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VR kills the Video Star – Experiencing is Believing

by Jonathan Harth,  translation by Pierre Schwarzer
@Guido von Nispen

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. . . Time to die. (Roy Batty in Blade Runner)

The frameless windows of current VR devices enable us for a new view of the world and oneself. The intensity of what is known as presence in virtuality has not been possible with any other medium so far. You cannot imagine what it is like to be placed into a virtual reality until you have experienced it on your own. But what does this mean on behalf of such new possibilities: on your own and with your own body? What (new) meanings of embodiment may become possible within virtual reality-environments? Will we merely find optical tricks and well-functioning imaginations in VR, or will we find an opening to redefine our very own corporeality?

Thus, the use of VR stirs up old, but nevertheless actual questions of phenomenology: What is the body? What is corporeality? How does identity inscribe itself into the body – and vice versa: how does the body inscribe itself into identity? VR, in its usage, constantly poses the question: Where, who and how am I actually present?

Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired Magazine, is reflecting the same, when he describes his experiences with the VR prototypes of the early days:

In the ’80s, I had maybe an outright mystical approach to it. For me, the very most important thing about VR was that when you were in it, you’d feel your own existence in the sense that if all the sensory input is artificial, then what’s floating there, that’s your consciousness. So to me, it was sort of proof that subjectivity is real; that consciousness is real, that it’s not just a construct that we put on things. Just to notice that you really exist, to me was the very, very core of it. (Kevin Kelly)

Nicole Stenger with VPL VR equipment developed by Jaron Lanier

It is still hard to predict where VR will develop. Nevertheless, it must be assumed that new technologies open up new experiences which then have to be culturally integrated one way or another. Even if VR still stands at its humble beginnings and nobody may foresee which questions will become relevant along and because of its use, one thing should be clear: society won’t give up VR all too soon.

What do these virtual experiences do to us as users? What impact may it have on one’s identity, when a user immerses her-/himself in a foreign and maybe somewhat frightening environment, in a body of the opposite sex, talking to strangers from whom one does not know whether they are avatars of another person or just buts. These questions may seem rather odd, but exactly that is possible today with the use of Virtual Reality. Thereby, it is not very far off to ask why a user should not reach a different attitude towards her-/himself after trying out different selves in different situations? The available corpus of research on these phenomena, which has grown since the 1990s, not only shows first approaches to behavioral therapy, but the findings of VR experiments on gender, age, skin color point in very similar directions.

Gender Swap - Experiment with The Machine to Be Another

A next society that technically provides self-divergent virtual societies in itself must have an involuntary effect on individuals:

What the user/viewer experiences in the case of the new technologies is his direct influence on the alternative reality: Not only the world could be different, but these realities and alternative possibilities do not exist in emptiness – they are always and inevitably dependent on our behavior and on our projections of possibilities. (Elena Esposito)

According to Esposito, such a probing of alternatives and possibilities of oneself can prove extremely valuable to a society which is increasingly exposed to the necessity of contingency. Perhaps this is why computer games are so attractive in the society of the 21st century. Digital games allow to play with the distinction of real and virtual possibilities, thus contributing to the capacity of dealing with contingency. Against the background of this distinction “the” reality may become a bottomless category. It is hardly surprising then, why Californians love VR so much. Once again, a technology promises to properly disrupt everything. But what is so special about Virtual Reality and how could this technology disrupt existing formats of media?

Secretary of Energy Dr. Moniz with 3D virtual reality glasses

VR kills the Video Star

The VR devices of the current generation already provide a very good impression of what it may become in the coming years. Above all, it is the effect of feeling present in the virtual environment, which can be regarded as the unique selling point of current VR technology. As a user of VR, you instantaneously experience yourself as a participant of this environment, no longer separated from the action by any means of distance-creating techniques such as camera angles or display screens. The successful suspension of disbelief locks the oscillation between here and there onto the side of the alternative. As a user you are right there in the middle of the action. Thus, Virtual Reality is about personalized experiences and thus, if we would like to assert that fragmentation, granularization and personalization are the current momentums of contemporary society, it is no surprise that VR is considered state of the art.

The “holy grail” of VR still is the 360​°-environment that has full three-dimensionality. That is because the experience of “being there” would be neglected by any projecting on plane surfaces. That’s why current VR-films still look pale, superficial and flat compared to computer-generated environments. Even the level of detail of real-world “graphics” cannot overcome this. Even current 3D-formatted movies such as the commercially most successful film of all time, Avatar, don’t create as much immersion and presence as the (by the way very infantile) low-budget short ButtVR. But above all, film always lacked interactivity – as a user, you remain a mere spectator and long for involvement.

We used to say seeing is believing. Now we have to say experiencing is believing. (Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment)

It is the technology of three-dimensional, 180° VR-Pronography that gives us a glimpse of what might become possible one day. However, at the same time VR-Porn creates completely different challenges: the phantom pain of the simulation actually becomes greater because the vividly copulating body clearly is not your own! Even worse, current VR-porn makes it necessary that only the “head” (that is, the 1st-person camera of the action) must remain completely stiff and does not allow any tolerance for movements. Otherwise, the infamous cyber-sickness sets in leading to the loss of immersion.

Oculus Rift DK2 virtual ride

However, the new positioning within the diegesis involuntarily raises the question of the recipient’s role. Who am I when I am, for instance, actively present in that kind of sexual action? An explicit addressing of the user – the so far tabooed breaking of the fourth wall – can be integrated in VR much more easily, but then the rather immersion-breaking experiences of the abstinence of interactivity come into play. If I am addressed as a spectator in video film, this remains a mere and flat gesture that allows no reaction. Watching movies relieves of one’s own actions. The use of VR on the other hand, is demandingly stimulating. VR implies the longing for personalized experiences and accordingly self-efficacy experiences build up the strongest immersion. Therefore, it should be expected that immersive VR narrations become the next big thing: Who is able to tell stories that really touch, move and change me?

Can VR-films actually unfold their full potential in the production of alternative realities in the medium of traditional narration? Perhaps their potential lies in curious and somewhat voyeuristic attitudes of recipients. With the help of VR, the user can be taken to places and situations that are otherwise unattainable. Missed the concert? No problem, I’ll get you there. Want a trip into Paraguay’s jungle? No problem, I do not even need to pack. Peripherals such as robot-mounted cameras (go-pros, copter, etc.) offer plenty of opportunities to try out new immersive documentaries of nature, culture and lifestyle. But in any case: VR always leaves one amazed. Amazed not only at the new worlds I could visit, but above all amazed about myself – about my fears, my worries, my inhibitions and possibilities.

VR as a technology of the self

I have become a traveler in a realm which will be ultimately bounded only by human imagination. (John Perry Barlow)

As long as the immersive crises that can be generated by VR are strong and contingent enough, the possibility of habitual disruption will not stand in the way. For this reason, VR – especially in its Californian variants – appears to be close to already existing utopias of self-optimization. It is not hard to find similarities between the longing, which come up with the use of VR, and the longings of spiritual practices and their hope of salvation. Both seem to be conditioned by an immanent suffering due to man’s anthropological deficiencies (Gehlen), which urges for dissolution, or at least for reassurance. While, for example, Buddhist practices point to the reflection of one’s own structuring and seeks to change the adept’s self- and world-relations, VR propagates the change of oneself by catapulting into alternative worlds. While the first approach primarily tries to change the self, the latter changes the world around you. Of course, it should be clear that world and self are always closely related to each other.

Virtual reality research at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas

Every reflexive insight – and thus the corresponding insight into the external – must measure itself at the above-mentioned question: Where and as who and how am I actually present right now? Now, VR offers the opportunity to bring this presence to a change, to override one’s space-time structure, and thus to change the perspective on oneself and the world. It seems as if the unity of the distinction between body and mind cannot help itself but to re-configure according to the perceptions of an alternative body in an alternative universe. Consciousness without perception, as well as perception without a body, and thus consciousness without a body, still is inconceivable.

Therefore, it can be assumed that with the help of VR the fluid and blurring boundaries between not only the virtual and the real but also the social and technical will merge together even more. From its very beginning, the socio-technological “cyberspaces” did appear to be the ideal place for hybrid entities. If technology and sociality can no longer be separated from each other, we have to assume an increasing hybridization of socio-technical reality. In cyberspace, human people tend to be equally digitally embodied as artificial non-human entities. Perhaps it is for this reason that the basically unlimited realities of virtuality appear to be the next frontier of human adventure and conquest?

At the same time it becomes clear that there are more possibilities within the body than culture so far calls for. In this sense, there seems to be a kind of surplus in the body which has not yet been realized culturally. Whether this can be realized at all, or in which individual form, still has to be proven. But we must assume that people will never stand still. Through digital avatars, the residents of Virtual Reality may construct virtual identities according to their very own personal desires for liberation from the above mentioned “deficiencies”. Being no longer restricted by material reality, the users of VR are thrown back at only their individual longing for being someone (else). But the technology of Virtual Reality not only offers new possibilities for new identities but also, just as well, the possibility to solidify and enhance a well-established identity. Fortunately, there is no need to constantly change identity. But the constant opportunity itself will change the point of view on one’s identity. The central question of “Who am I?” needs to be answered in VR as well, and it can be assumed that the need for answering it becomes more and more urgent while at the same time being harder to fulfill.

The new hybrid agents wearing fluid identities and inhabiting the potentially ever-changing environments of Virtual Reality finally lead us to the “Cyborg’s Dilemma” Frank Biocca was concerned about 20 years ago in the early days of VR:

The embodiment advanced in the form of virtual environment technology can be characterized as a form of cyborg coupling. This coupling underscores what I call the cyborg’s dilemma, a kind of Faustian trade off: Choose technological embodiment to amplify the body, but beware that your body schema and identity may adapt to this cyborg form. (Frank Biocca)

Leaving behind old schemes of bodily representation and perception, the use of Virtual Reality shatters the concept of the one and only body. By being able to embody other beings, while at the same time change, trade, or share different identities in various social contexts inhabited by human as well as non-human social agents, the formerly known mechanisms of identity management will become obsolete. Then, the amazement of the users about the possibilities of VR is nothing less than the enjoyable sabotage of ordinary presence. But at the same time, it is the astonishment about the richness of the world and oneself. Hopefully, this will clarify why the use of VR does not have to do with a loss of reality as it is traditionally sung in the songs of “the downfall of the occident”, but quite the opposite: VR has to do with a gain of reality! However, as a technology of the self these possibilities are available today.

Jonathan Harth studied sociology at the Freie University Berlin and has been scientific assistant at the Chair of Sociology at the University of Witten/Herdecke since 2013. He wrote his PhD on media practices dealing with computer-controlled game partners and has been researching on virtual reality technologies.