Arthur C. Clarke Imagines Virtual Reality In 1953


I’m finally reading Childhood’s End — gaining new respect for the writer of the mini-series in the process — and came across a surprising description of what can only be Virtual Reality.


Much of the colony’s musical experimenting was, quite consciously, concerned with what might be called “time span.” What was the briefest note that the mind could grasp — or the longest that it could tolerate without boredom? Could the result be varied by conditioning or by the use of appropriate orchestration? Such problems were discussed endlessly, and the arguments were not purely academic. They had resulted in some extremely interesting compositions.

But it was in the art of the cartoon film, with its limitless possibilities, that New Athens had made its most successful experiments. The hundred years since the time of Disney had still left much undone in this most flexible of all mediums. On the purely realistic side, results could be produced indistinguishable from actual photography — much to the contempt of those who were developing the cartoon along abstract lines.

The group of artists and scientists that had so far done least was the one that had attracted the greatest interest — and the greatest alarm. This was the team working on “total identification.” The history of the cinema gave the clue to their actions. First sound, then color, then stereoscopy, then Cinerama, had made the old “moving pictures” more and more like reality itself. Where was the end of the story? Surely, the final stage would be reached when the audience forgot it was an audience, and became part of the action. To achieve this would involve stimulation of all the senses, and perhaps hypnosis as well, but many believed it to be practical. When the goal was attained, there would be an enormous enrichment of human experience. A man could become — for a while, at least — any other person, and could take part in any conceivable adventure, real or imaginary. He could even be a plant or an animal, if it proved possible to capture and record the sense impressions of other living creatures. And when the “program” was over, he would have acquired a memory as vivid as any experience in his actual life — indeed, indistinguishable from reality itself.

The prospect was dazzling. Many also found it terrifying, and hoped that the enterprise would fail. But they knew in their hearts that once science had declared a thing possible, there was no escape from its eventual realization. . . .

This, then, was New Athens and some of its dreams. It hoped to become what the old Athens might have been had it possessed machines instead of slaves, science instead of superstition. But it was much too early yet to tell if the experiment would succeed.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

In other articles I’ve seen quoting fiction that foresaw VR, I’ve never seen this one.

Add it to the pile.

Previously here:

Virtual Reality category

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