A virtually real story in 2 parts

PART I: COLIN & THE TANIWHA

This story is about virtual reality, but it might not look like that right away. Bear with me.

Polar bear (detail). Photograph by Zemlinki (CC BY 2.0)

Meet Colin

Colin is my neighbour. He knows how to talk. Pop over for some honey at 7pm and you won’t be back till midnight. Colin likes to tell stories. He can make you believe in The Growly Bear. He looks a bit like a bear himself – a nice, shaggy, ginger-haired one – and has a deep, resonant voice. But the real growly bear lives in his cupboard. True story. Here’s another story.

Once upon a time …

Once upon a time, there was a taniwha.

TaniwhaSorry, no, it doesn’t go like that. Sometimes I switch off when Colin is talking, only because I can’t keep up.

It goes like this, and Colin’s the main character.

The grand medal theft

Not so long ago, in the Land of the Long White Cloud …

Looking towards Tongariro and Ruapahu, 1847, by George French Angas, engraving by Mr J W Giles. From The New Zealanders. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB001054/066a)

Looking towards Tongariro and Ruapahu, 1847, by George French Angas, engraving by J W Giles. From The New Zealanders. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB001054/066a)

Drawing of a Victoria Cross medal, late 1800s, by William Francis Gordon. Te Papa (O.011933)

… nearly 100 precious war medals were stolen from a museum near the mountains.

The people of the land weren’t happy about this – the medals were very special, and very shiny, and had been given to soldiers who had done very brave deeds. The police furrowed their brows and stroked their chins. Then they straightened their jackets and declared, ‘We will get them back!’

Toy policeman, about 1910, by Sarah McMurray. Gift of Elizabeth McMurray, great grandchild of maker Sarah McMurray, 2010. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH020822)

Toy policeman, about 1910, by Sarah McMurray. Gift of Elizabeth McMurray, 2010. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH020822)

Colin asks why

But Colin said: ‘Wait! Why do we need to get them back? It will cost a lot of money. Why don’t we just get new metal and pretty ribbons and make some that look the same?’ (Today, he would have said: ‘Why don’t we 3-D print some more?’)

Mouths dropped open, and the people protested. Colin said: ‘Ah-hah, just as I thought! You believe in taniwha!’

‘Taniwha?’ the people gasped. ‘Māori monsters?’ (for most of these people were not Māori). ‘What rot! You may as well suggest we believe in dragons!’

Her favourite, the Green Dragon , 1914, by Leslie Adkin. Gift of G L Adkin family estate, 1964. Te Papa (A.006583)

The green dragon, 1914, by Leslie Adkin. Gift of G L Adkin family estate, 1964. Te Papa (A.006583)

Colin leans back in his chair

But Colin persisted. Smiling wryly and leaning back in his chair, he said: ‘Listen here. Taniwha are personifications – physical manifestations of past events or forces. They’re always connected with particular places and people. They embody something important to those people – just like your medals.

‘Why do you value the medals after all? Because of their link with events, people, and places of the past. They have been thoroughly cleaned and conserved – yet still you believe they carry some remnant of those who owned them and all they went through. You believe that they embody … that they personify those things. Māori have many words to convey these concepts: mana (power and prestige), mauri (life force), ihi (the capacity to inspire awe), wehi (the experience of awe). Your words may pale by comparison, but the belief is the same, as it is for humans everywhere.’

He pauses to catch his breath.

We all believe in magic

‘Why do you think we have museums in the first place? Because we all believe in the supernatural. We all believe in fairies and magic. None of this is rational in the slightest!’

Magic Strawberry Fields peg doll, 2011, made by Ella Hermens. Gift of Ella Hermens, 2011. © Te Papa. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH017395)

Magic Strawberry Fields peg doll, 2011, made by Ella Hermens. Gift of Ella Hermens, 2011. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH017395)

The people looked confused. These were new and strange words and they couldn’t think what to say. No one had ever talked to them like this and, quite frankly, it was doing their heads in. They fidgeted and twitched, and one of them bit a fingernail down till it bled.

*       *       *       *       *       *      *      *      *     *

PART II: SPACE TRAVEL IN SILICON VALLEY

Wake up! The year is 2015 and you – a humble museum-er – are in Silicon Valley, USA. Your location: A NASA research park. (How the heck did you manage to get in here?)

You’re in a large room surrounded by people much younger and smarter and smoother-skinned than you. You can feel their brains vibrating.

Brain image by Allan Ajifo (CC BY 2.0)

Image by Allan Ajifo (CC BY 2.0)

There’s a stage in front of you, and a man is speaking. He’s in his 50s and bear-like in appearance, but surprisingly sprightly in his movements. He commands everyone’s attention. His topic?

What will retain value in the future, as technology becomes more intelligent and pervasive? As it mediates more of our lives? As it replace our jobs? As it takes over the world?

Robot Noir - Red Robot 4, by J L Watkins (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Robot Noir – Red Robot 4, by J L Watkins (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Six golden offerings

The answer? Just six golden offerings. (Ponder these for a moment – they deserve some thought.)

  • The real thing (tech can make replicas, but it can’t replace the original)
  • People and personal services (tech just isn’t the same)
  • Creativity and intellectual property (what goes into creating the tech, and how it’s used)
  • Control of communications (who owns the tech and what they say)
  • Prime locations (tech can’t make places – yet)
  • Raw materials (tech can’t replace resources – unless it gets them from space)

You’re astonished. You’ve never met the speaker before, but he appears to be talking about you. The real, the original – did he really say that? Did he just make eye contact? This must be where you and your fellow museum-ers take the stage. Collectors of the original. Upholders of the real. Saviours of the universe! (Trumpets, fanfare!)

Fanfare of trumpets, Victory Queen Carnival, Wellington, New Zealand, 1941. Photographer unknown. Te Papa (O.039891)

Victory Queen Carnival, Wellington, New Zealand, 1941. Photographer unknown. Te Papa (O.039891)

And you don’t just stop at the real, no. You offer almost everything in the golden list. A personal and social experience – a place to spend time with friends and family. A creative space, and a space to create. A place of communication. A prime location. Hah! You knew they’d written you off too early – called you irrelevant, a dinosaur. Now you’re back with a vengeance!

A young man with sticky-uppy hair gives you a reality check

Just as you’re about to stand and revel in your newfound glory, a skinny young man with sticky-uppy hair bounds out of his seat, waving his arms. You can see the sparks coming off him. He seems barely out of his teens.

Photograph by M C Escher (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photograph by M C Escher (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Unfortunately, you can’t make out his face because he’s wearing strange headgear. Is he from another planet? (This is NASA after all.) He holds a magic box that seems to be fabricating some sort of figure.

In heavily accented English, he exclaims: ‘What is this rubbish: real this, real that?’ He taps twice on his box. ‘Soon enough, a 3D print is same as the original. You will not tell the difference! Do you even believe when someone says: This is the original, the one, the only? How can you know? Your brain will imagine even if it is not.’

He points to his headset. ‘This is the future. This is reality. As far as your brain knows, the real and virtual they are one! Soon this thing, it measures your thinking, your feeling, every chicken bump on your skin. It makes reality just for you.’

And then he rushes over to you, rips off his headgear (it’s OK, his face doesn’t fall off) and puts it on you. You don’t have time to protest – but never mind that because now you’re on a rollercoaster! Your heart beats wildly. You hear yourself screaming. (Did you really just scream?) And then, all of a sudden, you’re under the sea. It’s eerily quiet down here. Above you, a small shark circles around. Below you, a blobfish – and then a colossal squid emerges from nowhere. Sweet bejeezus, within a foot of your face! The eye, the suckers, it’s coming towards you.

Colossal squid close up

Colossal squid, collected 2008, Ross Sea, Antarctica. Gift of the Ministry of Fisheries, 2007. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (M.190318)

The whole thing is blowing your mind – but you’re beginning to feel a bit nauseous …

A question floats away

Locket, 1800s. Gift of Miss A Riley, 1963. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH002260)

Locket, 1800s. Gift of Miss A Riley, 1963. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH002260)

A question forms in your mind, then floats away. By the time you retrieve it, the headset is off and the young man has gone.

You – you – you want to know whether he keeps his great great great grandmother’s locket under the socks in his drawer. Or his grandfather’s pipe at the back of his closet. You sense that this might taint what he has said about reality, and temper your awe.

Then you remember that others have been watching. Were they laughing at you? Did you do that funny thing with your mouth? Were you drooling? You lower your head and quickly check your chin. When you look up, the room is empty and you’ve forgotten where you are. Where were you again?

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