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In 2015, Time magazine dedicated its cover to the VR headset, a technology that seemed to be on the verge of becoming mainstream. The picture featured Palmer Luckey, the inventor of the Oculus Rift headset spreading his arms in the empty air of a postcard-perfect sunny beach. His lack of self-awareness struck a special chord with online new media art communities that enthusiastically took the opportunity to joke about the representation of new technology in public media. The clash between the admittedly clumsy positioning of Luckey and the synthetic, plastic-like background inspired many successful memes that still currently circulate online.
The awkwardness of using VR headsets is well documented on YouTube, where hundreds of video clips featuring people smashing TVs, punching others out cold, or ruinously stumbling to the floor have been uploaded for years. The discordance between the absorbed mental state of VR users and how they look to those not participating in the illusion is what makes these clips so fascinating, terrifying, and entertaining. I always found it a bit unfair to enjoy these fail compilations because they are like visual records of pranks played on a person who is asleep and can’t react. Those who wear VR headsets are immersed in an illusion designed to deceive their senses to the extent that they feel they are somewhere else and forget about the real world. It’s not an easy task to escape this deception because the technology was built and refined by some the most brilliant minds working in the relevant fields — from architects to mathematicians, artists to entrepreneurs — for centuries. It may surprise the reader to find that one of the founding moments for the development of virtual reality actually happened in Florence, in the early 15th century.
According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, the architect and inventor Filippo Brunelleschi sometime between 1415 and 1420 developed the linear perspective system while experimenting with the depiction of some landmarks in Florence such as the Baptistery and the Palazzo Vecchio. The linear perspective was a point of no return for Western art — a technique that by changing the method artists and architects represented a tridimensional space on a flat surface still influences the ways we experience and design our environments, whether artificial or natural. Brunelleschi’s perspective system works in an intuitive manner: All parallel lines converge in a single vanishing point on the composition’s horizon line. To ensure that the illusion is perceived at its best, all the elements depicted in the scene must be seen from a single point of view, the one that the viewer is intrinsically demanded to occupy. If you look at a panting that relies on this perspective from the sides, the illusion doesn’t work in the same way as when you are in front of it, at its center point. The viewer can feel there’s something wrong about the illusion, as when looking at LED monitors from one side view you see the colors shift.
The linear perspective was the first important step in the process of immobilizing the viewer in front of pictures created with the purpose of deceiving our senses to make us believe we are looking at tridimensional scenes. Every element of the scenery, whether it is a tree, a person, or a building, is positioned to comport with the viewer’s line of sight. The space produced by the linear perspective is mathematic, artificial, and exists only through the beholder. By indicating a “best” point of view, that is, where the illusion is most effective, this perspective erects a hierarchy; whoever stands at the center is potentially more important than the viewers who gaze from one side.
A similar social hierarchy was mirrored in one’s seated position in the Baroque theatre of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, which was structured so that the public could not guess how a performance worked behind the scenes. The architecture of these theatres was specifically designed to privilege the king’s seat. From this central position, he could see the performance from the best point of view. Always located in front of the stage but never too close to it, this vantage point allowed the royals to see the stage as it was conceived by the theatre company as its best representation. The rest of the public saw the performance from points of view that were not taken in consideration as much as the king’s. As with Brunelleschi’s linear perspective, the Baroque opera aimed at deceiving the senses of a single paramount viewer while allowing those who were in peripheral positions to notice the artificiality of the illusion. In the following decades, there would be a democratization of the theatre seats that mirrored ongoing economic and social changes; no more one perfect point of view surrounded by less privileged perspectives but the opening of more and more vanishing points that could be enjoyed by many viewers at the same time.
Developed by Irish artist and entrepreneur Robert Barker in the late 18th century, the panorama became almost instantly a huge commercial success in Great Britain and beyond, gaining the appreciation of both the masses and critically acclaimed artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds. Viewers paid a relatively small amount of money to gain access to circular buildings where 360-degree paintings representing city views, battle scenes, and historical events were installed around a platform on which the public could stand and enjoy the sets. These views were very often accompanied by other sensorial effects, such as artificial sound and smells, that had to make the illusion feel very real.
With the panorama, the public couldn’t just stand still in front of a visual representation, but had to move their bodies, rotate on themselves in order to fully enjoy the installation. Although the public gained some freedom of movement, they could make to appreciate the art, it is noteworthy that they still had to enclose themselves in buildings specifically designed to host these 360-degree paintings and that, more importantly, they could rotate on themselves but weren’t supposed to get closer to the walls. In other words, the vanishing point of Brunelleschi’s perspective was replaced by a multitude of single points that, thanks to the senses and the mind of the viewer, worked together to produce the illusion of being on a top of a mountain or in the middle of a medieval war.
Two centuries after the opening of Barker’s panorama in London, a new generation of creatives set new expectations for what technology could do to deceive the human senses. What if the 360-degree scenes of the panorama were made specifically to surround a singular viewer? What could be done to give the illusion of visiting a virtual reality? Looking at the first digital XR devices developed in the 1960s, one can see that nothing much has changed in terms of the approach to attaching to the human body since then. The viewer must wear a headset that, in order to improve the illusion, limits their senses so they can’t receive any other audio or visual inputs from outside. In fact, the only way the viewer’s experience of the virtual reality can clash with their surrounding is by tactile sensations. In other words, they receive visual stimuli from one dimension, the VR world, and reacts physically on a different plan of reality, their corporeal surrounding. It’s as if VR users talk and move while dreaming in bed.
Brunelleschi’s linear perspective still plays an important, technical role in the making and conception of VR headsets: The body of the viewer is still locked in a single point around which the illusion is built. And the viewer’s presence resembles that of a ghost, living in the interstice of their own reality and another, conflating and confusing the dimensions and, in the end, incapable of fully interacting with either of them, trapped in a very well-designed sensorial cage.