90s Dreams

We can recreate the VR dreams of our parents now what?

Virtual Reality is a synthesized type of reality that allows us to model the contents of our imagination and project them into an immersive environment for others to experience. We have been prototyping this world since the graphical computational interfaces of the 1960s, long before we were strapping smartphones to our faces. But rather than focus on the hardware as it has evolved, this piece will respond to conceptual frameworks for content in immersive space.

We experience VR content in two distinct ways at the moment

At the time of this writing there are two distinct modes through which we experience VR content: The most well-known is the headset, a fully immersive digital screen (for your face). The Oculus Rift, the Samsung Gear, and Google’s Cardboard can all be filed under this category. On the flip-side there is there the model of VR as a world of external screens that surround your field of view in 360. Examples of the second model might include motion capture, projection caves, or immersive projects that implement computer vision to trigger interactive displays.

If you were to imagine these two modes as the primary models for understanding VR experience, then we could begin to imagine the types of creators and creative disciplines that would emerge to produce content for these two types of immersive screens.

The first model of VR demands software designed to play 360 video content on your smartphone, or allow you to interact with a virtual space represented on a personal screen such as in the Tilt Brush. On the other hand projection mapping requires that images be projected all around you and immerse you in a screen in the round.

Both of these two ways of imagining an immersive experience / Virtual Reality were conceptualized long before I was creating content for VR. I grew up watching these sci-fi concepts on TV and in films as a child in the 90s. Star Trek’s holodeck or Lawnmower man were worlds where we imagined a whole immersive reality that could overtake the senses, make people fall in love, have cybersex, etc…

Lawnmower Man (1992), Star Trek The Next Generation (1987–1994).

These sci-fi dreams were conceptualized by creatives who grew up with our parents, who in turn grew up at a time when (for the most part) performed content was something that happened on a stage with a clear definition between audience members and performers and screen-based content happened on a film screen or TV.

Virtual reality as we currently understand it is a natural progression from the stage and screen. If we take content that was intended for these older media formats and translate them into 360 degree environments, then we arrive at immersive projections and VR headsets quite easily.

Implicating the Viewer

In the 1960s at the same time that computer scientists and designers were developing the early stages of screen-based visual language that would come to dominate our experience of so much of late 20th- and early 21st century media, artists and theorists were asking another set of questions in parallel. As technologists engaged more and more with the screen, the performers and activists of our parents’ generation were investigating how we participate with media, authorship, performance, interaction, implication, sociology, psychology and time-based art.

Bed In (1969) John Lennon and Yoko Ono: an act of nonviolent protest in support of peace

Performance art, for instance, was looking at duration, persona and creating works that were not on a stage and where the audience was undefined. Sometimes these works were participatory, accusatory or implicated the audience in their content.

Artists began to respond not only with structured narratives on screens and stage but also created live performances, protests, actions, and happenings. Screens ceased presenting only scripted narratives and edited news stories and broadcasted live coverage of breaking events; our parents watched Vietnam the first “Television War” in their kitchens and living rooms.

The notion that the audience as a passive viewer began to have political implications and artists sought to implicate the viewer in their work. The famous work of the late Chris Burden Shoot he invited audience members to a gallery where he would be shot by a rifle, he then had a friend shoot him in the arm in the performance. He is quoted saying about Shoot: “I had an intuitive sense that being shot is as American as apple pie. We see people being shot on TV, we read about it in the newspaper. Everybody has wondered what it’s like. So I did it.”

In Virtual Reality where one can “interact” with the piece, yet rarely are audiences given any real agency in virtual space. It is as if we are able to ask the audience questions but not able to hear their response. This has always been a limitation some have seen on interactive artwork, which frequently poses questions to an audience but does not expect much meaningful interaction from the viewer.

Chris Milk. How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine (TED talk 2015)

The limited interactivity has implications for the association between VR and empathy. It is by now a commonplace that works in VR, 360 videos, and AR frequently seek to teach empathy. For many VR creators this remains an earnest goal, and their early experiments with these new forms are constantly testing the limits of a visual medium to produce new social and emotional responses in its viewers.

But some VR works are a bit harder to nail down. Some seek to focus on once again the role of the audience as spectator probing them to think about how they look at and experience simulated worlds, represented worlds, and mediated spaces. An example of such work on display in this year’s Whitney Biennial Real Violence by Jordan Wolfson, which gives museum viewers an HD experience of an avatar ( modeled after the artist himself) who commits a brutal and somewhat unexplained act of violence on another avatar. It is a provoking work which shares a formula with the type of storytelling where art poses a question to the viewer but does not expect an answer. For an ‘interactive’ medium such as VR finding myself a bystander to violence and having only my eyeballs as interaction felt familiar.

Dreams of a Communal Reality

As a very young hacker and artist, I hoped that the internet could be a place where art could destabilize institutions, where the sites of our collective interest could emerge, and art in our community (and artists) would be part of our collective communities. And while one could argue that the internet has achieved some of those utopian ideas it set out to, it has also divided us and reinforced a hierarchical media structure.

Amelia’s first 360 video taken at the Redwood National Park, CA 2016 (Ricoh Theta s)

I am not interested in realizing the sci-fi visions of my father’s generation (or more accurately his father’s generation.) I would like to represent the dreams I have for these technologies, dreams that were forged when this technology was young on green screens with green letters and numbers. I hoped to connect with other people without the type of mediated file structure of institutions. Creating work for my community, with my community and as a contributing member of my community, I’m interested in seeing what that type of focus would be as realized in VR, in Artificial Intelligence in immersive technology. It is as antiquated to expect a singular artist to pose questions but not wait for responses just as it is for a television signal to broadcast a signal and not wait for a handshake protocol for two-way communication.

There certainly is a rich history in social practice artwork of creating a platform for engagement, however I think that what I hope to create in tech has ambitions to be more than an artist creating an artwork for people to engage with or as a platform, my dreams for VR for AI and immersive storytelling are closer to destabilizing a notion of solo authorship and a robust sense of communal platforms. No software is neutral, what is generated from it come baked into it’s DNA. I do not wish for artist-led interventions and instead, desire community grown platforms that allow expression to protect and enliven communities.

We do not expect to use technology in the same ways our grandfather’s used it, so why would we expect that what we do with it would reflect those same authoritarian properties. Much of what we need to look for in our curations, our artworks and the way we design our institutions needs to reflect our sense of communal reality.

this blog post is from a talk given by Amelia Winger-Bearskin for HACKADAY at ThoughtWorks titled “Virtual Reality + Reality” 2017

copy editing by Eamon O’Connor