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Expansive (virtual) realities
by Marta Pienkosz

June 2023

"We live in a sea of stories. And like the fish who, according to the proverb, will be the last to discover water, we have our own difficulties grasping what it is like to swim in stories" (Brunner, 1996, p.147). Immersed in a world saturated with narratives, we often fail to recognize the profound influence stories hold over our perception, gradually becoming the very essence of our existence. Within the realm of storytelling, new and emerging technologies are further blurring the boundary between fiction and reality. Virtual Reality (VR) stands as a groundbreaking innovation that has transformed the way we interact with the world by creating immersive virtual environments that engage the senses. It offers a unique and powerful mode of perception that transcends traditional boundaries, opening doors to alternate realities. This paper delves into the profound impact of VR on the perception of reality. It investigates how VR expands the understanding of the world and shapes experiences. By approaching VR as an extended mode of perception, this paper illustrates how the technology ultimately challenges conventional notions of reality.

The study of the intricate relationship between perception and reality, put forth by Edmund Husserl needs to be introduced to establish the foundation for this exploration. According to Husserl, "different levels of reality of the object are accessible to knowledge thanks to the different levels of perception which are potentially present in being" (Husserl, 1966, qtd. in Nicolescu, 2015, p. 93). In essence, as individuals explore their perceptual experiences, they transcend surface appearances and gain access into hidden dimensions of reality, even if those dimensions are not immediately apparent.

Physicist and philosopher Basarab Nicolescu (2015), further built on Husserl’s ideas by introducing a concept of the Hidden Third. According to Nicolescu, this concept challenges the binary understanding of subject— the user— and object— the environment—, suggesting that both are immersed in a hidden dimension that extends beyond this duality (Nicolescu, 2015, p. 95). This hidden dimension represents a deeper level of reality that can be accessed by adopting a transdisciplinary approach and embracing non-binary thinking. According to Nicolescu, by acknowledging these diverse levels of reality, a more profound and comprehensive understanding of the world and personhood can be attained (2015, p. 96).

It is particularly intriguing to consider VR as a Hidden Third , a medium that unfolds a new layer of reality through its complex perceptual stimulation. VR technology enables users to venture into immersive virtual worlds that simulate natural expectations rather than reality itself (Lanier, 2017, p.51). However, by leveraging depth perception along with the realism of the virtual environment, VR effectively blurs the predefined boundaries between the physical and virtual realms. This fusion gives rise to a new mode of perception where the distinctions between subject and object become increasingly hazy, particularly as the user becomes an integral part of the immersive environment.

VR technology transcends the mere projection of digital 3D images onto a head-mounted display (HMD), catering to senses beyond sight and enabling genuine feelings and sensory experiences (Grau, 2003, p. 251). Each VR world provides users with the extraordinary opportunity to adopt new artificial identities with their distinct perceptions and navigate specific environments that possess their own distinct reality (Grau, 2003, p. 252). By embracing a 360-degree form and incorporating immersive sensory elements, images in VR negate themselves as an image and transform into an additional layer of reality (Grau, 2003, p. 252). They seamlessly extend into the virtual environment, opening up unparalleled possibilities for experiencing new realities. The ultimate VR system holds the promise of enabling users to experience virtually anything with a level of realism so impeccable that the recreated experiences become indistinguishable from reality itself (Lanier, 2017, p. 48). This incredible power imbued within VR technology offers an escape from the limitations of the physical realm and a captivating vision of a future where individuals can immerse themselves in any desired scenario, unrestricted by the boundaries of reality as we know it. VR thus becomes a utopian realm with infinite possibilities.

However, as VR blurs the boundaries between the virtual and the real, it raises concerns about the potential manipulation extending beyond technical considerations. One of the challenges lies in the difficulty for observers to maintain distance from the work and perceive it as an autonomous aesthetic object that one can be critically reflected upon (Grau, 2003 p.202). In other words, as designers employ various techniques to banish any awareness of the underlying technological aspects, users can become deeply emotionally absorbed in the virtual environment. This immersion can lead to challenges in distinguishing their own subjective experience from the intended one.

The immersive nature of VR, engaging all senses, possesses the psychological power to manipulate, particularly when combined with the concept of a "natural interface" that seamlessly integrates users into the virtual environment, hiding the technological aspects at play (Grau, 2003, p. 203). In this context, manipulation extends beyond VR serving as a medium of illusion, deluding individuals into perceiving a narrow and isolated world as their reality. Consequently, users may be more susceptible to diminishing their critical awareness of the inherent boundaries within the virtual space.

To grasp the potential impact of VR, one can examine the widespread polarization caused by social media's algorithm-driven tailored content in recent years. On social media feeds, each person is presented with their own personalized reality, their own set of facts, making it increasingly difficult to comprehend alternative perspectives (McNamee, 2020). This phenomenon echoes Christof's quote from The Truman Show explaining why Truman never discovered the true nature of his world: "We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented. It's as simple as that” (Weir, 1998, 1:06:00). The curation of social media content has a profound impact on one’s perception, causing individuals to become deeply entrenched in their biases and disregard the broader reality.

When contemplating the influential and manipulative power of social media, one can only speculate about the potential impact of VR. VR not only provides an intensified sensory experience but also has the ability to gather extensive biometric data on user behavior, including eye movements, facial expressions, and possibly even heartbeats (Meta, 2023). The biometric data holds the potential to manipulate individuals on a deeper level, surpassing the limited data obtained solely from social media viewing time. In a few years' time, individuals may find themselves not only consuming tweets that align with their opinions but residing in separate virtual worlds that feel remarkably authentic. These worlds could present a utopian version of their reality, where dissenting voices are silenced, and every aspect reinforces their preferred beliefs. In such a world, maintaining a grasp on objective reality would become perhaps the only impossible thing.

Virtual reality acts as a compelling gateway to unexplored dimensions, enriching our understanding of what constitutes reality. Its captivating illusions provoke contemplation regarding the nature of experiences within the virtual realm, raising questions about whether they are mere simulations or extensions of our physical existence. However, as virtual reality becomes increasingly accessible, it is vital to address ethical concerns about privacy, truth manipulation, and the preservation of objective reality’s integrity. Hence, while virtual reality provides glimpses into uncharted territories, it is essential to maintain a critical perspective and avoid becoming overly captivated by its illusions.


Brunner, J. S. (1996). The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press.

Grau, O. (2003). Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion. MIT Press.

Lanier, J. (2017). Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality. Henry Holt and Co.

Nicolescu, B. (2015). The Hidden Third as the Unifier of Natural and Spiritual Information. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 22(4), 91-99.

McNamee, R. (2020). In The Social Dilemma (J. Johnson, Director). Exposure Labs.

Meta. (2023). Track Your Fitness Stats on Meta Quest With Heart Rate Monitoring and Android Integration. Retrieved June 9, 2023, from

Weir, P. (1998). The Truman Show. Paramount Pictures.