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The rise and demise of virtual reality

by Critical Commons Manager

It is remarkable how repetitive the tropes of virtual reality are when depicted in commercial cinema of the past three decades. And while the technologies driving VR have evolved, the promise of their actualization and the ways they interface with human bodies has remained relatively static, at least in the cinematic imaginary. The possibility of experiencing illicit, dangerous or forbidden actions give rise to repeated extremes of exoticism, adventure, violence and erotics, relentlessly portrayed through a first-person camera point of view. Another way of looking at it is that VR provides an excuse for Hollywood cinema to simultaneously indulge in the excesses of such visual pleasures, while distancing itself from the technology that is diegetically responsible for presenting such content to audiences.

A cursory survey of movies and TV shows since the early 1980s reveals the inscription and reinscription of standard tropes of VR - complex technological apparatuses that deliver "safe" (but never completely safe!) experiences that we may be denied in everyday life: particularly extremes of violence, sexual pleasure and other kinds of exoticism. The apotheosis of these depictions in American entertainment came in 1995, with the release of more than a half-dozen feature films and TV shows within the space of a few months. Among these, Strange Days, Virtuosity and VR5 all delivered a vision of virtual reality that was indistinguishable from real life -- that is complete sensory, emotional immersion in a world that was entirely generated by a computer. In 1995, if TV and movies were to be believed, the coming generation of VR technology was poised to deliver consumer-level virtual reality that was indistinguishable from the real world. Ellen Strain has termed this phenomenon of the cinematic imaginary "virtual virtual reality," noting that the Hollywood fantasies of VR led to impossibly high expectations in comparison with actually existing virtual reality technologies in the 1990s. So by the time Nintendo released the Virtual Boy in 1995, consumers who paid nearly $200 for the 3D gaming system experienced not sensory immersion but a 2-bit monochromatic LED display with images about the size of a YouTube video.

Nintendo went on to release a limited number of cartridges based on existing Game Boy titles such as Mario Tennis, Bowling, Golf, Baseball, Pinball, Boxing and Tetris. But the primary sensory response from players was a combination of nausea and headaches and The Virtual Boy was discontinued the following year. A year earlier, Sega also discontinued development of its own visor-based VR system, issuing a tongue-in-cheek public explanation that the virtual reality experience had been so realistic that test subjects were injuring themselves by attempting to walk into virtual spaces while wearing the visor. Put bluntly, we can consider the rampant commercial depictions of VR in 1995 as an instance of the movie industry launching a highly effective attack against the gaming industry, successfully raising consumer expectations to the level of big-budget Hollywood feature films.

Subsequent years saw the rapid decline of commercial viability for Virtual Reality in the decade after 1995; development funds that had been channeled to VR labs at Atari and NASA Ames were eclipsed by the frenzy of speculative investment in the Internet, leading to the dotcom bubble and subsequent collapse just five years later. To overstate the case only slightly, "virtual virtual reality" on TV and in movies *killed* real virtual reality as a medium for commercial entertainment in the mid 1990s.

Agency problems in Strange Days

by Jimmy Gorham

                From the opening scene of Strange Days, the process for VR generation is established: a person wears a special head monitoring device and records their activities, preserving the experience to be transmitted to other people.  VR participants, then, have no choice as they experience these memories. If “agency is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” (Murray) then this form of VR is simply a more complex form of cinema as there is no agency; a type of cinema where in addition to imposing visuals on the viewer, emotion is also imposed.

                In this clip from Strange Days, a paraplegic is presented with a simulation of running on the beach, and seems to derive quite a lot of pleasure from it despite having absolutely zero agency.  However, given the form of these VR memories, this presents several possible contradictions.  Strange Days makes clear in several scenes that the emotional experiences of the recording party are transferred to the viewer as part of the VR process.  In this clip, a man is running down the beach.  For the recording player, this is a repetitive activity at best and a painful activity at worst.  If this is a regular exercising routine, the man would probably not even notice his legs, but rather be thinking about groceries, sex, or whatever.  Certainly not counting his steps and thinking of the sand between his toes.  Further, if the man is tired, the legs themselves could be great sources of pain.  While it’s possible that the VJ could be excited to feel anything in the legs, even pain, this seems unlikely as phantom pain is an oppressive experience for many amputees.

                With no agency and under the influence of the recording party’s emotions, why then can this VR sequence of the simple act of running on the beach be considered pleasurable for the viewer?  Would he not feel frustration at the fact that there is no attention being paid to the legs? As the recorder runs by a woman and shifts his vision from his feet to check her out, would the viewer not feel frustration at the change of focus from what he is interested in to what the recorder is interested in? Or is the viewer’s sense of self completely overcome by the experiences of the person who recorded the activity? Regardless of the answers to these questions, without agency the VR in Strange Days is a hollow act. Without agency the most satisfying VR experiences would simply be where the recorder takes euphoric drugs and achieves unnatural states of happiness. Regardless of the emotional input, any recorded activity would ultimately leave the viewer dissatisfied due to having no agency in the activity.  If we consider the VR in strange days as a form of cinema where feelings are forced on the viewer, VR participants could be seen as having even less agency than traditional cinema.  Within movies, though we are told what to see we are at least left with the freedom to choose what to focus on and how to feel about it.

Interactivity - Is Reproducing More 'Real' than a Reproduction?

by Juan D'oh

In his article "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin argues that the sudden introduction of the reproducible art (that of the photograph) changed the nature of art so much that it needed to be redefined. Primarily, he argued, art was about engaging in a ritual of sorts, be it an actual ritual such as a worship, or the ritual of creation. The definition changed when photography and film only produced negatives, and all of its reproductions were thus equally "original" and "authentic."

Benjamin also asserts that the predominant art of the time brings with it the predominant sense of perception. Thus, when paintings were of highest artistic value, they were also how the people viewed what they could not see. These reproduction changed with photography, and finally film.

And now we are looking at a new art form emerging to prominance, one that is only possible in this age of computers, just as film was only possible in its post-industrial age. In this medium, what is easily reproducible is the "act," not the sound or the image. As painting focused for years on reproducing the image that was easily replicated in photography, and as film used photography to capture movement, the game reprocues scenes, actions, compulsions, and behaviors  in a completely reproducible sense, rather than being limited to displaying the acts.

In photography, we look at images because we are drawn to them; In film, we watch actions and ask how they make us feel. In video games and interactive media, we reproduce these actions, put ourselves in the moments and ask ourselves how that feels. In this sense, video games share as much with live theater, improvisation and roleplaying as it does with film and other visual storytelling.

To some extent, all art carries with it a sort of mimicry. Early Christian religious art reproduced the crucifixion in clay and on canvas, and in an equal sense, religious art around the world mimicked either what they worthipped or whatever actions they believed would please the gods. Picasso's abstract Guernica mimicked the subjective perspective of a victim of the bombing. Film reproduces the act of death or the kiss in order to produce it on film, and replicate it in the viewing space.

In video games, this act no longer needs to be separate from the experience - This mimicry becomes center to the experience, and the creation of the work is built around enhancing and giving meaning to that mimicry. Thus, this tradition of voyeurism in art is found to be less of the ultimate experience whe the act, and interpretations of that act, can be reproduced in itself.

Responding to Jimmy Gorham's comment:

by Paris-Lapazelle Moore

The note about the lack of agency in the VR in Strange Days is a very interesting one. It is arguable that in many ways, this is very much like a cinema due to the lack of agency versus an interactive form. And the real question would be... what would be the draw, then? If one could presumably simply sit in front of a movie screen and watch a film, or flip on the TV and see a free broadcast on the air, then why go through all this effort to make illegal recordings and sell them on black market and create an entire trading business around this? How could one get rich off of selling video clips?

I think an interesting thing to remember is that yes, these are humans that just like today have access to a wide expanse of media at their disposal, however, they still don't have the ability to change themselves as will. We aren't like chameleons, able to blend in to our surroundings, or butterflies that can blossom into an entirely different creature. Humans are still creatures that desire to experience things beyond their control.

I view the VR in Strange Days as almost a kind of drug, delivering exactly what you want, when you want it. Sure, you can only view the events in a certain order and you can't directly control where you go/what you do/who you speak to, but if you close your eyes you are essentially there. That man running along the sand in this clip IS this paraplegic with his legs, checking out a hot chick as she runs along the beach the other way. It is that sense of an alternate identity, an alternate experience that one couldn't have as him or herself, that I think makes this entire concept of the VR in Strange Days valuable and precious, at least in the context of this film.

I think that this concept of trying on an alternate identity and becoming someone else allows an escape from one's environment, so much so that a person like the big music producer in this film can become addicted to playback. And possibly be driven insane by it. If you replay a film over and over again, you're always aware that even though you may be enveloped in the movie; it's just a film. There's an outside--you may be eating popcorn, your phone may ring, you may be watching it with others who are talking about it with you. Yet in this VR it's much harder to tell that what you're seeing in your head isn't your real reality--at least for those moments. Even if you tried to wake yourself up, according to the movie you'd be seeing double. So even then your 'reality' and your 'virtual reality' are meshed together while you're in it.

In that case, the experience that this VR gives of an artificial agency while you're in this alternate experience, would be even more effective than cinema. Perhaps it hasn't reached the level of interactivity that video games have... but on the other hand, it also has reached even more of a point of connection with the protagonist. It's beyond a purely emotional connection while retaining knowledge of your surroundings; it has become yourself for that moment in that instant. It's dramatic, even without the extra interactivity and agency. This is what makes this VR in Strange Days so valuable to the consumer and how it could actually leave them satisfied and returning back for many more.

Strange Days paraplegic VJ

The potential uses of VR for disabled people is a common trope in VR films

from Strange Days (1995)
Creator: Kathryn Bigelow
Posted by Critical Commons Manager