February 2018


Virtual reality: from Giotto to VRporn

By Margaret Wertheim
Image of VR Zone Shinjuku, Japan

VR Zone Shinjuku, Japan. © Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images.

The unexpected history of a radical technology

I am standing on a ledge hundreds of feet off the ground at Angkor Wat, commanding a view that in the temple complex’s heyday would have been available only to kings. Around me rise the fractal-like towers for which the temple is so recognisable, representing the height of classical Khmer architecture. In the distance, beyond the temple walls, lies a forest filled with smaller shrines and thatched houses in which the people of Angkor city lived. The view is breathtaking, and as I watch the setting sun, shafts of light glint off the gold leaf upper section of the towers. I feel like an eagle. Or a king. And nobody but a king, or an expert archaeologist, would get to stand in this spot in the real Angkor Wat.

According to my passport I have never set foot in Cambodia. Here, I am in a virtual-reality version of its national icon, a vast computer-generated simulation of the largest religious structure ever built, painstakingly re-created to look as it did in the late 12th century.

Suddenly, my gaze is diverted from the architecture by a movement behind me, and I turn to see a retinue following a bare-chested man wearing polka-dot fabric wrapped pants-like about his waist. Servants carrying parasols to shield him from the sun trail in his wake as the team walks quietly behind me along a colonnade of pillars.

“That’s a king. Or one of the kings,” says Dr Thomas Chandler, a virtual-reality researcher at Monash University’s SensiLab, and chief architect of this virtual-reality world. I am so surprised by the polka dots, for a moment I forget what a precarious position I am in and step towards the edge of the precipice. “Watch out,” chimes Chandler, as I recover my wits and realise I am in danger of falling. At that moment I experience a visceral sense of alarm. Intellectually, I know I cannot be in danger – I am in a laboratory in Caulfield in Melbourne’s south – yet as someone deeply afraid of heights, my proprioceptive apparatus seizes hold of my mind and I instinctively lurch away from the imaginary threat. Such is the power of virtual reality, a technology being hailed as the gateway to a new era of human possibility.

What exactly is virtual reality? For those who haven’t experienced it yet, and many who have, the question remains open. Virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, in his recent book, Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality, gives no less than 52 definitions, including “the science of comprehensive illusion” and “a shared, waking state, intentional, communicative, collaborative dream”. Before we veer into the philosophical, let’s first consider the technical. Most obviously, virtual-reality worlds are those – like Chandler’s simulation of Angkor Wat – that are graphically rendered by software or computer graphics interfaces.

By far the most common form of graphically rendered virtual reality is computer gaming. Over the past two or three years, a new generation of gaming platforms and consoles such as the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive and Samsung’s Gear VR have brought to market a plethora of virtual-reality experiences. Many of these feed into the canonical interests of the gaming community, for whom fighting, shooting and killing various kinds of enemies, from soldiers to zombies, occupies a large slice of the excitement pie. A graphically arresting catch-all example of this genre is Arktika.1, a game set on a post-apocalyptic Earth “after a second ice age has arrived”. The player is “a mercenary, hired by a Russian colony to protect the facilities from bandits, criminals and other … creatures”. In The Mage’s Tale, the setting is magical – Middle-earth meets Disney. Here, you, as a young magician’s apprentice, must rescue your kidnapped master from “disgusting little goblins, the clattering chattering undead, to huge and hideous giants”.

Typically, a virtual-reality set-up consists of a head-mounted display and, increasingly, handheld controllers enabling users to pick up objects in the virtual space and fire virtual weapons. The addition of this “haptic” element points to rapidly developing extensions to this previously visual-only technology. Coming soon will be further sensory modalities including the simulated touch of textured surfaces and the weight of virtual objects. Some researchers are adding smell, while others are developing bodysuits so one could, for instance, feel the grip of a virtual handshake or the sensation of a virtual tentacle wrapping around your leg.

But there is also another category of virtual reality, known as 360˚ video, in which filmmakers use a special array of cameras to capture actual (as opposed to computer-generated) scenes in wraparound view. Here, with a virtual-reality headset, one can turn and see an entire scene as if standing there in real life. In some instances, the experience includes an ability to look up – so-called half-dome cinema – creating a powerful illusion of being embedded in a full 3D space.

As with other major developments in filming technology – colour and IMAX – there’s a vast amount of hype as to what will be achieved by such an enlargement of our visual field. Where computer-generated virtual reality trucks primarily in fantasy, makers of 360˚ video hope to enmesh us more fully and deeply into the real world, giving us access to human experiences beyond our daily norms.

Ironically, then, a terminological battle has set in about what rightly constitutes “virtual reality”. Is it the “virtual” or the “reality” part that matters? During the course of researching this article, I’ve encountered CGI VR-graphers actively asserting their version as the only “real” virtual reality – an argument that’s rather touchingly absurd.

Imagine you could spend a few moments diving on a coral reef or walking a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers from the comfort of your armchair. Perhaps you’d like to climb a pyramid or skydive? With 360˚ video accessed through your smartphone and a simple headset, these experiences are available. Once hugely expensive, 360˚ camera rigs can now be bought for a few hundred dollars, sparking a wave of innovation as filmmakers and news crews rush to embrace the potentialities of “immersive” film. For anyone who wants to start exploring this cinematic upheaval, a good place to start is The New York Times’ The Daily 360 site. For the past two years, America’s newspaper of record has been posting short 360˚ video pieces from around the world on an eclectic and at times delightfully eccentric range of subjects.

Archaeological sites have been popular: the Great Wall of China, Petra, the Taj Mahal and the Colosseum. Also well served by the new medium are sites of unusual contemporary architecture such as the psychedelic “dream homes” of Bolivian architect Freddy Mamani (Las Vegas meets Andean indigenous aesthetics, on acid), and the giant staircase folly currently being constructed in New York’s Hudson Yards, at a price of $US150 million, by the English conceptual architect Thomas Heatherwick. Nice examples of what 360˚ video can deliver are the experiences of getting lost in a bamboo maze, floating in zero-gravity and witnessing the demolition of a decommissioned bridge. Buildings, industrial infrastructure and rushing things lend themselves well to this format, which harks back to the beginning of cinema when the Lumière brothers wowed audiences with their “views” of a steam train hurtling through a station, and other modernist phenomena.

Yet a question of purpose arises with more intimate subjects. Does immersion add anything to an interview with an Icelandic guy who embroiders sweaters? What does virtual reality add to a consideration of Peruvian children growing up in prison or a piece about elderly African-American synchronised swimmers? To proponents, one of the great promises of 360˚ video is to put us into the worlds of “others” so we can feel their experiences and empathise, prompting us towards compassion. Among Jaron Lanier’s definitions of virtual reality is that it is “the medium that can put you in someone else’s shoes; hopefully a path to increased empathy”.

An impulse towards compassion was at work when The New York Times launched its Daily 360 site in 2015. One of the first offerings, as the war in Syria was escalating, was a mini-documentary about the plight of refugee children. It was an arresting subject choice cannily crafted to highlight the virtues of the new technology, and the strategy has since been echoed across the tech sector.

In 2016, Facebook launched a program called “VR for Good”. The company had recently paid $US2 billion for the virtual-reality start-up Oculus VR but found itself with a PR problem. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey had been donating money to a right-wing organisation supporting Donald Trump’s election campaign, and liberal-minded techies were turning away in protest from the company and its wares. Under the “VR for Good” program, Facebook funded the production of several 360˚ videos about socially impeccable themes: a college student who’d been sexually abused, a village in Guatemala that had been transformed by solar power, and so on. Google followed suit the same year with a virtual-reality tour of a favela in Rio, complete with vignettes about some of its remarkable residents, including a young woman majoring in computer science and a teenage boy studying classical ballet.

All these films tell stories that ought to be heard, but it’s doubtful what virtual reality brings to them. Hearing a young woman talk about assault is a harrowing experience to which the possibility of turning to inspect the scenery has little to add. The New York Times’ executive director of virtual reality, Marcelle Hopkins, recently acknowledged this dilemma: “The storytelling is so different. In the beginning, and even to a certain extent now, we find [profiles] difficult to do.” While a few of the Times’ people-pieces have done well, many come across as technological overkill.

Journalistically, 360˚ video raises ethical concerns. As Dan Robitzski asked recently in Undark magazine, “How do the principles of fair and accurate reporting apply when the camera setup doesn’t simply depict an event, but exploits human perception to place audiences directly in the scene?” The very qualities that make virtual reality so powerful can easily blend into a kind of manipulation at odds with journalistic codes.

As early cinematographers sought to identify suitable topics and storytelling methods appropriate to the new film medium, so today’s VR-graphers face the task of inventing immersive cinema. What to film, how to film and how to edit have all become questions up for grabs when a camera has eight or 16 eyes and captures at once the face of a person speaking, the dirt paddock next door, houses across the street and chickens running in the yard. How does one create a narrative arc, and is that even necessary, when lenses point everywhere at once?

A sense of what immersive cinema might be can be seen in the remarkable film Collisions by Australian filmmaker Lynette Wallworth, winner of the 2017 Emmy for outstanding new approaches to documentary film. Collisions presents a virtual-reality journey into the land of Indigenous elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan and the Martu people of the Pilbara in Western Australia. The Martu region borders the site where the British government tested atomic bombs, and Morgan’s first contact with the West was witnessing, without context, one of these tests. He recounts this in the film in spare, elegant prose. At one point in the narrative, Wallworth screens for Morgan and his family a video of the famous interview with J. Robert Oppenheimer – “father of the atomic bomb” – in which he delivers his assessment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Fading in and out of focus on a makeshift screen strung up on the side of a campervan, Oppenheimer has never looked so culpable, or vulnerable. It is as if the sun setting over the Pilbara reduces the scientist to insignificance.

When the film screened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne last year, I returned again and again to watch this moment from every available angle. That, and the scene in which Wallworth stages a simulation of the bomb blast. As the mushroom cloud rose silently and ash rained down around me, a nearby waterhole boiled and giant kangaroos bounded over my head. Reality could never have looked like this; here was a use of “virtuality” at once unreal, surreal and hyperreal, presaging a cinema itching to become.

Practitioners of CGI virtual reality like to declare the radical newness of their enterprise, one that, in the words of Jaron Lanier, was invented “when the latest company was funded”. Lanier’s book traces virtual reality’s origins to the 1960s with the birth of computer graphics and the pioneering research of computer scientist Ivan Sutherland. His first “head mounted display”, a huge clunky device so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling, was nicknamed the Sword of Damocles. Lanier himself formed one of the first commercial virtual-reality companies in 1984 and created, in the 1980s, multi-person virtual-world experiences and avatars. Yet the roots of virtual reality can be traced back far further than this.

In 1267, a Franciscan monk named Roger Bacon presaged a revolution in representation that would lead to the development of today’s virtual reality. Bacon was a champion of mathematics and science at a time when Europe was emerging from a long period during which scientific investigation had largely ceased. In the late Middle Ages, as Europeans slowly recovered the books of the ancient Greek philosophers and mathematicians, an idea began to crystallise in Christian imagination that God had created the world according to the laws of Euclidean geometry. Bacon argued in his magnum opus that, as God had created the world this way, if artists wished to represent things truly they should emulate His methodology and adopt mathematical techniques. Calling this approach “geometric figuring”, he urged the pope to encourage painters in the church’s employ to embrace this modality.

Within a decade, Giotto had begun painting the frescoes in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, central Italy, portraying a series of images depicting the life of the saint consciously styled to look as solid and “realistic” as possible. Here Saint Francis was talking to the birds, or giving his cloak to a beggar. Giotto’s bold verisimilitude stood in contrast to the flat iconic style of early medieval art. Historian Samuel Edgerton has argued that the purpose of Giotto’s approach was to make viewers believe they were standing in front of the actual scene. It created a sensation and, says Edgerton in his book The Heritage of Giotto’s Geometry, the basilica soon became the “most visited shrine in Christian Europe”.

Giotto moved on to the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, where he created his masterwork: a dense cycle of images depicting the life of the Virgin and Christ. One is immersed here in what Edgerton argues is a form of medieval virtual reality. Through the illusionism of geometric figuring we are supposed to feel propelled into the presence of the Saviour. Giotto’s chapel is recognised as one of the foundational works leading to what would be called “perspective”, a set of techniques developed in the 15th and 16th centuries based on geometry. Its aim was to generate the illusion of being there in front of the scenes depicted, to make viewers feel that they were looking into worlds beyond the picture frame. These techniques led to the development of projective geometry, precisely what today’s virtual-reality developers use when representing their worlds.

It was no mere idealism to ask painters to emulate God. According to Bacon, visual verisimilitude could inspire viewers to believe in the miracles of Christ. The purpose of this was to reinvigorate their faith and drive a new crusade. Thus, from its inception, virtual reality was conceived as an engine of war, a mechanism for firing up the faithful to fight foreigners and “others”. What delicious irony that, without knowing a whit of its history, today’s virtual-reality faithful in the gaming and military-industrial spheres have so effortlessly recapitulated its past.

Bacon’s mission failed and there were no new crusades. Instead “geometric figuring” led to the aesthetic wonders of Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca, among the leading geometers of the 15th century and the true forefathers of virtual reality. Ultimately, it also led to perspectival points of view that create extreme and unreal psychological experiences. A thrilling account of the psychodynamic games that Renaissance painters engaged in can be found in Michael Kubovy’s book The Psychology of Perspective and Renaissance Art. If Kubovy is right, there is little truly philosophically novel in 21st-century virtual-reality gaming. Or as UCLA media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo likes to say, when it comes to “new media”, history has a habit of repeating itself, so “the facade of innovation may mask tradition, and apparent ruptures disguise hidden continuities”.

What interests me with current incarnations of virtual-reality techniques is what we might apply this technology to beyond the theatre of war. The list of potentials is long, and claims are being made about the value of virtual reality in a huge array of fields: surgery, psychology, treatment for phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder. Automobile and plane designers have been using virtual reality for years, as have pharmaceutical drug designers. Architects and interior designers are getting into the game; IKEA has developed a virtual-reality application to help you find the perfect couch. Ah, shopping! Would any new technology not be helpful there?

Education is an obvious target, especially in the field of science, where technology is often touted as a solve-all. But pitfalls line the way. At Swinburne University in Melbourne, astrophysicist Alan Duffy and his colleagues have created a virtual-reality program to teach public audiences about the cosmos. The planets, sun and stars are elaborately rendered in a virtual-reality space along with packets of information users can access through a headset. Speaking about the project at an ACMI event, Duffy was blunt about its achievements – to his team’s surprise it was a pedagogical failure. Audiences mostly had no idea how to use the headsets, even when given instructions. At a packed-out launch demonstration, Duffy said most people ended up just following him through the world so they may as well have been watching him host a TV program.

This may be a teething problem. A generation raised with virtual reality won’t have such difficulties, but will the technology turn out to be much different to TV, about which similar utopian statements were made? TV was also going to create an educational revolution, and look what we have now. No doubt there’ll be excellent virtual-reality education programs just as there are some brilliant ones delivered via TV. One astounding example now is a virtual-reality simulation of hyperbolic space by a team including the mathematicians Vi Hart and Henry Segerman. However, I suspect that once the economic engines kick in, intellectual enrichment might be thin on the ground. Signs of dystopia loom.

It will come as no surprise that a medium laying claim to powerful “reality” effects has attracted the attention of the porn industry. Pornhub.com and xHamster.com are among the pioneers, the latter of which promises to make you “feel like you’re being in the same room where the actual hardcore sex scenes are happening”. Virtual-reality porn is a clear motivation to develop haptic feedback bodysuits, and the industry is racing to link virtual-reality sites and games with sex dolls so virtual sex feels “real”.

A January article in the Los Angeles Times sunnily noted, “The multibillion-dollar adult entertainment industry … has always embraced the future, dating back to its early adoption of VHS in the late ’70s. With virtual reality, it is once again leading the way.” The report went on to say that “experts estimate that more than 50% of virtual-reality content is porn-related”. While the major virtual-reality platforms block porn from their sites, the founder of VRPorn.com, Daniel Peterson, says “the official line is that they don’t talk about it … But everyone knows it’s a major factor driving VR.”

Art is another promising avenue, if likely a less lucrative one. Last year, I attended an event hosted by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where local artists spoke about the medium’s aesthetic possibilities. I wondered if the issue of spirituality would arise, and it did. Reggie Watts, a guru-esque “singer, beatboxer, actor, and comedian” showed a psychedelic dreamscape starring himself that ended with his avatar floating, Buddha-like, into the heavens. He wanted to create environments with “a shamanic figure leading you around”, Watts told us, which sounded rather like the Christ scenario.

It’s hardly unexpected that men are creating the majority of virtual reality, and there is a deeply disturbing gender dimension to far too many virtual-reality games, in which the only representations of female bodies come with proportions no real woman could have. Interestingly, then, women have been and continue to be among the leaders in virtual-reality art. Laurie Anderson and Björk are among those who’ve been experimenting. Anderson’s lovely chalk-drawing virtual-reality film, Chalkroom, immerses us in a world of whispers and evanescence. Björk, of course, was one of the first to embrace virtual reality in music video, and at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Stephanie Andrews is exploring non-Cartesian play spaces. These women follow in the footsteps of the Canadian virtual-reality pioneer Char Davies, who in the ’90s created the extraordinary worlds Ephémère and Osmose, composed of glowing atoms of lights.

In virtual Angkor Wat, I witnessed some of what might be the medium’s genuinely novel potential. More than just an architectural simulation, it’s aiming to be a virtual rendition of a society. Four thousand “agents” – virtual people from kings to farmers, whose appearance and actions are based on archaeological evidence – populate the temple complex. Thomas Chandler has gone to great lengths to model it with cultural fidelity (his father, David Chandler, is an authority on medieval Cambodia). Chandler’s goal is to simulate a 24-hour cycle of living history, with people coming and going at the temple as they would have in the 12th century. A correctly aligned virtual sun rises and sets over forests of virtual palms, geographically accurate waterways, and buildings constructed from detailed measurements. Virtual merchants drive carts drawn by virtual oxen and virtual kings ride in palanquins past statuary, all painstakingly handcrafted in software using as much data as Chandler and his team can acquire. Chandler hopes this “bespoke virtual world” can serve both as a public learning space and as a laboratory for his archaeological colleagues.

Indeed, there is an emerging movement of “virtual archaeology” governed by a set of principles – the Principles of Seville – laying out precepts for an ethical practice of historical-cultural simulation. Among its tenets are the admonitions that “it should always be possible to distinguish what is real, genuine or authentic from what is not” and “virtual visits should not aspire to replace real visits”.

And so we are at a crossroads with virtual reality. On the one hand are news crews, journalists, archaeologists, scientists and educationalists who value the technology for its power to engage us with the “real”. On the other are fantasists, including game designers and pornographers, who lay equal claim to the value of propelling us into “reality”. We have been in this position before, with perspectival representation, photography, cinema, television, video and CGI. All have the capacity to illuminate facets of the world, to delight and surprise us, and to take us out of ourselves. Yet, as the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard recognised, representations can also become delusions, pretences and perversions.

Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim is the author of six books, including Pythagoras’ Trousers, a history of physics, religion and women, and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. She has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the TLS, the Washington Post, the WSJ and the Guardian. Her work is included in Best Australian Science Writing 2016. Her Crochet Coral Reef project is the largest participatory art+science endeavor in the world.

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