From my first encounter with VR, at an exhibition in Chicago’s Navy Pier in the early 1990s—a mist of possibility has surrounded the technology. “This is just a prototype,” I was told in various booths and studios over the years. But the era of prototypes has finally ended. With the recent release of a new generation of consumer VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift, you can now move, look around, listen, and pick things up in virtual space. The VR content currently available tends to use this capacity to show you the world through someone else’s eyes. You become an astronaut, for example, or a refugee. This is a mistake. The technology can’t show you what it’s like to inhabit another body. Its true function is to remind you how strange it is to inhabit your own.
VR has lived in the future for so long that the prospect of meeting the real thing made me a little anxious. My initial encounter with it comes in the form of a movie. Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness is a 14 minute virtual-reality film that premiered at Sundance in January. It’s based on the work of the British writer John Hull, who recorded his experience of going blind. The film’s promoters say it lets audiences empathize with the condition of a blind person.
I strap on the headset and find myself in a park. Trees, benches, and joggers shimmer in faint colored outlines. A man with a British accent—Hull, I presume—begins to narrate the sounds he heard in the park, which also happen to be the sounds I hear in my headphones. The click-clack of women in heels, a snatch of conversation. When I turn my head, I can see the walkers coming up the path. I can follow their ghostly outlines as they pass, listen to the sound of their footsteps waxing and then waning as the figures disappeared around a bend. The voice describes the sounds I heard.
When I took off the headset, I felt confused. So this is what it’s like to be blind, I thought, reading the description of the film again. Does blindness suck out the centers of objects, leaving their outlines intact? If that was true, I felt, I would have heard about it before. And what to make of the bodiless voice describing the sounds I heard? Was I supposed to imagine that John Hull’s voice was coming out of my body? Or did it mean that my senses had been smuggled into John Hull’s body?
It was definitely cool to be able to turn my head and look around inside a film. But I was too busy trying to puzzle out the relation of my experience to the film’s ostensible aim—helping me empathize with a blind person—to enjoy it much. I saw several other VR films and I played a couple VR games, including some more visually stimulating than Notes on Blindness. But they all left me with a similar sense of disappointment and confusion.
The best and worst thing about virtual space is that you don’t need imagination to open it. You put on your headset, and you’re there. You require exactly the same amount of imagination to be in the park in Notes on Blindness, or in the space station in the VR game ADR1FT, as you need to be in the room you currently occupy.
When I put on the headset and turn on ADR1FT, I find myself floating in space. A chunk of space debris comes flying at me, I swat it away. I’m running low on oxygen. I see a canister in the distance. I move towards it. The canister gets bigger.
With traditional flat media, there’s a gap between what you see and what you experience. For example, I recently got the PC game FTL. When I load it up, a vaguely cartoonish blueprint of a spaceship appears, along with a tiny cartoonish crew. After about ten minutes, the screen still looks the same, but my experience is utterly different. I’m engaged in an intense space battle. There’s an explosion as my ship’s oxygen system gets hit by a laser. My crew begins to gasp for air. With the last of my fading power I launch a missile, it misses…
In FTL, the primitive flat representation of a spaceship must be opened by my imagination before I can inhabit it. The process is essentially the same for a painting, a novel, or a film. The images in these media resemble reality. They are not examples of reality. There’s a gap between the marks on the screen, canvas, or page, and the person, spaceship, or park that flickers to life for the audience.
You might think that this gap is a problem, something to be overcome. Lots of people have thought this. What if the artwork didn’t consist of a representation of a park? What if it put you in the park itself? In a classic essay, the film critic Andre Bazin calls this “the myth of total cinema,” a dream that cinema should progress toward “a total and complete representation of reality.”
Now that VR has more or less brought this myth to life, it’s clear that the gap between screen and world isn’t a flaw, but the source of art’s power. Think about empathy. One of the chief pleasures of art is the feeling of being able to see the world through the eyes of another person. Art activates our human capacity to use a visible image to unlock an invisible reality. When the child sees a frowning face, she senses the pain of another. As we watch the shifting expressions of Juliette Binoche’s character in Clouds of Sils Maria, we feel the mixture of tenderness and jealousy with which the aging actress views her young assistant.
The image is a portal to an unseen world. Its flatness, the two-dimensionality of the shapes in FTL or Clouds of Sils Maria, force us to use our imagination to pass through the visible to the invisible. Watching Binoche’s flat face, we “see through her eyes.” We glimpse something of how her history and desire inflect her vision.
VR interprets the phrase “to see through another’s eyes” literally. It places us in a character’s visual perspective. This is what VR promotional material means when it speaks of the technology’s supposed capacity to enhance “empathy.” This month’s Wired cover story celebrates VR’s potential to create a “Wikipedia of experiences.” But when the VR film Clouds over Sidra puts me in the shoes of a twelve year old girl in the Za’atari camp in Jordan, I don’t know what it’s like to be her. I only know what it’s like to be me, seeing the things she sees. But what empathy does—what films, photographs, and literature can do—is to show us the camp as she sees it rather than as I do.
VR immerses your senses in another place. But the mind of another person isn’t a place, and it can’t be entered through your senses alone. Of course, nothing prevents VR from activating your imagination in order to achieve true empathy. Imagine a wanderer in virtual space. He finds a virtual flat screen, or a virtual book. He picks it up, and disappears from the visible world.
* * *
When I think of Virtual Reality, I think of films and games, imaginary worlds made real. As I was taking off my headset after my third VR film, a self-described virtual-reality ‘freak’ I’d chatted with earlier in line was pulling at my sleeve.
“You gotta check this out,” he said. He was pointing to small exhibit in a corner of the large room devoted to VR in the Cleveland International Film Festival. A local video company was showcasing their wares. It turned out they specialized in virtual architectural renderings. Using an Oculus Rift headset, they’d created a VR version of their studio for the festival.
I strapped on the headset, wondering why I’d want to see a local video company’s studio. Suddenly, I was in a brightly colored room containing several desks and a video camera. There were some lenses on the desk before me. I turned my head and more of the room scrolled into view. I turned my head back to the desk. I picked up a lens with my hands and held it before my face. A tingling started at the base of my spine.
What’s going on? I thought. I’ve done all this before in VR. Why is this affecting me now?
What astonished me was that I wasn’t just looking. The technology tied my vision to my body—to the motion of my neck and shoulders. My embodied vision twisted and turned through the space like a snake. The feeling of leaning in towards the desk, seeing the desk move towards me, blew me away. The fine details of its wooden surface magnified as I looked closer. I couldn’t believe it. I turn my head and I can see the side of the room? Unreal, I thought. Plus I have hands!
For some time the technician had been gently asking me if I’d seen enough. Now he asked a little less gently.
“That was the most beautiful room I’ve ever seen,” I said quietly, taking off the headset.
Stepping away from the exhibit, the secret of its success hit me. Every other VR experience had been oriented towards some story or task. I was trying to find an Oxygen canister for my space suit. Or I was trying to pay attention to the narrator while tracking the sound of jogger to its source. But here, the whole point was simply that I was in a room. There was nothing to do but to look around, to move my hands and my head. Nothing to distract me from the basic magic of VR: It puts you somewhere else.
It puts you somewhere else. Forget about the wonder of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, I thought. Why haven’t I realized before how amazing it is to see the world through my eyes?
The tingling at the base of my spine wasn’t going away. By the time I got outside, it had only gotten stronger. I was having a little trouble walking now. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at a parked car. An old black Pontiac. Raindrops shone on its hood. I walked a little closer, I couldn’t help it. The raindrops got bigger. Amazing.
I slowly, carefully, turned my head. An entire street scrolled away into the distance. I fell against the car, supporting myself on its hood. Thank God it’s a cloudy day, I thought. If the sun was out I don’t think I’d be able to handle this.
The curious sensation lasted for nearly an hour. I was able to drive home, but I had to drive slowly. I couldn’t take the highway. At one point the gray stone of the buildings on either side of the street got so distracting I had to pull over.
I’d accidentally discovered the true function of VR. Being in that virtual studio, moving my head and watching the view change. Leaning in towards the desk and seeing small images get larger. Magic. But when I took off the headset the magic didn’t stop. It got stronger. I could still move my head and watch the view change. And now there were many more rooms to explore. Hundreds of cars to look at, thousands of buildings to examine. Millions of drops of rain scintillating in incredible realistic detail on an infinite number of surfaces. I thought of the words of the child in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room.”
I knew nothing stranger
had ever happened, nothing
stranger could ever happen.
It must have felt like this when I first learned how to walk, I thought, as I drove home. Or even earlier, the first time I raised my infant head from the crib and unpeeled a few more inches of the world.
Right now, I thought. I am experiencing what it’s like to have a body right now. I turned my head. I moved my hands on the steering wheel. At present, the highest praise that journalists can lavish on a VR system is to say, as Kevin Kelly does in his Wired piece, that “the transition back to the real world … was effortless.” To me, this misses the true magic of the technology. VR restored the simple wonder of moving around the world in a body.