Due Monday October 3rd
Read these two texts and post a response below:
Colonizing Virtual Reality: Construction of the Discourse of Virtual Reality, 1984-1992 by Chris Chesher (1994)
What Is Virtual Reality? by Brenda Laurel (2016)
Some starting points:
Are some of the narratives around the first wave of Virtual Reality persisting today? Are there new narratives and tropes surrounding contemporary VR?
Can you think of other technologies that embraced the same tropes since the early ’90s (frontier myth, making history, inevitability, coming from the margins…)?
What kind of metaphors and analogies could/should be used to talk about VR today (if any)?
Respond to any of the quotes that are not extensively unpacked in the paper. E.g.:
“My idea of virtual reality is that, in the long run, it’s going to shut down television.” -Jaron Lanier
“Virtual reality can be an extension of a tendency in western capitalist societies to commodify human experience”
15 thoughts on “Readings: the discourse around virtual reality”
A lot of the problems surrounding VR’s first wave launch seem to stem from a dissonance between the words used to talk about it and the actual affordances of the technology. A lot of the high-concept spokespeople for the technology, like Jaron Lanier, seemed to really have faith in the technology’s ability to transcend existing mediums of entertainment, not to mention societal norms as well. While Lanier and his contemporaries were generally speaking of VR in the abstract, it seems obvious that the general public would assume that these properties (transcending existing reality, etc.) were implicit to VR as a technology, rather than a promise of what may be down the road. As a result, there existed a stark difference between the (generally) low-fidelity and technically-constrained experiences offered on first-wave VR and the grand rhetoric that Lanier offered. This would obviously dampen public interest and expectations for the technology, and seems to be at least partially responsible for the VR interest “crash” that happened in the mid-1990s.
It is unsurprising that VR had to make such a cautious entrance into the mainstream. At the time, people were already getting used to Apple and Microsoft computers; however, not long ago, the computer itself had been the newest idea to be presented to the public. Early computers had useful applications everywhere, causing movies to portray computers as evil machines that stole jobs. VR went through this process as well when people feared that they would become addicted to “electronic LSD”. It seems to me that entertainment was definitely the best way to integrate VR into society. People may be uncomfortable with having VR enter their everyday life, but they are probably okay with having VR be a source of entertainment on the side, like televisions or theme parks. Even 3D printing started out with people printing random little designs for fun and has now expanded to medical and architectural purposes.
On a separate note, I feel that the quote “my idea of virtual reality is that, in the long run, it’s going to shut down television” would be questioned by Brenda Laurel because, in her article, she heavily argues that 360 video, surround movies, and even VR storytelling is not actually VR. She insists that VR must be truly immersive and cannot be scripted. As such, perhaps limiting the idea of VR to television does not actually take into account what VR should do.
Part of reasons that Virtual Reality faltered were the negative cultural connotations that followed the medium from it’s sci-fi roots. Combining that with the inability for people to try the system themselves, the only descriptions of the technology came from editorialized opinion pieces. This was further exacerbated by the breadth of tech that fell under “VR”, such as the motion controlled PowerGlove.
Today, many of those sorts of biases have been broken down as video games themselves have become more commonplace and recreational, but the narrative has shifted from “VR is dangerous” to “Why should I shell out money for a VR machine”. Much like the Radio, TV, and the personal computer, VR tech will have to create compelling experiences that justify it’s existence, but it remains to be seen if the tech/resources are there yet to make such ventures profitable/worthwhile. It will be even trickier for VR technology than it was for other mediums, precisely because of how drastically an experience can vary from person to person.
Aside from that, something that struck me in Laurel’s paper were the characteristics she said VR experiences had to obey. Particularly, the “Affordances for narrative construction.” In it, she claims that these experiences must allows the participant to create ” a story, or many stories, by traversals of the world. The author(s) of the world must design cues and affordances that encourage the participant to make dramatically interesting choices.” But what constitutes dramatically interesting choices? In the Stanley Parable, all choices and scenarios were explicitly drawn up by the game designer himself, so in that regard, the user doesn’t “really” have the opportunity to create unique situations. On the other end of the spectrum, play in games like Minecraft arise from a complex assortment of interlocking systems, but I’d feel hardpressed to say that Minecraft’s narrative engagement is stronger than the Stanley’s Parable. In fact, in games explicit narrative storytelling has commonly surpassed the more complicated layered systems. I’m not sure that the same won’t carry over to VR.
Laurel’s explanation of the characteristics of Virtual Reality shows the progress of how VR should be made. There are great improvements but the experiences are still very minimal. As Jaron Lanier states “My idea of virtual reality is that, in the long run, it’s going to shut down television.” Chesher mentions, if digital colonizes the analog data space, everything would be available in the digital form which VR could dominate our world. However, this domination could bring potential danger in human society which it could alienate those outside of cyberspace. It could create social issues, such as language barriers and social segregation. While VR could bring people together in a virtual space, there should be a solution to bring the components that would not fit into VR. The process to incorporate cultural component in Virtual Reality needs much more work.
I agree with Brenda Laurel’s statement that the term VR should only be applied very sparingly to things that truly are VR. While some might argue that restricting the usage of the term to only a certain type of experience might be limiting, I think that nowadays too many companies are trying to declare their games/products/experiences as being VR in the hopes of capitalizing on the renewed fascination in VR, and pass off their experiences as being something that they’re not.
It’s interesting how Laurel provides all of these restrictions that she has discovered from working on her own VR project, with regards to what people need to be able to see and hear in order to feel as though they are immersed. I recall a paper that I read about First Word Art and Last Word art which I read previously, discussing the difference between First Word Art (which is groundbreaking and exploratory as people discover the limitations of a new medium) and Last Word Art (which is virtuosity after the rules have been fixed.) I think that VR is still in its First Word Art stage, where people are still discovering what can be done with VR and the various rules that ought to apply when creating it.
The phenomenon of appropriating a popular/hot technology and applying it as a buzzword in order to promote something loosely associated, ironically diluting the value of the term in the process, is definitely one that continues today (VR and IoT, for example). As Laurel puts it, “When the term is appropriated, its meaning disintegrates”. Yet VR as it has reemerged in the present day exists entirely in the public consciousness as a business or a means of entertainment, a far cry from its original roots in psychedelic drug culture. This moving away from its origins (and the ‘historical narrative’ regarding how VR came to be) in an attempt to become a viable business strikes me as slightly appropriative in and of itself.
After reading Laurel’s article about the definition of Virtual Reality, I realized many things that are available now and presented as virtual reality are really nothing more than the usual media we use jammed into a “virtual reality” headsets. They all solely include the movements of the headset and most of the other elements such as it having to be in more than just a “cave” were ignored. I think the way the more general public is informed about virtual reality is wrong according to Laurel’s definition of true virtual reality, so the progressions that we see aren’t really much different from the ones years ago around the same hype. Virtual reality is too much focused on single aspects of immersion and that wouldn’t help much with its overall progression. I think that the difference between the hype around VR now and years ago is that people are more aware of some ethical problems that could emerge with the growth of VR, after years of already experiencing such issues with just the internet and the power of anonymity.
“My idea of virtual reality is that, in the long run, it’s going to shut down television.” -Jaron Lanier
Hearing concepts such as Virtual Reality compared to rapidly aging technologies such as television is fairly comical, yet provides a stark look into the early stages of VR.
To think that with the current state of the digital entertainment landscape that television could be considered as the king of media is completely counter-intuitive to the way most people live their lives. Lanier’s idea does make sense for the year 1990. The rapid expansion and digital colonization of the internet was barely in its infancy. It does however show a great deal of oversight to the technical requirements imposed by virtual reality on its innovators.
Brenda Laurel’s concise yet dense explanation of the most important aspects of Virtual Reality underlines this thought. To consider the magnitude of change Lanier is posturing here without taking into account the cultural, economic and technologic progress which would need to be for VR to be the television killer directly contradicts the intensity of the medium of Virtual Reality.
In hindsight, it is much easier to view VR as an element in the ever growing landscape of entertainment media shifting tools. The Internet, video sharing websites and social media have all done their part to put their own spin on media distribution and have each doctored their own niches. Yet, as evident by VR’s first wave and now second wind, it is clear that the medium is cutting out its own slice of the pie rather that devouring the entire thing.
I heartily disagree with alot of the definitions that Brenda Laurel uses to describe the “misnomers” regarding virtual reality. Laurel describes the modern day term “virtual reality” as misused and berates the technology’s rising popularity in our society. Laurel argues that virtual reality should be used within a strict construct, constricting that definition to events like “Complete surround environment.”, or “Affordances for depth perception and motion parallax.”.
As I was reading the article, an immediate idea that I got was the rising debate over whether Snapchat is considered Augmented reality. To those passionate with improving the boundaries of AR, they argue that snapchat filters aren’t augmented reality. However, we can also define AR as simply any addition to one’s physical reality.
Another reason why I disagreed with Laurel’s definition of virtual reality was her insisting that virtual reality can only be something visual and completely surrounding. I believe we should define virtual reality based on its experience on the user, not what it looks like. What I mean is that virtual reality should come in any medium, as long as it can be very interactive and immerse the user in some “virtual” surrounding. For example, as we played second life, I remember the guest speaker even abstracted the term “virtual reality” to cover things like the Internet. To some extent, I have to agree. Virtual reality is much more apparent to us than what we popularly consider, and I believe that we should note those aspects and use them to build upon in virtual reality.
The new revival of virtual reality is often talked about and compared to the original wave in the 1990s. Brenda Laurel mentions that the reason why the previous wave failed, is due to its inability to impress the public with its technology and experience. The article lists many aspects surrounding Virtual Reality during the first wave, which ultimately failed to meet the publics’ expectations. With the new wave of VR emerging, she warns us of the “consequences of stretching a name too thin”.
I totally agree with Laurel, however, I also believe that VR is one of those technologies that will eventually be “the next big thing” like many famous inventions such as the printing press, telephones, computers, etc. Chris Chesher mentions that it isn’t only technology that is pushing the revival of VR, but a more complex and strong connection to culture. As a result, it is only a matter of time that VR will once again reemerge to the surface whether or not it will survive through the current wave.
I thought that the reading by Laurel was interesting as it brought up a lot of points of what VR is NOT. VR has become a catch-all term for anything 3D now, and I am glad people are beginning to think critically about what constitutes VR/AR/MR/etc. That being said, it seemed like Laurel’s strict interpretation of virtual reality could be loosened. In particular her comment about “affordances for tracking the participant’s direction of motion distinct from direction of gaze” bothered me. It doesn’t make sense to me that direction of gaze essentially doesn’t count for her, as that is what primarily makes up how we view the world. I also am unsure about how VR is a first person model. I feel like that can definitely be pushed and although it may not seem like “reality” right now, maybe it could one day.
The issues we’ll face in our current iteration of VR are not much different than the issues which doomed the previous wave.
We’ve come further, but there’s still a considerable barrier to entry, and a somewhat cumbersome, tethered HMD. Even so, the technology is more or less sufficient to create the experience (given a fast computer), so people who are willing to buy a Vive are not inherently going to get motion sickness. While I find Laurel’s criteria a bit silly and prescriptive, I think it’s critically important that we, as developers, aspire to meet or exceed the expectations she lays out.
The difference now is that the technology does not inherently induce motion sickness, whereas bad content can. This means the onus of making sure VR succeeds this time around has been shifted to us.
As developers of VR content, we have a considerable responsibility when it comes to the quality of our work. If our games makes people sick, or if they don’t look good, we might be welcoming back in the same criticisms as before.
If someone tries VR for the first time and they get sick because the content is awful, they’re not only going to claim that our game is bad, they’re also going to form a negative opinion about VR: “look, guys! this is still a terrible technology!” and if enough people form that opinion, VR might fall out of favor again, and if that happens, who knows when it will come back?
So, as much as I find Laurel’s requirements pedantic, and as much as we would want to break those rules as artists, I think we have a great responsibility to exercise, given our newfound power as developers.
I disagree pretty strongly with Laurel’s argument that we should reserve the title of “VR” for things that she declares to be truly representative of the medium. This encourages a “gatekeeping” mentality, one that I don’t think belongs in the (re)birth of a medium. Let people experiment. Let them declare “This is Virtual Reality!” on things that clearly are not. The definition will change and evolve and demand for the ideal will shape what the market allows to succeed. The popularity of the recent “Hoverboard” is similar to this. No, it is not a hoverboard. It remains firmly on the ground. But its popularity and the discourse around it will further the research and funding to get us closer to a true flying skateboard, just like this influx of faux-VR companies will test the waters of the public, increase excitement and funding for more immersive VR, and continue the slow process towards the ideal.
What I find interesting about both these articles is the description of VR as this uncharted territory we have lot to learn about. We are learning what is and is not acceptable in the realm of VR– what delivers a more convincing experience and what breaks the illusion. Chesher expands what is considered VR by referencing surround sound/visual cinema in the 50s. Cyberspace is described as this area just waiting to be claimed, and everyones rushing to get their piece. People back in the day were conceiving this subject as an actual space– a tangible thing. Nowadays I think we do a better job of thinking of VR as, although the technology allowing its illusion exists in real space, a virtual– as in noexisting– realm only possible through a series of binary strings. At the same time, this idea of “re-troping” and reconquering a space in a new way is an idea artists constantly battle with, linking back to this question of “is anything really original anymore?”. VR is providing this new and original space for all types of communities and industries to claim a spot in.
Laurel’s assertion that VR must be used sparingly as a term for fear of popping the media bubble or raising public expectation too much is a logical response from someone who experienced the rise and fall of first wave VR in the past. Much like No Man’s Sky received a ton of flak after release due to inflated expectations from the public, I feel like the video game industry is becoming more and more aware of how exaggerated promises and misuse of terms with regard to concepts can hurt advancement in certain areas. Laurel clearly states her past apprehension by saying “I also want to warn younger folks of the consequences of stretching a name too thin. Back in the 1990s, that’s exactly what happened — and the form, along with the discoveries of those who created it — largely disappeared. Let’s be mindful of that this time around.”
The interesting thing about her point of view on this topic is that if VR truly is overused, how close are we to actually getting affordable consumer VR? I suppose it’s comparable to sculpting vs 3d printing; there are methods of sculpting that involve stacking layers on top of each other – is that 3d printing or is the definition so rigorous that it must involve a machine? Similarly, is the definition of VR so strict that it must follow Laurel’s guidelines?
I’m just not sure that applying such constraints to using the term “VR” would benefit the industry – especially since the public exposure to it is much different than back in first wave VR.