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VIRTUAL REALITY AND VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS

Digital, computer-based types of virtual reality (VR) have been developed in R&D labs since the early 1970s. VR is broadly defined as a computer-generated simulation or presentation of an environment in which the user experiences a sense of phenomenological presence or immersion in the environment (early definitions include those by Krieger, 1986; Benedikt, 1991; Biocca, 1992; Robinett, 1992; Pinsky, 1993). VR is now a popular term which describes an experience wrapped in a media-hyped idea and packaged as a set of applied technologies. VR 'draws together the world of technology and its ability to represent nature, with the broad and overlapping spheres of social relations and meaning' (Hillis, 1999: xv). Ken Hillis takes great care to distinguish the popular term virtual reality (VR) into what he calls 'virtual environments' (VEs) or digitally generated spaces and 'virtual technologies' (Table 3.2). Virtual reality systems may be divided into two clusters of technologies: simulation technologies and computer-mediated communication technologies. Virtual environments (VEs) are digital 'stage sets' and the available 'dramatis personae' (whether they be cartooned avatars, stylized bodies, Jurassic Park-style animations or talking flowerpots) in VR.

Virtual reality

VR environments extend the idea of cyberspace, a spatialized representation of digital domains and data in which users engage with each other primarily by interacting with data and messages (for a discussion of the ideal cyberspace see Novak, 1992: 225). Beginning with the widespread use of real-time chat (IRC, below) a sense of immediacy was possible because both users see each other's message as each person types. Sheridan proposed that three key elements of VR are:

However, the social needs to be included. The most talked-about possibility of VR is interaction with others, not objects or environments (whose more simple qualities have ironically allowed VR to succeed but not as a communication medium (see below)). Thus the success of VR has been measured by 'the extent to which other beings also exist in the [virtual and real] world and appear to react to you' (Heeter, 1992: 262). This would be not only a new way of working with data but would allow new forms of social interaction. Access alone, for example, would grant entry to a new sensory world, and a privileged expansion of consciousness was imagined.

The essence of the history of VR is a series of attempts to actualize a paper published by Ivan Sutherland, the inventor of the first interactive graphical device 'Sketchpad'. [2] 'The ultimate display' proposed an immersive 3D graphical display (Sutherland, 1965). First developed as a 3D head-mounted display helmet, the objective was to link more closely the user's mind and computer. The modelling of chemical molecules, architectural projects and flight training were early adopters of various types of software which allowed 3D modelling and produced images with limited interactivity, such as allowing the user to turn the image. In animated form this might give the illusion that the viewer was moving through the model being displayed on screen. More sophisticated systems extended the illusion of movement or added stereoscopic displays, 3D glasses or visors with devices to track eye movement and redraw the display.

Others such as Myron Krueger and researchers at MIT experimented with environments using wall-sized displays through which a user could navigate using a glove-like pointer (see the discussion of the Nintendo dataglove, Chapter 5). The problem with all of these systems was their unreliability, extreme cost, the need for extensive programming to create environments to be displayed, the lack of computing power to rapidly re-render changing graphics, and the lack of storage devices to allow digital photo images to be integrated seamlessly into digitally created visual scenarios. Applications were primarily military.

Although developed in the early 1980s for training and as sophisticated information interfaces for fighter pilots, by the 1990s some of the virtual reality simulation technology was commercialized using the growing power of home computers. Firms such as Nintendo and SEGA created goggles and gloves, while Sony and Microsoft implemented force-feedback (vibration) effects in handheld game controllers (see Chapter 5). Large-screen televisions and computer screens were the closest most got to a virtual environment.

Games of the late 1980s, in which users 'flew' chunkily drawn airplanes across landscapes rendered in polygons with only an occasional landmark, quickly became more realistic environments in which players could animate an avatar or character to explore exotic virtual environments and fight fantastical opponents (for example, the first shared virtual reality arcade game Dactyl Nightmare; see Kitchin, 1998: 49). The best-selling game based around the avatar Lara Crofts featured a kick-boxing, buxom archaeologist character — a male teenage fantasy of femininity as dangerous yet fascinating (see Wyatt et al., 2000; Green and Adam, 2001), to be controlled by the male user yet independent in the plot lines and stories created around the character in promotions and movies.

Sex and mechanical dinosaurs are central to the history of VR. Fantasies of force-feedback body-suits and 'teledildonics' provided heterosexual visions of virtual sex. Even though these were not always explicitly discussed, nor were they the topic of the games sold (which included everything from team sports and individual combat to Formula-1 car-racing). The scenario of being able to give and receive sexual gratification via the Internet in some sort of personal virtual reality suit provided a hidden discursive unity to the efforts of young, mostly male, engineers engaged in speculative programming and experimental tinkering for the US Air Force, NASA or for telecommunications labs. Meanwhile cinematic special effects focused on animating dinosaurs for films such as Jurassic Park or creating walking, tyrannosaurus-like robots and 'battlemechs' which by the close of the century were a staple of children's toyboxes.[3]

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Virtual environments are simulations characterized by four elements (after Cubitt, 1998):

Within VEs, navigation is identified by Cubitt as the primary structural device of contemporary virtual environments such as digital simulations. A second feature is a contrast to cinematic cuts between 'shots': smoothness.

This viscous unity of the previously disparate [data] can be regarded as a function of the suppressed history of digital cinema — cross fades and virtual swoops from scene to scene suppress the montage effect of cinematic editing where one jumps from shot to shot. Morphing technology 'allows characters to melt into liquids or segue effortlessly from male to female or human to machine', promising, 'liquid identities in a liquid world'.

(Sobchack, 1998, cited in Cubitt, 1998: 79)

However, most VEs still rely on the cinematic idea that the virtual space extends off-screen even though it can neither be seen nor accessed. Hence the popularity of game settings such as labyrinths, prisons, caves and interior chambers of pyramids and the like. These spatial frameworks efficiently spatialize a virtual environment, endowing it with the implicit sense of being an extensive environment. Furthermore, it supports the illusion and the trick of metaxis (see Chapter 1) by which the space between the screen and the eye is filled out into an extension of the digitally virtual VE, even though it is displayed in only two dimensions, captive to the surface materiality of the display screen.

The moving camera, of which live television was the ultimate example, anticipates the 'point of view' (POV) which roams the VE. As a surrogate set of eyes, the vantage point displayed allows the digitally virtual space to be seen from various different angles. However, as Hayles points out, the POV is associated with the user's position and with 'me' — it represents subjectivity within the computer-generated scene (Hayles, 1993). Thus a mobile POV, generated by a moving camera, may be interpreted as virtual movement, as travel by the user within the VE (Shields, 1996: 87). 'The camera in cinema, like . . . the panorama and the diorama . . . mobilizes the audience across the gulf that opens now between static spectator and mobile spectacle' (Cubitt, 1998: 78). Television offers a sort of mastery of this space, like Jules Verne's universal porthole: 'allowing the viewer to select any current activity on the face of the planet to look in on. The visual media of the moving image embraced the prospect of vision as unlimited travel' (Cubitt, 1998: 78; see also Friedberg, 1993: 109-148).

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COMPUTER AS FILTER

By digitizing and displaying information on video screens, the computer becomes an important filter through which the real is experienced. Computer-based media have generally been considered in terms of how they encode 'reality', understood as the concrete. However, as argued earlier, the virtual has its own autonomy from the concrete. As rendered by computer and network software and hardware, digital virtuality is dependent on the technology: fidelity, resolution, bandwidth and the type of interface are the parameters of virtual environments created by computers. Furthermore, computer software invites interaction by users and manipulation of the material. This makes it quite a different medium from telecommunications media such as the telephone and television despite its network similarities with the phone (cf. Nye, 1997; Standage, 1998). The materiel of the real becomes material which is edited, transformed and archived in new formats which leave the moment of digitization far behind. Virtual environments are worlds of light. VR goggles etch the changing image of the virtual environment stereoscopically on each retina to give the illusion of depth. Sound and tactility are poor cousins to the visual sense, supporting or confirming it. While a type of chemical printer which releases smells was invented at the end of the 1990s, its lack of utility doomed it to novelty status. Because of the industrial and pragmatic nature of current VR applications, smell is a distracting and even unwelcome addition. The objective is to remove the user, the operator, from the actual world to allow action at a distance from the 'convenience' of a terminal.

Movement and gesture are also rendered visually — the floating glove or pointing hand which often represents the user's position and orientation. Rather than a 'haptic' VR, the effect is very similar to an automobilist's experience of the landscape whizzing by outside of closed car windows.

Sounds in VE are related to the spatial relationship between user and icons. They are always the same for any one situation. ... In this, digital sounds in a VE operate as "aural icons". Moreover, as audio theorist Steve Jones argues, the very jargon of VR excludes the aural (1993: 239), and the creation of VR "can be understood as part of the ongoing technological visualization and deauralization of space".

(Jones, 1993: 246, cited in Hillis, 1999: xxii)

But here too there is debate. Coyne comments that

McLuhan exposes the two great epochs of the senses: the aural sense and the visual. The sense of hearing is immediate and unitary. It is the sense of preliterate, tribal humanities, for whom there was a unity with nature and a lack of differentiation. The epoch of the visual sense came with the invention of writing and manuscript culture and pertains to distance, objectivity, classification, language and the symbolic order. The electronic age sees a return to the aural sense ... in conflict with the symbolic order (the visual). [The aural is] ... a kind of distributed reductionism that seeks the unity of all things in information, to be contrasted with Descartes's centralized reductionism, with the homunculus, the home of the soul.

(Coyne, 1999: 232)

The actual materiel may thus be forgotten, lost or supplanted; hybrid images such as a film starlette's head on a porn star's body posted up on the web; even becoming the source for later content in which the now-digital material is further cropped, edited and changed.

Computers allow visual aids to be created which respond in real time to changes and patterns of information. For example, an 'up arrow' on screen indicates the increasing value of a stock exchange index or the value of a currency. A digital model of the human skeleton can be displayed from any vantage point including from a point of view within the rib cage or can be travelled through cinematically and interactively (cf. software such as 'The Interactive Skeleton': Routledge/Primal Pictures). Icons and animations make abstract data tangible and informative by rendering it into the vocabulary and context of the virtual and by bringing it into relation with other information.

The debate rages as to what the impact of the digitally virtual will be; however, evidence of the virtual in literature and in social ritual (as argued earlier) suggests that this is a long-held human capacity for imagination and a perceptual flair for filling in the gaps and fleshing out visual images. Popular film and boosters of virtual reality technologies such as head-mounted displays suggested that we might soon be able to upload our consciousness into a computer system, interacting with the world through digitally activated devices (cf. the film Lawnmower Man, or Gibson's Neuromancer, 1984). Despite claims that virtual reality technologies offered the opportunity to leave the body behind and immerse ourselves in a world of pure simulations, leaving 'the meat' behind, virtual reality and cyberspace do not signal a shift in human nature or a new step in human development.

As proposed by a number of prophets of virtuality, technology promised an experience of oneness with a world of data, meetings with distant friends in simulated environments, and tactile experience. Breaking into the mainstream media in 1987, VR was touted as an entertainment technology (Lanier, 1992). Suspended weightless in bodysuits covered with movement sensors and actuators which would convey tactile sensations and pressures directly to the skin, an interactive massage could be digitized and transmitted to another. Imagining form-fitting devices, a type of cybersex was envisioned — 'teledildonics' was born. These fantasies remain mere techno erotica; imagined, not functioning prostheses, this 'digital virtualism' has found a home at work and practical deployment in its 'small' form as simulated 3D space on the flat displays of computer monitors. Animation, not immersion, has been the major application: in gaming software, in the real-time graphs depicting financial exchanges and in the cinema.

Still, VR 'theatres' which competed with cinema have been realized only in the form of art gallery installations such as Char Davies' Osmose (Davies, 1995). Sega introduced a headset with stereoscopic display goggles and earphones in autumn 1993 for around US$150. However, their use did not become widespread. For most video-game players, a more direct sense of participation in the on-screen milieu of computer-generated labyrinths, shoot-em up Wild West towns, the endless plumbing of 'Super-Mario'-type games and the landscapes over which simulated aircraft were flown, required more detailed graphics first. Far more could be achieved by the commitment of imagination instead of cash. For dedicated gamers who were mostly young, the boredom of our cityscapes, long car rides and waits for public transport favoured the escapism of the simple worlds of computer-generated games. The portability of the handheld, battery-powered 'GameBoy' won hands down over the cumbersome head-mounted display. A further problem with any system which covered the eyes was that it tended to limit the user to online immersion. Far from leaving 'the meat' behind, any observer of players would have noted the often social importance of the games, with friends playing as well or gathered looking over the player's shoulder peering at the screen. Without the ability to show off one's exploits, the computer game loses its social appeal.

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Put online: October 2017. Last verified: Oct 25th, 2017