Object permanence, or not

I had a really interesting discussion last weekend with my colleague Julie Williamson about object permanence. It’s something her research lab has been focusing on.

We all learn, at an early age, that the object you see and the object that I see are one and the same. Somebody picks up an apple and hands it to me, and sure enough, the same apple still exists when I close my hand around it.

But once you start interacting in virtual or augmented reality, object permanence is a purely voluntary thing. We can choose to both see the apple, or we can choose not to.

Interesting questions come up when you start looking at the latter option. What happens when your sense of physical reality starts to diverge from mine? Is there any case where this is actually preferable?

In the world of computers we deal with this kind of thing all the time. If you and I have different file permissions, then a directory that I can see may be completely invisible to you.

But once VR and AR start becoming pervasive, these notions of diverging reality may start to invade our interaction with the physical world itself. This might end up seeming really weird.

Or maybe it won’t. Maybe it will be more like one of having different keys to different rooms in a hotel.

If you and I are staying in different rooms in a hotel, I can use my key to enter my room any time I’d like. You believe that my room exists, but you cannot enter it, or even see what it looks like, unless I invite you in.

It could be that diverging experiences of object permanence in VR and AR will end up feeling somewhat similar. Sometimes you won’t be able to see some object floating in the air between us, unless I give you permission to do so, and vice versa.

Maybe, after we’ve been doing this for a while, it will all just end up seeming, like, normal.

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