When considering the questions of where we are and where we're going with Virtual Reality, I'm reminded of what philosopher Chuang Tzu wrote in the 4th century BC after waking from sleep: "Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man? Between me and the butterfly there must be a difference. This is an instance of transformation."
The potential of VR is vast, and begs a new vernacular, a new language, to both describe itself for others and for itself. After designing some VR, and attending numerous other VR demos and conferences, it has become increasingly clear that clarity and definition is needed for VR both in terms of its own production as well as critique.
The purpose of this is not to negate particular formats, but to help provide specific definition for real critique, in order to help progress and design both the form and experience of VR.
So, in order to create a primer for this new language, let’s first see where we are, and then where we can go.
First, we need to clarify some terminology.
- VR is Not Augmented Reality (AR). Augmented reality uses a layer of image upon the uninterrupted images of the real world, usually through a clear interface so the user may see the world as it is, with new images mapped upon it. This is typified by Google glass, Microsoft Microsoft Hololens, Meta 2, and the forthcoming Magic Leap etc.
- It's also not 360 Video. That describes a video or film where a user can move the perspective of the visible image in 360 degrees. A user may do so by clicking and dragging, tapping and dragging, or moving their bodies and/or heads in the direction of they wish to view the video. It can be experienced in a web browser on such platforms as Youtube and Facebook, as well as inside a Head Mounted Display (HMD) like the Oculus Rift, Gear VR, Cardboard and others.
- VR is also not film. Film, like 360 video, plays in a linear format and moves with or without user engagement. By pressing play, the film moves through its frames, from beginning to end. Despite the language used by many, this is not VR. This is film, which gives the user control over only which angle they observe the linear story. 360 Video is a form of film. Others include most content produced for New York Times Cardboard, as well as most linear filmmaking in cinemas and streaming.
- Virtual Reality is a system that provides a fully immersive experience whereby a user may control both the space and the time of their experience. A user feels their presence in a different reality, where they may engage with that reality directly, affecting it, as it affects them.
- Speak of presence, of worlds and of experience. For example: "I felt that, because of the poor frame rate, I lost my sense of presence in the experience as was jarred out of the world." Or, "The world was built for many experiences, where my presence took many forms. Sometimes I am a person, sometimes I am a butterfly."
- Speak of now, speak of feelings, ideas. Do not speak of story or plot alone. For example: "I am so present in that world of butterflies that I felt that I was flying with them right now, and it makes me feel free." Or, "There were many experiences in that world, and when I went from being a man to a butterfly, I felt strange and powerful." Or even "One of the ideas of the experience is to translate what it feels like to be a person as it becomes a butterfly. This could be a metaphor for many things…"
- True Virtual Reality means being completely other, such as The Matrix (film), where the user is unable to distinguish simulation from the real. Speak of degrees of immersion through feelings of presence. So say, for example, "I felt so present in that experience, that it was real." Or "I didn’t believe the experience, because I kept being moved around without any control"
It seems we are in a period of transformation, moving towards the desire to collapse this difference between worlds, in a direction towards the fully immersive, other experience. In that sense, we need to begin this new language bearing in mind that creating a virtual world may be a chance to improve upon this one, or, alternately, escape or repeat it.
As we move towards the truly virtual, we should be self-aware of the implications of our desires for virtuality. It is not enough to simply embrace the virtual as inherently good, but to understand it as a powerful construction of a set of conditions we deem to be a reality. As Artaud, who coined the phrase "Virtual Reality" in The Theater and Its Double in 1938, writes:
for this reality is not human but inhuman, and man with his customs and his character counts for very little in it. Perhaps even man's head would not be left to him if he were to confide himself to this reality – and even so it would have to be an absolutely stripped, malleable, and organic head, in which just enough formal matter would remain so that the principles might exert their effects within it in a completely physical way
In this sense, he already reminds us that the double, the uncanny doppelganger, is a powerful and valuable partner, but can also be turned against us, rendering our bodies almost or totally useless. As we imagine our VR experiences, we should also imagine our Virtual Selves. What an incredible opportunity, and responsibility.
So it follows that as we move ahead with this new language, we should also continue to develop a new set of ethics of virtual experience as well. Some questions, reminiscent of the beginnings of MUDs and of Second Life, arise: What does it mean to virtually (mis)behave? What are the implications on the "Real"? If I commit a virtual crime, am I only virtually guilty? Which reality is better? Am I me in VR? If not, can I shape who I am? A sense of autonomy is interwoven with presence. How does my being presence itself in this experience? How can I use virtual reality, not just be in virtual reality?
At this point, with so much energy and capital being thrown at the industry of virtual reality, these questions may be a bit naïve sounding. Yet perhaps there may still be a space for these and other questions. If we track the history of the internet, of revolutions in general, we see how they often quickly move from a utopian phase to intense concentrations of power in select hands. For example, as the internet was once a relatively free space, it is now dominated by surveillance (state and corporate) and serves to accelerate general capitalist patterns (shopping, entertainment, cats, porn, etc.). Do we have an opportunity here to do something different? Could this be a place where users could create new worlds?
As VR becomes a part of everyday life, we should both embrace it and critique it on its own terms in order to grow and shape it, as well as ensure that it does not simply repeat our current systems of engagement. This is the beginning of a new language, and this new vernacular should continue to be developed to help create new ways of relating to new worlds and each other, not simply mapping an old language upon new experiences. This primer is intended to help jump start this language and critique, and is clearly just a beginning as well.
About the Author: Daniel Perlin got his start in design making things with sound such as music, film, objects and sometimes spaces. After a few years spent in Rio de Janeiro, he managed to make his way back to New York, where he attended NYU’s ITP program and the Whitney Independent Study program. Daniel has had the privilege of designing with a diverse group of people, places and things. Recent work has been with clients such as Google, Euro RSCG/Havas, Wieden + Kennedy, Vito Acconci, Maya Lin, Errol Morris, Todd Solondz, IBM, Chase, Verizon and the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Before joining Droga 5, Daniel was a director of UX at Rosetta (a Publicis agency) and Local Projects (an exhibition and experiential design studio), both in New York City.