The Eye and VR as Instruments of Inclusiveness and Connectivity

The eye may be the most active but least controllable part of our exterior body. For sighted people, it’s the primary organ by which we experience the world and moreover it’s the part of our brain we normally can see. People depend on their eyesight to interpret their environment so much that a mismatch between bodily and optically perceived movement will lead to motion sickness. Or, for our interests, VR sickness (see Mythbusters: Shark Shipwreck). I’ve spent some time contemplating vision’s relationship to VR and the human experience because of a chance conversation and a piece of news, both of which I’d like to share and then correlate below.

Mythbusters 360 — (If I had a mask, I would vomit in it.)

The conversation was with artist and game designer Tuna Pamir who is also a member of VR First at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. Pamir had the hallmark trait that comes with ambition and enthusiasm, that of immediately talking about your current projects, regardless their level of completeness, whenever meeting someone new.

His project (completed) was The Other Portrait; an artwork featured at the Plug In Istanbul 2015 exhibition at Contemporary Istanbul and soon to be displayed at an exhibition in St. Petersburg, Russia. Visitors would sit at one of two screens where they would watch their image being projected in real time, much like the little window seen during a Skype call. After a short delay, lines and arrows mysteriously begin to generate over their face and, as their gaze searches for the figures’ origin, they realize their eyes are being tracked. What they see onscreen are the eyes’ path and focal points. From then on, patrons could either semi-helplessly watch the design spool onto the screen or they could take control of their gaze and use the lines to render a reality atop the projected one. When the final frame is reached, the face and creation would be sent to the other patron, allowing them a glimpse through one another’s eyes.

The Other Portrait — Eye Scribbles
The Other Portrait — Eye Sculpting

While sharing the motivation for his piece, Pamir told me that it was partially about “humans (n.) as extensions of computers (n.)” to which I corrected him, flipping the first and third nouns. He assured me that he hadn’t made a mistake and went on to explain that much of electronic interaction is done computer-to-computer without the need for a human moderator; in some way, his work represents that. That wasn’t my reading of the piece but, as the artist, I guess he’s entitled to an opinion. The more relevant aspect for me personally was the reason for the disparity between those who could control their eye movements and those who couldn’t. Pamir answered quite simply, “They were artists.” People who’ve never trained to control their eyes are like children holding a pencil for the first time. Initially, all they can make are scribbles.

The news article was a realization of something I’d privately wondered about for a while. Since VR acts directly on the user, wearer of the headset, would it be possible to compensate for bad vision (like mine) or those with even more dramatically impaired eyesight? I’d seen a 360 recreation of someone’s experience of losing their vision, but might it be possible to give the visual experience to a group of people who wouldn’t otherwise have it. And the answer in at least one case is yes. People with a debilitating near-sightedness called Retinitis Pigmentosa and a pervasive double vision called Diplopia might attain highly improved vision while in VR.

Notes on Blindness 360 Video

As enthusiastic as I am about VR, I’m not ready to publicly declare the technology messianic. This particular case seems to be incidental, but I hope that VR gets serious consideration from the field of vision sciences. The more juvenile of us might also find it comical to think of someone’s exclusive visual experience of the world being job simulator. Let’s remind ourselves that other applications like Google Street View VR give us 360 access every part of the world with a paved road while investors are making a big push towards 360 degree journalism, something unthinkable to us a short decade ago.

Thoughts: It’s impossible to have or know absolutely the experience of another person and our talents in approximating another’s feelings fall within well-defined spectra or quotients. But how our eyes track the world certainly signals others to our values, interests and fears more than mere words are able. This is as true for art as it is our daily commute. For now, we represent the eyes’ path in simple shapes but, given time, it will be done in VR (or AR) to recreate the individual’s visual experience. This can lead to bonding through greater human-to-human understanding…or to be frank, assessment of criminality or employability.

As we increase our connectivity through this interpersonal understanding, we may also welcome new entrants into the realm of VR who’ve until now had very limited experience of the visual world. These movements towards inclusiveness are, to my eyes, a cause for celebration.

What remains unclear was the earlier question of computers, humans and who is an extension whom [grammar???]. But I’ll cautiously assume their symbiosis until their goals diverge.