The Virtual Paradigm

Header Shot PathIf you can understand that a paradigm is a way of thinking, being and operating in any sphere then as far as things go we are entering a new sphere and thus a new Virtual Paradigm where arguably new rules and ways of thinking may apply. There is a famous line in the Matrix (Wachowski and Wachowski, 1999) which goes “Welcome to the desert of the real”. In fact, this is a reference taken from the book Simulacra and simulation (Baudrillard, 1981). Baudrillard actually talks about the desert of the real as being like that of a map which has disintegrated leaving behind a simulation of the actual territory that it represented. In essence one could say that the book discusses the idea of Virtual Reality or in his words Simulation in various forms and guises. His main tenet being that almost everything is in some degree a simulation of something else to a lesser or greater degree. One may not totally agree with this concept but in what might be considered a landmark concept of the time he also talks about how the image can go in successive stages from one which represents an actual thing, through changes or alterations to that representation and finally to one which represents nothing that we can really reference it to. Hence one could almost say that the idea of Virtual Reality was thought of well before the invention of the internet and all that followed on. I think it’s most pertinent to look at this idea of representation since with VR we have almost been handed the keys to the castle in terms of new realities.

The interesting thing about VR is that it is quite fascinating because of the deception that it creates of something existing that in fact has not solidity whatsoever in fact. I have been working on an installation as part of my research which involves the creation of a room, it happens to one of familiarity of my past but the interesting thing about it is that when one views something like that in VR it takes on a life of its own. Looking around the room which currently is not textured or refined in any way I nevertheless found myself drawn into its intricacies and the way that the light falls and the shadows are made. All of which is completely false, it’s a trick of the eye but yet even in its absolute plain essence it somehow almost comes to life. Which brings me back to Baudrillard; In that I have so far created something that is the same but somehow not the same as something that exists in the physical realm. So I am already moving through the successive stages of the image and I am happy to accept that this different representation that I have created is somehow ‘real’ at least to me. The whole creation of this scene is in fact a trick of light and shaders within a software program and stereoscopic vision that makes it ‘live’ even though it is not factually alive.

In Parables for the Virtual (Massumi, 2002), Brian Massumi talks about the fact that colour is never going to be the same from one instant to the next due to light, brightness, hue and so forth. He talks about each moment as being a ‘singularity’ and in effect not reproducible and nor is it the same colour to each person, not exactly the same anyway. When we produce colour, texture, etc. in the virtual world how referential is it to the real world? Does say a texture tell us how it should feel simply by looking at it? Can we look at concrete in the virtual and say yes, it is the same as physical or is it different, a whole new set of reference points that are simulations but give rise to new sensory perceptions or conclusions. Because as Massumi says, when we see something we are already compartmentalising to some degree it against other experiences and categorisations. So my point is will the virtual and the physical really ever be the same due to the very nature of simulation and do they have to be? Does it actually matter if they are not? Do we have to be so concerned with matching the real world when in fact we could simply re-contextualise ourselves with a whole set of different features and facets which are nothing like our physical universe. If you take it to that point then it is also possible that we could become addicted to the perfection we can achieve in VR, to seamlessness but we could also become a different self, a physical becomes virtual. After all you can go back to say Impressionism which is in effect painting the essence of colour. What Monet tried to do was actually see colour as it really is, a blending of light and colour, of brightness and intensity, uncodified or modified by contextualising the form of what he painted. However, by painting the light as it is, it took on a form of its own which we then recognised. Impressionism is a statement about the universe, the universe of light, colour and intensity. Perhaps our thinking is too rigid in this respect about art and the physical universe, we want to compartmentalise it without really thinking about what is the essence of what we are trying to convey. New paradigms can bring new ideas, new ways of thinking and seeing, VR gives us this chance for a new perspective in a totally new dimension. It’s not the desert of the real that we will find but more a menu of potentially delectable desserts all waiting for us to sample the wares.

Note – All reproductions and excerpts of any content on this blog must include a reference and citation to the original author and preferably a link to the original piece.

Baudrillard, J. (1981). Simulacra and simulation. Originally published in French by Editions Galilee: Editions Galilee translated into English onto PDF.

Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the virtual. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wachowski, L., & Wachowski, L. (1999). The Matrix. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/

The Irony of the Digital

This is our digital irony. You have a physical human wearing a contraption which allows them to see in stereo thus giving the perception of 3D who is tracked by cameras in a defined space. This is done in order to place them into a digital space where they are then able to see themselves or otherwise be embodied as a digital presence which they are seeing with their physical selves. To describe this to the uninitiated it would sound like the ultimate feedback loop. So we want to place ourselves physically into the realm of digital possibilities but to do so requires a fair amount of hardware, software and equipment. What we actually become is our cyber selves in physical form interacting with a universe in digital form. In the digital we become unlimited, equipped with superpowers that do not exist in the physical world. We can break natural laws and explore the boundless potential of the unknown. We can extend our morality and thus we can kill without repercussion or consequence, we can become, in effect, a God. Any expression of dissatisfaction with our physical circumstances can be altered. We can have the body we always wanted, the possessions we craved, we can have it all, we can live the dream. Lazarus can indeed arise from the dead and walk. Yet it is ironic because indeed we are still bounded by the space and by the rules of the game or software that controls the virtual world in which we enter. We are free yet harnessed within a physical area that allows the software to position us and with the accoutrements of VR such as a headset which isolates us from the physical world. Without these things we cannot be part of this new world and thus exchange one set of constraints for another in order to be ‘free’.

In order to escape we enslave ourselves further, succumbing to the lure of entrapment that lurks in the depths of our virtual spaces. Like the sirens calling us in we are enticed into beautiful perfect digital worlds where nothing is defective or decays and where if something dies you can simply regenerate it or respawn. Like some Karma simulation we can live one thousand lives in a day and each time return with greater knowledge to meet the challenges we face inside our virtual utopia. Even before immersive headsets arrived we had already been immersed and beguiled by the possibility of another life and even called it ‘second life’. From the very first paddle ball game we were hooked upon the idea of entering this new digital universe. As realism took hold and VR edged ever closer the lines between what is recognisably physical and what is digital began to blur. This is exemplified in the films of the today where the CGI is seamless and no longer makes us stare in wonderment. The medium has become accepted and we have walked freely into this new world of digital mergence. We accept the irony of bounding ourselves with technology in order to experience something that is beyond our normal perceptions. We have drunk from the chalice of the holy grail to become part of this new world where everything is possible. We have striven to bind ourselves ever closer to cyberspace and the removal of the physical encumbrances of the world we inhabit. We are seemingly unconscious to the irony that it requires hectares of physical computer hardware on server farms and millions of miles of wiring all powered by electricity just in order to give life to our cyber existence.

Cyberspace is open to all that can access it and let them in. Identity is no longer a crisis, it’s an opportunity for change in the most innovative forms. You can be anything or anyone and have the body of a supermodel or an athlete. You can be a gazelle or a lion or any mythical creature you care to conjure up. In Ready Player One (Cline, 2011), the accessibility of the virtual world or ‘Oasis’ as it is called in the book, is assured to anyone that has a headset and a pair of haptic gloves. The hero and just about everyone on earth lives in cyberspace with the physical earth dropping away into neglect, although it does not go into detail as to how everything is kept running since the story focuses wholly upon the digital adventure and the ultimate battle for control of the cyber world and everyone in it. The point being though that according to the book humanity prefers a digital universe to the physical universe. It becomes like some vast matrix which unlike The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999) is not controlled by machines. Although we have not reached those dizzy heights of mergence it’s nevertheless a potential future but it’s not the only future. In these fictional depictions the possibilities are endless within the rules of the cyber world. Which again brings a second irony that having given us unlimited freedom in cyberspace we once again accept the boundaries and rules of the game and thus move from one physical constriction to a digital one. In Ready Player One to walk somewhere requires the same time and effort as in the physical world so already physical constraints of time are imposed. But nevertheless the attractiveness of being something you are not or something you would like to be is magnetic for many. It’s an escape from whatever existence you have to something you cannot normally have. You can be a King and have a kingdom with untold simulated riches. The irony of it is that when you remove your headset you will still be that ordinary guy or girl who goes to work in an ordinary life, just like 99% of the people on this planet. Karl Marx wrote that religion is the opium of the people” (Marx, 1844). Perhaps in Virtual Reality we have a new opiate for the masses or some might argue even a new religion.

Note – All reproductions and excerpts of any content on this blog must include a reference and citation to the original author and preferably a link to the original piece.

Cline, E. (2011). Ready player one. New York: Crown Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1844. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February.

Wachowski, L., & Wachowski, L. (1999). The Matrix. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/

 

Virtual Reality Myths

What are the boundaries of the VR phenomenon? If the current hype is to be believed VR will signal a new era in virtually everything (pun intended). We need to put our expectations and aspirations into perspective. The hype of technological advance is ably discussed in The Digital Sublime (Mosco, 2004) where he points out that every innovation since the invention of the telegraph has been heralded with the same three predictions; the end of geography, the end of history and the end of politics. None of these things have actually come to pass, or certainly not to the extent mooted by the pundits of the day. In fact, VR is in its second life cycle having failed to fully deliver on its promises the first time in the 90’s. We have to remember that VR, in a way, is nothing new. Back in the 1960’s the first Head Mounted Display was made albeit predictably for military purposes.  The devices for stereoscopic vision the basis of which are still used today in Oculus, Vive, et al. were invented back in the 1800’s. It doesn’t require too much hard research to trace the path of VR well into the 1990’s when the bubble finally burst. The lack of a technology that could be made affordable to everyone and also the fact that the internet backbone of high speed transmission simply was not generally available is probably part of what killed it.

Consultancies such as Delloite are predicting a billion-dollar industry in 2016 for VR. Forbes magazine wrote earlier this year of predictions in excess of $100 billion by 2020. Of course none of these can really be either proved or justified at this juncture. This is almost a rerun of the dotcom frenzy which Mosco describes in his book wherein companies were simply falling all over themselves to invest in anything that had dot com after its name. On the plus side, Oculus Rift and HTC are now shipping their products and as a result of these getting into the hands of consumers there is a big upsurge in games and other VR software. A number of social media type platforms are arising, notably http://altvr.com/ consisting of forums and chat rooms which can be visited with or without the requisite VR equipment. In January Wearable wrote that Google Cardboard had shipped 5 million units and that would presumably not be counting the lookalikes. At the time of writing there had been something in excess of 25 million downloads of apps for Cardboard. Many industries and areas are taking up the use of VR as I recently discussed here and of course the porn industry is one of the big take ups of the new technology as I also discussed here. So the initial figures and showings in many relevant areas perhaps show promise in terms of uptake and usage. But still what of the myths?

I think one can put it another way in that there appears to be a constant evangelism about new technology which promotes each thing as the new saviour of the world. Mosco has written extensively on this and history rather than being ended has borne out what he says. The real point is that we go on to discover in the end that technology isn’t the world saviour and that we still have to go to work and earn money, go to the shops and buy groceries among other things. Albeit that these things can be achieved via the internet there is still a physical necessity for it to occur. Virtual reality does not remove the necessities of life. In fact, what seems to be happening in the modern idiom is that we feed our soul with derived material and we live in a world of information overload where a person wearing a Chewbacca mask can achieve world notoriety within minutes of uploading their video to the internet. All of us are striving to leap above the surface of the digital ocean long enough to be recognised just like the Manta rays in their ritualistic dances of courtship. Most of us do not find that way to hit the stratosphere at all, let alone remain there. The increase in content subsumes all with it and the recycling of content simply fills cyberspace with what is essentially so much flotsam just like the plastic ocean we have created on our planet. Our discarded memories, our collective consciousness is paraded endlessly in front of the masses in an unceasing flow of detritus. The real myth is that we are doing anything meaningful and one could argue that we have either created a monster garbage can or, in another view, a cornucopia of wonderment. Then others may simply see it as the continuance of a banal existence now generated in digital form. Virtual Reality extends this into the third dimension where an entire new cornucopia or garbage can will be created depending upon which way you see it. Perhaps I am being too harsh or cynical and I’ve got an HTC Vive myself which I think is pretty awesome. But what we need is some perspective and I think we have to be pragmatic that is all. VR is not the new saviour of the planet, only we can do that.

Note – All reproductions and excerpts of any content on this blog must include a reference and citation to the original author and preferably a link to the original piece.

Mosco, V. (2004). The digital sublime: myth, power and cyberspace. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.