The following essay was written in response to the October 2016 conference "Weird Realities: Head-Mounted Art && Code".

Reality is Weirder than Virtual Reality

Virtual reality and reality (affectionately referred to as “reality prime” or “just reality” by Laurel and Ijeoma respectively) are often painted as mutually exclusive. Yet, virtual reality is more accurately thought of as a doll nested within mediated reality, a child of lived experience. An excitement for the new toys and possibilities of virtual reality leads to a fascination with the digital experience for all its geometry and simulation. This momentum can obscure the larger experience within which the pixels are situated. The body and brain are often handicapped in virtual reality, yet have the potential to yield rich results when engaged. Virtual reality does not expunge reality, but rather, is measured and imprinted by it. Reality is a tool and constraint to be respected and extorted in the creation of virtual reality experiences.

1. I’m Standing Right Here

The body maintains its presence, vulnerability, and agency despite virtual reality’s ignorance of these affairs. Imagine you’re standing in an art gallery full of people, with a handful of VR experiences spread throughout. You put on a headset a few moments ago, and stand, rotating around and peering into the distance a few inches in front of your face. Something jabs you in the belly, and you’re ejected from the experience with no parachute. You reflexively push the headset above your eyes, although it takes you a second because it's an awkward interaction. Your friend’s playful hello, a physical embrace of sorts functioning elsewhere to establish rapport and sign affection, finds itself distorted here as you are reminded of the body’s inherent vulnerability that lags behind the future you just previously saw and heard (Butler 20). In this virtual reality relation, your body is that kid who raises their hand in math class to ask the question the teacher just answered. It's the thing you forget as you hold the shiny, precise contours of the iPhone in your pocket. It’s an inconvenience.

Unless the body is consciously considered by the creators of virtual reality experiences, this disjuncture between within and without will continue and opportunities for active and multi-modal relations will remain shelved. Laura JuoHsin Chen encapsulates VR headsets in sculptures pieces in her series MASK. These “virtual reality wearables”, as she calls them, consciously use material and form to place the interactor in the context of the piece before their eyes arrive inside. Attention paid to the physical presence and interaction of these wearables displaces the interactor’s focus from the technology and nature of the headset to the tangible language of the object. Awareness of these artifacts may persist through the virtual reality experience as one is proprioceptively engaged in their weight and proximity. In some of these ensembles, Chen embeds inputs and outputs, such as bio-sensors and LEDs. These features push the work towards a language of mixed reality and seek participation from the interactor.

An individual who partakes in a virtual reality experience is often constrained by a lack of physical, perceived, and narrative affordances. This lack of possibility and permission for agency leads to linear and awkward interactions. Experiences starved for agency live at the border of immersive film and may not qualify as virtual reality. This is per Brenda Laurel’s assertion that VR requires the ability to influence one’s experience to be defined as such. Experiences with some interaction may include a single button, the use of rotation to select targets, and vibration. These controls and feedback quickly reach their functional limits due to a lack of communicable detail and the need to spin around simply to navigate a menu. As these interactions are mixed with a journey through a story or challenge, one desires more agency than simply choosing which direction to float in. Furthermore, one longs to vastly impact the experience to the point that my adventure is radically different from yours. The realm of possibility within virtual reality is inevitably measured against the diversity of human ecology.

2. Same Brain

It is with the same brain that we perceive and remember our lived experience that we encounter virtual reality. Our assumptions about physical features, people, and situations carry into these pixelated utopias. Psychology has taught us that the brain does not process our physical environment as a camera does, but rather interprets it based on its features and our understanding of the world. Omer Shapira highlights this fact, noting that the brain makes assumptions with incomplete data. Psychology furthermore shows us that these assumptions do not apply only to visual information but also to our interpretation of people and circumstances. These visual assumptions lead to concepts in Gestalt psychology such as continuation. Our schemas about behavior lead to mental models that can build prejudice and implicit bias. Creators can harness these facts of our nature to reveal the constructed relationships that tint our perception of reality and automatize our actions and judgements. Virtual reality’s temporal and spatial flexibility allows a breadth and depth of provocations that can lead participants to recognize the lines they are automatically drawing.

As we slip on a headset and immerse ourselves as embryos in utero, this sheltered space allows the revisitation of memories in order that we might finish processing unsewn events. Chun offers the example of virtual reality therapy for war veterans. These individuals describe the way in which this immersion in the battlefield forces them to revisit events they never fully processed. This type of therapy is very similar to non-digital techniques used to treat PTSD in veterans and rape victims, including prolonged exposure, cognitive processing, and eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) (Tracy). For example, in cognitive processing, “Victims are encouraged to identify parts of the trauma with ‘inadequately processed emotions’ associated with them, known as ‘stuck points’” (Tracy). While virtual reality may not formally help interactors to identify these ‘stuck points’, it can surely poke at ‘inadequately processed emotions’ for abrasions one may not recognize as bare.1 Virtuality reality can include video, reconstruct environments, and offers the interactor the ability to intervene which makes it a ripe medium for grappling with unfinished business.

The maker of virtual reality experiences must take into account the lived experience the work exists in. They must embrace the entire event of partaking in virtual reality, particularly the body’s vulnerability and interactions with devices. By recognizing the power of the mind to make predictions and connect dots, pieces can be created that are very personal and reflective. Virtual reality is a medium full of complexity that is yearning to be tamed then wielded.2

1. One might posit all art has this capability. Due to its often representative and immersive qualities, virtual reality may perform this mode of catharsis in a more heightened degree than other art forms.
2. I hope to extend this essay in the future to include discussion of more abstract relationships between VR & R. One possible section is “The Ruler of Reality” which will touch on the idea of “ground truth” as it relates to physical space and relationships between entities. It will also discuss signs within VR, comparing indexicality & representation, naturalism & abstraction, and objectivity & subjectivity (as they apply to Eco’s idea of open work). A second section, “Keep Looking for a Cure” will touch on Chun’s notions that new media cannot be blank canvases or safe spaces, and that by offloading our problems to technology, all we really do is neglect them.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. "Violence, Mourning, Politics." Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004. 19-49. Print.
Chen, Laura JuoHsin. Art && Code: Weird Reality. Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

7 Oct. 2016. Lecture. Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Art && Code: Weird Reality. Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

6 Oct. 2016. Lecture. Ijeoma, Ekene. Art && Code: Weird Reality. Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

7 Oct. 2016. Lecture. Laurel, Brenda. Art && Code: Weird Reality. Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

7 Oct. 2016. Lecture. Shapira, Omer. “There’s More to it Than Shoving Photons in Your Face.” Art && Code: Weird

Reality. Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. 8 Oct. 2016. Lecture. Tracy, Natasha. "Rape Therapy: A Treatment for Rape Victims." HealthyPlace., 20 July 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

Graphic created by Mike Budai