Be­ing There

Vir­tual re­al­ity from Giotto to VR porn

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Vir­tual Re­al­ity from Giotto to VRporn by Mar­garet Wertheim

New tech­nolo­gies have rev­o­lu­tionised the vir­tual-re­al­ity world, and the claims for their virtues and po­ten­tial are end­less. But who is set­ting the course for this brave fu­ture, and what ef­fects will dig­i­tal im­mer­sion ac­tu­ally pro­duce?

I am stand­ing on a ledge hun­dreds of feet off the ground at Angkor Wat, com­mand­ing a view that in the temple com­plex’s hey­day would have been avail­able only to kings. Around me rise the frac­tal-like tow­ers for which the temple is so recog­nis­able, rep­re­sent­ing the height of clas­si­cal Kh­mer ar­chi­tec­ture. In the dis­tance, be­yond the temple walls, lies a for­est filled with smaller shrines and thatched houses in which the peo­ple of Angkor city lived. The view is breath­tak­ing, and as I watch the set­ting sun, shafts of light glint off the gold leaf up­per sec­tion of the tow­ers. I feel like an ea­gle. Or a king. And no­body but a king, or an ex­pert ar­chae­ol­o­gist, would get to stand in this spot in the real Angkor Wat. Ac­cord­ing to my pass­port I have never set foot in Cam­bo­dia. Here, I am in a vir­tual-re­al­ity ver­sion of its na­tional icon, a vast com­puter-gen­er­ated sim­u­la­tion of the largest re­li­gious struc­ture ever built, painstak­ingly re-cre­ated to look as it did in the late 12th cen­tury. Sud­denly, my gaze is di­verted from the ar­chi­tec­ture by a move­ment be­hind me, and I turn to see a ret­inue fol­low­ing a bare-chested man wear­ing polka-dot fab­ric wrapped pants-like about his waist. Ser­vants car­ry­ing para­sols to shield him from the sun trail in his wake as the team walks qui­etly be­hind me along a colon­nade of pil­lars. “That’s a king. Or one of the kings,” says Dr Thomas Chan­dler, a vir­tual-re­al­ity re­searcher at Monash Univer­sity’s Sen­siLab, and chief ar­chi­tect of this vir­tu­al­re­al­ity world. I am so sur­prised by the polka dots, for a mo­ment I for­get what a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion I am in and step to­wards the edge of the precipice. “Watch out,” chimes Chan­dler, as I re­cover my wits and re­alise I am in danger of fall­ing. At that mo­ment I ex­pe­ri­ence a vis­ceral sense of alarm. In­tel­lec­tu­ally, I know I can­not be in danger – I am in a lab­o­ra­tory in Caulfield in Mel­bourne’s south – yet as some­one deeply afraid of heights, my pro­pri­o­cep­tive ap­pa­ra­tus seizes hold of my mind and I in­stinc­tively lurch away from the imag­i­nary threat. Such is the power of vir­tual re­al­ity, a tech­nol­ogy be­ing hailed as the gate­way to a new era of hu­man pos­si­bil­ity.

What ex­actly is vir­tual re­al­ity? For those who haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced it yet, and many who have, the ques­tion re­mains open. Vir­tual-re­al­ity pi­o­neer Jaron Lanier, in his re­cent book, Dawn of the New Ev­ery­thing: A Jour­ney Through Vir­tual Re­al­ity, gives no less than 52 def­i­ni­tions, in­clud­ing “the science of com­pre­hen­sive il­lu­sion” and “a shared, wak­ing state, in­ten­tional, com­mu­nica­tive, col­lab­o­ra­tive dream”. Be­fore we veer into the philo­soph­i­cal, let’s first con­sider the tech­ni­cal. Most ob­vi­ously, vir­tual-re­al­ity worlds are those – like Chan­dler’s sim­u­la­tion of Angkor Wat – that are graph­i­cally ren­dered by soft­ware or com­puter graph­ics in­ter­faces. By far the most com­mon form of graph­i­cally ren­dered vir­tual re­al­ity is com­puter gam­ing. Over the past two or three years, a new gen­er­a­tion of gam­ing plat­forms and con­soles such as the Face­book-owned Ocu­lus Rift, HTC’s Vive and Sam­sung’s Gear VR have brought to mar­ket a plethora of vir­tual-re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ences. Many of th­ese feed into the canon­i­cal in­ter­ests of the gam­ing com­mu­nity, for whom fight­ing, shoot­ing and killing var­i­ous kinds of en­e­mies, from soldiers to zom­bies, oc­cu­pies a large slice of the ex­cite­ment pie. A graph­i­cally ar­rest­ing catch-all ex­am­ple of this genre is Ark­tika.1, a game set on a post-apoca­lyp­tic Earth “af­ter a sec­ond ice age has ar­rived”. The player is “a mer­ce­nary, hired by a Rus­sian colony to pro­tect the fa­cil­i­ties from ban­dits, crim­i­nals and other … crea­tures”. In The Mage’s Tale, the set­ting is mag­i­cal – Mid­dle-earth meets Dis­ney. Here, you, as a young ma­gi­cian’s ap­pren­tice, must res­cue your kid­napped mas­ter from “dis­gust­ing lit­tle gob­lins, the clat­ter­ing chat­ter­ing un­dead, to huge and hideous giants”. Typ­i­cally, a vir­tual-re­al­ity set-up con­sists of a head-mounted dis­play and, in­creas­ingly, hand­held con­trollers en­abling users to pick up ob­jects in the vir­tual space and fire vir­tual weapons. The ad­di­tion of this “hap­tic” el­e­ment points to rapidly de­vel­op­ing ex­ten­sions to this pre­vi­ously vis­ual-only tech­nol­ogy. Com­ing soon will be fur­ther sen­sory modal­i­ties in­clud­ing the sim­u­lated touch of tex­tured sur­faces and the weight of vir­tual ob­jects. Some re­searchers are adding smell, while oth­ers are de­vel­op­ing body­suits so one could, for in­stance, feel the grip of a vir­tual hand­shake or the sen­sa­tion of a vir­tual ten­ta­cle wrap­ping around your leg. But there is also an­other cat­e­gory of vir­tual re­al­ity, known as 360˚ video, in which film­mak­ers use a spe­cial ar­ray of cameras to cap­ture ac­tual (as op­posed to com­puter-gen­er­ated) scenes in wrap­around view. Here, with a vir­tual-re­al­ity head­set, one can turn and see an en­tire scene as if stand­ing there in real life. In some

A ter­mi­no­log­i­cal bat­tle has set in about what rightly con­sti­tutes “vir­tual re­al­ity”. Is it the “vir­tual” or the “re­al­ity” part that mat­ters?

in­stances, the ex­pe­ri­ence in­cludes an abil­ity to look up – so-called half-dome cin­ema – cre­at­ing a pow­er­ful il­lu­sion of be­ing em­bed­ded in a full 3D space. As with other ma­jor de­vel­op­ments in film­ing tech­nol­ogy – colour and IMAX – there’s a vast amount of hype as to what will be achieved by such an en­large­ment of our vis­ual field. Where com­puter-gen­er­ated vir­tual re­al­ity trucks pri­mar­ily in fan­tasy, mak­ers of 360˚ video hope to en­mesh us more fully and deeply into the real world, giv­ing us ac­cess to hu­man ex­pe­ri­ences be­yond our daily norms. Iron­i­cally, then, a ter­mi­no­log­i­cal bat­tle has set in about what rightly con­sti­tutes “vir­tual re­al­ity”. Is it the “vir­tual” or the “re­al­ity” part that mat­ters? Dur­ing the course of re­search­ing this ar­ti­cle, I’ve en­coun­tered CGI VR-gra­phers ac­tively as­sert­ing their ver­sion as the only “real” vir­tual re­al­ity – an ar­gu­ment that’s rather touch­ingly ab­surd.

Imag­ine you could spend a few mo­ments div­ing on a coral reef or walk­ing a tightrope be­tween the World Trade Cen­ter tow­ers from the com­fort of your arm­chair. Per­haps you’d like to climb a pyra­mid or sky­dive? With 360˚ video ac­cessed through your smart­phone and a sim­ple head­set, th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences are avail­able. Once hugely ex­pen­sive, 360˚ cam­era rigs can now be bought for a few hun­dred dol­lars, spark­ing a wave of in­no­va­tion as film­mak­ers and news crews rush to em­brace the po­ten­tial­i­ties of “im­mer­sive” film. For any­one who wants to start ex­plor­ing this cin­e­matic up­heaval, a good place to start is The New York Times’ The Daily 360 site. For the past two years, Amer­ica’s news­pa­per of record has been post­ing short 360˚ video pieces from around the world on an eclec­tic and at times de­light­fully ec­cen­tric range of sub­jects. Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites have been pop­u­lar: the Great Wall of China, Pe­tra, the Taj Ma­hal and the Colos­seum. Also well served by the new medium are sites of un­usual con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tec­ture such as the psy­che­delic “dream homes” of Bo­li­vian ar­chi­tect Freddy Ma­mani (Las Ve­gas meets An­dean in­dige­nous aes­thet­ics, on acid), and the gi­ant stair­case folly cur­rently be­ing con­structed in New York’s Hud­son Yards, at a price of $US150 mil­lion, by the English con­cep­tual ar­chi­tect Thomas Heather­wick. Nice ex­am­ples of what 360˚ video can de­liver are the ex­pe­ri­ences of get­ting lost in a bam­boo maze, float­ing in zero-grav­ity and wit­ness­ing the de­mo­li­tion of a de­com­mis­sioned bridge. Build­ings, in­dus­trial in­fra­struc­ture and rush­ing things lend them­selves well to this for­mat, which harks back to the be­gin­ning of cin­ema when the Lu­mière broth­ers wowed au­di­ences with their “views” of a steam train hurtling through a sta­tion, and other mod­ernist phe­nom­ena. Yet a ques­tion of pur­pose arises with more in­ti­mate sub­jects. Does im­mer­sion add any­thing to an in­ter­view

with an Ice­landic guy who em­broi­ders sweaters? What does vir­tual re­al­ity add to a con­sid­er­a­tion of Peru­vian chil­dren grow­ing up in prison or a piece about el­derly African-Amer­i­can syn­chro­nised swim­mers? To pro­po­nents, one of the great prom­ises of 360˚ video is to put us into the worlds of “oth­ers” so we can feel their ex­pe­ri­ences and em­pathise, prompt­ing us to­wards com­pas­sion. Among Jaron Lanier’s def­i­ni­tions of vir­tual re­al­ity is that it is “the medium that can put you in some­one else’s shoes; hope­fully a path to in­creased em­pa­thy”. An im­pulse to­wards com­pas­sion was at work when The New York Times launched its Daily 360 site in 2015. One of the first of­fer­ings, as the war in Syria was es­ca­lat­ing, was a mini-doc­u­men­tary about the plight of refugee chil­dren. It was an ar­rest­ing sub­ject choice can­nily crafted to high­light the virtues of the new tech­nol­ogy, and the strat­egy has since been echoed across the tech sec­tor. In 2016, Face­book launched a pro­gram called “VR for Good”. The com­pany had re­cently paid $US2 bil­lion for the vir­tual-re­al­ity start-up Ocu­lus VR but found it­self with a PR prob­lem. Ocu­lus founder Palmer Luckey had been donat­ing money to a right-wing or­gan­i­sa­tion sup­port­ing Donald Trump’s elec­tion cam­paign, and lib­eral-minded techies were turn­ing away in protest from the com­pany and its wares. Un­der the “VR for Good” pro­gram, Face­book funded the pro­duc­tion of sev­eral 360˚ videos about so­cially im­pec­ca­ble themes: a col­lege stu­dent who’d been sex­u­ally abused, a vil­lage in Gu­atemala that had been trans­formed by so­lar power, and so on. Google fol­lowed suit the same year with a vir­tual-re­al­ity tour of a favela in Rio, com­plete with vi­gnettes about some of its re­mark­able res­i­dents, in­clud­ing a young woman ma­jor­ing in com­puter science and a teenage boy study­ing clas­si­cal ballet. All th­ese films tell sto­ries that ought to be heard, but it’s doubt­ful what vir­tual re­al­ity brings to them. Hear­ing a young woman talk about as­sault is a har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to which the pos­si­bil­ity of turn­ing to in­spect the scenery has lit­tle to add. The New York Times’ ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of vir­tual re­al­ity, Mar­celle Hop­kins, re­cently ac­knowl­edged this dilemma: “The sto­ry­telling is so dif­fer­ent. In the be­gin­ning, and even to a cer­tain ex­tent now, we find [pro­files] dif­fi­cult to do.” While a few of the Times’ peo­ple-pieces have done well, many come across as tech­no­log­i­cal overkill. Jour­nal­is­ti­cally, 360˚ video raises eth­i­cal con­cerns. As Dan Ro­b­itzski asked re­cently in Un­dark mag­a­zine, “How do the prin­ci­ples of fair and ac­cu­rate re­port­ing ap­ply when the cam­era setup doesn’t sim­ply de­pict an event, but ex­ploits hu­man per­cep­tion to place au­di­ences di­rectly in the scene?” The very qual­i­ties that make vir­tual re­al­ity so pow­er­ful can eas­ily blend into a kind of ma­nip­u­la­tion at odds with jour­nal­is­tic codes. As early cin­e­matog­ra­phers sought to iden­tify suit­able top­ics and sto­ry­telling meth­ods ap­pro­pri­ate to the new film medium, so to­day’s VR-gra­phers face the task of in­vent­ing im­mer­sive cin­ema. What to film, how to film and how to edit have all be­come questions up for grabs when a cam­era has eight or 16 eyes and cap­tures at once the face of a per­son speak­ing, the dirt pad­dock next door, houses across the street and chick­ens run­ning in the yard. How does one cre­ate a nar­ra­tive arc, and is that even nec­es­sary, when lenses point ev­ery­where at once? A sense of what im­mer­sive cin­ema might be can be seen in the re­mark­able film Col­li­sions by Aus­tralian film­maker Lynette Wall­worth, win­ner of the 2017 Emmy for out­stand­ing new ap­proaches to doc­u­men­tary film. Col­li­sions presents a vir­tual-re­al­ity jour­ney into the land of In­dige­nous elder Nyarri Nyarri Mor­gan and the Martu peo­ple of the Pil­bara in Western Aus­tralia. The Martu re­gion bor­ders the site where the Bri­tish govern­ment tested atomic bombs, and Mor­gan’s first con­tact with the West was wit­ness­ing, with­out con­text, one of th­ese tests. He re­counts this in the film in spare, el­e­gant prose. At one point in the nar­ra­tive, Wall­worth screens for Mor­gan and his fam­ily a video of the fa­mous in­ter­view with J. Robert Op­pen­heimer – “fa­ther of the atomic bomb” – in which he de­liv­ers his as­sess­ment of Hiroshima and Na­gasaki: “I am be­come Death, the de­stroyer of worlds.” Fad­ing in and out of fo­cus on a makeshift screen strung up on the side of a camper­van, Op­pen­heimer has never looked so cul­pa­ble, or vul­ner­a­ble. It is as if the sun set­ting over the Pil­bara re­duces the sci­en­tist to in­signif­i­cance. When the film screened at the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Moving Im­age (ACMI) in Mel­bourne last year, I re­turned again and again to watch this mo­ment from ev­ery avail­able an­gle. That, and the scene in which Wall­worth stages a sim­u­la­tion of the bomb blast. As the mush­room cloud rose silently and ash rained down around me, a nearby wa­ter­hole boiled and gi­ant kan­ga­roos bounded over my head. Re­al­ity could never have looked like this; here was a use of “vir­tu­al­ity” at once un­real, sur­real and hy­per­real, pre­sag­ing a cin­ema itch­ing to be­come.

Prac­ti­tion­ers of CGI vir­tual re­al­ity like to de­clare the rad­i­cal new­ness of their en­ter­prise, one that, in the words of Jaron Lanier, was in­vented “when the lat­est com­pany was funded”. Lanier’s book traces vir­tual re­al­ity’s ori­gins to the 1960s with the birth of com­puter graph­ics and the pi­o­neer­ing re­search of com­puter sci­en­tist Ivan Suther­land. His first “head mounted dis­play”, a huge clunky de­vice so heavy it had to be sus­pended from the ceil­ing, was nick­named the Sword of Damo­cles. Lanier him­self formed one of the first com­mer­cial vir­tual-re­al­ity com­pa­nies in 1984 and cre­ated, in the 1980s, multi-per­son vir­tual-world ex­pe­ri­ences and avatars. Yet the roots of vir­tual re­al­ity can be traced back far fur­ther than this. In 1267, a Fran­cis­can monk named Roger Bacon pre­saged a rev­o­lu­tion in rep­re­sen­ta­tion that would lead to the de­vel­op­ment of to­day’s vir­tual re­al­ity. Bacon was a cham­pion of math­e­mat­ics and science at a time when Eu­rope was emerg­ing from a long pe­riod dur­ing which sci­en­tific in­ves­ti­ga­tion had largely ceased. In the late Mid­dle Ages, as Euro­peans slowly re­cov­ered the books of the an­cient Greek philoso­phers and math­e­ma­ti­cians, an idea be­gan to crys­tallise in Chris­tian imag­i­na­tion that God had cre­ated the world ac­cord­ing to the laws of Eu­clidean ge­om­e­try. Bacon ar­gued in his mag­num opus that, as God had cre­ated the world this way, if artists wished to rep­re­sent things truly they should em­u­late His method­ol­ogy and adopt math­e­mat­i­cal tech­niques. Call­ing this ap­proach “geo­met­ric fig­ur­ing”, he urged the pope to en­cour­age pain­ters in the church’s em­ploy to em­brace this modal­ity. Within a decade, Giotto had be­gun paint­ing the fres­coes in the Basil­ica of Saint Fran­cis in As­sisi, cen­tral Italy, por­tray­ing a se­ries of im­ages de­pict­ing the life of the saint con­sciously styled to look as solid and “re­al­is­tic” as pos­si­ble. Here Saint Fran­cis was talk­ing to the birds, or giv­ing his cloak to a beg­gar. Giotto’s bold verisimil­i­tude stood in con­trast to the flat iconic style of early me­dieval art. His­to­rian Sa­muel Edger­ton has ar­gued that the pur­pose of Giotto’s ap­proach was to make view­ers be­lieve they were stand­ing in front of the ac­tual scene. It cre­ated a sen­sa­tion and, says Edger­ton in his book The Her­itage of Giotto’s Ge­om­e­try, the basil­ica soon be­came the “most vis­ited shrine in Chris­tian Eu­rope”. Giotto moved on to the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, where he cre­ated his mas­ter­work: a dense cy­cle of im­ages de­pict­ing the life of the Vir­gin and Christ. One is im­mersed here in what Edger­ton ar­gues is a form of me­dieval vir­tual re­al­ity. Through the il­lu­sion­ism of geo­met­ric fig­ur­ing we are sup­posed to feel pro­pelled into the pres­ence of the Saviour. Giotto’s chapel is recog­nised as one of the foun­da­tional works lead­ing to what would be called “per­spec­tive”, a set of tech­niques de­vel­oped in the 15th and 16th cen­turies based on ge­om­e­try. Its aim was to gen­er­ate the il­lu­sion of be­ing there in front of the scenes de­picted, to make view­ers feel that they were look­ing into worlds be­yond the pic­ture frame. Th­ese tech­niques led to the de­vel­op­ment of pro­jec­tive ge­om­e­try, pre­cisely what to­day’s vir­tu­al­re­al­ity de­vel­op­ers use when rep­re­sent­ing their worlds. It was no mere ide­al­ism to ask pain­ters to em­u­late God. Ac­cord­ing to Bacon, vis­ual verisimil­i­tude could in­spire view­ers to be­lieve in the mir­a­cles of Christ. The pur­pose of this was to rein­vig­o­rate their faith and drive a new cru­sade. Thus, from its in­cep­tion, vir­tual re­al­ity was con­ceived as an en­gine of war, a mech­a­nism for fir­ing up the faith­ful to fight for­eign­ers and “oth­ers”. What de­li­cious irony that, with­out know­ing a whit of its his­tory, to­day’s vir­tual-re­al­ity faith­ful in the gam­ing and mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial spheres have so ef­fort­lessly re­ca­pit­u­lated its past. Bacon’s mis­sion failed and there were no new cru­sades. In­stead “geo­met­ric fig­ur­ing” led to the aes­thetic won­ders of Paolo Uc­cello and Piero della Francesca, among the lead­ing ge­ome­ters of the 15th cen­tury and the true fore­fa­thers of vir­tual re­al­ity. Ul­ti­mately, it also led to per­spec­ti­val points of view that cre­ate ex­treme and un­real psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences. A thrilling ac­count of the psy­cho­dy­namic games that Re­nais­sance pain­ters en­gaged in can be found in Michael Kubovy’s book The Psy­chol­ogy of Per­spec­tive and Re­nais­sance Art. If Kubovy is right, there is lit­tle truly philo­soph­i­cally novel in 21st-cen­tury vir­tual-re­al­ity gam­ing. Or as UCLA me­dia ar­chae­ol­o­gist Erkki Huh­tamo likes to say, when it comes to “new me­dia”, his­tory has a habit of re­peat­ing

it­self, so “the fa­cade of in­no­va­tion may mask tra­di­tion, and ap­par­ent rup­tures dis­guise hid­den con­ti­nu­ities”.

What in­ter­ests me with cur­rent in­car­na­tions of vir­tual-re­al­ity tech­niques is what we might ap­ply this tech­nol­ogy to be­yond the the­atre of war. The list of po­ten­tials is long, and claims are be­ing made about the value of vir­tual re­al­ity in a huge ar­ray of fields: surgery, psy­chol­ogy, treat­ment for pho­bias and post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. Au­to­mo­bile and plane de­sign­ers have been us­ing vir­tual re­al­ity for years, as have phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal drug de­sign­ers. Ar­chi­tects and in­te­rior de­sign­ers are get­ting into the game; IKEA has de­vel­oped a vir­tual-re­al­ity ap­pli­ca­tion to help you find the per­fect couch. Ah, shop­ping! Would any new tech­nol­ogy not be help­ful there? Ed­u­ca­tion is an ob­vi­ous tar­get, es­pe­cially in the field of science, where tech­nol­ogy is of­ten touted as a solveall. But pit­falls line the way. At Swin­burne Univer­sity in Mel­bourne, as­tro­physi­cist Alan Duffy and his col­leagues have cre­ated a vir­tual-re­al­ity pro­gram to teach pub­lic au­di­ences about the cos­mos. The plan­ets, sun and stars are elab­o­rately ren­dered in a vir­tual-re­al­ity space along with pack­ets of in­for­ma­tion users can ac­cess through a head­set. Speak­ing about the project at an ACMI event, Duffy was blunt about its achieve­ments – to his team’s sur­prise it was a ped­a­gog­i­cal fail­ure. Au­di­ences mostly had no idea how to use the head­sets, even when given in­struc­tions. At a packed-out launch demon­stra­tion, Duffy said most peo­ple ended up just fol­low­ing him through the world so they may as well have been watch­ing him host a TV pro­gram. This may be a teething prob­lem. A gen­er­a­tion raised with vir­tual re­al­ity won’t have such dif­fi­cul­ties, but will the tech­nol­ogy turn out to be much dif­fer­ent to TV, about which sim­i­lar utopian state­ments were made? TV was also go­ing to cre­ate an ed­u­ca­tional rev­o­lu­tion, and look what we have now. No doubt there’ll be ex­cel­lent vir­tual-re­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams just as there are some bril­liant ones de­liv­ered via TV. One as­tound­ing ex­am­ple now is a vir­tual-re­al­ity sim­u­la­tion of hy­per­bolic space by a team in­clud­ing the math­e­ma­ti­cians Vi Hart and Henry Segerman. How­ever, I sus­pect that once the eco­nomic en­gines kick in, in­tel­lec­tual en­rich­ment might be thin on the ground. Signs of dystopia loom. It will come as no sur­prise that a medium lay­ing claim to pow­er­ful “re­al­ity” ef­fects has at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the porn industry. Porn­hub.com and xHam­ster.com are among the pi­o­neers, the lat­ter of which prom­ises to make you “feel like you’re be­ing in the same room where the ac­tual hard­core sex scenes are hap­pen­ing”. Vir­tual-re­al­ity porn is a clear mo­ti­va­tion to de­velop hap­tic feed­back body­suits, and the industry is rac­ing to link vir­tual-re­al­ity sites and games with sex dolls so vir­tual sex feels “real”. A Jan­uary ar­ti­cle in the Los An­ge­les Times sun­nily noted, “The multi­bil­lion-dol­lar adult en­ter­tain­ment industry … has al­ways em­braced the fu­ture, dat­ing back to its early adop­tion of VHS in the late ’70s. With vir­tual re­al­ity, it is once again lead­ing the way.” The re­port went on to say that “ex­perts es­ti­mate that more than 50% of vir­tual-re­al­ity con­tent is porn-re­lated”. While the ma­jor vir­tual-re­al­ity plat­forms block porn from their sites, the founder of VRPorn.com, Daniel Peter­son, says “the of­fi­cial line is that they don’t talk about it … But ev­ery­one knows it’s a ma­jor fac­tor driv­ing VR.” Art is an­other promis­ing av­enue, if likely a less lu­cra­tive one. Last year, I at­tended an event hosted by the In­sti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Los An­ge­les, where lo­cal artists spoke about the medium’s aes­thetic pos­si­bil­i­ties. I won­dered if the is­sue of spir­i­tu­al­ity would arise, and it did. Reg­gie Watts, a guru-es­que “singer, beat­boxer, ac­tor, and co­me­dian” showed a psy­che­delic dream­scape star­ring him­self that ended with his avatar float­ing, Bud­dha-like, into the heav­ens. He wanted to cre­ate en­vi­ron­ments with “a shamanic fig­ure lead­ing you around”, Watts told us, which sounded rather like the Christ sce­nario. It’s hardly un­ex­pected that men are cre­at­ing the ma­jor­ity of vir­tual re­al­ity, and there is a deeply dis­turb­ing gender di­men­sion to far too many vir­tual-re­al­ity games, in which the only rep­re­sen­ta­tions of fe­male bod­ies come with pro­por­tions no real woman could have. In­ter­est­ingly, then, women have been and con­tinue to be among the lead­ers in vir­tual-re­al­ity art. Lau­rie An­der­son and Björk are among those who’ve been ex­per­i­ment­ing. An­der­son’s lovely chalk-draw­ing vir­tual-re­al­ity film, Chalk­room, im­merses us in a world of whis­pers and evanes­cence. Björk, of course, was one of the first to em­brace vir­tual re­al­ity in mu­sic video, and at the Royal Mel­bourne In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Stephanie An­drews is ex­plor­ing

We have been in this po­si­tion be­fore, with per­spec­ti­val rep­re­sen­ta­tion, photography, cin­ema, television, video and CGI.

non-Carte­sian play spa­ces. Th­ese women fol­low in the foot­steps of the Cana­dian vir­tual-re­al­ity pi­o­neer Char Davies, who in the ’90s cre­ated the ex­tra­or­di­nary worlds Ephémère and Os­mose, com­posed of glow­ing atoms of lights.

In vir­tual Angkor Wat, I wit­nessed some of what might be the medium’s gen­uinely novel po­ten­tial. More than just an ar­chi­tec­tural sim­u­la­tion, it’s aim­ing to be a vir­tual ren­di­tion of a so­ci­ety. Four thou­sand “agents” – vir­tual peo­ple from kings to farm­ers, whose ap­pear­ance and ac­tions are based on ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence – pop­u­late the temple com­plex. Thomas Chan­dler has gone to great lengths to model it with cul­tural fidelity (his fa­ther, David Chan­dler, is an author­ity on me­dieval Cam­bo­dia). Chan­dler’s goal is to sim­u­late a 24-hour cy­cle of liv­ing his­tory, with peo­ple com­ing and go­ing at the temple as they would have in the 12th cen­tury. A cor­rectly aligned vir­tual sun rises and sets over forests of vir­tual palms, ge­o­graph­i­cally ac­cu­rate wa­ter­ways, and build­ings con­structed from de­tailed mea­sure­ments. Vir­tual mer­chants drive carts drawn by vir­tual oxen and vir­tual kings ride in palan­quins past stat­u­ary, all painstak­ingly hand­crafted in soft­ware us­ing as much data as Chan­dler and his team can ac­quire. Chan­dler hopes this “be­spoke vir­tual world” can serve both as a pub­lic learn­ing space and as a lab­o­ra­tory for his ar­chae­o­log­i­cal col­leagues. In­deed, there is an emerg­ing move­ment of “vir­tual ar­chae­ol­ogy” gov­erned by a set of prin­ci­ples – the Prin­ci­ples of Seville – lay­ing out pre­cepts for an eth­i­cal prac­tice of his­tor­i­cal-cul­tural sim­u­la­tion. Among its tenets are the ad­mo­ni­tions that “it should al­ways be pos­si­ble to dis­tin­guish what is real, gen­uine or au­then­tic from what is not” and “vir­tual vis­its should not aspire to re­place real vis­its”. And so we are at a cross­roads with vir­tual re­al­ity. On the one hand are news crews, jour­nal­ists, ar­chae­ol­o­gists, scientists and ed­u­ca­tion­al­ists who value the tech­nol­ogy for its power to en­gage us with the “real”. On the other are fan­ta­sists, in­clud­ing game de­sign­ers and pornog­ra­phers, who lay equal claim to the value of pro­pel­ling us into “re­al­ity”. We have been in this po­si­tion be­fore, with per­spec­ti­val rep­re­sen­ta­tion, photography, cin­ema, television, video and CGI. All have the ca­pac­ity to il­lu­mi­nate facets of the world, to de­light and sur­prise us, and to take us out of our­selves. Yet, as the French philoso­pher Jean Bau­drillard recog­nised, rep­re­sen­ta­tions can also be­come delu­sions, pre­tences and per­ver­sions.

Angkor Wat sim­u­la­tion. Cre­ated by Sen­siLab at Monash Univer­sity

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