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Rhetoric and Virtualism

What does it mean to be virtual? Pierre Levy suggests that the virtual is the process of “becoming the other” – a process that moves from signification, to substitution, resulting in transformation (17, 115-118). Levy argues rhetoric (Levy defines rhetoric as that which “…designates the art of acting on others and the world by means of signs”) is the virtual aspect of language. Language, writes Levy, “…only truly comes into its own at the rhetorical stage, when it feeds off its own activity, imposes its objectives, and reinvents the world.” (117).

  In virtual spaces and VR environments, we continually encounter the process of virtualization. Individuals converge along points of interest, exchanging, internalizing, and spreading discourse, then transform into a communal identity at any given moment on the internet.  

In VR environments, you can “embody” the other or inhabit the other through exploration of virtual places. At times, VR experiences can be transformative for individuals (I’m certain you can easily find evidence of this through google searches). However, most VR experiences available in the consumer market are restrictive. You can think of the majority of VR as “gaming+,” meaning most are procedurally generated models of virtual worlds that have fixed parameters and goals/outcomes. In a majority of consumer VR experiences (as opposed to laboratory VR), you have a limited range of motion and interaction. Frankly, after taking some time to learn the process of coding for VR and Web VR, I can understand why. 

Programming for VR is inordinately difficult. The range of technology one can experience VR in is varied (everything from a cardboard VR for mobile devices to the Valve Index in the consumer market), and VR HMDs are fairly limited in capacity (as much as Lawnmower Man may make you believe otherwise). We haven’t yet mastered rendering graphics or sensors fluid enough to adapt to full body movements and augmentation in virtual spaces, nor have we begun to develop technologies that stimulate robust sensorimotor response (presently, we have some haptics for hand controllers and spatial audio, but little else). For the most part, VR enthusiasts and users frequently struggle to find sites of authentic virtualization as it is defined by Levy.

Despite our present limitations and options in the VR consumer market, Jaron Lanier, one of the progenitors of VR, believes that VR experiences should always strive to allow individuals to transform both the self and (digital) environment rather than act as tourist hotspots or curated events. If that seems like a lofty goal, it’s because it is. But Jaron Lanier is not the sort of person who thinks of near, or even remote, futures. Lanier virtualizes existence – seeing it as an infinite plateau with endlessly lines of flight (to borrow from Deleuze). The early development of VR required experimental intellects, such as Lanier, since computational graphics hadn’t yet evolved beyond pixelated symbols (often rendered on unwieldy displays): one needed to think beyond the massive CRT box.  

Lanier’s book, Dawn of the New Everything, is an autobiographical narrative of the development of VR.  Lanier’s personal accounts seem like something out of “a magical realism novella,” to quote Lanier. These bizarre, at times heartbreaking, and beautiful narratives serve as a testament to Lanier’s tenacious and inquisitive character – a brilliant and unique mind driven by a highly expressive vision of technology. These formative experiences inspired and shaped Lanier’s work and life – his 52 definitions of VR are interwoven throughout the narrative, as if to demonstrate that his vision of virtual reality was and is ever present in his life. Beyond the world of VR, readers also get a glimpse at the ethos of cyberculture in the 80s and 90s (which can only be described as cyberpunk).  

What I found most intriguing about Dawn of the New Everything is how Lanier articulates his vision of VR technology – what he hopes it will become. Although he never mentions him by name, Lanier seems to resonate with both Deleuze’s and Levy’s rendition of virtualism. Lanier believes that VR technology should allow us to explore other virtual planes of experience – other lines of flight, to use the words of Deleuze. “You should become an octopus” he might say in one of his numerous symposisms.

Image result for Lanier
taken from

In Dawn of the New Everything, Lanier suggests that users should have complete autonomy of their virtual embodiment. With this affordance (i.e. full technical control and sensory immersion of various avatar presence(s)), users can experience the other, to echo Levy, through virtual reality technology. However, I want to couch this statement by noting that it is impossible to provide the experience of other individuals (that is to say, to replicate others lived experiences), but it is possible to provide simulations of lived experiences broadly (e.g. what it is to navigate the world with a lost limb) and to create a virtual augmented sensorimotor experience that are impossible for human beings by inhabiting alternate or speculative virtual presences (i.e. what it’s like to have the limbs and bodily mechanics of an otter or an alien with four arms and legs). Ideally, users could share these experiences in social VR, which exists in a fairly remarkable capacity currently through VR applications such as Altspace and VR chat. For Lanier, the social dynamic of VR is crucial since VR technology offers unique communicative capacities/affordances, expanding beyond aural and visual modes of expression and rhetoric. This interview with Lanier, hosted in a VR social space, delves into the socio-expressive aspect of virtual reality. MEU is a contemporary (still in alpha) VR social environment that best exemplifies Lanier’s vision of social VR.

Additionally, users of VR, according to Lanier, should have control of the entire virtual environment and be able to morph, shape, or transform virtual environment from one alien ecology to another. With this affordance, VR users engage in the rhetorical action of worlding, 

communicating through the ambiance and architecture of virtual khora. The potential applications for virtual experiences of that magnitude would be significant, but we’re simply not “there yet” with VR technology in the consumer market. Tilt Brush and other 3D modeling applications are as close as we can get for now, although all such applications lack the ability to experiment with embodiment through avatars presently. 

Lanier’s seemingly utopian perspective of VR is tempered by his concern over its potential to become the “ultimate skinner box,” or a device through which individuals can be conditioned not only through subliminal messaging, but overt manipulation through sensorimotor stimulation.

As I’d previously mentioned, research on VR as a form of treatment for PTSD, anxiety, and depression already suggests that there are real ethical concerns. If VR can aid in treating phobias, theoretically, it could also exacerbate and induce them.

In my previous entries, I discussed how immersion, presence, and place create rhetorical spaces/situations in virtual reality. If we consider Levy’s definition of rhetoric as “the art of acting on others and the world by use of signs,” or as an act of communication that is no longer “concerned solely with representing the state of things but also of transforming them, and creating a reality out of language,” VR technology appears to be a perfect vehicle for creating arguments beyond aural and written means. Users can experience arguments, expressed through sense of immersion, touch, sound, and sight in virtual places and presences. Still, more research needs to be conducted on user experiences with VR to determine how the technology acts as a rhetorical space/tool.


Presence, Place, Phenomenology, and VR

I’ve found only one text that discusses the interconnection of communication and virtual reality exclusively – Biocca and Levy’s edited collection, Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality. Originally published in 1995, one might think that the text contains outdated information, which may be true for some of the chapters. However, many of the text’s chapters are highly relevant and applicable to present research in the field. I often find citations to chapters of the text (particularly those authored by Biocca) in articles published in Frontiers.

Virtual Reality and Communication Studies

Biocca and Levy’s collection seems to have a specific focus on individual user experience within a virtual environment(s), describing the notion of presence, assemblages for sensorimotor augmentation, and interfaces design and experience. The introduction of the text begins with a bold claim: “Virtual reality is not a technology; it is a destination.” (4). Each chapter of the text then articulates how we might begin of thinking of users emerging in virtual destinations – what virtual/digital communicative elements of VR (as a communication system/interface) transport the user into the virtual environment.  In Biocca’s vision, Communication systems (VR particularly) should catalyze “nothing less than the full immersion of the human sensorimotor channels into a vivid computer-generated experience…” and “In the ideal system, the body is wrapped in communication and pulsates with information.” (17). This description seems like a fictional technology in one of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, yet it is a reality when we consider my previous discussions on the affordance of VR. 

Taken from:
Biocca, F., & Levy, M. R. (Eds.). (2013). Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality. Florence: Taylor and Francis.

Levy (in his chapter Virtual reality as a communication system) suggests that VR isn’t a technology that transports things or experiences, but ideas (23). He expounds on his argument by citing a portion of Tom Furness’s (“Air force VR pioneer and leading engineering research”) address at the IEEE Virtual Reality Annual Symposium “advanced interfaces will provide an incredible new mobility for the human race. We are building transportation systems for the senses … the remarkable promise that we can be in another place or space without moving our bodies into that space.” (23). A communication interface is, according to Levy’s equation communication interface = (physical media, codes, information) + sensorimotor channels. To study and examine how the “VR interface” works, we must think of VR in terms of human presence in virtual reality environments.

Steuer’s chapter Defining virtual reality: dimensions determining telepresence indicates that the best way to understand communication through VR (or VR as a communication system/interface) is through the study of telepresence among users. Steur notes “…the telepresence view focuses attention on the relationship between an individual who is both a sender and a receiver, and on the mediated environment with which he or she interacts. Information is not transmitted from sender to receiver; rather, mediated environments are created and then experienced” challenging the sender-receiver model ever present in communication and rhetorical studies (at the time of the publication and even in the present) (38).  Dramatic Narrative, sound, interactivity, vividness, and fidelity of movement (the naturalness of actual physical movement mapped into the virtual world) are affordances that not only allow users to feel presence/telepresence in a virtual environment, but also affordances attributed to inducing degrees of immersion (221; 260; 59-63; 41-49).  

Phenomenology of Virtual Place

While Biocca and Levy’s text is impressive in its contents, there is far less focus on the experience of virtual places and what it means to experience place virtually. Champion’s collection, The Phenomenology of Real and Virtual Places, supplements this gap. Many of the chapters of Champion’s collection echo ideologies evident in spatial rhetoric, ambient rhetoric, new materialism and new media. Each chapter describes how virtual places are akin to real places in that both communicate or encode information and have agency. Reinhard (author of the Landscape Archaeology in Skyrim VR chapter) eloquently states that the focus on “the interaction of materials and agents, where landscape [or place] itself is an agent, allows us to consider alternative landscapes, where they are, how they work, and how they can be observed as phenomena.” (24).  He goes on to note that “understanding a landscape and all of its relationships, which include biography, place, motility, mediation, agency/aesthetics, well-being, conflict, contestation, nature, culture and scene” opens our eyes (so to speak) to place-as-agent (30). I would argue that this same framework would be useful for scholars attempting to describe how VR environments operate rhetorically.

Janz’s chapter, Virtual place and Virtualized Places, discusses the phenomenon of virtualization and virtuality, where virtualization is “the digital – discrete, disconnected, codeable, and iterable…” while virtuality is “analog, continuous, connected, and unique… A virtualization is ultimately an abstraction, whereas the virtual always remains tied to the concrete” (61). He goes on to note that an “optical illusion” (e.g. a virtual environment) is “not a representation of reality, but rather a creation of a reality out of relationships between elements” (61). In essence, what this means is that world building in virtual reality is not successful by simply replicating photorealistic worlds – rather a virtual reality environment is successful when it persuades its audience that “meaningful action of some sort has happened.” (62). This is best facilitated, argues Janz (and I would have to agree) by creating environments that are playful, where users co-invent/co-author VR places by discovery through ludic expression/interactions (63-67). Citing Deleuze and Fink, Janz indicates that play is (citing Fink specifically) “creative bringing-forth, it is a production,” which suggests that play is a form of composing whereby individuals “create reality” and realize alternate possibilities with and through the environments they dwell in.

VR and Ambient Rhetoric

As I read through these texts (as well as the collection Immersed in Media which is a much more contemporary text on presence/telepresence), I was reminded of Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric – specifically his discussion on chora (from Plato – how places are constructed for societal needs and how societal needs construct place). Rickert writes “Rhetoric accomplishes its work by inducing us to shift, at least potentially, how we dwell or see ourselves dwelling in the world,” where dwelling is “how people come together to flourish… in a place… or how they come together in the continual making of a place; at the same time, that place is interwoven into the way they have come to be as they are – and as further disclosed through their dwelling practices.”

We are, as Rickert writes, emerging in “an age of ambience” both in analog and digital forms, “one in which boundaries between subject and object, human and nonhuman, and information and matter dissolve” (1). I would add to his list the boundaries between the virtual and the real as well, given the research of scholars in both the Biocca and Levy and Champion texts. Researching the implications of VR as rhetorical technology/experience would greatly contribute to the body of scholarship on ambient rhetoric (as well as Digital Rhetoric, New Materialism, and New Media studies), particularly since VR exists in the liminal space between the subject/object, human/nonhuman, etc., utilizing sensorimotor stimulation to facilitate immersion in and discovery of alternate possibilities, experiences, or worlds.

Final Thoughts

From an embodied cognition perspective, cognition is seen as an emergent property of interactions between brain, body and the physical-and social environment. 

The sensation of presence induced by immersive media is intriguing from a rhetorical standpoint. Metaphors are incarnated in the senses in virtual worlds – a kind of sensory driven semiotic that Lakoff discusses frequently in his lectures and texts on embodied cognition. Lakoff notes embodied cognition “ is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment… Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanism of neural binding.” (2011). If we think of communication as an assemblage of neural stimuli, expanding from a simple model of communication-as-aural-or-written, we begin to grasp how sensory stimuli can persuade, inform, and inspire. Communication becomes dynamic and multidimensional/multisensory – we begin to comprehend what it is to compose for multiple neural networks simultaneously through virtual modulation.  

Research suggests that VR technologies can modify behaviors, make people more empathetic, convince someone that they have embodied new forms (e.g., in the VR experience Eagle Flight, you glide and soar through a landscape, exploring the geography to discover new objects, entities, scenes, or sensations). The research is exciting… but it’s often difficult to consider these studies substantial. After all, VR is still in its infancy, not yet “mainstreamed” (i.e. adopted by a massive amount of the population) and still lacking in its affordances. We have yet to investigate the emerging VR community and its users outside of laboratory settings, which we must research in order to understand VR’s societal and communicative implications. This is, perhaps, the weakest aspect of both the Biocca and Levy and Champion collections – both texts address VR use in isolation or as experienced by the individual user, which is just a small component to the rhetorical ecosystem of VR.

MEU is a fascinating VR project worth looking into, and it very much illustrates the comments I’ve made and the texts I’ve discussed. I’m currently waiting to see if I’ve been granted access to the closed alpha of MEU. However, Kent Bye’s podcast with the developers will further your understanding of the mission, science, and technology behind MEU as an embodied social platform (Kent Bye’s content is always fascinating – I strongly recommend his podcast).

In my next entry, I’ll turn my attention to Jaron Lanier and his text The Dawn of the New Everything. The text is an interesting assemblage of multiple genres, providing an autoethnographically situated history of VR technology. Perhaps I’ll emulate this style in my next entry and draw from my personal experiences in VR to better exemplify VR enviornments and interactions through a first-person perspective.

Virtual Reality, Digital Rhetoric, and Immersive Composition

Digital Rhetoric

Screen capture of my Oculus avatar

Douglas Eyman’s Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice,  provides a useful definition and framework of digital rhetoric to demonstrate how platforms (social media or other), technologies, interfaces, digital communities, and digital texts act and are enacted rhetorically in theory, method, and practice. Eyman provides a few case studies to demonstrate rhetoricality of interface design, websites, and digital communities. However, he attempts to remain global (that is to say, considering what digital rhetoric is comprised of and how it challenges traditional rhetorical theory) when weaving together the voices of scholars of digital rhetoric so as to allow room for new theories to emerge. Hence, Digital Rhetoric is helpful when considering how virtual reality objects enact/act rhetorically – perhaps expanding the aperture of the lens a bit further. 

Eyman’s text resonates with the voices of a multitude of scholars in the fields of rhetoric, digital rhetoric, computer science, futurism, and post humanism (to name a few). Of course, this is meant to reinforce the concept that digital rhetoric is interdisciplinary by nature, linking computer science, graphic design, philosophy, sociology, and other technical and artistic fields with theory and productions of rhetoric. Web texts and digital artifacts necessarily require layers of comprehension and shifts in lens that account for human and nonhuman rhetorical agents alike (93). This praxis is one I closely emulate in my own research,  as is evident in my previous entries, and certainly necessary when studying dynamic technologies like VR and augmented reality (AR). As Bosworth and Sarah (2019) note, one must necessarily know how hardware and software work to form integrated narratives (which Manovick defines as “the combining of artistic forms and technology into a hybrid work”) (Eyman, 2015, 54).

VR environments are (as discussed in my last entry) engineered for user immersion and interaction. Immersion and interact, Eyman notes, quoting Manovick, are vital components to new media, which is the form/theory that VR environments/experiences seem to reside (Eyman, 52-55). The “early buy in” culture of VR technology  is saturated with prosumer habits, as people modify VR HMDs, programs, games, and simulations and circulate them through social media interest groups and application platforms (Beat Saber’s modding community is a prime example). Participants of VR outrage culture influence and inform VR developers/creators, which may imply a strong emphasis on improving user centric design emerging from the VR medium (meaning the VR must necessarily be user centric, ergo, consumer feedback and criticism is an invaluable resource). What all of this evidence of communication, circulation, remix, deliberation, and networking indicates is that the VR rhetorical ecosystem is abundant and hyperactive (I have only provide a small glimpse of the spectrum of that ecosystem). 

Notes on Crafting Stories for Virtual Reality and Immersive Compositions

Screen capture of my Oculus Avatar

Chris Milk famously stated that VR is an “empathy machine” (2015). While I agree that VR can often create a sense of empathy, I would not suggest that all VR environments/experiences do. However, two fundamental components of empathy are communication and interconnection, which many VR developers/creators strive to achieve. In the text Crafting Stories for Virtual Reality, Bosworth and Sarah (2019) discuss virtual reality narratives in terms of technological affordances and constraints and how affordances affect user experience (particularly, when attempting to induce empathy as many of the developers/directors/journalists interviewed in Sarah and Bosworth’s text attempt to do). They use interviews with VR developers/creators and VR experiences to exemplify stylistic choices VR directors/developers/creators make to simulate specific positionalities and sensations of presence in the VR narrative. Additionally, Section II of the text is subdivided by genres of VR experience that are inextricably linked to the aforementioned uses of immersive encoding (i.e. affordances and constraints of hardware and software). These genres are detailed below: 

Immersive Narratives and News 

  • typically a genre associated with 360 degree videography and documentary. The director controls the movement of the narrative
  • Example: CARNE y ARENA

Walk-Around Virtual Reality 

  • typically a genre associated with six degrees of freedom in movement that allow you to move around and explore virtual environments 
  • Example: Bear 71 and Vader Immortal 

Immersive Interactives 

  • typically a genre associated with VR experiences with high levels of immersion and interactivity, which moves the narrative forward 
  • Example: Where Thoughts Go and Unceded Territories

Mixed-Media Packages 

  • a genre defined by remixing photos, video, audio, augmented reality (AR), etc. in virtual environments
  • Example: Traveling While Black 

Augmented reality and Mixed Reality 

  • A genre associated with adding “digital elements to a live view, i.e. reality/meatspace
  • Example: Magic Leap

Immersive Audio 

  • Not so much a genre as a layer of immersion neglected in some VR experiences, however, some exclusively audio-oriented VR experiences do exist 
  • Example: Bose AR

These generic terms are not necessarily common nomenclature among VR enthusiasts and developers. Rather, it seems that many VR experiences resist generic boundaries and move fluidly among the genres Bosworth and Sarah define. However, Bosworth and Sarah seem to focus exclusively on VR journalism and documentary in their text (as is evidenced in their selection of objects in their case studies). This is the sort of work Chris Milk sees as potentially rendering VR HMDs into “empathy machines.” Ultimately, what Bosworth and Sarah’s text offers digital rhetoricians studying VR are mutually intelligible terms that scholars can use to describe stylistic choices in VR compositions and how these choices affect audiences/users. I developed a XMind Map that incorporates block quotes from Bosworth and Sarah’s text to contextualize these generic definitions a bit more (you can download the document by clicking the button below).

Audience Awareness and User Centricism in VR Design

“pixelation effect” Taken from here

Bosworth and Sarah indicate one of the most difficult aspects of composing for VR is the range of freedom users have when immersed in VR environments. Regardless of what stylistic choices VR creators/developers/directors make, users always have the ability to adjust their gaze in virtual environments, fixating on any element they chose. If users stare too long at a virtual object, they begin to recognize patterns of pixelation, experience the uncanny effect, and become less immersed in the environment. This is a constraint that VR developers/creators/directors must account for. Developers/creators/directors must consider how they will (1) prevent the user from experiencing pixelation (that will remove them from a sense of immersion in the text); (2) use visual/audio effects to move the user through the narrative of the VR experience without restricting freedom of exploration. Thus, VR developers/creators/directors must not only understand their audience, but also understand how space, place, ambiance, audio, light, and visual effects act/enact in a communicative sense.

In my next entry, I’ll address the phenomenology and communication of virtual reality, expanding on some ideas I’ve touched on here. Additionally, I’ve begun constructing a mind map that demonstrates the interconnections of VR and digital rhetoric. The mind map is a work in progress in its infancy, but provides a visual overview of the rhetoric of VR (within digital rhetoric scholarship). You can access the map in its current state in the link download link below.

Beta Mind Map of the Rhetoric of VR:

How We Became Virtual: Notes on Hayles and Immersion Rhetoric

Virtual reality technologies are fascinating because they make visually immediate the perception that a world of information exists parallel to the “real” world, the former intersecting the latter at many points and in many ways. – Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman

It’s no secret to anyone who has worked with me that Katherine Hayles text, How We Became Posthuman, has informed my perspective on virtual reality’s place in rhetoric. However, it’s important to note that her work utilizes tutor texts (texts in the form of literature) to bolster her argument of how the posthuman emerged from research in cybernetics. Therefore, her discussion of virtual reality is cursory and somewhat outdated as the consumer revolution of VR hadn’t occurred until the release of Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, and HTC Vive (to name a few head mounted displays that arrived in the consumer market):

  • Katherine Hayles How We Became Posthuman publication – 1999
  • Google Cardboard release – 2014
  • Oculus Rift (CV1) release – 2016

Additionally, Hayles’ experience with VR was strictly informed by her usage of VR laboratories in higher education institutions (which require permissions to utilize/enter). She could not have predicted the growth, development, and widespread use of virtual reality as it exists in the present – an industry that generated $3.6 billion dollars of revenue in 2018.

Virtual Reality Market Forecast 2019

The Ecosystem of Virtual Reality

The ecosystem of virtual reality is expansive and international. It is difficult to localize and discuss, for example, strictly United States VR ecologies because a vast majority of digital spaces where users converge to discuss and disseminate discourse on VR are comprised of international user bases.

VR users refer to themselves as “enthusiasts” since VR is still perceived as a niche group (that is to say that VR codified as “mainstream” media… yet). Many enthusiasts consider only head mounted displays (VR headsets, or HMDs) that afford six degrees of freedom to be authentic virtual reality experiences (I will discuss this more later in the blog). These type of HMDs require powerful (and costly) PCs to operate and a stable, high-speed internet/4G connection.

Taken from Alex4D : video image exemplifying six degrees of freedom

The user population has extended beyond the boundaries of VR laboratories (i.e. Hayles experience with VR), but it’s still limited to users privileged enough to afford the technology. Oculus has made the first steps in breaking the expense barrier prohibiting widespread usage with the advent of the Oculus Go (which doesn’t have six degrees of freedom) and the Oculus Quest (which does have six degrees of freedom and runs applications/games/experiences from mobile phone devices). It is fair to say that VR technology has entered the public sphere with the caveat that the technology is quite costly, thus excluding underprivileged populations.

Virtual reality’s movement into the public sphere affords developers the opportunity to create in a new, highly immersive space. Game engines like Unity and Unreal offer SDKs (software developer kits) that are open source in addition to libraries of thousands of preformed assets (some are free) which can be used to build virtual environments, creative tools, games, and motion pictures. Many contemporary VR experiences and games are experimental, playing with every aspect of sensorimotor stimulation that various HMDs afford to induce greater levels of immersion for the user. Other VR experiences are meant to invoke nostalgia via a new medium, remixing the old with the new (e.g. Tetris Effect). Regardless of the flavor of VR experiences (i.e. novel or skeuomorph/nostalgic), independent film makers, artists, and developers dominate the application and software development ecology of virtual reality. The highest grossing VR experience, Beat Saber, is a prime example of the rise of indie development culture in virtual reality. Often times, the line between developer and user is blurred (i.e. it is rhizomatic) as indie developers solicit input from users in open betas and digital discourse communities, shaping development around users rather than imposing experiences onto them.

What I’ve described above is a highly reductive snapshot of the VR ecosystem. I can assure you that there are a multitude of interest groups and subcultures that intersect along the margins, which I will write about extensively in the future (Decentraland is a great example of the merging of cryptoculture/Blockchain ecologies with the virtual reality ecosystem). However, my intention here is to demonstrate how virtual reality has developed since the authoring of Hayles’ text and how it may complicate or extend some of her articulations of the technology.

Becoming Virtual – Sensorimotor Stimulation Affordances and VR Technology

When Hayles suggests that virtual reality makes “visually immediate the perception that a world of information exists parallel to the ‘real’ world, the former intersecting the latter at many points and in many ways,” she is espousing a meta observation of virtual reality experiences. But what stimulates the sensation of seeing “a world of information” parallel to the “real”? How does the posthuman manifest in virtual reality? Certainly, one might think of Baudrillard’s hyperreal, which may be true for some virtual reality environments (and certainly a goal among VR hardware and software developers). One may also consider the material/embodiment aspect of virtual reality experience – the sensations of VR users being present in a world of simulacra. However, these comparisons are also highly theoretical meta descriptions of virtual events and don’t get at how VR technology hacks the senses (sensorimotor stimulation).

What makes virtual environments convincing is their ability to persuade and attune the user so keenly to a virtual experience that it “feels” real (i.e. VR induced sensations of immersion). We can think of immersion in terms of technological affordances. Mel Slater of the University College London (Department of Computer Sciences) notes the interplay of sensorimotor contingencies and the three illusions (place, plausibility and body ownership illusions) precipitate sensation of immersion in VR users.

“…in real life, how do I know where I am? Well I look around, I hear, I touch, I see, and I use my body in certain ways. If I use my body in the same ways, and the same kind of changes to my perception occur, then the simplest hypotheses for the brain to make is to give you the illusion that this is where you are. The virtual world is where you are. So, these sensorimotor contingencies are very very tied up with what we talked about right at the beginning, this wow factor.” – Mel Slater, Coursera lecture

Immersion is layered. Let’s consider my previous example of HMDs that afford only tracking of head rotation verses HMDs that afford six degrees of freedom. So we can think of head rotation as the first layer of immersion, then the added freedom of movement tracking (six degrees of freedom) as an additional layer. Haptics (tactical stimulation) and sound would constitute additional layers, and so on (some labratories can even stimulate smell and taste). Different rhetorical situations call for different layers of immersion. However, the desired end is to create a mental illusion of inhabiting (or dwelling) a virtual place as a body within the space.

” But sensorimotor contingencies has another aspect. It’s not just simply the interaction, the input, it’s also how we input it. So part of sensorimotor contingencies is that, as I said, if I want to see close up to this object, I just move my head closer to it and I see that object closer. But how is VR involved in this? VR is involved because in VR if I do the same, not exactly the same thing will happen, because eventually what I’ll see is not the object but pixels. The closer I get to an object, the more likely is it’s just going to dissolve into a whole set of pixels. So sensorimotor contingency is this kind of combination together of how you perceive and what you perceive. The more that that matches, the more that the how matches reality, and the more the what you perceive matches what you would expect to see in reality through the act of perception. ” – Mel Slater

The three illusions are the effects of efficacious technological immersion. I will briefly summarize each:

  • Place illusion – the ability to convince the user that the body has transported into a digital space and “is where it is” (that is to say the illusion that the body is present in a virtual environment).
  • Plausibility illusion – the ability to convince the user that “the events you are receiving, that you are engaged in” are happening. (Slater)
  • Bodily illusion – the affordance that some virtual experiences offer to users wherein they can look down and see a virtual body in place of their physical body which moves in accordance with the users physical body movements.

Let’s return to the posthuman and its connection to virtual reality and rhetoric. From my description of present virtual reality technologies available on the consumer market, it’s evident that more posthumans exist in cyberspace/the physical world because virtual reality engages users in feedback and feedforward loops. In fact, it is the underpinning of VR technological affordances. As much as the user feeds data into the simulation/virtual environment, the simulation offers a response (i.e. that users feel). Users can add layers of immersion (quite literally) through additional wearable peripheries such as haptic suits, subpacs, and gloves – enmeshing the physical with the digital to convert movement and perceptional reaction into code which, in turn, reacts and renders. It’s not hard to see why many enthusiasts celebrate the symbol of the android – often attempting to embody the identity through layer upon layer of technosensory.

Image result for posthuman symbol

CW and the Rhetoricity of Virtual Reality

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in an outstanding academic conference, Computers and Writing. I was selected as the winner of the Hawisher Selfe Caring for the Future Award – a scholarship engineered to empower marginalized scholars. I can say confidently that my experience at CW was empowering, and I would like to take time to extend my immense gratitude towards Kristin Arola, Cheryl Ball, Erika Spaby, Angela Haas, and Michael Day. Each of these individuals played a vital role in getting me to the conference and introducing me to other exceptional scholars in the field.

Now that I’ve had a week to reflect on my experiences at CW, I want to write a retrospective of my experience and how it correlates to my current independent research project – exploring the rhetoricity of virtual reality through Tilt Brush and other creative platforms available for VR head mounted displays (HMDs). One of the difficulties researching virtual and augmented realities is conveying the experience of the technology to someone who has not step inside a HMD. I can evoke a sense of it, for example, by using prepositional phrases that trigger notions of space and movement (e.g. “step inside a HMD”), but it won’t capture the “reality” of VR experience. I can also show a video demonstrating the technology in use (which I had done here, although I want to note it was hastily put together and not reflective of my best remix work), but, again, it won’t capture the embodiment of VR users experience as they create with environments with the software. Honing the description of VR technology use is key to articulating its capacity for rhetorical expression. I suppose I hadn’t realized that the key to my work resided in that description until I was attempting to describe it to a completely inexperienced (in terms of VR usage) audience at my GRN (graduate research network) table. The rhetoricity of VR is rhizomatically linked to posthuman theory, immersion theory, telepresence/presence theory, identification rhetoric, ambient rhetoric, notions of dwelling and liminal space, worlding, cyberpunk culture, and visual/audio rhetorical theories. At the nexus of this framework is a concept that I can see but can’t yet describe – hence the purpose of this research.

In closing this entry, I wish to offer a brief description of VR that I wrote in preparation of CW’s GRN seminar:

Present VR HMD technology allows for six degrees of freedom, meaning that when a user wears an HMD, cameras/sensors track head orientation and position as well as the physical position of your body and hands in space. Another key aspect of contemporary VR HMDs is binaural audio – a method of recording that situates sound spatially to further immerse the user in the virtual environment. What this ultimately means is that users dwell in a virtual space (in the instance of VR games, creative tools, chats, interactive experiences, etc.), or can become situated (become the ambiance) within virtual cinematic and animated films. The sensation of “being present” in these environments can be tremendous.  Robert Redford reportedly stumble at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival when experiencing Spheres: Song of Spacetime. Psychologists are experimenting with VR as alternate psychological treatments for phobias and anxieties.   

Given the impact VR (and AR) may have as a technology capable of such profound expression, it is evident that it warrants in-depth research, particularly as it emerges as a potential giant in the consumer market in years to come.