Situated within the context of interdisciplinary research, this thesis leverages concepts from the fields of metaphysics, experimental psychology, game design and human-computer interactions to answer the question "are virtual things real?" First, we attempt to develop a ontological account of virtual entities, using as a starting point the framework proposed by philosopher David J. Chalmers in his 2016 talk, The Virtual and Real. We then expand on Chalmers’ account using concepts from Husserlian phenomenology in order to describe the first-person phenomenal experience of virtual reality. Next, we demonstrate that our modified version of Chalmers’ thesis is compatible with several major contemporary ontological accounts of the universe (materialism, idealism, and property-dualism). Using this framework, we present a series of "rules of thumb" for designing virtual reality environments with a realistic feel. Next, we describe a series of empirical experiments conducted using concepts from experimental psychology to test what non-technical virtual environment design factors confer a phenomenal experience of realism upon the user. To conduct these experiments, we designed and implemented a series of virtual environments, along with an automated data collection system to measure in real time the qualitative variables analyzed in the study. Concurrently, we utilized phenomenological techniques to better understand whether these variables map onto the subjective experience of realism many participants experience inside immersive virtual worlds. We then describe the implementation of the software using the Unity3D game engine and the technical background of the HTC Vive virtual reality hardware employed in the experiments. Finally, we report the results of the empirical experiments and comment on the data collected. Although the quantitative analysis of the data from the automated data collection system failed to yield any statistically significant results due to issues with experimental design, the qualitative study seems to demonstrate an empirical grounding for our claim that virtual things are real in a ontological sense


Byrnes, Denise

Second Advisor

Schiltz, Elizabeth


Computer Science; Philosophy


Continental Philosophy | Digital Humanities | Graphics and Human Computer Interfaces | Metaphysics | Software Engineering


HCI, Virtual Reality, Metaphysics, Phenomenology

Publication Date


Degree Granted

Bachelor of Arts

Document Type

Senior Independent Study Thesis



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