NPR did a story on virtual reality the other day and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Perhaps it’s because the story tells of a virtual reality realization of a scene from Game of Thrones, to the reading of which I recently devoted many hours.

It makes me think about what it is we are really looking for when we read narratives. (I’ll restrict this discussion to fiction, though one can imagine pretty dramatic applications of virtual reality in teaching.) The human brain does seem to be set up to crave stories. Whether this is hard-wired, or just learned behavior, I’ll have to leave to cognitive science — but it does seem to be pretty universal. The novel, it could be argued, evolved because we had developed a printing industry suited to the manufacture of books of a certain length, and writers responded to the financial stimulus of printer/publishers to produce manuscripts of the desired heft. Maybe the narrative form is ready for another great leap forward?

For the origins of storytelling I suppose we have to think of a narrator sitting by a fire, keeping his caveman companions enthralled. The printing press enabled the storyteller to reach an audience far beyond the fireside, and allowed that audience to share (or to imagine itself sharing) the same vision as the storyteller had in his/her head. In an ideal world we would, wouldn’t we, want the picture conjured up in the mind of the reader to be exactly the same as that in the mind of the author? In other words when we read about Mr Micawber, should we hope that the chap we see is the same fellow that Dickens saw in his mind’s eye? Presumably, to some extent this is the ideal — otherwise authors wouldn’t waste ink describing their characters.

Unsurprisingly opinions differ. There’s an interesting discussion of the topic on Palimpsest, originated by one Flutty, who writes “My visually based memory places the episodes of the book in a familiar place to me, but with other memories and other intruding detail. This is an involuntary process. It just springs into my mind fully formed.” Flutty specifies his/her reaction to Silas Marner: “I have a good view of the inside of his stony cottage. But when he emerges from it he walks out onto Walton Road, in my home town. On that road there is a real cottage like the one described in the book, well there was one in the 1970s when I lived there. The problem is that I cannot eliminate other details from this view. I can see the main road that passes by, the knowledge that it is on the number 19 bus route and nearby is Walton Dam. What makes this harder for me is that these are often childhood memories and thus very strong.”

When I read a story I see people and I see a scene. The scene is time specific (ie not like Flutty’s version, with the 19 bus running past a nineteenth century cottage). Of course I don’t really know what any place would have looked like in say 1829, but I imagine I do. I wonder how close my scene is to other people’s, and how close that is to what George Eliot had in mind when writing the book? We probably all pick up our ideas of what a nineteenth century cottage interior looked like from a limited number of sources, so there may just be a few available pictures for us to “see”. Of course some authors don’t go in for physical description, which is fine: I wonder if this is because they have no picture in their mind, or because they resist imposing that picture on the reader. If an author does go in for detailed description of characters and settings, should we think that he/she actually wishes we readers could see the same scene? I think that would be so, otherwise why “waste” time doing it?

Virtual reality exists — I’m sure it’s fiendishly expensive, and not the sort of thing anyone’s going to invest in to bring Silas Marner before our (physical) eye. The Occulus company in the NPR story has sold 60,000 developer kits, so someone is working on this. The kit looks a bit cumbersome, it’s true. But we are all conditioned to assume that any technology will get smaller and cheaper, so who knows — we may soon be able to do this sort of thing relatively cheaply. If you are apparently there, sitting in the corner of Silas Marner’s front room, watching him without his being aware of any intruder — well, for me anyway, that would be amazing, and would definitely wean me from reading the words and convert me to “living the experience”. Probably, if we could do that, we could eventually go further and download, as it were, the author’s vision. After all if we can figure out how to transmit a visual reality experience, maybe it wouldn’t be a too gigantic next step to figure out how to record it all direct from the author’s brain*. Then we would be able to see exactly the same pictures as the author imagined when telling the story.

I can’t wait!

*  Yes, yes, it’s entirely different I know, but we are making steady advances in brain science. And I’m an optimist.

** Here’s a Gigaom post including a Kickstarter video about 3-D printing your own virtual reality set which will run with your iPhone.