The term virtual reality was coined by Jaron Lanier, the founder of VPL Research, one of the pioneer companies dedicated to the development of hardware and software for VR systems. The designation is, from any viewpoint, a contradiction in terms. Notwithstanding the philosophical acceptance of different views about the ontological meaning of reality, from a day-to-day experience, reality is defined as a collection of objective experiences which surround our life in contrast to dreams, fantasy, hallucinations, or any other type of subjective creation. As defined in the dictionary, “virtual” is “being so in effect or essence, although not in actual fact or name.” The contradiction between the two words is evident; reality cannot be defined as virtual from an existential perspective because virtuality denotes the opposite.
Daniela Bertol, Designing Digital Space
‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’, the 1969 song by Peter Sarstedt, is one of my least favourite (and certainly least welcome) ear worms, but that phrase: I want to look inside your head … was on constant repeat as I watched visitors encountering our artwork Homage to the Sphere during ‘Futurecade’ at Millennium Galleries, Sheffield.
Homage to the Sphere is a collaborative Virtual Reality artwork that I have conceived and created with Human design studio, Sheffield. The concept and process of development have been described and documented earlier on this blog: Homage to the Sphere (Part I), Homage to the Sphere (Part II) and The Colour Out of Space (introducing sound to vision)
Homage to the Sphere consists of hundreds of coloured rooms that the visitor/navigator can traverse either in a predetermined order (‘on rails’) or via independent exploration using an Xbox or gaming controller. It can be viewed either individually (with sound) through an Oculus Rift VR headset or collectively (without sound) via a monitor screen that displays the viewpoint of the individual wearing the headset.
The experience is abstract, spatial, and colourful and the aesthetics are further enriched by a soundtrack/sound design created by the musician John Redgrave. This aspect of the experience is best received in stereo though headphones incorporated in the headset.
Visually speaking it is, of course, an optical/neurological illusion constructed from pixels – much like a coloured photograph that you might view on your computer screen: a combination of minuscule, coloured RGB dots that are combined in the mind’s eye to suggest three-dimensional form …
When I was originally thinking about the piece, and how it might be displayed in the gallery, my intention for the monitor screen (see image above) was to act simply as a device for holding people’s attention while they waited their turn on (in?) the headset. As I discussed this in situ with visitors, however, a much more complex and exciting possibility occurred: what if that which we are viewing on the monitor could actually be what the wearer of the headset is seeing? What if, like the characters in Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’, we were somehow positioned in the same place as the watcher behind the viewer’s eyes?
In a sense this is truly what is happening … we are seeing a projection from the headset wearer’s view-point as they move their head in response to their virtual surroundings …
I was struck by the trans-dimensional aspect of this, how the monitor was displaying something of a 2D representation of 3D environment (OK not exactly – a VR environment). A spatial compression was occurring between the two scenarios, something like the compression that disconnects the field of sculpture from the field of painting …
In an earlier post I write about one of my conversations with Professor Richard Jones, a noted physicist. In this conversation we talked about epiphenomena (an epiphenomenon, in simple terms, is a secondary phenomenon that occurs alongside or in parallel to a primary cause – i.e. wavelengths of light might be the cause of colour, but the sensation of colour is an epiphenomenon).
In a sense, perhaps, those viewing the monitor are experiencing an epiphenomenon based on the experience and actions of the headset wearer. It is a mediated experience … flattened … perhaps less ‘real’ …
Which brings me to this term: Virtual Reality. What does this (actually) mean? As Daniela Bertol points out in the quotation above, the phrase is something of an oxymoron. If we accept that our experience of Virtual Reality is taking place in the real world, then Virtual Reality is merely a subset within the overall category of ‘actual’ reality. When I spoke to Mark Atkin (the curator of ‘Futurecade’ and director of Crossover Labs) about this, he suggested that the terms ‘augmented reality’ or ‘supplementary reality’ might be more apt.
But the experience is dreamlike, it has a special quality that somehow feels disconnected from the everyday, and we are easily disoriented about the locus in which (what might have been) an experience of intensely private enclosure is taking place. I think that, once again, it is possible that prosaic language is struggling to keep up the pace …
This other quote from William R. Sherman & Alan B. Craig might help – I certainly gain some reassurance from the provisional nature of this explanation of the ‘virtual world’.
A virtual world is the content of a given medium. It may exist solely in the mind of its originator or be broadcast in such a way that it can be shared with others. A virtual world can exist without being displayed in a virtual reality system (i.e., an integrated collection of hardware, software, and content assembled for producing virtual reality experiences)–much like play or film scripts exist independently of specific instances of their performance. Such scripts do in fact describe virtual worlds. Let’s carry the analogy further. We can refer to the script of a play as merely the description of a play. When that description is brought to life via actors, stage sets, and music, we are experiencing the play’s virtual world. Similarly, a computer-based virtual world is the description of objects within a simulation. When we view that world via a system that brings those objects and interactions to us in a physically immersive, interactive presentation, we are experiencing it via virtual reality.
William R. Sherman & Alan B. Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality