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 Therefore, her discussion of virtual reality is cursory and somewhat outdated as the consumer revolution of VR hadn’t occurred until the release of Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, and HTC Vive (to name a few head mounted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.
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.
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.