“The data structure corresponding to a virtual red rose really does cause reddish experiences when viewed in these conditions (‘through an appropriate headset’), so that the data structure is virtually red.”

Concerning our understanding of virtual reality, Philosopher of Consciousness David Chalmers’ describes the “virtual property” this way. He claims that when a virtual object (a data structure) stimulates the experience of certain properties, it seems to be plausible to claim that it has this property with an extra tag of “virtual”. However, in the specific case of color, the purely experience-based judgment might be falsified, given the evidence that humans’ perception on real physical colors could be unreliable.

“He who claims to see colors independent of their illusionary changes fools only himself, and no one else.”

Visual Artist Josef Albers points out, in his widely acknowledged work of Interaction of Color, that

Interaction of Color VIII-1

some illusory perceptions of colors are inevitable for humans as a psycho-physiological phenomenon. Under some circumstances, colors in the real world can be deceptive, generally based on our familiar experience with them in “normal conditions”. For example, after staring at the black dot of the red circle on the left for a minute, people will inevitably perceive redness when they turn to the white circle on the right. The illusory color emerges from the inherent architecture of the retina and brain, and so do the illusions in other possible fields. If purely determined by human experiences, the color property of objects will become relative and unstable.

This is the moment when the properties (color of white) of physical objects are inevitably separated from human perception (illusion of redness). Whether or not something could be called “reality” might depend and only depend on the rather subjective viewpoint, assessed values, and stimulated experience of human beings. Thus, the criteria of the inherent, if any, the property of physical objects might need a better basis than experience. Furthermore, letting experience to determine the virtual property of virtual objects might need a shift in methodology as well, as Chalmers’ way of defining is based on the fact that we perceive the virtual property in similar ways as if it’s physically legit.

Speaking about the illusory experience in the physical world, Chalmers argues with the example of looking into a mirror a lot. He claims that sophisticated people would not suffer from the illusions that objects are in the back of the mirror while they are in the front in fact. Therefore, when people no longer being too naive to misinterpret the physical property, there will be no illusion in the experience. However, when it comes to color deceptions, it doesn’t seem possible that anyone can be sophisticated enough to not experience the illusions. It is the biological architecture that blocks our way to disenchantment. Presumably, it would be the computational architecture that prevents us from the absolute certainty on the what the virtual property of a certain virtual object is and whether it is real.

Consider a scenario like this. In the real world, there’s a red rose under a blue beam of light.

Rose under Blue Light

Sophisticated as any ordinary person is, the rose’s color property remains red even though it looks purple. What if we move it into a virtual reality environment of current graphics technologies? In the virtual world, there’s a visually similar representation of the former scene. Based on Chalmers’ criteria, ordinary people would give the same answer, with an extra tag of “virtual”. However, a sophisticated graphics engineer would argue the rose is purple! After the engineer applies his professional knowledge to the particular rendering technology of this virtual scene, he finds that real-time lighting is not adopted in this scene based on the computational power of this computer, which he/she figured out before entering the virtual scene. That is, the purple color of this rose is not rendered based on the blue light source but rather baked onto the texture. From his/her view, the rose is inherently purple, from data structure level to the visual presentation. The purple rose claim sounds fairly plausible, which conflicts with the view of generally sophisticated people.

This is a circumstance where it is hard to decide which side is more sophisticated enough to get the virtual property correct. Or is the virtual property subjective varying from person to person? If so, does the physical property work in the same way? Expanding the skepticism to Chalmers’ claims on the reality of the virtual, what does the reality truly mean and why does it matter, as all are somehow subjectively based and anyone can agree or disagree based on their experience? Surely the virtual reality shares similar structures with the physical reality, but the extent of the similarity where we consider it real and valuable seems to be based on the extent of sophistication of each person.