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 Originally published in 1995, one might think that the text contains outdated information, which may be true for some of the chapters.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:

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