Electric Dreams

Virtual Reality Dreaming:
Wave of the Future?

E. W. Kellogg III, Ph.D.

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  Kellogg, E. W. III (2002 November). Virtual Reality Dreaming:
Wave of the Future? Electric Dreams 9(11).

(A modified and expanded version of: “A Virtual Reality Dream: And Now for Something Completely Different ...” © 2002 E. W. Kellogg III, Ph.D., a paper published in The Lucidity Exchange, Number 22, April 2002)

The movie The Matrix vividly portrays a world where computer technology has become so advanced that a simulated physical reality has become indistinguishable from the ‘real’ thing. Although virtual reality (VR) today does not seem anywhere as realistic, given the current rate of advancement of computer technology (according to “Moore’s Law” computer processing speed doubles every 18 months) that day will arrive in the not so distant future.

Of course, dreams already provide us with a kind of ‘VR’, one in which simulations of all of the physical senses can potentially play a part. Also, our dream life both reflects and incorporates elements of our waking experience - so much so that our dreams today in many ways differ greatly from that of earlier generations. Movies and television have allowed us to vicariously experience everything from baking cookies to exploring distant galaxies, and we have incorporated these experiences into our dreams. Still, however hypnotic, these light and sound productions seem rather crude, and viewers must willingly “suspend disbelief” to experience the full effect. Once perfected, virtual reality may become perceptually indistinguishable from ‘physical reality’, or may even credibly simulate the experiences of the most fantastic dreams.

All this might cause us to wonder - once realistic VR becomes a part of our waking lives, what impact will it have on our dreaming lives?

Now, by accepted definition, for a dream to qualify as lucid in a minimal way, means that dreamers must at least vaguely realize that they dream while they dream. However, full lucidity requires far more than this. In a fully lucid dream I think clearly and remember clearly. I feel an extraordinary sense of self, and have full command of my intellectual and motivational abilities. But even if fully aware, dreamers can only recognize that they dream when they encounter discrepancies between dream phenomena and waking phenomena. Floating in the air, or seeing that the words on a sign have changed when you look at it twice, seem obvious cues. But not every dream displays such cues - some simulate physical reality seamlessly. For example, ‘false awakenings’ can fool even the most experienced lucid dreamers, as memory, perception, and expectation agree in a way that deceive even the most clear thinking.

So how will lucid dreamers of the future discriminate between “dreaming of a virtual reality”, and “a virtual reality”? Or will they? The usual tests won’t work. Even the most lucid and clear thinking of dreamers, might fail the test for lucidity in a minimal sense by mistaking “a dream of a virtual reality” for the virtual reality it simulates, failing to realize that they dream while they dream. What will happen to the simple definition of dream lucidity then?

Sound farfetched? Well, not to me, because I’ve already had such a dream, one of the most incredible dreams that I’ve ever experienced. The dream does not qualify as a lucid dream in a technical sense, because I did not realize that I dreamed while I dreamed. And yet, my ability to think and to perceive seemed as lucid, in fact more lucid, than in all but a few of my fully lucid dreams, where qualitatively I seem at least as 'lucid' as I do in ordinary physical waking life. I’ve appended it below as an example of a new type of dream that although rare now, may soon become commonplace, as “the shape of dreams to come.”

VR Dream

Vol. 47 p 148: 7/8/01 "I virtually drive a race car along a scenic and deserted race course - a fresh blacktop highway winds through nicely simulated New England scenery in early autumn - just a touch of color in a forest of trees and plants in the hills and valleys I drive through. A mostly visual experience though - not much in the way of kinesthetic sensation, only a vague sense of movement. I come to an intersection, and decide for fun to drive down it the wrong way. I immediately see a car heading towards me, and switch lanes, and then I see a group of cars by the side of the road, parked. This looks interesting - it looks like the entrance to a virtual country club. I see a sign that says "Restaurant and Guest Area", a place where visitors, tired of racing, can refresh themselves. I wonder what sort of experiences they’ve programmed inside, and get out of my car, and climb up some stone steps to find an outside bar near the entrance to the clubhouse.

An odd sort of skinny "bartender" greets me - "Good day! What can I do for you sir?" I ask for something simple, to see if I can taste virtual food. I ask for a fruit, and he hands me something that looks like an old head of decayed romaine lettuce, the leaves yellow and wilted, with a sort of peeled "mango/pineapple" on top. I throw the "lettuce to the ground" where an odd looking "squirrel/monkey" "eats" it. Although the fruit looks to have decayed at the bottom, I decide to give it a try - no need to worry about bacteria with virtual food. I experience only a vague sensation of chewing, and no real taste, and tell the bartender, who now looks remarkably like a skinny frog.

My lack of sensation sets off some sort of alarm, and when I go inside a virtual "Doctor/Programmer" in a white coat, and two ‘nurses’ in loose white gowns greet me. The "man" looks 40 or so, the "nurses", both well built and attractive in a sort of generic way, about 30. They tell me that as a first time user, that they need to do some testing on me so that they can recalibrate the program. I sit on a sort of "hospital bed", while the nurses put food on precise areas of my "tongue", careful not to touch "my lips", trying to locate a particular taste bud, without success - I report only vague sensations as they place virtual foods on my tongue, and no taste. I joke that maybe I don’t have that particular taste bud (designated by something like HMG 243). They reply that I do, but I must have it higher up, so they’ll need to do a procedure on me to calibrate it, so that I can get the full sensory effect. I wonder if the fact that I do not virtually smell anything might account in part for the inadequacy of virtual taste. Also, I do not feel comfortable about this - although already this virtual reality program has gone far beyond my expectations, even for the programs of 2025 or so (when I believe this takes place), I do not like the idea that it might somehow modify my physical body. I don’t understand how it could do so either - I vaguely remember myself as "hooked up", my physical body lying on a bed somewhere, but do not recall doing it in a hospital environment or even at a VR hookup institution. In fact if anything, I remember simply going online at home, perhaps wearing a helmet and goggles. But I can’t remember details.

The "Doctor" comes over, using a spatula to place virtual food to different spots on the side of my tongue - I tell him that I feel that most of my taste receptors lie in the middle of my tongue and in the back, and that he should try there. The two nurses come in - one holds a glass with "banana" pieces in it - she plans to place it in the middle of my tongue to test what will happen. I convince them to let me try, and they reluctantly agree, telling me not to touch my lips with the glass or banana piece as I do so, as it will destroy the effect. I tip the glass over my mouth, and drop a piece in the middle of my tongue. As the piece passes my lips, I immediately feel an odd sensation - my lips feel hot, as if suffused on the inside with hot sauce. This sensation quickly passes. I begin to chew and the texture of the piece gets stronger and stronger, almost like in waking physical reality (WPR), at which point I begin to taste "banana" as well - at about 50% WPR intensity. I let them know and they feel pleased with my success. I lie down on the bed, and one of the nurses begins testing my sense of body sensation of touch, touching the sides of my abdomen and my chest. When I again report success, that this feels virtually real, she tells me to touch her. She crouches more or less on top of me as I do so, touching "her" on the sides and on the breasts - her "flesh" feels very firm, but also somehow cold, and somehow lifeless. When I touch her breasts, she tells me that when fully calibrated, clients can do anything that they want to with the virtual women, up to and including fully satisfying "sex". I feel intrigued - although "she" looks a bit generic and vacuous, her large "breasts" hang almost fully exposed to my view as she crouches over me. However, the coldness of her body, and the "no one at home" expression in her eyes (like the robot saloon girl in the movie "Westworld") puts me off. Also I wonder about where the data of the clients activities goes - and if one can depend on the company to keep the information reliably confidential. I decline her offer, but only tell her as a reason about the coldness of her body to the touch. They institute a procedure - a thermal wrap around my physical hand? - to correct this problem. It works - my right hand immediately feels very hot and flushed.

To celebrate my success, they take me to the "restaurant", where the maitre’d shows me to a table in a luxurious country club setting - lots of polished wood and an extensive menu. I wonder about eating the food here - although clearly I need not restrict myself to a vegetarian diet, I have no desire to try virtual meat dishes either, although that seems most of what they offer. "Two women" come over and ask if they can join me - one looks around 40, the other in her teens. They both present themselves as "real people", who have visited VR a few times but who still feel quite excited about it all. I ask the older one about her icon (VR body) - she comments she looks like this for variety, she could look like a teenager if she chose. She demonstrates this to me - as she brushes her hair back with her hand, she transforms her icon to 18 or so in appearance, but then she transforms her icon back to its original appearance. They tell me they feel really honored to sit with a "Professor", and I realize I have not seen my own icon yet. I look in the window glass - which makes a good mirror, and see myself - I look tall and thin, I have a full head of straight white hair more or less sticking up, and a pair of glasses with thick black frames. I laugh - I look like a Western scientist as portrayed in a Japanese cartoon! I appreciate the logic behind my icon choice, but respond with some dismay on my icon’s thin arms and narrow shoulders. I grin as I ruefully tell the two women that all of that work at weight training and exercising over the years in my WPR health club apparently seemed in vain . . . As I reflect on my own VR body, I also wonder about the two "women" with me, and what their physical bodies look like, if they really have physical bodies and do not seem especially well animated VR simulations.

"Are you a first timer?" the "older woman" asks. I tell her not exactly, the friend who recommended the program to me (Steve S.) had told me quite a bit about it, and I have had extensive experiences in another kind of virtual reality as an adept lucid dreamer. They look puzzled so I explain lucid dreaming to them, "knowing that you dream while you dream", fully conscious in the "original virtual world". Further, I explain how the phenomenological epoché, has just as much relevance here in this virtual reality as it does in dream reality. That by focusing on your direct experience, and suspending judgment in the assumptions that you make about what you experience, you can perceive more clearly. For example, here in VR you don’t know if you deal with "real" people - WPR people manifesting through icons, or with "virtual people". Because of my own phenomenological attitude, I realized from the outset that I did not know into which category I should place them, and that the same situation applied for them in respect to me. With a laugh they respond, "Well, you already know more than we do!"

A sort of alarm goes off, and the "Doctor" shows up at our table, telling us that all guests have to exit the program, as some sort of problem has come up. In the background I hear a rumor that some boy has died online. I feel unhappy and frustrated that I have to leave just as I’d begun to get the hang of this program, but move towards the lobby, where a "woman" directs "guests/WPR people" to go to one side of the room, and virtual people to the other. I see with some interest, that the two "women" who had sat at the table with me go to the "virtual people" side of the room. I call to them that they might want to try exiting through the "real people" portal. The woman directing guests says "Any virtual people who try to leave by the guest gate will not survive, they will disintegrate." One of the "women", now an attractive honey blonde looks at me questioningly. I tell her "Who knows what will happen if you try to leave by the guest portal? You may make it across to physical reality, or you may indeed get destroyed. You have to choose." She decides to try going through the guest portal, and to chance dissolution. I tell her "I can offer no guarantee, you may in fact disintegrate, but if you do make it through, I’ll look after you."

We go into a large elevator like room. (As we wait for it to activate, in the background I see a boy, who wears a rather undersized scrawny icon, complaining to his father that he lost his fat/mass allotment to his sister during the transition when they entered this virtual reality program because of a computer glitch. She likes the result, which gave her a better body, and refuses to give the mass back. The father patiently reminds the boy - obviously for the third or fourth time, that the computer people agreed to keep the settings that way, and he had already agreed to it.) The elevator activates, I sense movement and see lights flashing, and for a moment my blond companion looks like she’ll make it. But then I see her begin to evaporate before my eyes, until nothing more than a conical wedge of pseudo flesh remains, about a foot long and shrinking rapidly. I pick it up, and as it disappears I wonder if virtual people have souls, and if so, where they go. Feeling a bit saddened, and hoping that she still exists in some form, I wish "her" well.

Suddenly, with a small shock I find myself in an enormous room, at the top of some giant stairs, feeling quite disoriented. I feel pain as if something like a claw had just slashed my leg, but looking around I see nothing. I assume I still seem in VR, but somehow dumped into another program. I then see a huge "lion" 10 feet high stalking me. I jump, and find myself near the ceiling, 40 feet up or so. The cat nearly slashes me again as I go down, chasing me as I jump around. Finally, I wonder if my lucid dreaming skills might work, as the program must have some sort of hook up with my mind and my beliefs, so on the next jump I call out "Up! Up!" and achieve a sort of unstable levitation - just high enough to avoid the cat. But now that I have the leisure to look, I see that the "lion" actually looks like a big orange housecat. As I continue to levitate, I increase in size until I now fit my surroundings - in an analogue of my usual human size, in an ordinary house, with an ordinary orange housecat. The housecat now ignores me, and I see another virtual animal - a Labrador retriever with a red coat. I pat it on the head, wondering just how attached one could become to these virtual animals, which somehow still seem sort of empty, despite the realistic detail." RWPR


After awakening I felt greatly disoriented and uncoordinated, and could hardly navigate around the room to get a pen and notepad. Everything felt unreal. I also felt a strange tingling sensation in my body, and felt absolutely amazed that I could have had such a completely different "dream" from any I had experienced before - with over 15,000 recorded! I’d eaten and done nothing unusual to account for the dream - and had not even taken a B vitamin before retiring at about 2 AM. I also had no overt day residue to account for it, although I did see a movie titled "Chain Reaction" with Keanu Reeves (who starred in The Matrix) the evening before. Also, some of the background details may have come from Tad Williams’ Otherland, the last volume in a series of books set mostly in a detailed virtual reality which I’d read about two months ago.

During the experience, although fully lucid in both thought and in perception, I remained almost entirely cut off from any memories of my actual waking physical reality situation. Instead, I had a false set of memories, in which I remembered trying out a VR racing car simulation on the recommendation of a friend, sometime around 2025 C.E., which I remembered as "now". I had some difficulty remembering details during the experience, but with everything else going on, I did not have the leisure to reflect on the few inconsistencies that puzzled me. Only at the very end, after successfully levitating in the air to escape the claws of the housecat/lion, did I even vaguely consider the possibility that I might actually dream the experience - but with the false memory I had as a foundation, the VR explanation appeared far more congruent and convincing.

In point of fact, my assumption that I experienced a virtual reality and not a dream as such, facilitated a mindset that made me more critically and continuously aware of discrepancies than in even fully lucid dreams. The incredibly detailed memory that I had after I awakened, may have resulted from the intense mental focus that I directed at what I experienced, during the experience. In fully lucid dreams I now take it for granted - in a general way - that dream objects have bizarre attributes. Because of this attitude, I only occasionally look at specific dream objects in a critical way to see how they compare with their waking physical reality counterparts. In this VR scenario, I felt keenly interested in how well VR objects simulated the corresponding WPR objects, and consciously and continuously noted any of the discrepancies between what I saw, and the physical reality counterparts they "simulated".

I made extensive use of quotation marks (" ") in the dream account above to indicate my continuous and overt awareness - even in minor details - that I experienced VR objects and not WPR objects. Because of this critical mindset, I looked at everything in the dreamscape with fresh eyes, trying to take nothing for granted. Even so, in a technical sense this dream does not qualify as a "lucid" because I did not realize that I dreamed. Only the fact that I based my judgment of the situation on a false (or perhaps a future?) 2025 memory prevented me from realizing that I dreamed. The VR explanation just seemed far more congruent with what I experienced than did a dream explanation. This experience brings to light some interesting speculations on the relationships between lucidity, memory and personal identity.