VR, Media and Mediation

The Author in VR equipment.

Trying PrioVR at PAX Prime 2014

I wrote this as a response to a class reading. I thought I did a pretty good job and I got to use some fancy words. It’s a little bit rough. It could use some proper sourcing and a bit more meat with some more accessible language but anyway…

Matthew Heimiller

VR, Media and Mediation

Virtual reality is meta. Saying something is meta usually means something to the effect of, “it is about the thing” sometimes ‘about’ means ‘factually/definitionally true’ and other times it means ‘encompassing’ or ‘around’ or even yet another definition, ‘aware of.’ Through my personal experience, the facets and assets of this meta form and their unique place among popular media will be shown.

Virtual reality is different from other media. I had the opportunity to try out an Oculus headset and it was a sensory experience at once unique and familiar. It was transportative. The two distinctives of holistic sensory cordoning off and motion tracking create the immersion experience.

In one way the Oculus VR headset is limiting. Its use as a matter of consequence shuts down or draws attention away from many of the senses. Smell, taste, touch, all are discarded. Touch though, with its natural hand eye component is put into a kind of invisible straight jacket. At the official Oculus demo I tried, my hands were always at my lap with a controller in my hand lest I lose my place on it and my ability to input into the virtual world. This problem, that of not being able to raise my arms was solved by a peripheral company who created a series of bands that you could put on the wrist, elbow, chest and even legs. This company used crowd funding platform kickstarter for their initial run (link; https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/yeitechnology/priovr-suit-up-game-on). Suddenly my shoulders were free. I could raise my arms and see them in the virtual world in front of me and even this little bit of constraint being gone felt like a burden lifted. But at the same time the boundaries of the medium became very apparent. There is no resistance, no feeling of interaction. I played a game where a faceless protagonist with two pistols dived around like some John Woo character shooting zombies. The application of the technology is bound to be adopted early by games with macho, unfeeling, effortlessly powerful fantasy men like Duke Nukem. In some ways the lack of resistance in movement in a feature for games like this that trade on giving the player a feeling of power and rest in equal measure. These kinds of games give them something achievable and seemingly grand without actually asking too much of them and that fits with the medium.

As the author of the chapter nine Virtual Reality reading notes, “Virtual reality is also the medium that best expresses the contemporary definition of the self as a roving point of view.” This roving point of view experience is made possible by the advanced motion tracking involved in the headset. The transportative effect I talked about earlier is the coordination of my face in space and the virtual cameras in the digital world that render out to my eyeballs. Leaning forward, backwards, looking over my shoulder, all this was possible and seamless. This tracking extends to the ears. Hearing things from the direction appropriate in game world completes the package. As a result, anything, or any art that can be viewed or heard or a combination of the two, transfers very well into VR on the Oculus platform. On the Oculus Gear VR, a headset that uses a Galaxy S6 phone instead of a dedicated computer, the movie theater app is incredibly popular. This sort of museum effect, using VR to access other media in a way that is preferable to accessing it with the world around you watching or distracting, is in my opinion its greatest strength. While the second aspect of VR I highlighted, the motion tracking of the individual perspective, is necessary for the trick to work, for a new context to be present, I think the first part, the reduction and displacement of existing context is so much more valuable as a result.

Different media have different constraints and frames. The writer of chapter nine on Virtual Reality writes, “Just as the World Wide Web exemplifies the logic of hypermediacy, virtual reality is the clearest (most transparent!) example of the logic of transparent immediacy.” When we talk about the distinctives of the museum effect we are talking about an ability to bring these two things together. As anyone who has been in an introductory art or history class knows, more often than not the study of historical artifacts and art is just the study of JPEGs. A ‘.jpg’ file is a compressed image format popular on the internet. Doing a google search for images will net many many JPEGs. The hope though with the possibility of new contexts, new museum spaces to be formed around pieces of art virtually, that the exeperience of viewing them is more pure than seeing 1000 similar JPEGs stream past you in google’s search results.

Let’s dive a little deeper. If transparent immediacy means getting the clearest possible intent, the clearest possible transfer of truth from an artifact to its viewer and if hypermediacy means a keen awareness of the frame and method of transfer would not hypermediacy in the construction of spaces for transparent immediacy seem reasonable. The creator of whatever museum space is used for viewing, let’s say some ancient hieroglyphic JPEGs, should take into account what truths are to be transferred and create the context in such a way as to reinforce this transfer. Something as simple as a museum placard with the author/creator’s name and the title of the piece, or the mimicking of the architecture of modern museums creates a viewing experience of the artifacts that imposes dignity, focus, and an academic bent.

This is at the heart of what I meant when I said VR was meta. VR creations are an artifact to showcase art but also art themselves. VR is the first art form to eat its own frame. It has exactly everything to experience in one package.

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