Even if the association of virtual with digital technology is now immediate, the term virtual is very ancient. It comes from the Latin root vir, referring to strength, manliness and, due to the very patriarchal society, virtue. In scholastic Latin, virtualis indicated the potential, that is what is in the power of the force. This is associated with the Aristotelian distinction between the acorn and the oak, where the oak exists in potentia in the acorn, while the oak in the forest exists in actu. Since Ancient history, virtuality is associated with the potentiality: the virtual existence has always been put in contrast with actual existence. The virtual is not that which has no possibility of existence, but that which possesses the force of coming into existence. However, when the term has been used for the first time in optics in the 18th century, the virtual image was made of virtual foci, of something illusory, that is not there. In this sense, virtuality is also the quality of something that fakes to be something other than it is. We have then two different directions in meaning: one carries the negative connotations of artificiality, the other suggests force, productivity, and possible existence.
From a philosophical and theorical point of view, there are two main strands of thought as well.
On the one hand, French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard sees modernity as dominated by computers, which fill the world with images that do not reflect reality anymore. In his view, the virtual substitutes the real and becomes the hyperreal, where the condition of being “other” is dissipated and chased away (6).
On the other hand, Pierre Lévy (1998) and Gilles Deleuze (2002) think of the virtual in an opposing and productive relation to actuality. In particular, the actual and the virtual exist in a feed-back loop where the virtual wants to be actualized, while the actual creates a reverberation of a number of virtualities, which, in turn, generate other virtual projections. Since in Lévy’s Becoming Virtual (1998) the virtual can be actualized in many diverse ways and can be actualized only in case when there is an irreversible creative, active process involved, the virtual is an inexhaustible resource of creation. In addition, Lévy reckons that the productivity of the virtual can be enhanced by digital technology as it accelerates the rate of change and transformation.
The association of the “virtual” with digital technologies rose with the notion of Virtual Reality, proposed in 1989 by Jason Lanier. The term wanted to describe the many simulation projects under construction during the 1980s. In short, VR is a highly user-friendly immersive, interactive experience generated by a computer that leads to the disappearance of the infrastructure that generated it (Pimentel and Texeira 1993, 11). Nowadays, VR and AR are used to develop skills applicable in the real world, to visit real places “from a distance”, to build objects that have an economic or an artistic value also in the real world. It is undeniable that we are reaching a moment where technology is facilitating the interaction between real and virtual: the actual is one of the many potential forms of the virtual, and the virtual has an evident, material influence on the real world, also in terms of money and material exchanges between the two.
In this research frame, virtuality is a narrative of the still possible, which leads from the present moment into the future by enacting and engendering a beam of several new possible actualizations in the real world. Actualization is just a response to the virtual forces that generate it.
Baudrillard, Jean. “The precession of simulacra”, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, 1-42. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,  (1994).
Deleuze, Gilles. “The Actual and the Virtual”, Dialogues II. Translated by Eliot Ross Albert, 112-116. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Lévy, Pierre. Becoming Virtual: Reality in the digital age. Translated by Robert Bononno. New York: Plenum Trade, 1998.
Pimentel, Ken and Kevin Texeira. Virtual Reality: through the new looking glass. New York: Intel/Winderest McGraw Hill, 1993.