Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" was published in 1932. It has been variously defined as a work of science fiction and of dystopian fiction. Huxley's dystopia was an ideal state (a utopia) gone wrong; its realities were those that readers would wish not to encounter. But in order to have credibility with the reader, those realities needed to be plausible. Huxley's vision was not something of pure sociopolitical science-fiction fantasy. It was wedded to its time. The "feelies" were one such aspect. At a time when "talkies" were still comparatively new, Huxley broadened the definition of sensory entertainment. He invented a form of virtual reality.
The BBC's website currently features an article in which Philip Ball discusses the notion that we all live inside a gigantic computer simulation. We are, therefore, only virtually real, as is everything around us. The idea isn't as mad as it sounds; not if you read Ball's article anyway. It does of course sound like "The Matrix", of which Huxley would doubtless have approved. Here is a dystopian vision of a reality that isn't real. Virtual.
There are scientists who are prepared to consider this theory and so therefore of super-intelligent beings who created a virtual world. The notion becomes less fanciful courtesy of quantum physics, while there are technological developments (and potential ones) that further reduce the fancifulness.
Ball observes: "Who is to say that before long we will not be able to create computational agents – virtual beings – that show signs of consciousness? Advances in understanding and mapping the brain, as well as the vast computational resources promised by quantum computing, make this more likely by the day. If we ever reach that stage, we will be running huge numbers of simulations. They will vastly outnumber the one 'real' world around us."
In the same year as Huxley's novel was published, Werner Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the creation of quantum mechanics. But that was 1932. This is now a world in which quantum computing makes virtual reality ever more all-embracing.
Three years ago I wrote an article entitled Let's All Meet Up In The Year 2030. This featured RepBots - robotic reps - and a "tourist integrated televisualisation system". A tourist could "mind set" this system into intelligent and interactive sunglasses and be free to go wherever he or she wanted to. That was three years ago. At the time I envisaged the tourist still going to a resort before experiencing virtual reality. Now, I'm less sure that he or she would need to.
A recent article by Andrés Romero ("Hosteltur", 21 August) looked at virtual reality and at its use to transmit emotions to capture potential tourist clients. While he was looking at the use of virtual reality as a means of marketing, he referred to key elements which might suggest a different type of future. These included sensory reality, a means by which someone can position him or herself in a virtual world. Huxley's feelies and notion of sensory entertainment have moved a long way since 1932.
The further the technology develops, the more imaginable become the simulations that Philip Ball refers to. Is it so farfetched to conceive of tourism virtual reality, maybe not by 2030 but at some point, removing the necessity to travel? This might seem like a dystopian view of tourism in the future, but would it be? The environmental benefits alone would be vast if physically tourists did not need to travel.
This would, on the face of it, destroy tourism economies and the travel industry, but as Romero points out a further key facet for the application of virtual reality is interactivity, by which the virtual world affords authenticity. The total tourism experience could be maintained therefore - there would still be travel, there would still be staff in hotels, owners of bars. Transactions would be retained. All through simulation. And so economies would remain. Tour operators would become super programmers of holiday experiences, the providers of the matrix. Sensory immersion, something else Romero cites, would enable the feeling of heat, the chill of the sea, the taste of the tapas.
All this may sound totally off-the-wall, but there is a further reason to consider why virtual tourism might one day exist. The threat is here in the present, but as technology advances in benign ways, so it does in more disturbing fashion and makes threats ever greater. Terrorism is the most obvious. A virtual world could remove that. The super programmers would see to it.
Huxley conceived his simple virtual reality of the "feelies" within a context of the day that was understandable to readers. Virtual reality of today is very much less understandable, though in comparatively basic ways - video games for example - it is perfectly understandable. And quantum computing might one day make it the reality. If it isn't already.