Spectacle spectacles: What’s the point of virtual reality?

A few weeks ago Boris Johnson put a small electric cupboard on his head and became a dog.

He did not, of course, literally become a dog. That would be on the news. Rather, he donned an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset during a trade mission to Israel, embodied a virtual dog, barked, called the experience superb, then paused and asked: “What’s the point of this?”

https://youtube.com/watch?v=g3Sx82ARCd8

Johnson isn’t exactly the technology’s target audience, but he asks a pertinent question. We’re ceaselessly told that virtual reality is the biggest thing to happen to gaming since the hula hoop. With the imminent release of the Oculus RiftHTC Vive and PlayStation VR, it’s worth taking a step back and asking ourselves: what’s the point of it all? Sure, I get to pretend to be someone else or something else. So what?

Falling in love

In an insightful examination of virtual reality fo the Guardian, Charles Arthur interviewed VR pioneer Jonathan Waldern, who said virtual reality was a similarly big opportunity for the internet. “There will be people crying in this, people falling in love, people falling over,” said Waldern. “For all sorts of reasons, this strikes at the core of being a human being.”

VR may be a platform, but it’s what stands on the platform, and the experiences that it makes possible, that really matters

Looking at Waldern’s enthusiasm, it’s clear that asking what VR is for is missing the point. Virtual reality shouldn’t necessarily be for anything. A cinema exists simply to play films, but that completely ignores its power as a space where you can sit in the dark and imagine. It’s what virtual reality can facilitate that’s important and, as Waldern suggests, this is all about emotions and experiences. VR may be a platform, but it’s what stands on the platform, and the experiences that it makes possible, that really matter.

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(Above: facial mapping on Oculus Rift)

Bringing facial recognition to the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift has the potential to open the door to a whole new mode of human-to-human interaction. There are several warehouses worth of developers plotting how to revolutionise love, friendship and sex using virtual reality, but can VR go further in pushing our emotions? Can it, as Waldern suggests, touch on the core of the human experience?

Cathedrals made of air   

Game maker and all-round digital innovator Tale of Tales is taking one approach to the human aspect of VR, having secured funds through Kickstarter to fund a project called Cathedral in the Clouds. The Belgian husband and wife team are planning to build a VR experience inspired by the complex medieval art of their hometown of Ghent, in Flanders.

“We think of Cathedral in the Clouds as an ever-expanding collection of virtual dioramas depicting scenes created for contemplation,” say Tale of Tales in their pitch. “The individual pieces will be available in a variety of digital media (downloads, web, apps, video, etc). Or they can be explored together in virtual reality in the eponymous cathedral.”

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(Above: Tale of Tales. Photo: Paolo della Corte)

With €37,020 in backing secured, development on the virtual cathedral will now go ahead, with the aim being to construct a space full of 3D dioramas, inspired by what Tale of Tales refers to as “ancient religious themes”.

“Despite of being atheists, we can’t help being intensely moved by some of the religious art made during the Gothic and Renaissance period,” says the studio in its Kickstarter pitch. “These experiences can’t convert us to Christianity but they do make us think about universal themes as kindness, self-sacrifice, patience, empathy, love, and so on.”

Tale of Tales makes it clear that the artworks in its cathedral are not intended to be casual experiences. “The dioramas are alive,” it explains. “They are a form of meditation that require a certain state of mind that may take some effort or concentration to achieve.”

Both the artwork and the gallery

The British Museum has already begun to experiment with virtual reality in a museum setting, and a number of galleries have started using augmented reality to supplement their collections. But Tale of Tales’ proposition is something altogether different.

Its virtual cathedral isn’t intended to be an ancillary part of the artwork, but rather the artwork and the gallery itself. Importantly, the artwork is supposed to take time, thought and feelings to work through – it both requires, and encourages, contemplation.

Deus ex machina

The use of a cathedral in this context is interesting, as the team makes it clear that the project isn’t intended to be a space for Christian worship. Rather, it seems Tale of Tales wants to create a virtual, secular space for personal introspection that taps into the tropes of western Christianity.

“We have our own traditions and rituals, our own myths and mystics in the Christian tradition. Frankly, I find it a bit naive to throw all of that away just because we’ve decide that God is dead,” says Tale of Tales. “I mean, you don’t need to be a Buddhist to enjoy yoga, right?”

Virtual dioramas of Christian saints have a different relationship to religion than yoga, but cast that deeper discussion to one side – using virtual reality as a medium to encourage thought and emotional engagement is an interesting parallel to the intense gaming experiences generally showcased by VR devices. Indeed, both come at the same thing from different angles, the sublime spectacle: something able to make the viewer feel awestruck, terrified, humbled by the sheer scope and size of the experience. 

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(Above: Lincoln Cathedral)

This sense of the sublime was the architectural purpose of medieval cathedrals, and it’s arguably the purpose of the plastic headsets about to hit our homes. There may not be a Deus in the Machina, but VR is a technology that’s capable of inspiring a feeling of vastness, of evoking physical space in the wearer’s mind. This will undoubtably be used to make us gawp at 360 vistas and laser saturated space flights, but it also has the potential to throw open the doors of introspection.   

“What’s the point of virtual reality?” Boris Johnson asked. The answer is virtual reality itself has no point; but what humans do with it does, and that can be both spectacular and contemplative. 

Next: Read about how augmented reality is changing the way we visit museums

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