Thoughts on VR, The "next frontier"

Our bodies have become nothing more than a perceived limitation for the mind–why settle for the confines of the skin when you have the ultimate freedom and perhaps even immortality in VR? Most technologies accommodate to this societal desire: we create avatars, profiles, personalities, we even navigate entire virtual worlds in any bodies except our own. Naturally it would follow that virtual reality–a simulated environment which is capable of simulating both real and imaginary places–is the ‘next big thing’. We are already witnessing stepping-stones being placed as a means of one day implementing “true” VR; Nintendo is set to announce just what exactly the Vitality Sensor does and companies like Ubisoft predict that half of all games will be 3D within 2 years. The 3DS reportedly requires no 3D glasses to experience its 3D. It’s probably not a stretch to believe that the ultimate goal is to transport players more fully into the games that we play–to implement VR.

And what is VR? Well…the simplest analogy I can make would be to what we see in Matrix. Think about how people could plug into the Matrix into a world which was so realistic, people could not tell it wasn’t actually real. Of course, what we see in the Matrix is a full-fledged implementation of VR–something we are probably a very long ways off from achieving. If video game companies aim to fully immerse players into the games they play, then VR seems like a logical milestone.

VR is often taken as a utopic idea which may violate something intrinsically natural, especially considering that a ‘perfect’ implementation is feared to allow people to live out their lives in virtuality. This is the exact issue which The Matrix tackles–then again, VR exists in a utopia here, and so is inherently flawed. Nonetheless the notion of a human which exists solely on its predetermined biological/natural mandate is naive. What exactly is so natural about us, and the way our body works? Could it not be said that the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is solely political, and that something is only unnatural if we deem it to be so?

Besides, everything we use can be thought of as prosthetics for our bodies: from the clothes we wear to the gadgetry we are enamoured with. None of it is “natural,” and honestly, why does it matter? The essence of humanity, for better or worse, has always been that of a technologized body (if not that of a cyborg body). A more literal interpretation of this point leads our focus to the Power Glove, introduced in 1989 by Nintendo as the first video game prosthetic able to recreate human hand movements on your TV in real-time.

If there is anything which is inherently “natural” about the human being it is his body. We experience everything we do in the way that we do precisely because we are embodied beings. To feel, touch, hear, taste, see, and yes, even think, are all a product of the body which we inhabit. Too easily we can appropriate cyberspace and VR as a disembodied medium where all we need to move is our conciousness, when in actuality even the very specificity of our embodiment determines what configurations VR needs to take in order for it to “transport” us to its realm.

Hypothetically a perfect implementation of VR would not be distinguishable from the “real” world, like the Matrix–we would, for example, have full facility of all of our senses. Imagine: you’re playing Cooking Mama and you’re actually standing in a kitchen, tasting the things you concoct. However, if VR is “realistic” enough that it can replace or substitute the “real” world, then inevitably a perfect VR would be one that is constructed by the confines of an embodied consciousness. You can only be engrossed in the world of Cooking Mama VR if it adheres to the confines of an embodied conciousness.

We would only be able to only see, hear, think, feel, taste in VR precisely because this is the only reality which we know. Otherwise VR would not be realistic, and concurrently, it would be difficult for us to make it a substitute for our reality. Thus the creation of a virtual reality which is disembodied seems outright impossible. We want to believe otherwise–that the age of protein based life forms is ending and is going to be replaced by silicon-based forms; that human consciousness can/will be downloaded onto a computer; that the humanity and subjectivity is the mind and not the body; that if our essence can fleshed out in this ethereal realm (VR) then perhaps it can become immortal.

Still, VR seems like a misnomer. What exactly is virtual about VR if we construct it on the terms of “reality”? What is virtual about it if, in theory, it is capable of replication and perhaps even substitution of pretty much anything we already know? In theory, an absolute implementation would not be any less ‘real’ than reality. And if this is the case, the ‘virtual’ aspect of VR becomes null: we are not constructing a wholly new reality on a different plane but rather extending the reaches of the reality we already know. At that point the difference between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ becomes an academic distinction. Regardless the name ‘virtual’ seems misleading and perhaps the connotations of this word are at play with our fears about a utopic VR.

I say this with conviction because any construction of VR that we can imagine always involves extensions of bodily senses or perceptions. Would we not be able to ‘see’ in the virtual space? To hear? To touch and feel? Including any single one of these instantly invalidates a (non?)space as VR, and instead only serves to reaffirm and extend the existence of that reality that we already know. True VR would be a reality which exists completely on its own terms. Ultimately I do not see VR as possible because how can we construct something which does not reinforce what we now accept as “true” reality? Even now, the technologies which are the closest thing to VR (such as the Wii, 3D movies, hologram headsets, etc) all simply repurpose our senses: they do not obliterate or redefine them.

Regardless, all these new “features” which our consoles will soon have (such as 3D, motion control, etc) are all smaller, unripe jigsaw pieces to the VR puzzle. We haven’t figured it out yet, and so there are a lot of questions–what will it look like? How will it work? Only time will tell. But if I were a betting woman, I’d put my virtual money on video games figuring it out first.