Virtual Reality in the Social Imaginary

Introduction

Virtual reality (VR) has also been called one of “the scientific, philosophical and technological frontiers of our era”, “art of the highest order”, “an opportunity to transcend the limitations of physical embodiment” and “a complete habitat for the mind and body” (Jerald, 2016, p. 1; Chan, 2014, p. 2; Ryan, 2015, p. 247). Ryan (2015) notes that critics have called VR a phantasm, a bubble, a mirage or simply “pure hype …no more than a footnote in history” (p. 1). How VR is described in public discourses can be highly varied, waxing and waning between either hyperbolic flights of fancy, or pessimistic tear-downs. Using the frameworks and concepts of platform studies and media archeology, I will explore how VR has been positioned as both an interface technology and as a discursive concept throughout its history. What has changed in the contemporary discourse about virtual reality? I will briefly survey a cross-section of some of the key phases of VR in the social imaginary or the cultural shared and imaginative construction of reality. Drawing mainly on the media archeology frameworks of Parikka and Huhtamo (2011), and the perspectives of Chan (2015), Ryan (2015) and Nusselder (2009) to lesser degree, I will explore the role that misconception, desire, fantasy and most of all, the topoi or metaphoric commonplaces about VR have played in the storied history of the still-emerging field of VR.

Topoi or cultural touchstones are conceptual platforms upon which rhetorical arguments are built. Examples of topoi include pun, proverbs and folk expressions which explicate shared cultural values. Topoi are wellsprings of traditional or cultural memory, representing a supposed ‘common sense’ view of reality (Huhtamo, 2011). Topoi function as “shells or vessels derived from the memory banks of tradition” and their use can “mold the meanings of cultural objects” (Huhtamo, 2011, p. 28). Drawing on the Huhtamo (2011) study of the use of topoi in the creation, design, dissemination and adoption of media technologies, I will explore how topoi such ‘as being transported to another world’, ‘traveling without leaving your home’ and the ‘magician conjuring worlds from nothing’ are used to create, explicate and promote VR throughout its history. Recent contributions to platform studies and media archeology have helped to illuminate that the creation, dissemination, and adoption of media technologies are rarely straightforward, uncomplicated, or even rational processes (Chan, 2015; Krapp, 2011; Newman, 2012; Nusselder, 2009). There are many diversions, detours and digressions taken along the way toward a media technology enjoying widespread use (Gillespie, 2010; Gitelman, 2006; Jerald; 2016; Lanier, 2017). Platform studies and media archeology studies have illuminated that mediocre technologies can rise to prominence, edging out superior offerings (Newman, 2012; Jerald, 2016). Often, entropy, noise, failure, irrationality and fantasy can be found at the root of contemporary media technology perception and discourse (Krapp, 2011; Nusselder, 2009; Newman, 2012).

I argue that VR, uniquely within the field of digital media, is particularly prone to misconception, mistrust and the influence of hyperbolic metaphor. This is because of the unique hardware required to experience VR. It can be argued that the affordances of VR are highly personal and subjective in nature. Don the head-mounted device (HMD) and you are transported into an alternate space. Your view, where you put your eyes in this unreal environment, as well as where you wander will be slightly different from another’s experience of the same virtual world. Due to the nature of the hardware and software driving the experience, VR can be a highly subjective and a uniquely unreplicatable experience. Further, VR technology is available to only a limited few due to its high cost. Many people, even in industrialized, technologically advanced communities, have not had a VR experience nor have they access to VR solutions. Thus, even today, hearsay, second-hand accounts and misleading rhetorical appeals from technology companies, advertisers, scientists and programmers might be the only encounters the broader population will have with VR. 

Research Context

What is virtual reality? Ryan (2015) looks at VR as a semiotic phenomenon that is not at all confined to digital media. Other theorists suggest that VR must be defined as the computer-mediated access to an artificial environment whereby the user can have some impact on the virtual experience (Jerald, 2016). Regardless of the method of transport to another world, VR must, by definition, allow users to “act within a world and experience it from the inside” (Ryan, 2015, p. 20). Heim (1994) suggests that a critical condition necessary for VR is “sensory immersion in a virtual environment”, noting that VR computer-mediated devices such as haptic gloves, head-mounted devices (HMDs) and treadmills act as ways to cut off the stimuli of the real world and replace it with “computer-generated sensations” (p. 113). In that same vein, Papagiannis (2017) writes that the interface hardware trappings of VR can take users out of their real world, “trading the real world for a completely computer-generated environment” (p. 1). Heim (1994), like Lanier (2017), argues that a complete sensory immersion into the virtual environment is what distinguishes VR from other interactive digital media.

What is platform studies? While this field of studies is often, erroneously, associated with computational hardware platforms, this topology of methodologies and analytical tools can be used to explore the contexts in which software, computer-mediated experiences, user communities, and technical work teams are situated (Bogost & Montfort, 2009). Platform studies can be used to better understand technologies like VR, as this field looks at the computational platforms in which creative work is enabled (Bogost & Montfort, 2009). Rather than looking at technologies from an ahistorical perspective and assuming that technologies spring forth from whole cloth, platform studies is situated in the social construction of technology (SCOT) tradition as developed by Bijker (1995), using ethnographic and historical methods to analyze technologies (Bogost & Montfort, 2009). Platform studies dispute an evolutionary theory of technological change, defying the idea of a march of technological progress that is linear and uncomplicated. Platform studies does not look at media technology as a black box, rather practitioners peer inside of the box, seeing all the mistakes, flaws, limitations and compromises that shape and mold the final creative expression of digital media.

Like platform studies, media archeology also takes an ethnographical and historical look at technology. It looks at the way media is spoken about, fashioned by human beings with flaws and deep-seated motivations, encountered by communities, lauded and preserved, or rejected, discarded and ignored. Referred to as a “bundle of closely related approaches”, media archeology seeks to correct the perceived error of other new media analyses which “share a disregard for the past…” (Huhtamo & Parikka, 2011, p. 2). Media archeologists comb through the varied archives of textual, auditory and interactive data to generate a collage of information, a constellation of clues to explicate and situate media technologies within the contexts of their origins. This journey through an entire technological life cycle helps the media archeologist to uncover a deeper understanding of what the technology was meant to do and how it was encountered by various publics.

Media archeology also rejects the notion that there is a linear march of technological progress. The methodological approach concerns itself with technologies that were considered failures, looking at these tangential endeavours which informed later advancements. Media are born not only from established social, political and economic institutions but “manifested in the narrative of madmen, religious visions, theories about the psyche and the body, and other recurring issues associated with technological modernity” (Huhtamo & Parikka, 2011, p. 25). Huhtamo (2011) looks at the topos of the “little people” or fairies inside the machine who are working hard to make the machine function. In this study, Huhtamo (2011) draws heavily on the scholarship German literary scholar Ernst Robert Curtius (1953) who catalogued the use of topoi in medieval literature. Huhtamo (2011) describes a network theory of topoi, a common sense culturally resonant idea that emerges but it does not stay static (Huhtamo, 2011). A topos becomes a node in an increasingly complex network of references. The topos then becomes a constellation of meaning, a network map that researchers can then trace back to the original idea that surrounded the technology, and thus discover clues about the technologies these topoi are used to describe. The topos does not have to be true nor does it need to be consistent with the cultural belief system from which it originates, as it might be a “symptom of both cultural continuities and ruptures” (Huhtamo, 2011, p. 34).

Nusselder (2009) looks at the role irrationality and perversion play in the cultural conception of virtuality and cyberspace. Looking at cyberspace through a Freudo-Lacanian lens, Nusselder (2009) argues that technologies are not necessarily made to fulfill survival requirements or “biological or natural needs” (p. 25). Sometimes, technologies are developed or used for fantastical, irrational or otherwise frivolous desires. It is fantasy, in fact, that helps us to create meaning. Citing McLuhan (1994, p. 5), “(a)ll media are active metaphors”, Nusselder (2009) argues that while metaphors are critical to helping us understand the world, we must, at the same time, “avoid the seduction of taking (metaphors) literally” (p. 18). Chan (2015) similarly notes that “many different layers of meaning have become encrusted around the term virtual reality” (p. 1). The definition of VR represents “clusters of meaning” and those clusters are “circulated, perpetuated and challenged in a wider social and cultural context” (Chan, 2015, p. 2). With this in mind, I will now look at clusters of meaning throughout the history of VR.

1800s – 1950s. VR theorists have argued that a desire to step bodily into another world has always been with us since the first cave paintings (Jerald, 2016; Lanier, 2017; Ryan, 2015). The first “3D craze” was documented in the 1800s with David Brewster’s kaleidoscope, a hand-held consumer device similar to the contemporary Fisher Price View-Master Viewer (Jerald, 2016, p. 15). Poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote of his experience with the kaleidoscope: “(it) is a surprise such as no painting ever produced. The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture” (Zone, 2007, as cited by Jerald, 2016, p. 15). Another 3D experience, the Haunted Swing invented by Amariah Lake, debuted at the Midwinter Fair in San Francisco in 1895. It was a room equipped with a large swing that seateded 15-40 individuals. The room was complete with furniture nailed to the floors and the walls which moved around the static swing, simulating the experience of movement (Jerald, 2016, p. 15). A writer who experienced the Haunted Swing recounted the following: “The curious and interesting feature however, was, that even though the action was fully understood, as it was in my case, it was impossible to quench the sensations of ‘goneness within’ with each apparent rush of the swing” (Wood, 1895). A science-fiction novel by Weinbaum (1935) entitled Pygmalion’s Spectacles, featured the story of a professor who would don special glasses and enter a fantastic world called Paracosma, meaning the “land beyond the world” in Greek (Jerald, 2016, p. 20). Finally, Morton Heilig, in the 1950s, designed a cinematic innovation called the Sensorama, a free-standing device which gave the user a full sensory immersive experience that included stereoscopic colour film, a wide-angle field of view, stereo sound, seat vibrations and movement, smells, and tubes that blew air at the user to simulate wind. The Sensorama was advertised with the slogan: “The Revolutionary Motion Picture System that Takes You Into Another World” (Jerald, 2016, p. 22). 

1960s to 1990s. Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. formed the research program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1964 which was focused initially on the use of technologies that would later be called to visually interact with simulated molecular structures. Brooks (1995) wrote of his work: “The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. …The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time.” (p. 7). In 1968, Ivan Sutherland created the Sword of Damocles, the first VR head-mounted display (HMD), leashed to a large, heavy computer system that was suspended from a ceiling (Jerald, 2016). A lack of computational power meant that the virtual worlds were in wire-frames only, and the large clunky design, sheer size and expense of VR hardware, meant VR’s use was confined to research labs and industry (Lanier, 2017). Sutherland wrote of his work: “”A display connected to a digital computer gives us a chance to gain familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world. It is a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland” (Sutherland, 1965, n.p.). Sutherland, writing about his own definition of an ideal computer-generated virtual environment, noted: “A chair displayed …would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal” (Sutherland, 1965, as cited by Jerald, 2016, p. 9). 

2000s to present. A consumer-level experience of VR promised somewhat hyperbolically in the 90s never materialized (Lanier, 2017; Jerald, 2016; Ryan, 2015). As a result, the first 10 years of the 21st century have been referred to as the “VR winter” (Jerald, 2016, p. 27). Due to the rapid acceleration of computational processing power as forecasted by Moore’s Law, a principle that held the number of transistors in an integrated circuit tends to double every two or so years (Moore, 1965), VR has become more widely available to consumers (Lanier, 2017; Jerald, 2016). Today, more people have some level of access to VR thanks to miniaturization and increased VR hardware processing power, moving quality VR experiences out of the research lab (Jerald, 2016; Lanier, 2017). While VR might have fizzled in the entertainment space in the 1980s through to 2010, VR flourished in construction, healthcare, space exploration, aerospace and the military (Jerald, 2016; Lanier, 2017). A consumer VR renaissance was sparked by the launch of the Oculus Rift Kickstarter in 2014 (Jerald, 2017; Lanier, 2017). Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been quoted as saying about the Oculus Rift: “…(W)e all have limits to our reality – places we can’t go, people we can’t see, things we can’t do. And opening up more of those experiences to all of us, that’s not isolating. That’s freeing.” (Sulleyman, 2017). A 2017 ad for the Oculus Rift invites users to ‘Step Into Rift’ while showing users climbing sheer mountain cliffs, floating in space and boarding the deck of the Starship Enterprise (Oculus Rift [Youtube video]). 

Discussion

Through this brief historical survey, I have explored that the use of topoi such as ‘as being transported to another world’, ‘traveling without leaving your home’ and the ‘magician conjuring worlds from nothing’ were used to explicate and persuade potential users of the promise of VR. Topoi in the discourses of VR are a particularly important area of investigation because access to first-person experiences in VR may be limited due to the hardware constraints that have plagued VR technologies over the decades. The high price of VR hardware and software has seen VR confined research labs and industry applications. Metaphors and rhetorical appeals have been used throughout VR’s history to inspire further innovation, describe VR experiences and promote usage. In the 1800s through 1950s, the promise of stepping bodily into another world, shedding the physical world for one of the imagination were some of the topoi or metaphors used to frame and promote the media technology. During this time, the promise was that the mind could fly away from the cares of the known world into the “very depths of the picture” (Zone, 2007, as cited by Jerald, 2016, p. 15). A user of the Haunted Swing provided an account of the sensation of “goneness within”, a metaphor that spoke to the sensation of leaving the body (Wood, 1895). During this early phase, VR was teleportation, transport or flight to other worlds. These were discourses that formed and informed these early VR technologies. Considering Nusselder (2009), one might understand that the desire to escape, travel, fly away might have been a deep-seeded need within the target publics in the late 1800s who were being enticed to experience 3D technologies. During this era, the idea of VR as a fantastic transport away from the ordinary entered the cultural imagination.

The 1960s through to the 1990s shifted to topoi about magic and magicians. Discussions of VR during this period promised that tech pioneers and inventors could conduct alchemic feats such as conjuring entire worlds from the very air. In this, discussion of VR recalled ancient stories of sorcerers and mythic heroes (Brooks, 1995; Lanier, 2017). The earlier discourses of transport from the 1800s to 1950s return here again with the imagery of traveling through the “looking glass” and into a fantasy world (Sutherland, 1965, n.p.). I argue here that even while widespread consumer access to VR faltered, the hardware was clunky and graphics were primitive, and VR could only be could be experienced in the rarefied spaces of research labs and industry, the promise of magic and the magicians of technology captured the public imagination despite the vast majority of the public not having direct or positive experiences with VR. 

VR’s middle period focussed on technologists as magicians and world builders. These metaphors were, arguably, early precursors of our contemporary cultural veneration for Silicon Valley pioneers, people who are often characterized as contemporary alchemists spinning billions of dollars from lines of code. Per Sutherland (1965), Lanier (2017) and Brooks (1995), we see the metaphor of programmers as wise sorcerers and sages able to create entire worlds with only their resolute wills and technical process. The statements about VR with the topos of sorcerers conjuring something from nothing suggests that programmers could even wield the power of life and death. Sutherland (1965) implies that bullets could be conjured from lines of code in VR to kill. During a time when the hardware and software limitations plagued VR, this imagery arguably served a strategic, rhetorical and persuasive purpose. These metaphors strategically carved out a place for programmers in the social imaginary as all-powerful and technological creations as limitless. This imagery also promises a future of limitless creative power through technology. The ideas being argued during the 1960s through 1990s still hold cultural resonance today. I argue that culturally, there’s been an inexorable progression toward entrusting these technical ‘magicians’ with some of the most important questions facing our world. The use of the magician topos continues to be employed within our culture as a key rhetorical platform in describing technological innovation. Technology is magic. Through this topos, technologists are rhetorically positioned as the weavers and world-builders, able to solve the world’s challenges as though from thin air.

From the VR winter of the early 2000s, the topoi used to make a case for VR was once again about flight, travelling to places without leaving your home, and the ability to commune with others in fantastic worlds. As I have argued, the topoi of VR can be traced back to our deep psychological and sociocultural desires. The promise of VR today is that it can connect you to new worlds populated by others. VR’s promise today is that users will be able to commune more with others in new immersive experiences. Rather than entering a static picture frame, consumers are promised that they will be able to enter populated new worlds. Users will be able to experience human connection and leave their sense of isolation behind. In modern discourse, VR has been positioned as a media technology that can usher in a new era of communicative power. VR is positioned rhetorically to become a powerful new medium for artistic expression, and a means to transform society (Ryan, 2015; Lanier, 2017; Jerald, 2016). The metaphors around VR innovation suggest that users could experience a kind of enhanced, higher-form of communication, something Lanier (2017) and Heim (1994) envisioned as a post-symbolic communication beyond words. The topos of this period speaks to a longing for human connection and community.

Overall, the topoi used throughout VR’s history, rather than shifting significantly, have, as demonstrated through these limited examples, remained similar, simply taking on more complexity and additional dimension as the decades go by. Transport, the flight to another world, the ability to transport yourself bodily into a fantasy, these metaphors have remained with VR throughout the decades of its evolution. The topos of transport to another world has remained a conceptual constant since the late 1800s, suggesting that this metaphor has remained culturally resonant through VR’s history. This collected constellation of meaning contains within it a map of human desire throughout our recorded cultural history. The topoi used to describe VR are vessels filled with fantasy and our cultural longing for transport, magic and togetherness.

Conclusion

The idea of VR has been encrusted with meaning throughout its history and I have examined some of the discursive layers that surround our understanding of VR (Chan, 2015). The rarified and often exclusive place currently occupied by VR technologies, makes the analyses of the discourses about VR an important field of study. As identified in this paper, media archeological analyses can include psychoanalysis, ideology, rhetoric, irrationality and fantasy in the contemplation of media technologies. The topoi used to describe technology can help to introduce new media, and ensure it is rhetorically linked to cultural traditions and established imaginative constructs. As Huhtamo (2011) argues, topoi is a powerful, often subliminal basis for persuasion. By understanding the way VR is described by stakeholders and publics, researchers might better define the technology’s history, future direction, misconceptions, and our cultural desire. I have demonstrated the role that irrationality and fantasy can play in the metaphors that are used to describe digital technology. Through media archeology and platform studies, further research might more thoroughly investigate the interplay between the scientific and technological underpinnings of VR, and the fantastic and the imaginary

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