Neurospeculative Afrofeminism, a VR project incubated by NEW INC (all images courtesy NEW INC)

Near the beginning of the second annual Versions conference on creative practice and virtual reality, writer and lawyer Tim Wu posed one of the most sneakily salient points of the day. Discussing virtual reality’s place among mass media like film and broadcast radio, Wu suggested that “it’s possible VR is just not destined to be mass technology.”

As unassuming as Wu’s words may seem, they actually issue a resounding challenge to a technology that is presumed to become not only a radical new medium for creative expression, but also a revolutionary computing platform with major repercussions for fields like healthcare, product design, video games, journalism, sports and live event spectatorship, social media, marketing, and more.

While new media are actually still new — exciting, uncertain, rapidly changing, and overflowing with speculation and cash — it can be easy to forecast their success as imminent or inevitable. Boosterism and hype, however, often tend to skirt the very instabilities, shortcomings, and dead ends that need to be looked straight in the eye if this media is to become anything more than an ephemeral novelty.

Consistent with Wu’s healthy skepticism, this year’s Versions — titled “Facing Reality” — mostly encouraged a more sober, productive, and critical probing of the cultural landscape of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality (although VR predominated in volume in both the discussion and sidebar exhibition). Held at the New Museum, co-presented by NEW INC and Kill Screen, and hosted by Julia Kaganskiy and Jamin Warren, this year’s conference gathered a slew of rich panels and events, assembling artists, organizers, academics, designers, and writers such as Jon Rafman, Opeyemi Olukemi, Cory Doctorow, Nick Montfort, Claire Evans, and more.

As VR becomes more familiar, both culturally and technically, the level of discourse turns more sensible and specific. At the same time, as earlier practical challenges are overcome, aspirational goal-posts can be moved further into the distance: so, there was less talk about the travails of nausea-inducing VR, but more about widening the scope of possible experiences in VR, and the range of people who can access them.

Topics of access and accessibility were front and center at this year’s Versions. More than addressing the obstacles inhibiting mainstream adoption of VR, Versions plunged into issues of exclusivity and the barriers to entry for creative professionals and marginalized communities. And indeed, whenever yet another article giddily announces “the arrival” of VR, one would do well to ask: for whom?

The day’s first panel, “Who Owns the Future?” (perhaps named after Jaron Lanier’s book of the same name), opened with a flurry of questions in this vein: Where are we in VR’s development as a viable commercial medium? How do we make it truly democratic? How do we make it truly global? The moderator additionally let slip, “How far behind are we in a ‘no child left behind’ sense?” Though certainly well-intentioned, these latter, bigger questions demonstrated that, when talking about VR, there can be a fine line between ethical inquiry and techno-utopian solutionism — or the paper-thin addressing of real, material inequality with often vague or trivial fixes (making VR more “democratic” and “global” sounds more like corporate PR copy than actually achievable outcomes).

Where more ambitious, faintly TED-talk style questions felt a little hollow, more modest and precise ones rang far truer, if still difficult to answer, like, “How do we incentivize equity of access without capital reassurance?” Speaking in a later panel on agency and storytelling, Nancy Bennett, head of VR at Two Bit Circus, suggested that design — and specifically user experience (UX) design — could be a powerful tool for fostering inclusion in VR. And certainly, there’s plenty in this area for a more socially engaged design practice to draw from. For example, Paul Dourish’s writings on social computing and ethnography in design, which, instead of relying on more decontextualized cognitive data derived in laboratory-like settings, aim to account for the living social context of diverse, and often excluded, subjects. Or, more recently, Kat Holmes’s inclusive design, which designates disability and diversity as the very starting points for design practice, rather than an asterisked afterthought. Per Holmes: “Designing for inclusion starts by recognizing exclusion.”

From a more cultural standpoint, scholar and writer Judith Donath intimated that new conceptions of authorship can motivate more enthusiastic and plural participation in VR. “Authoring,” she said, “is too often seen as the domain of experts.” Donath emphasizes different standards for creation — “things you can author while walking down the street,” using even rudimentary assets like sound and text (rather than advanced 3D modeling, etc.). Following this line of thinking, meaning-making in VR can begin to take on more folkloristic and amateur proportions, yielding a sensorium of everyday sensation — collections of sounds and stories all mapped out in three-dimensional, navigable space.

Donath’s points runs parallel with Versions’ overall interest in how we can explore and embrace new and different paradigms for cultural forms in VR. In pursuit of this, Versions’ later panels were a refreshing push toward the more experimental and eclectic. As the introduction for the panel “Sensing Stories” reads, “Sound designers, cooks, dancers, and masseuses know as much about taking us on a journey as anyone and yet we rarely consult their expertise when designing for VR and AR, much to our detriment.”

In “Sensing Stories,” Robin McNicholas, creative director of Marshmallow Laser Feast, suggested that VR’s specificity hasn’t been properly reckoned with. For crafting engaging experiences, “you don’t need much at all … you just need a little nudge for the imagination to fill in the gaps … One of the problems of VR is the use of restraint and respecting the audience’s intelligence.”

Renowned VR maven Brenda Laurel broached the concept of emergent gameplay as a way of respecting audience intelligence and creating riper conditions for freedom, experimentation, and surprise. Emergent VR experiences would resemble expansive sandboxes in which the storytelling is more ambient than actively (or intrusively) exposited.

Speaking of ambient solutions, Chandler Burr, the former New York Times scent critic, convincingly argued for the importance of scent to our perception of space, asserting that VR (or MR, mixed reality) should consider incorporating smell design just like it does sound design, plopping scent-tracks on top of soundtracks.

Whereas Burr talked about deploying scent to manipulate our perception of space, magician Marco Tempest talked about how illusionism can be used to manipulate and deceive perception more generally. Tempest’s experiments in fusing virtual reality technologies with magic are not only an ironic, ingenious twist on Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” They also hearken back to the very origins of cinema, which was significantly propelled by illusionists — like Georges Méliès — and scientists — like Étienne-Jules Marey. In many ways, it’s precisely this union of science and magic that needs to be bottled and tirelessly cultivated if VR is to win the favor of mass audiences. And it returns to the kind of future of VR that the Versions conference is trying to help steward: one in which new directions are explored to the fullest and most experimental degree while a dedicated ethical commitment is maintained in full view.

The second annual Versions conference, “Facing Reality,” took place at the New Museum Theater (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) on Saturday, February 25.

Michael Blum is a freelance writer and designer. He is interested in books, video games, interaction design, virtual and augmented reality, movies from Taiwan, and sweet potato fries. His writing has appeared...