some other times it is a digital reality that is overlaid on the real reality, what we call Augmented Reality, augmented because bits are now adding onto atoms, like showing information (text, images) on an object, some other times we create digital objects (like in virtual reality) and we are placing them in the real reality –calling this mixed reality.

In all views the point was recognising that technology can create a reality that is different from the one we are used to, a digital reality -digital because it is leveraging on bits, and that this Digital Reality has an existence of its own. The initiative was looking at the fostering the progress of technology and its application to make this Digital Reality more and more sophisticated, in other words to make it more and more perceivable as reality by us, human being (the measure of all things…. as the philosophers of the old -more specifically, Protagoras– used to say).

More to come…

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.