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On the Threshold of the Avatar Era


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Virtual reality

Virtual reality advances could someday allow students to dance as shapes and molecules.

Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

In a garage in Palo Alto, Calif., in the 1980s, some friends and I were the first humans to experience becoming avatars—that is, movable representations of ourselves in cyberspace. Amazingly, all these years later, almost no one else has been able to experience a hint of what will be one of the great cognitive adventures of this century.

It has been possible for some years for visitors to theme parks to try out virtual-reality "rides," but these don't capture the experience. Becoming an avatar in virtual reality, as a full-bodied human (or even nonhuman), has the potential to be vastly more interesting and important than one would expect from a technological amusement. What is really going on is the opening up of a new frontier of human potential, which can be called "somatic cognition"—somatic meaning "of the body."

I first became aware of somatic cognition while learning to improvise music at a piano. After enough practice, a moment comes when you notice that your hands have solved complicated puzzles of voice and harmony faster than your conscious mind can keep up. Fine basketball players, surgeons and pilots report similar moments.

From The Wall Street Journal
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