Lost in Translation

The title that convinced me VR will be a narrative — and embodied — medium.

So there I am, down on my hands and knees, crawling around inside IRRATIONAL EXUBERANCE: Prologue. That moment remains my high-water mark in this renaissance of VR, because in that moment I was totally involved — every part of me, from my head to my toes.

There’s a common belief that virtual reality is merely a form of optical illusion, that — as if by magic — stereo pairs shown into the eyes will seamlessly transport someone to another realm. But it’s not that simple, because we’re not that easy to fool.

We inhabit our bodies in a range of ways that we’re not normally aware of. Perhaps the most significant of those unexamined modes of perception is our proprioceptive sense — that’s our sense of how we are holding our bodies, where our joints are in relation to one another, and in relation to space.

Forget the body. Heads are all you need.

The proprioceptive sense provides the sense of self as being located and embodied. Without that sense, we are merely brains in jars, cut off any experience of the space of the world around us. We can see and hear and taste and smell, but without proprioception, these are impulses lacking the narrative thread that space and place and body intrinsically provide.

This points up perhaps the most persistent design oversight in modern virtual reality — systems that reject the reality of the body. Google Cardboard can be forgiven for providing a window into the virtual world that responds to the three axes of rotation (pitch, yaw, roll) — it’s a two-dollar entry point, and isn’t really designed for full immersion.

Just up the scale to Samsung’s GearVR, we begin to see the way that design decision impacts on users — always thoroughly embodied. You can look around in GearVR, completely immersed in a high-resolution virtual world with high frame rates and low-latency sensors. But that’s all you can do. You can twist your head around like a brain in a jar. But for love or money you can not move yourself around in that world. The application can move you — but that creates another problem.

The proprioceptive sense is integrated with our other senses, and when they start to have an argument — when your eyes say you’re moving through space but your inner ear says ‘sorry, not happening’ — then you have perception-proprioception conflict, and much of the time that ends with someone becoming quickly and ferociously motion sick.

I call this the ‘ilinx illness’ (after Caillois’ Man, Play and Games), because it’s a product of a disorientation of the senses. And it happens all the time — designed into such games as Titans of Space and InCell VR and Disney’s Jakku Flyer and every VR rollercoaster title — because it’s a quick, cheap and dirty way to produce an overwhelming physical response from synthetic inputs.

Instead, consider IRRATIONAL EXUBERANCE: Down on the ground, digging my way out to a vast, cinematic reveal, I felt as though my entire being — mind and body — was wholly involved, participating in a story where I knew would have agency.

This is the fundamental argument for ‘room-scale’ VR. Although it’s more expensive and more finicky than head-in-a-jar VR, room-scale VR provides an immersion that is fundamentally more satisfying because it speaks to all parts of the person.

We are not just in our bodies. We are our bodies. Any virtual reality system that glosses this never going to be capable of making the virtual seem real. It will be a play of lights against the eyes, and sounds into the ears, but nothing more.

Film, radio and television offer less than head-in-a-jar VR, but neither do they demand complete immersion. There’s a price to be paid for immersion, and that price must be paid in full. The whole body, or none at all.

VR is in a period of rapid evolution. By the time devices like Hololens and Magic Leap are well established in the market, this entire question of room-scale VR will have faded into the past, overrun by cheap and pervasive technologies that deliver room-scale.

Yet, Jason Rubin, Head of Content at Oculus recently said this:

“The second part of room-scale is: ‘I can walk around a lot.’ We’re a little less positive that this is absolutely necessary for VR for a lot of reasons.”

You are not in a body because you can translate your head in space. Or your hands. You are in a body to move and explore and experience the world.

Accept nothing less.

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