Many expect 2016 to be the year that virtual reality (VR) finally takes off. And indeed, recent developments signal that, this year, VR will finally go from being a buggy, vertigo-inducing prototype — an exhilarating idea executed poorly, and most accessible to industry insiders — to a viable platform, and a soon-to-be widely available one at that.
Last week Oculus, a trailblazer in VR technology, opened preorders for the consumer version of its Rift display system, shocking many with its high initial price point of $600. The Facebook-owned company is not without competition — HTC, Playstation, and Microsoft are rolling out consumer models of their own, and Google’s VR project is firmly under development. Prices for these latter models are as of yet unknown, while Oculus founder Palmer Luckey has already responded to criticism of his system’s prohibitive cost, promising that it will eventually drop.
Although these VR systems are being marketed primarily to the gaming community, developers are already exploring possibilities beyond blowing virtual holes in living room walls. For instance, the Oculus Rift will ship packaged with “Medium,” a toolkit for sandbox experimentation with forms, allowing users to manipulate shape, color, light, and texture à la MS Paint updated to 3D (the HTC Vive will run a similar software called “Tilt Brush”).
The prospects presented by a new medium in its infancy are surely as daunting as they are appealing — their technical capabilities seemingly unbounded, their formal possibilities unexplored, and their aesthetic criteria undetermined. Third-party developers and artists have already begun tapping into this potential in a number of ways, by building aesthetic sensoria with rigorous 3D modeling, rendering animated worlds that users can engage with far more viscerally than in an ordinary video game, and by adapting cinema’s moving images from the 2D screen to the 360° arena, thrusting the spectator into the very movement of a documentary or fiction.
Without a doubt, VR’s repercussions for older, more familiar notions of cinematic realism are astounding. The mortality of cinema is a topic that has been endlessly ruminated on; the advent of VR makes clear that it’s not cinema’s death that is demanding of reflection, but rather its afterlife in new and different media.
Sensory Stories, an exhibition mounted last year at the Museum of the Moving Image, presented several Oculus-powered works, hinting at some of the paths moving-image artists may pursue as they increasingly turn their attention to the new frontier of VR. Herders (2014), by Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael, is a VR documentary that unobtrusively observes the daily lives of several Mongolian nomads. The work, owing to the technology it makes use of, grants the viewer the ability to scan hilly vistas in any direction, and the sheer act of being able to look over your shoulder while remaining within the frame of the seamless panorama breeds an intense, vertiginous wonder. VR works are multifocal by default, and Herders is no exception — at any given moment you can gaze at the horizon, eye a musical performance, or spy an old man eating in the corner of a tent. Works like these urge the viewer to decide for themselves what is worth focusing on, often resulting in an intensely voyeuristic viewing experience.
What at times is bewitchingly, subtly real in Herders can also acquire a pronounced social aspect. As the viewer is enclosed in the movement of the work — as though truly present, for example, at the herders’ family dinner — empathetic identification with the subjects is heightened to a degree only graspable if experienced firsthand. This displacement of the viewer’s own perspective, coinciding with the adoption of that of another, is a function of VR that will no doubt be used and abused, and will likely spark a heady revival of debates — aesthetic and otherwise — about the politics of spectatorship.
Indeed, it doesn’t take a great deal of cynicism to see this technology being gobbled up wholesale by the entertainment-military complex and being catered, for example, to the arms and defense sector, providing immersive, photorealistic combat training programs to militaries the world over. Nonetheless, VR is an astounding technology, and its being made available to the consumer public — as well as to artists, teachers, and other prospective developers and users — will be a groundbreaking event in the unfolding procession of new media.