Case Study: Mapping Virtual Reality
This brochure is a proposal for a visual mapping of virtual reality. In this project I will develop what makes virtual reality so effective, and some of its limits. Jean Baudrillard theorized the concept of hyper reality in Simulacra and Simulation (1981), a simulacra being the copy without an original. Disneyland is a good example of this, the image of a castle that never actually existed. Virtual Reality does just this, it creates whole worlds and environments that do not hold any basis in reality.
This is why this medium is so compelling, as it ties in with concepts such as the experience economy. In the experience economy, every detail of a given environment is thought out and designed to enhance an experience. This has been prevalent in the luxury industry recently as Yves Michaud explains in Le Nouveau Luxe (2013). Virtual reality makes use of this, as the whole digital
environment experienced is designed from scratch, and curated to provide the people experiencing it a fully realized vision. Japanese artist Daito Manabe’s work comes to mind when thinking about this concept. His work is at the intersection between visual culture, entertainment and computer science. He realizes 3D environments that question the nature of reality and often has his spectator experience them in virtual reality, sometimes from an automated wheelchair so he not only has full control of what the spectator sees, but of their movements as well.
Agency and participation are key concepts when thinking about this medium as well. What that means is that there is a need for new ways to structure storytelling and to guide the gaze. Even though there is some freedom in VR, this is nothing new and there has always been freedom in cinema as well. While our gaze is necessarily focused on the screen, we technically have the freedom to look wherever we want on that screen. The 30° rule for example, which states that there should be 30 degrees between shots of the same subject to maintain suspension of disbelief, is a cinematographic way to structure storytelling. In virtual reality, the gaze of the viewer needs to be
guided too, elements of interest that make up a 360° shot need to be placed carefully. There is no constructive theory about this just yet because virtual reality just entering the culture industry market, but a number of conferences such as Laval Virtual are blooming all over the world right now and aim at teaching young cinematographers how to write for virtual reality.
It has been proven that virtual reality stirs empathy in its viewers. This is why the Canadian government and the United Nations are looking into the medium to promote acceptance of refugees; the latter has even hired a creative director in charge of the editorial line of virtual reality stories they
have purchased. One may wonder whether this is actively helpful or if in this case virtual reality is a tool for the rich to gawk at the disenfranchised. The Canadian government is setting up virtual reality meetings between potential ‘host’ families and refugee families, so that people can have a first contact and get to know each other. The fact that virtual reality would be needed to promote empathy in the case of a human crisis such as this one is in my opinion not necessarily something to be proud of. However, if it proves to make a positive impact in the next couple of years regarding this issue, then the co-presence facilitated by virtual reality will effectively be an innovative tool for change.
The idea of immersion is a dominant one in virtual reality. Instead of looking at an image, the 360° nature of virtual reality creates the illusion that the spectator is within the image. This proximity established between the subject and the object stimulates immersion. It is from this that empathy and suspension of disbelief stem from.
But what happens when economy of attention and suspension of disbelief merge together under one medium? The American political scientist Herbert A. Simon explained the concept of the economy of attention as the societal paradigm we evolve in. In a world so rich in information, what becomes a commodity is what information requires, and that is the attention of its
potential customers. This is linked to virtual reality insofar as when using a VR headset, attention to the outside world is completely cut out. When suspension of disbelief and empathy as concepts join this concentrated attention on the part of the viewer, then native journalism and advertising can
articulate their message in a most effective manner. The development of Dior Eyes for example, a virtual reality headset created by Dior to enhance their customers’ shopping experience, is a telling example of this.
While there are creative ways to use virtual reality, like Daito Manabe and Björk prove, there also are very educational ways to use the medium. The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia is using virtual reality to create a fully immersive virtual exhibitions in space, while the Natural History Museum in London is using VR to make people more aware of issues regarding our ecosystem by displaying a 360° vision of the Australian Great Barrier Reef.
This is what is at stake in virtual reality: empathy can be stirred to promote social justice operations, such as the relocation of refugees and drunk driving PSAs or a tour of the Australian Great Barrier Reef; yet at the same time brands have already started to make wise use of the medium for purely commercial purposes. What I offer as a middle-ground to those ideas is the
innovative and creative qualities that virtual reality has to offer. Manabe’s direct questioning of the nature of reality happens through this medium, while Björk’s innovative co-present performances and music videos also make use of VR. What I am trying to portray is that there is a staggering number of uses for virtual reality, some of them inherently mercantile while others remain full of hope. This is what characterizes the wide-spanning functions of VR, a sign that it is a fully realized medium with surprises to offer in the years to come.