For better or worse, the world of virtual reality is virtually upon us
by Richard McLachlan
“Immersive virtual and augmented reality will become part of people’s everyday life.” Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook.
Zuckerberg isn’t just dreaming. In March last year his corporation bought Oculus VR for $2 billion. In a technological leap Oculus Rift – the virtual reality headset – has revived a languishing industry. For Zuckerberg, meeting the ‘Rift’ was “different from anything I have ever experienced in my life”. He regards virtual reality (VR) as the most significant development to succeed mobile phones, and “a long-term bet on the future of computing.” He wants usable VR (50 to 100 million units) out to living rooms, “as soon as we can get it there.”
It was a 22 year-old Californian, Palmer Luckey, who developed and then introduced an Oculus Rift headset, held together with gaffer tape, to the 2012 Sundance Film festival. The word ‘rift’ refers to the inventor’s belief that the Head-Mounted Display unit (HMD) creates a breach between virtual and actual reality. It is, in the words of one commentator, “(an) unbridgeable rift between the evidence of my senses and an awareness of space and time deeper in my body.”
‘Presence’ is the special experience of the Oculus Rift, the flip side of the cognitive dissonance of the unbridgeable rift described above. ‘Presence’ for Oculus’ chief technology officer, John Carmack, “means to be suffused with the conviction — a cellular conviction, both unimpeachable and too deep for words — that you are in another world.” It is said to be “so joyful and sustaining that those who touch it tend to fall silent.”
Recently in an unrelated convergence of both presence and perceptual rift, thirty-eight year-old Karen Davis of Port Pirie South Australia chased the Google Street View car down the street and triumphantly exposed her breasts to its camera. It was, said police superintendent Scott Denny, the same as “someone flashing their genitals.”
Whatever the version of reality (and anatomical literacy) current among law enforcement in Port Pirie, Karen’s assertion of presence was quickly censored and then erased from the Google record.
Sony, the other major player in this soon-to-be-everywhere technology, is onto ‘the presence’ – and its commercial potential. For Shuhei Yoshida, president of Worldwide Studios for Sony Computer Entertainment, “a sense of presence is something that only VR can bring to the market, an experience that gives you a really strong sense of presence somewhere else. That somewhere else has to be really attractive to you, so you want to go back to that space again and again. That will be the killer app for that platform.”
Project Morpheus is another VR ‘platform’ due to be released by Sony some time next year. It will, says Shuhei Yoshida – “shape the future of games.” The move to the living room, to the private domain, has been underway for some time. Yoshida, referring to the introduction of Playstation, confirms the commercial intent – “It was in the hands of all game developers, he says, to deliver 3D games to your home instead of to the arcade.”
Morpheus, who of course gave his name to morphine, appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as the god of dreams (literally ‘maker of shapes’). In medieval times his role was expanded to include sleep. Either function fits the metaphor: you can wander off into dreams of other worlds more wondrous, more ‘really attractive’ than your own. Or be found asleep at the wheel – on the nod with a plastic box strapped to your face. Given the dismaying global realities of 2015, either option has its own compelling logic.
When he bought Oculus VR last year, Zuckerberg tweeted “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.” Open and connected. Yes, he said that.
Characteristics of the ‘rift’?
In the land of Westeros in the Game of Thrones; seven hundred feet up, in the snow, on top of the ‘Wall’, an experienced rock climber in a cage with an Oculus Rift strapped to her face, panics: “… as much as I understood, intellectually, that the simulation was entirely fabricated, every reaction in my body and my brain told me I was in real danger, and I had to act.”
‘Sim sickness’ has accompanied VR from the beginning, since its origin in 1968. It is a complex business and seems to have at least two aspects: one is the limitations of hardware – latency (the lag in visual imaging as you move your head) and persistence (a blurring effect as you look around the virtual environment).
Then there is the impact of ‘the rift’. In a nod to Sartre, the New York Times reviewer presents the other form of sim sickness as an existential malaise – “Virtual-reality sickness — la nausée — can be seen as the body’s radical disbelief in this illusion. It surfaces to remind you, in horror, of your subjectivity and to force you to reclaim your sensory autonomy.”
Whatever the shortcomings and however ‘real’ the graphics, the Oculus Rift experience is dramatic and immersive for many who use it. There are YouTube clips attesting to this; people unable to last the distance of being guillotined in a comic book environment, or freaking out as they ascend the simulated Wall in Game of Thrones.
Putting aside the very ‘real’ benefits of VR to flight simulation, surgery, architecture, engineering, automobile and plane manufacture and so on, it is worth looking at the possible impact of widely affordable VR.
Does the inevitable fascination with a ‘rift’ between a vivid and immersive virtual world on the one hand, and ‘actual reality’ on the other, risk diverting our attention when it is most needed ‘out here’? Or will it heighten our appreciation of our own perceptual apparatus and the diverse beauty of the world we inhabit with our bodies?
As virtual environments get closer to seeming ‘100 percent real’, will the anxious narrative about (and quite possibly the lived experience of) ‘actual reality’ become even more unattractive? Turning away from a rapidly degrading planetary environment starts to look like a natural reaction.
If dying coral reefs are no longer worth a visit (or the effort to rescue), and it’s possible to engender wonder as well as terror, there will be plenty of great footage of colored fish from happier times to swim amongst in the living room. For a taste of the experience, see this video clip of being in an underwater cage when a shark starts to pay attention – and imagine another 2 or 3 years of software development:
But reassigning our loyalty to virtual worlds is not the inevitable outcome. After his years of working with commercial VR since 1983, Jaron Lanier has found that the experience of a virtual environment enhances his experience of the actual when he comes back to it. Because his senses had adjusted to the lower resolution of the virtual world, perceptions of the actual became hyper real “To me, that contrast, that feeling that you have when you’re out of it after you’ve used it, has universally been more precious than what happens in it.”
Again, putting aside for a moment the twin challenges of a burning planet and gross, global income asymmetry, how does this drive to perfect and disseminate ‘real’-feeling VR to every home equip children to engage with their actual world?
Having just watched two otherwise-active pre-teens gravitate repeatedly to the clunky but still compelling Assassin’s Creed, or to virtual football games onscreen, I start feeling anxious about their two and a half year old brother.
He wants to hold hands and bounce on the trampoline, or roll around on the floor wrestling, or change into a new outfit every 2 or 3 hours. He is feeling his world – discovering it with his (and its) physicality. Even Jaron Lanier is bracing himself for waves of inactive teenagers slumped on couches. But then the same used to be said of a child with ‘your nose in a book’.
Of course one could take Zuckerberg at Facevalue and view VR as a pathway to openness and connectedness. Rather than an inert disconnectedness, “could virtual reality’s capacity as a tool for empathy and communication (you can literally experience someone else’s world) be a boon for humanity?” But then, look at the kinds of games and movies that attract funding now.
Or we could survey the record to date of Facebook and its digital/ corporate fellow travelers and take note of their role in comprehensive data collection and marketing – and its disturbing corollary – mass surveillance of the population.
Markus Persson, the originator of Minecraft, a deceptively simple but compelling and creative digital world reminiscent of Lego, terminated negotiations to involve Oculus VR. Facebook, he said simply, “creeps me out.”
Whatever Persson’s reasons, the power of commerce to dictate priorities, and in fact notions of what is real or worthwhile, can only, surely, be reinforced by full immersion.
Who or what will shape our perceptions?
There are strong arguments that our experience of this ‘actual reality’ is shaped, if not determined, by culture. Experience is moulded by narratives of self versus other, individual striving (or the value of community), the need to ‘succeed’, or the importance of nurture – all colored by rather fixed notions of gender.
This perceptual conditioning is absolutely the case with virtual reality – both via the immersive architecture and whatever variety of content prevails. In virtual worlds…“the designer has a ‘gods-eye’ view of both the environment and the agent, and need not distinguish between them.” All the parameters are set in advance.
Despite being naturally drawn to messing with my perceptions, that’s a personal choice. I am disconcerted by the possibility that, when this technology is pervasive, its simplistic narratives may become second (and in time perhaps first) nature to children.
The nervous system doesn’t finish at the neck. Neither, as far as I am aware, does consciousness. It rides on all the five senses, embodied and vibrant. Do children run the risk of becoming disembodied actors in VR before they have learned to be embodied beings in actual reality? I don’t think we know that yet.
At this point I have to say that last night I finally had the chance to use Oculus Rift – and it is really something else. At a virtual reality meet up in the Microsoft building in Manhattan, with a light sabre in each hand, I frantically fended off luminous projectiles from a hostile drone. I then flew around a fairytale town with winged versions of ‘My Little Pony’ – like a lucid dream in a comic book.
It was like seeing an early Apple 11 desktop computer with the foreknowledge of what the next 20 years would bring. What Facebook does with it is one thing – and what growing numbers of enthusiasts do may be quite another. I left feeling enthralled. Walking out the front door of Microsoft, I passed through a portal – into Times Square, surrounded by vast moving advertising screens, and a three storey high picture of a naked Heidi Klum advertising a yellow duckie bathtub radio.
I’m lucky enough to live in a place that closely approximates my ideal neighborhood – even if there are still Google cars cruising the streets. It is an ‘actual reality’ in which the streets are always full of people, where men sit around tables outside grocery stores and play dominoes, where kids run and play on the pavement, and where their mothers or grandmothers buy bread, fruit and vegetables at corner stores. I use my limbs and five senses walking around in it.
Shortly the streets will be filled with the smell of lilac and linden – as well as freshly passed (and hastily picked up) dog turds, car exhausts, and the ever-present reeking black garbage bags. The dogwoods, cherries and redbuds will be in full bloom. The Q and B trains will pass below street level with a washing sound – like the sea. And the nervous system will pick up vibrations of their passing. All this, along with the warmth of spring sun on the skin and the pavement underfoot, adds up to an embodied presence – full sensory participation in a Brooklyn spring.
“The truth is, virtual reality just creates a deep hunger for real-world experiences.”
As you descend to earth via Google’s camera, homing in on your street of interest, choosing the satellite view over the map, it all looks orderly and schematic – a bit like Lego –the houses, the backyards, the swimming pools all outlined, as if in marker pen, by the surrounding streets.
The seeming virtual starts to look like the seeming real the closer you get, the satellite view and the street view and the map view all operating as different lenses on the familiar. But it’s not just houses and streets, shop-fronts and backyard swimming pools. There are people there – somewhere. But mostly you have to infer them.
Except that is, for Karen Davis – running up the street, pulling up her shirt and shouting, “hey you, I’m here. Check out my breasts. They’re real!”