Virtual Nostalgia


One of the pleasures of revisiting a film franchise is the sense that one is coming back to a familiar setting with familiar people – such is the feeling of returning to the Star Wars universe.

When I went to see The Last Jedi on December 16 (3D + IMAX) I underwent an odd version of this experience. As the heroes descended on the world of Crait, a red planet dusted with white dust, I had the sense that I had been there before. This was because I had been playing Star Wars Battlefront II over the previous week; in the multiplayer game, the planet Crait had just been introduced as a new location for battles and I’d been struggling against Storm Troopers (or as a Storm Trooper) through the trenches and tunnels of Crait for many, repetitive hours. Not only that, but the 3D models used to build the 3D battle world for the game appeared to be based on the same visual assets used for the movie.

And so, when I saw the way the light reflected off of the red mud on the walls of the Crait trenches, I had an “aha” moment of recognition. My spatial memory told me I had been here before.


We might say that this was a case of déjà vu, since I had never been to Crait in reality – but only in a video game. But then one must recall that the “vu” experience of the déjà vu also never happened – the CGI world on the screen is not a place that exists in any reality. I had experienced a virtual nostalgia for a space that didn’t exist – a sense of returning home when there is no home to return to.

We aren’t quite in the territory of Blade Runner manufactured memories, yet, but we are a step closer. Games and technology that give us a sense of place and affect that peculiar and primeval faculty of the brain (the ability to remember places that made our hunter-gatherer ancestors so effective and that was later exploited to form the Ars Memoriae) will have unexpected side effects.

I think this is a new type of experience and one that marks an inflection point in mankind’s progress – if I may be allowed to be a bit grandiose. For while in all previous generations, mimetic technologies such as writing, encyclopedias, computers, and the internet, have all tended to diminish our natural memories, this new age of virtual reality and 3D spaces has, for the first time, started to provide us with a superfluity of unexpected and artificial memories.

A User’s Guide to the terms VR, AR, MR and XR – with a tangent about pork


Virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and XR (or xR) are terms floating around that seem to describe the same things – but maybe not – and sometimes people get very angry if you use the terms incorrectly (or at least they say they do).

The difficulty is that these terms come from different sources and for different reasons, yet the mind naturally seeks to find order and logic in the world it confronts. A great English historical example is the way Anglo-Saxon words for animals have complementary Norman words for the cooked versions of those beasts: cow and beef (boeuf), pig and pork (porc), sheep and mutton (mouton). It is how the mind deals with a superfluity of words – we try to find a reason to keep them all.


So as an experiment and a public service, here’s a guide to using these terms in a consistent way. My premise is that these terms are a part of natural language and describe real things rather than marketing terms meant to either boost products or boost personal agendas (such as the desire to be the person who coined a new term). Those constraints actually make it pretty easy to fit all these phrases into a common framework and uses grammar to enforce semantic distinctions:

1) Virtual reality is a noun for a 3D simulated reality that you move through by moving your body. A sense of space is an essential component of VR. VR includes 360 videos as well as immersive 3D games on devices like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Microsoft Immersive headsets.

2) Augmented reality is a noun for an experience that combines digital objects and the real world, typically by overlaying digital content on top of a video of a real world (e.g. Pokémon Go) or by overlaying digital content on top of a transparent display (e.g. HoloLens, Meta, Magic Leap, Daqri).

3) Mixed reality is an adjective that modifies nouns in order to describe both virtual and augmented reality experiences. For instance:

a. A mixed reality headset enables virtual reality to be experienced.

b. The Magic Leap device will let us have mixed reality experiences.

4) xR is an umbrella term for the nouns virtual reality and augmented reality. You use xR generically when you are talking about broad trends or ambiguously when you are talking in a way that includes both VR and AR (for instance, I went to an event about xR where different MR experiences were on display). xR may, optionally, also cover AI and ML (aren’t they the same thing?).

This isn’t necessarily how anyone has consistently used these terms in 2017, but I feel like there is a trend towards these usages. I’m going to try to use them in this way in 2018 and see how it goes.