Virtual 3/14/22

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

A bizarre thought crossed my mind the other day. I got to thinking about VR games, which is the kind of game that makes you feel like you’re actually in the game world. If you’ve never used one, it’s an interesting experience. You look around, and even move around (within the confines of your room) and you see and hear the world around you. It’s as if you are actually a cartoon character in a cartoon world.

I started thinking about dogs. My dog has long since passed on, but what if I could bring her into this virtual world? I don’t see why not. Currently, you put goggles on that are linked to the internet and you’re in the virtual world. So why couldn’t you put them on a dog?

Some of these virtual worlds allow people to see each other (or their avatars) and talk with one another. So, if your dog saw one of those worlds, and saw you there, would the dog know it was you? No, of course not since it’s just an avatar, but if you called the dog’s name, would it come to you?

Then I started thinking about the dog’s experience in the virtual world. The fact is, no matter how realistic the programmers make the world appear to us, it would never be realistic to a dog for the main reason that it has no smells. The dog might recognize your voice but would know it’s not you because it lacks your smell. I’m sure it would confuse the dog terribly to be in a world without smells. All the dog would smell is the room they are in the real world. It might try to walk up to something and smell it, but the smell wouldn’t change.

On occasion I’ll get into a conversation with a friend over the existence of spirits and ghosts. I’m kind of non-committal on the topic, usually saying that I do not believe in them, but that I’m open to the possibility that I might be wrong. This is a simple admission that there is far more to the world than we know of. As a scientist, I can use instruments to see more, hear more, understand more than a lot of people, but even that is limited. Cats can see more into the spectrum of light than humans can. They can see light that is invisible to us, and there are those who believe that because of this, cats can see spirits. Sometimes my cat will simply sit and stare at something, and I cannot see what she is looking at. Usually, it just looks as if she’s staring at the wall, but who am I to judge? She probably does see something on that wall that I do no. If I were immersed in her world, would I believe what I was looking at is reality?

Bats hear more than we do. They can hear ultra-sonic sounds well beyond our ability and use it to map the world around them. If we could suddenly hear on this scale of frequencies, what would we hear? We hear periodic squeaking of floorboards, but are these sounds more constant at higher frequencies? How alien the world would sound to us.

Dogs don’t just see the world. Their sense of smell immerses them into the surrounding far deeper than we can imagine. Leave the dishes in the sink for too long and we might be able to smell the mold on them, but what do you suppose dogs smell? I’m sure they can distinguish between food and not, so how rude is it when they have to smell us cooking something they’ll never get to taste? And speaking of, how sensitive is their sense of taste? Taste buds are important for the sense of taste, and yet, smell is a critical component as well. If you lose your sense of smell (as Covid can do), your sense of smell is dramatically dulled as well. Nobody ever seems to talk about if dogs can taste better than humans. I wonder.

We think we know the world around us, but how much do we really know? How senses of sight, smell and sound are nowhere near what animals are capable of. Even mosquitoes can smell carbon dioxide gradients. They can smell carbon dioxide (or sense it, as this sense might be different from our five altogether), and they can distinguish in which direction it is stronger (the gradient). This is how they find their victims at night but following the gradient upstream until they happen on the animal exhaling it. I wonder what we are missing.


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