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Imagining the Possible Futures of Virtual Reality

Still from the 1983 film 'Brainstorm'
Still from the 1983 film ‘Brainstorm’

“THE FUTURE IS NOW,” reads the header from the online bill for Versions: The Creative Landscape of Virtual Reality, a conference held earlier this month at the New Museum, co-presented by NEW INC and Kill Screen. The slogan no doubt carries the clang of a hackneyed marketing catchphrase — a pulpy declaration of encroaching, Epcot-like, science-fictional kitsch (“Tomorrow, Today”). But in the context of Versions and the ever-burgeoning virtual reality scene, this phrase, despite itself, bears an irrefutable, almost self-evident legitimacy.

After decades in tempestuous, slow-going gestation, VR technology, once thought to be pure fantasy, is finally breaking through to the mainstream. The imperfect, prototypical VR headset display-units of recent years — which so exquisitely, if inadvertently, realized Kafka’s notion of “seasickness on dry land” — are now figuring to be a thing of the past. Oculus, Valve, and Sony will be shipping finished consumer products in the coming weeks, with more accessible cardboard models already widely available.

Versions — hosted by Jamin Warren and Julia Kaganskiy — jumped into the VR fray with interdisciplinary zeal, probing and unpacking the convergence of aesthetics, ethics, and multiple domains of science in the realm of this convoluted, magical technology.

Jacolby Satterwhite, "En Plein Air: Vassalage II" (2014) (courtesy of the artist and OHWOW Gallery)
Jacolby Satterwhite, “En Plein Air: Vassalage II” (2014) (courtesy of the artist and OHWOW Gallery) (click to enlarge)

VR is indeed a quixotic thing, rife with paradox and complication at every level, starting with its very name: the two words that tangle to form the term are, at a glance, poised like inwardly facing, positively-charged magnets, repelling one another with the force of their respective meanings. Practically like reality, except not, even though it’s also not not real. This tension is echoed in the irony that, although by definition VR is virtual through and through, more than any other medium its products need to painstakingly account for the bodily real (optics, proprioception, sensory perception) in order to function well and avoid causing nausea or migraines.

The point of departure for Versions seemed to be located around the margins of this topic — the way VR ruffles the familiar rapport between users and media. Several panelists conveyed the sense that the nature of our relation to VR is highly mutable, even germinal, insofar as it will dramatically evolve correlative to our growing familiarity with its yet-to-be-discovered forms. Janet Murray, professor of digital media at Georgia Tech, said that “we’re at a moment right now, which will pass, where the novelty of being in the virtual world … is thrilling in and of itself.” This point about passing fashions in VR was accompanied by vocal discontent about one particular trend, what artist Marte Roel called “the promiscuity of the word empathy in the VR world.” VR’s potential for provoking empathy in its audience, though widely vaunted, is also met with great contention. In a blog post commenting on a VR piece released by the New York Times Magazine, Murray asked: “Is VR the appropriate way to engage sympathy for child refugees or are child refugees the appropriate content to expand the market for VR?” This resistance to the “empathy machine” is no advocation for a canon of prohibitions — rather, it’s largely grounded in an aversion to subordinating VR to a set of easily (and perhaps even, per Murray, crassly) marketable conventions, limiting the development of a nascent technology with a manipulative sloganeering that potentially participates in an exploitative commodification of the misery of others.

And while it is undeniable that VR is capable of showing things in entirely new and visceral ways, as several speakers at Versions suggested, it’s crucial to take stock of this newness with responsibility, even care. Artist and developer Omer Shapira, for example, began with the fundamental, questioning the notion that VR is a medium at all; rather, for him, it is “an achieved result” and “an end to a yet-to-be-defined means.” Shapira and others are committed to considering the fullness of VR’s possibilities, without barring the way to free experimentation with forms by prematurely encumbering them with equivocal determinations like “empathy machine.”

Rachel Rossin, "Lossy" (2015) (courtesy Zieher Smith & Horton)
Rachel Rossin, “Lossy” (2015) (courtesy Zieher Smith & Horton)

Jessica Brillhart, principle VR filmmaker for Google, considered VR’s differential specificity from other media, such as film, noting that, whereas in film the action goes from frame to frame, “in VR, it’s more like world to world.” Multimedia artist Rachel Rossin took the conversation from the terrestrial to the cosmic, likening VR to “a universe that I get to play in,” comparing the experience of her works to that of a “disembodied person floating through landscapes.” Rossin’s thrilling, dynamic, 3D abstractions of color and form aren’t merely one-to-one importations of the roaming, radical play of her experimental visual work into an updated, considerably more complicated format. They also very much engage with the transformations that conventional spectatorship undergoes in VR. After all, in VR we are less spectators of static scenes than guests in a navigable world, and a world that definitively blinkers us from the one in which we are veritably standing. Rossin called it “putting a blindfold on somebody in a gallery setting.” When you do this, Rossin told Hyperallergic, “you are putting a viewer in two worlds at once — and simultaneously, they and their absence are a part of your installation. …. I think the most powerful thing is what happens when the virtual blindfold comes off and the context and the work/world mix again.”

Rossin’s play with relationality — with gallerygoers’ relations to one another, to her artworks (real and virtual), and to themselves, before and after being suspended in virtual space — hits directly upon implications for the communal and the social in the realm of VR. Though anti-communal in the physical sense — users are shut off from the perception of one another’s bodies — VR is deeply correlated with the post-internet significance of the social, of networked, digital space. Ken Perlin, the founding director of the Media Research Lab at NYU, has created VR projects that allow their users to “be in an alternate world together with people … [to] see each other as avatars.” Describing his project as “a kind of a day of the dead celebration,” Perlin delivered one of the most beguiling, salient lines of the conference, and one that can easily serve as a motto for the promise of VR: “everyone gets to be a spirit in the spirit world.” Salient as well that it was a computer scientist who delivered the line.

Still from an early Horizon VR build (courtesy Omer Shapira)
Still from an early version of Horizon, by Omer Shapira (courtesy Omer Shapira) (click to enlarge)

The subterranean passages joining art and science in the domain of VR are impossible to ignore. Even if we recoil at the technocratic perspective that reduces “user-generated content” to so much interchangeable window-dressing or surface cosmetics, it’s important to be aware that, in VR, “content” is only the tip of the iceberg, and that there’s an enormous scaffolding of engineering and programming that undergirds everything we experience on its platform. Furthermore, what goes down under the hood isn’t at all inimical in spirit to the creation of forms — in this vein, Shapira wants, in works like his game “Horizon,” to allow his audience to “reevaluate what it means to write code for art.” Working in VR, Shapira senses a deep affinity between modes of scientific inquiry and experimentation with craft, noting as well that the quality of a piece fundamentally depends on the extent to which the programmatic, scientific, and aesthetic are all responsive to one another. “A lot of training to be a mathematician is internalizing the urge to ask ‘yes but what if … ?’ about everything,” Shapira told Hyperallergic. “Doing that for every aspect of making art especially shines in VR.”

As much as it made the “future” palpably present, Versions also manufactured the dizzying sensation that we are already inhabiting the past. Perlin said that “really successful technologies are just part of reality,” adding that VR is, eventually, “going to be so integrated that we won’t even think of it as technology; I mean, we don’t think of our clothing as technology, it’s just our clothing.” From VR headsets to glasses to contact lenses — but not yet. Until then, the Oculus Rift will be released to the public on March 28.

Versions: The Creative Landscape of Virtual Reality took place at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) on March 5.

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