Virtual reality (VR) has at least three dominant meanings in communications. Though the distinctions blur in some analyses, these largely discrete areas are: (1) immersive audiovisual technologies; (2) technologies that achieve a similar effect through their ubiquity and apparent removal from mundane reality; and (3) technologies, architectures, and social processes that in some degree resemble immersive technologies, and the thesis that social life in the contemporary world is itself virtual. A fourth usage of the term “virtual” to denote a philosophy of becoming is also emergent.
Immersive VR emerged from NASA as a scientific tool. During the later 1980s and early 1990s, there was much excitement about the possibility of immersive entertainment, particularly in the arcade games industry and among artists. The typical interface comprised a mask-and-glove wearable device, that provided stereo sound and stereoscopic screens mounted in front of each eye, and a glove whose spatial movement could be tracked to provide navigation and in some cases the ability to manipulate digital objects. Many significant artworks were produced, perhaps the most famous being Char Davies’s Osmose which used a mask that was sensitive to head movements and a chest belt that responded to the expansion of the lungs, in order to move up and down in the virtual environment, in an experience analogous to diving. Other experimental artworks created the possibility of bringing two or more people into a shared environment.
Despite hopes for tumbling prices in the mask-and-glove interface, other pioneers opted for less expensive and less individualistic interfaces, among them Dan Sandin of UIC who developed the widely used CAVE system, in which users equipped with 3D glasses and motion-sensor gloves enter a three- or four-walled stereoscopic projection space. Similar experimental systems have been developed by NHK in Japan and at Jeffrey Shaw’s iCinema project in Sydney. However, the largest use of immersive environments today is in science and technology and in the training of pilots, soldiers, and ships’ captains and pilots.
The term “virtual reality” was rapidly generalized to include all digital environments, especially their visual attractions. The arrival of the world wide web as a consumer medium with the launch of the Mosaic browser in 1993 led to a host of utopian and apocalyptic visions of network societies as variants of Huxley’s Brave new world. Movies like Lawnmower Man made little distinction between immersive and network technologies, a blurring that was fostered by the assertion, most famously in the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” that the environment opened up by the web to public interaction was no longer subject to the normal laws of states any more than it was to the law of gravity.
In the early twenty-first century, the term second life, derived from an online game environment, has become closely synonymous with the sense of virtual reality as an alternative to “first life,” the ordinary world experienced away from the computer. Two variant terms have arisen from this new perception of a pair of human environments, one actual, the other virtual. The term “mixed reality” is applied to devices and techniques that are intended to meld elements of each into a single experience. Examples include enhanced wearable computers that, for example, stream data, maps, or images over otherwise normally transparent eyeglasses. The second is becoming widely known as “locative media,” characterized by the use of ubiquitous computing and cheap consumer technologies, notably mobile phones. In projects like Urban Tapestries, users navigate the real city of London, locating via their mobiles a wealth of memories, histories, artifacts, and inventions left at particular locations by other users. Commercial applications are close at hand, including various value-added GPS (global positioning systems) software and web technologies increasingly available for handheld devices such as Google Earth and the various hacks based on it. Such enhanced or blended forms of immersion lead to particularly interesting questions about the relations between actual and virtual realities (Tuters & Varnelis 2006).
Utopia And Apocalypse
The arrival of both enthusiastic and apocalyptic accounts of immersive VR (for example, Rheingold 1991) sparked an interest among postmodernist media scholars and sociologists, especially those influenced by Debord’s (1977) theory of the society of the spectacle. For such theorists, immersive VR was not the logical outcome of Wagner’s total artwork (Gesamtkunstwerk) but a technological response to the changing urban environment. For these critics, virtual reality described a mode of experience rather than a technology. The new architecture of malls, the ubiquity of screens, even the windscreens of automobiles (Virilio 1995), produced an experience analogous to immersive VR by mediating the environment to the exclusion of any unmediated sensation.
Virilio also pointed to the militarization of society as a self- or endocolonization, arguing that the increasing distance between weapon and target in modern warfare, the posthuman speed of decision-making, and the arts of camouflage had become hallmarks of contemporary political and cultural life. The massive expansion in Internet and mobile participation and the promise of ubiquitous computing in the industrial economies has led to a decreasing visibility of computers, and a lowering of both utopian and apocalyptic discourses about them. The arrival of mixed-reality genres indicates a shift toward a sense of the virtual as an immanent element of any urban space, invisible without the aid of technology, but omnipresent. The notion of perpetual connectedness has overtaken that of immersion, although there remains the sense that specialized immersive installations are only a more intense form of a generalized immersion in the informational city, the knowledge economy, and the mediated world which is now indistinguishable from firstlife, mundane reality.
In an extreme form, this phenomenon has produced the philosophical nihilism of Jean Baudrillard (1996), for whom the over-writing of the world by ubiquitous media has resulted in the elimination of reality itself. It is ironic then that the most significant uses of the most powerful engines of virtual reality occur in areas such as the manipulation of large molecules in biosciences and in centers in which, for example, harbor pilots learn to handle supertankers. In the former instance, the connection between the representations and the actual molecules is provable through the physical results of the manipulations afforded by immersive interfaces. In the latter, the effectiveness of the training depends on its provision of the chance to make a mistake without causing actual environmental damage, such that the preservation of the marine environment is an actual outcome of a virtual activity. Moreover, the failure of the consumer market for immersive wearable VR devices (a trend paralleled by the decline in cinema attendances), in parallel with the huge take-up for interactive technologies, including online game environments, texting, and Internet relay chat, suggest that the loss of self in fictional worlds has become less attractive than new modes of mediated socialization. While the degree of social integration consequent on such mediated intercourse is widely debated, it is clear that individualistic interfaces are less popular than social ones.
Nonetheless, virtual reality discourses continue to generate interest in a number of areas in communications. The rise of Disney studies in the 1990s pointed toward the theme park as a model for immersion in entertainment. A number of authors (Klein 2004; Ndalianis 2004) flagged the parallels between contemporary physical environments like the Disney parks and the cornucopias of architecture, painting, and ritual of the baroque. Indeed a number of immersive and installation artworks directly referenced the baroque, especially the trompe l’oeil architecture and ceilings of Counter-Reformation churches, as precursors for the creation of fictive spaces and overwhelming experiences in virtual environments, both digital and architectural. While there is little iconographic connection between such spaces, the creation of architectural environments that are radically separate from the external world, that provide heightened experiences, that may be understood as narratives, and that are designed to trick the senses is a common theme. The theme park ride has proved an especially rich vein for analysis of this comparison, and for extending the definition of immersive virtual reality to incorporate physical movement on specially designed vehicles based on fairground rides. In this analysis, many other precursor technologies have been mentioned, notably the phantasmagorias of the eighteenth century, the panoramas of the nineteenth century, and the cinematic railway rides of the early twentieth century (Huhtamo 1995). One interesting element common to these precursor media is that they are rarely individualized, which may help explain the lack of success of immersive mask-and-glove systems.
The fourth emergent concept of virtuality may derive some of its impetus from the significance ascribed to immersion as a factor both in technological media and in social life. Where for Baudrillard the virtual threatened to annihilate the direct experience of existing in the real world, critics following the lead of Gilles Deleuze argued that virtuality was a state of potential, and as such was immanent in all living creatures and all historical process. Where theorists influenced by Heidegger emphasized the lack of being, Deleuzeans emphasized the process of becoming. Thus a body in motion is never entirely actual, but instead exists as perpetual variation (Massumi 2002). Given this definition, it may be argued that all moving images are virtual. Despite the film strip’s composition as a series of still images, it is not the images that constitute movement, but the spaces in between them, a truth that is even more true of the interlaced screens of television and the arrays of digitally compressed/decompressed images, where the image never exists as a completed whole at any given moment. This argument may be extended to the production of virtual space in perspective construction, still or moving. Where apparatus theory, grounded in Heideggerian nostalgia for the loss of being, saw only ideologically loaded vanishing points, a theory of virtuality descries the construction of space through points of becoming.
Such analyses have proved both productive and controversial in fields as diverse as politics, photography, geography, phenomenology, art history, architecture, and engineering. With relations to possible worlds theory in philosophy, to the psychology of perception, to analyses of power and ideology, and closely allied to critics and supporters of computer simulation as a predictive tool, for example in the science of global climate change, the discussion of virtuality produces a number of critical disturbances.
On the one hand, the term “virtual reality” is applied to such phenomena as the baroque cathedral and the contemporary theme park, spaces marked by their cultural intensity, even totalitarianism; while on the other it is applied to the unmarked spaces of anonymous passage: the airline terminal, the waiting room, or the interiors of public transport.
The fading distinctiveness of computer technology, its gradual passage into the general background of life in the same way that writing is now rarely observed to be writing, only what it communicates, is a phenomenon observed historically of other technologies by Don Ihde (1990) and now clearly apparent in the daily life of the industrial world. On the one hand, this suggests that either the nature or the experience of reality is indeed changing and becoming more virtual. On the other, it suggests that where such technological mediation does not obtain, reality persists. If so, then reality is the state in which there is a minimum of technological mediation, in other words, the poorest areas of the world. Given the choice between living in the manner of the world’s poorest inhabitants or of inhabiting a virtual or at least a mixed reality, most people, including most economic migrants, would choose the latter. This implies of course that the “fourth” sense of virtuality, that of the potential to become other than what one is, is restricted to the wealthiest populations of the planet.
- Baudrillard, J. (1996). The perfect crime (trans. C. Turner). London: Verso.
- Debord, G. (1977). The society of the spectacle, rev. trans. Detroit: Black and Red. (Original work published 1967).
- Huhtamo, E. (1995). Encapsulated bodies in motion: Simulators and the quest for total motion. In S. Penny (ed.), Critical issues in electronic media. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, pp. 159–186.
- Ihde, D. (1990). Technology and the lifeworld: From garden to earth. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Klein, N. M. (2004). The Vatican to Vegas: A history of special effects. New York: New Press.
- Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the virtual: Movement, affect, sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Ndalianis, A. (2004). Neo-baroque aesthetics and contemporary entertainment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Rheingold, H. (1991). Virtual reality. London: Secker and Warburg.
- Tuters, M., & Varnelis, K. (2006). Beyond locative media. At http://networkedpublics.org/locative_ media/beyond_locative_media?q=locative_media/beyond_locative_media, accessed August 27, 2006.
- Virilio, P. (1995). The art of the motor (trans. J. Rose). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.