We have access to so many different kinds of experience that the thought of not having access to something can be disturbing.
Just think about the things we’ll never be able to do (there’s something about the finality of ‘never’ that rubs everyone the wrong way).
- You’ll never know what it’s like to be in someone else’s body (how they see, think, feel, etc.)
- You’ll never see yourself without the filter of a mirror or images taken of you.
- You’ll never be able to look anywhere without your nose in your periphery.
The thing that I love about VR is that it subverts these experiential limits and opens up countless opportunities for us to experience life in an impossible way.
I’ve been doing some research in trends in VR and I discerned a common theme throughout many creative immersive projects: the search for a disembodied experience.
It makes sense that this is one of the frontiers of VR. It’s the one thing we can’t experience with our own devices.
“Invisible” VR Installation
One of these projects is Sabba Keynejad’s VR Installation “Invisible”. It allows you to see your body rendered in three conceptual formats: dot-matrix, linear, and wired. Keynejad uses the Kinect Sensor, a custom VR app, and his laptop to make the experience possible. Though the installation is quite simple in its visual task, Keynejad’s theoretical inspiration for the piece gives it a abstruse nuance.
The theme of the piece was “The Mind”, which revolves around simulation theory. Simulation theory, largely propounded by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, argues that it’s statistically probably that our reality is a computed simulation. So, Keynejad aimed to create an experience that gave his guests a virtual mirroring of themselves in another dimension. In theory, the installation puts the guests in a position of disembodied observation — the likely position of whomever might be viewing us in our “simulation.”
So, why the inclination towards a disembodied experience?
The installation certainly accomplishes its task of giving its users a temporary self-concept that is unique and separate from their normative embodied understanding. I think the piece is certainly a step forward in curating experiences that are unavailable to us in reality, and I applaud it. I’m largely compelled by the necessity to attach simulation theory to the installation. Sure, Keynejad has his reasons for thoughtful artistry and intellectual satisfaction. But, it widens the scope of implications that the installation is capable of as a segue to disembodied experiences. The unique quality about VR is its tendency to attract existential questioning about our reality. Keynejad offers us an experience that simultaneously excites us with an intangible experience and sobers us with an unanswerable, but very real, question of existence that’s directly tied to the implications of virtual reality.
The genius behind the installation is Sabba Keynejad. He’s a freelance interactive designer and creative developer based in London. Check out his website: http://www.sabbakeynejad.co.uk/#/. He’s worked with startups like Vidsy and major brands like Adidas, Microsoft, and Legos. The work he does is quite nuanced, ranging from apps to actual tech hardware. I’m surprised his current project, Polylens, isn’t making headlines. It’s an Augmented Reality (AR) headset that’s entirely self-assembly and incredibly economical in its design, not to mention that it actually looks amazing.
“Invisible” in Action
“Invisible” was on display for the Ladybeard magazine launch on Nov. 12, 2016. If you want to read more on the artwork itself, check out The Creators Project’s article on it: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/blog/new-body-in-real-time-vr-installation.
I’d follow this guy on social media. He posts some interesting content. Sabba’s twitter: https://twitter.com/sab8a/
If you want to see another artistic VR project that immerses its guests in a nightmare, check this out: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/blog/jon-rafman-stan-vanderbeek-spruth-magers
“Pygmalion’s Spectacles”: VR in the 1930s
Stanley Weinbaum was an American science-fiction writer from Kentucky who lived a short life of 33 years (1902 to 1935). Shortly after the publication of one of his most popular pieces, “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”, he died of lung cancer. Weinbaum’s contribution to the genre of science-fiction, however, was groundbreaking. Many of his stories were published in Wonder Stories, which gained him some form of mainstream popularity. “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” was featured in Wonder Stories, which served as its platform to influence sci-fi writers in the range of stories they could pursue in their genre. H.P. Lovecraft held that Weinbaum’s writing was ingenious and was superior to other pulp fiction writers because of his ability to create mind-boggling alien worlds. Weinbaum wrote several other stories in his short career, all within the purview of science fiction. His contributions have earned him a crater on Mars named after him and the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award.
Weinbaum’s piece, “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” is about a discontented man who runs into a professor in Central Park and tries out a pair of spectacles that immerses him a fantasy world where he falls in love with a woman, “Galatea.”
When I finished reading the piece, I felt as though I shared in the post-fantasy bereavement that struck Dan after his sequence in Paracosma ended. I found the piece to be striking for its impressively advanced concept in a time when computers didn’t even exist. One aspect of the piece that I thoroughly enjoyed was the philosophical discourse that permeated the entire story. Weinbaum accomplished the establishment of this multifaceted purview at the beginning when Ludwig went on the following tangent:
“‘You know him, then? The philosopher of Idealism— no?— the one who argues that we do not see, feel, hear, taste the object, but that we have only the sensation of seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting.’ ‘I— sort of recall it.’ ‘Hah! But sensations are mental phenomena. They exist in our minds. How, then, do we know that the objects themselves do not exist only in our minds?’ He waved again at the light-flecked buildings. ‘You do not see that wall of masonry; you perceive only a sensation, a feeling of sight. The rest you interpret.’ ‘You see the same thing,’ retorted Dan. ‘How do you know I do? Even if you knew that what I call red would not be green could you see through my eyes— even if you knew that, how do you know that…”
It grounded the story in an intellectually satisfying purview that afforded Dan’s experience a nuance of profundity. I read the piece with the filter of that philosophical idea and noticed a few striking qualities to the virtual reality Weinbaum constructed. At the beginning of Dan’s time in Paracosma, the beings that spoke to him limited their speech to phrases that worked well in multiple, predictable contexts. For example, when someone has a voicemail recording that tricks you into having a conversation by saying, “Hello? Hey! Good, how about you?” Galatea seemed to have an absent quality to her mind and spoke in phrases that could be interpreted as predetermined for optimal conversation with the guests. This pattern seemed to die off towards the end, as the beings seemed to have their own thoughts and expressed a vast range of ideas in proper contexts. I mean, it could be possible that the programmer was that sophisticated in predicting the behavior of guests, but it’s unlikely. It got me thinking, though. The quality of details like this seem to play a large factor in convincing us of reality being what it claims to be. The sensations of touch, sight, smell, hearing, and taste are all indicators that we’re alive and this is real. The unique pieces of trash in the garbage bin, the fine patterns of fabric on your clothes, the feeling of warmth on another person’s hand. These are all minute indicators that suffice to convince us of reality. What if we knew human behavior and perception so well that we could curate worlds that thrived in these areas of minute details and were barely distinguishable from our real world? Would it afflict its users with the bereavement that struck Dan so painfully? Probably so.
It doesn’t take much to convince a person of reality. Weinbaum was prophetic in this idea found within his story. It’s exactly what we’re trying to do right now with virtual reality.
Rheingold’s “Virtual Reality”
Howard Rheingold is a critic, writer, and teacher who specializes in the sociocultural and sociopolitical implications of contemporary media, such as VR. He was born in Phoenix, Arizona, attended Reed College, and went on to pursue his lifelong fascination with mind augmentation and new realities. He was a pioneer in writing about emerging computer technologies and was at the forefront of experiencing them within his personal purview of mind augmentation. Over the years, he wrote for several journals and publications having to do with virtual reality, computing, and modern communication technologies. Today, he is a visiting lecturer at Stanford University and a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. In Virtual Reality, Rheingold documents his experiences with the emerging technology and discuses its implications in entertainment, physics, society, and so much more.
The section I read from “Virtual Reality” opened my eyes to just how prevalent VR technology was in its early stages of development. The range of locations Rheingold visited astounded me, mostly because they were in such odd places like North Carolina and Hawaii. I would’ve thought that VR was born in Silicon Valley and stayed there for its early stages, but its technology was being pursued on multiple levels by technicians and researchers around the world. The romanticism with which Rheingold documented his experiences with these VR concepts affirmed an effect VR has on its users to this day: evoking wonder. It’s incredible that this technology has managed to remain wondrous for almost thirty years now. I certainly hope this never changes. Another aspect from his piece that stood out to me was the range of application that VR had already possessed in its utility. From NASA to medical procedures, VR had already established itself as a vital tool to multiple disciplines. After having read this, I knew that VR is going to last for a very, very long time. Things that have a wide range of applicability tend to stick around for a while (i.e. the computer). It’s not merely a toy for entertainment, it’s also a tool that can alter and improve our human experience. Rheingold points to this idea quite often throughout this section, and I’ve got a feeling that he’ll continue to do so throughout the entire book.