There is an interesting, multi-layered conversation at play about the current state of virtual reality. More and more of the general population are reading reviews and seeing sales of cheaper and more advanced VR products. As a practitioner of creative technology who has recently taken the dive into VR production, I will get asked the following questions by friends and family: “How good is it, really?” “Is it worth it?” “Is it the future?”
When you look at VR’s biggest proponents, you’ll mostly see hardware and software companies with skin in the game. For them, there are little to no questions. For a company like Facebook, the acquisition of VR platform Oculus not only transformed them into a hardware company, but also made them VR evangelists. VR isn’t just the future, now it’s an “empathy machine.” Their most pointed questions and critique will be asked behind closed doors, mostly wondering, “How does this $2.3 billion investment pay off?”
Which leads to our next layer of VR discussion amongst tech artists, tech critics, and tech philosophers. Interestingly enough, I find that while this group is more technically knowledgeable than the public at large, the questions seem to be the same as the first group: “How good is it, really?” “Is it worth it?” “Is it the future?” And even more intriguing is that some of the most technically experienced among us are the most bullish or skeptical of VR’s allure.
But the truth is that technology’s evangelists can sometimes be its harshest critics. And the criticism isn’t coming from an irrational fear of technology, but from love. Your techy friends who care the most about net neutrality can have the best critique, the most in-depth damning evidence, and strongest venom towards Facebook -much more so than the most technophobic in our society. Why? Because us nerds simply love the internet. So we want what is best for it, and don’t hesitate to call out threats.
I’ve noticed some potential parallels between how we talk about VR and how we talk about the Internet. Looking backwards at the history of the Internet with a critical eye could give us insight towards a possible future of VR. This is a potentially positive future, but it will only happen if we decide to create it.
What We Believe and Why
So how do we talk about the internet? Despite our well informed skepticism about the current state of the internet, we do have an ethos of internet freedom. The idea that the internet “should” be open and free is simply axiomatic in our community. Watching defenders of the open internet advocating for net neutrality legislation, you can frequently see them cite what I’ve started calling an “ideological leverage point.” In this case, the history of the internet and web are used as justification for a political position or action.
“Facebook is changing the internet. The internet wasn’t like this before.” “Net neutrality preserves the way the internet was intended to be used.” Changing, preservation, intent. These all point to questions of heritage -heritage that is being leveraged to convince people to support specific positions, legislation, and adopt a brand of cultural attitudes towards our internet culture.
However, couldn’t we accurately describe the internet in a different way? The internet was a technology commissioned by the United States military and created by elite institutions. The technical complexity, size, and price of the hardware required to use it were well out of range for the average person, let alone vulnerable or underserved populations. The internet’s first popular “app” was email, that while showing promise as a people-to-people communications technology, was developed mainly for the coordination of the developers of the technology. 1 Essentially, email was made so that the most exclusive universities in the U.S. could more easily create communications technology for their military.
If this version of the history of the Internet was widely embraced, imagine all of the retrograde arguments that could be made today: “Why shouldn’t the government spy on you over the Internet? They made it!” “Walled gardens? Internet fast lanes? Of course. It’s been for the elites since the beginning”. Would you or I be convinced by these arguments? Hopefully not. I believe open internet ethos are good because they are good ideas, and not only because they are part of our history.
But we certainly don’t hesitate to use our history in an argument, do we? I sure am glad that these values we hold are established in our culture. However, these values and attitudes were not inevitable. It’s the result of those who used and developed it in its early days, and explicitly called out those values as important to them.
The Bad Old Days
Those pioneering users and developers did have some help, though. I would argue that help was in the form of bad technology.
We speak in breathless tones of the halcyon days of the early net, and its radical open community. But let’s imagine using the internet in the late 70s or early 80s. How many activities were mostly if not entirely text based experiences? Especially for the average internet user. The public consumption of the internet at that time was nothing but communication via text: Email, bulletin board systems, chat rooms, and multi-user dungeons.
The hyper capitalized internet we know today simply couldn’t run on those machines. A popup ad experience that even remotely resembles what we have today was not viable. An image of any decent quality (let alone video) couldn’t be delivered in a timely manner. And even if it was, the computer on the other side wouldn’t have had the power to show it with the number of colors we are accustomed to today. Nor would the monitor be able to show it at any resolution that would be acceptable for ad agency producers.
And even if there was the network speed or the computational power, let’s say you click on the ad (assuming you have a mouse, which wasn’t introduced commercially by Xerox until 1981). 2 The ability for you to actually purchase anything with a credit card with any amount of basic security was still over a decade away (1994). 3
So it’s no wonder we think of the foundation of the internet as community oriented. It would seem that was all there was to do, more or less.
And I would say, we are all the better for it. The purported ethos of openness (even if was just to make some researchers lives easier), and community (because what else was there to do?), were possible results in part due to the limitations of the technology. The affordances informed our internet ideology. And those affordances were negative.
Computers used to suck, thank god.
The Bad New Days
The first email was sent in 1972. The Apple Macintosh was launched in 1984. The first online credit card purchase was 1994. The first Oculus Rift kickstarter was launched in 2012.
It can be a bit hard to talk about virtual reality in this concept of history and lineage. Do you count Morton Heilig’s Sensorama? 4 Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull’s Sword of Damocles? 5 Or does it start with the usage of the term ‘virtual reality’, and Jaron Lanier’s work with the Visual Programming Lab? 6
The best consensus I can get from VR professionals is that we’ve come a long way, but really it is only the beginning. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive start to show what we knew would be necessary: high quality stereoscopic images, head and controller tracking at minimal lag, easily wearable, run on consumer hardware.
But, it isn’t perfect- far from it. Ask any VR practitioner and they’ll tell you: Images aren’t as high res as a laptop screen, the headsets are heavy, tethered cords unwieldy. And you need an expensive computer to run still expensive VR hardware. And with products that address these problems, there are other issues. Cheaper hardware has lower quality and less robust tracking technology.
It is all phenomenal gear, though. It represents a new high mark in our technological capability. With all its flaws, this really is the best version of the tech on a mass market scale. But when you talk to tech enthusiasts, professionals, and artists, you will start to hear commonly that “VR isn’t quite there yet”.
VR Sucks. Let’s make VR.
While there is good artistic work being done in VR, it would seem that many potential innovators are sitting on their hands waiting for the technology to get better before taking the dive. But making a truly immaculate multiverse in the vein of an 1980’s cyberpunk vision simply isn’t on the table right now. My fear is that while waiting for this technology to become tenable, the history, and hence ethos, of VR will be defined in a way we would rather not wish to see. For example, could we currently describe the state of VR as such:
A burgeoning technology controlled by large corporations. Certain elements of openness are present, but certainly “walled gardens” are as well. It is expensive, and the hardware takes up too much space. In cases where this is not true, the hardware is inadequate. For very specific use cases, it seems to be somewhat useful. Forward thinkers can see the future potential, but many see current implementation as an expensive toy for rich people.
Couldn’t this also be a description of the internet in the late 70s and early 80s?
Going from military funded academia to “Information wants to be free!” culture certainly required forethought and people willing to establish their morals as community pillars. I would never say that was purely an accidental result of bad hardware. But the bad hardware helped a lot.
If we truly are in the early days of VR history, we will need to be future thinking and establish community values that we want to see. But the bad hardware can help. Particularly, it can help artists.
The Best Problems of VR
Heavy, Clunky Headsets
Current VR headsets are heavy. Once you have gone to all the effort to get strapped into a VR headset, you will not be casually taking it on and off repeatedly.
Now let us also consider that the average person checks their smartphone every 10 minutes. In the same study, one in 10 checked it on average every four minutes. 7
Spending the past few years seeing people use VR, it occured to me that frequently it was the longest I’ve seen people go without checking their phone. Could a currently feasible VR experience encourage us to unplug from our “always on, always connected” smartphone phone culture?
VR being an entirely new interactive medium brings all kinds of amazing new UI dilemmas. How are you going to input your credit card number for a purchase? The dark patterns of UX/UI have been established to cajole and convince us to buy discount airline tickets and streaming subscriptions. But that has been a two dimensional practice. We haven’t seen the same sophistication displayed in a three dimensional context, yet.
Motion sickness is still an issue with current generation VR technology. 8 What would a VR experience that catered to those prone to motion sickness look like? Perhaps slow and stationary.
Relatively Lower Resolution
Currently, watching a video inside of VR will not be as high quality as going fullscreen on your Macbook, inherently due to the “screen door” effect. VR is not the optimal medium for auto-playing ads. It will take time for ad agencies to find the optimal 3D corollary.
Lack of Mass Revenue Streams
How many artists and companies are making a living solely off of VR content? Optimism is our idea that VR will make money. Eventually. But does VR make money now, at the end user level? A professional last year urged game developers to “measure expectations of the future VR market, at least until things start to.” 9 So, VR is not currently a cash cow.
Not Great at Being Connected
We want the metaverse, sure. But is there anything we have now, in hardware or software that is truly close to that vision? Even remotely? Perhaps Facebook Spaces, where your likeness is rounded down into a cartoonish avatar. Or VR Chat, where you can play capture the flag as long as you physically stay inside the 10 foot by ten foot square box your tracking system allows. 10
The results strike me as Second Life with more eye strain and neck aches.
Ideological Affordances of Premature Technology
So we have a technology that currently is better at cutting us off from people, physically and digitally, than it is at connecting us. It is not conducive to advertising or spending money. Which also means, it is hard to count on it to make money. Accounting for a common physical ailment, it should avoid hectic and fast paced motion. Best practices for user interface are uncertain. Given these constraints, what are the best experiences we can make with these qualities? Perhaps it would be solitary and slow. If optimal UI is unproven, perhaps it has little or even no UI. It is not inherently oriented on capital.
The future of VR could be Ready Player One. But the ideal pieces for today’s VR sound more like an art gallery. Snow Crash will come tomorrow, but today let’s make James Turrell. This establishes what could be the defining works of VR’s foundational era as pieces that are: non-commercial, “unplugged” from network culture, simple in certain aspects, and calm in others.
These qualities are essentially the complete opposite of the currently dominating business models in tech. Of course, one day we will solve the “screen door” effect, and the motion sickness, and the weight of the headsets (if we have headsets at all). The tech will allow for hyperactive, fantastic thrills. You will seamlessly spend money on it and in it. But for now, those things just aren’t true.
Art isn’t just uniquely suited for VR as it stands now, but could establish cultural norms that we will want to see in the future.
Interacting with technology without giving your information to a tech company is akin to being a internet flaneur. Pulling a virtual curtain over your head to completely ignore your cell phone perhaps might be escapist. But it could also be the Bartleby, the Scrivener of the networked age. Cellphone? Social media? I would prefer not to. Instead of strolling the virtual isles of Amazon buying things, why not sit inside a James Turrell Skyspace? It would be a hassle to even reach for my wallet, let alone use it. Not that I would want to.
But making these ethos as part of VR history requires making these VR pieces themselves. It is easy to be disillusioned by VR’s bond to companies we may distrust. But that is even more reason for artists to claim the rhetorical space. A calm, cashless VR piece that establishes itself as the Citizen Kane of the genre will also establish the qualities of calm and cashless as inherent to the VR community ethos. VR’s take on “Information wants to be free!” could be “Reality wants to be calm.” Back in the day, the Internet was weirder, less about money. Maybe we can say the same about VR.
Nevermind that it was the crappy gear that gave us the perfect excuse to make these our ideological pillars. Building within these confines while simultaneously advocating for our values is a kind of praxis that artists can undertake today, right now.
Back in the day, the internet used to be different. And we use that memory to advocate for what we want today. But we are living the “back in the day” of VR today. And artists can seize it.
- 1 Barry M. Leiner, Vinton G. Cerf, David D. Clark, Robert E. Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel C. Lynch, Jon Postel, Larry G. Roberts, Stephen Wolff, “Brief History of the Internet,” Internet Society, 1997, https://www.internetsociety.org/internet/history-internet/brief-history-internet/
- 2 Marcel Brown, “Commercial Computer Mouse Introduced,” This Day in Tech History, http://thisdayintechhistory.com/04/27/computer-mouse-introduced/
- 3 Peter H. Lewis, “Attention Shoppers: Internet Is Open,” New York Times, August 12, 1994, https://www.nytimes.com/1994/08/12/business/attention-shoppers-internet-is-open.html
- 4 Holly Brockwell, “Forgotten genius: the man who made a working VR machine in 1957,” Tech Radar, April 03 2016, https://www.techradar.com/news/wearables/forgotten-genius-the-man-who-made-a-working-vr-machine-in-1957-1318253
- 5 Simpublica Staff, “The Sword of Damocles and the birth of virtual reality,” Simpublica, March 19, 2014 http://simpublica.com/2014/03/19/the-sword-of-damocles-and-the-birth-of-virtual-reality/
- 6Virtual Reality Society, “VPL Research Jaron Lanier,” Virtual Reality Society, https://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality-profiles/vpl-research.html
- 7 SWNS, “Americans check their phones 80 times a day: study,” NY Post, November 08, 2017, https://nypost.com/2017/11/08/americans-check-their-phones-80-times-a-day-study/
- 8 Betsy Mason, “Virtual reality has a motion sickness problem,” Science News, March 07, 2017, https://www.sciencenews.org/article/virtual-reality-has-motion-sickness-problem
- 9 Tristan Prrish Moore, “What Steam’s Data Reveals About The Health Of VR’s Ecosystem,” VR Focus, July 06, 2017, https://www.vrfocus.com/2016/07/what-steams-data-reveals-about-the-health-of-vrs-ecosystem/
- 10 Julia Alexander, “VRChat is a bizarre phenomenon that has Twitch, YouTube obsessed,” Polygon, December 22, 2017, https://www.polygon.com/2017/12/22/16805452/vrchat-steam-vive-oculus-twitch-youtube