A definitively flexible expression

February 26, 1999

Get a life, virtually speaking. Tony Durham traces the often rugged history of virtuality

The word "virtual" is used for many things which are not quite what they seem. But it probably found its way into computer talk from optics. There, a real image is the kind that a projector puts on a cinema screen, while a virtual image is the kind you see in a mirror. If you look behind the mirror where you thought the image was, it vanishes.

IBM coined the name "virtual memory" for a technique which made computer memories seem bigger than they really were - like putting a mirror wall in a small bathroom.

The trick is to move chunks of data temporarily to the hard disk, without the usual fuss of saving files. IBM introduced it in 1972, but Ferranti computers had used the same technique 11 years earlier under the less glamorous name of "paging".

Meanwhile, Ivan Sutherland invented a helmet that transported the user into an imaginary world of 3D computer graphics, which he wrote up in an academic paper in 1968.

By the late 1980s hardware was lighter and software was faster, and Jaron Lanier started a company, VPL Research, to commercialise the idea he called "virtual reality". There were not only head-mounted displays, but position-sensing gloves and other gadgets for interacting with virtual worlds.

Lanier thought "virtual reality" was his trademark, but watched as the term entered the language and came to mean almost anything. "The only other words in English that can be used as flexibly are obscenities," he said.

Lanier was apparently not the first to use the flexible phrase. A spoof technical bulletin from IBM, dated February 4, 1983, announced the Virtual Universe Operating System: "the individual user appears to have not merely a machine of his own, but an entire universe of his own".

The document promised "an even more powerful operating system, target date 2001, designated 'Virtual Reality'. . . planned to enable the user to migrate to totally unreal universes."

Probing deeper into the past, we find "virtuality" used by Caxton in 1483. "Virtual" and "virtue" are words with politically incorrect Latin origins. Virtus, for the Romans, meant those indefinable qualities that make a good chap. Like "virility" it stems from vir, a man, an adult male.

"Reality" is from another Latin word, res meaning "thing", so the phrase "virtual reality" could be roughly anglo-saxonised as "blokeish thinginess".

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