In preparation for his installation next summer, (2016) at The Shed, we invited artist Peter Lee to write about virtual reality. Lee examines the process through which one experiences virtual reality, the dilemma of working with such technology, and the potential of virtual reality for artists. He is completed his degree in the Transmedia MFA at Syracuse University (2016). His work concentrates on the effects/affects of post-digital labor, politics, and media aesthetics. Peter Lee is an artists living and working in Syracuse, New York & Washington, DC.
The Oculus Rift is not a 'Virtual Reality' Technology
"A portal in your pocket - You can download revolutionary VR games and experiences right from your mobile device. So whether you feel like taking a virtual vacation to the other side of the planet, dogfighting with alien spaceships, or kicking back and watching a movie in your own virtual movie theater, the possibilities with Gear VR are limitless."
Much of the content designed for the Oculus Rift is based on the premise of removing a user from everyday reality, allowing them to temporarily enter a virtual reality. These environments are meant to construct new worlds with the assumption that the user is the central subjectivity. This conception of the Oculus Rift relies on a sharp distinction between real experience, and virtual experience; one either occupies reality or is lost in a false representation. Or it can also be read through full-on post-modernist relativism and it declares that there is no reality, only parallel, irresolvably different simulations, and the Oculus Rift is a means to access additional simulations. But the actualized effects of the Oculus Rift show how inadequate are the conceptions of the virtual and the real and the relationship between viewer and image. In a widely re-enacted Oculus Rift prank, a user is engaged with a roller-coaster simulation and collapses: Why did this man fall? How do we explain this using our paradigms of representation/reality? Was the simulated roller-coaster ride that convincing? That would be the classic Kantian stance- outside reality is inaccessible, everything is a mental/social construct, thus the experience happens solely in the mind of the viewer. The Oculus Rift simulation is more convincing due to the resolution and the synchronization between image and the viewer's head movements. The fidelity of the representation tricks the user into thinking he is riding a real roller coaster: his mind affects his body's balance. We could expand this into a critical, sociological reading of the Oculus Rift technology, tease out hidden desires, fantasies, and then tie it back into technology and power structures. Rather, let us take a closer look at the material level of the Oculus Rift and break it down into components: The Oculus itself is essentially a screen emitting patterns of light, washed through several algorithms to create two distorted images. These are warped and calibrated to the physical optics of the acrylic lenses. Distance from the user's eyes to the acrylic lenses and distance between the lenses themselves are crucial in generating a sense of space between the user's body and the image. Motion in the image, or differences in visual information over time, are generated by the user's head movements. In turn, the motion-based feedback of the image affects the user's head movements. There is a large research effort involved in trying to articulate the specific perceptual mechanisms that the Oculus interacts with. The best I can do as an artist is to imagine potential avenues for amateur experimentation. One simple, amateur-way we can access the mechanism is by looking at where it fails. Developers must constantly fight "VR sickness" which comes from a series of perceptual mis-cues. The most commonly held belief is that the disagreement between the visual information and the inner ear's motion sensory organ causes symptoms of VR sickness. When the sync between the image and head motion is off, the user understands immediately. The Oculus becomes a static screen strapped to a face. Synchronization with cues like the horizon, field of view adjustments, scaled objects, motion of the image and motion of the head, etc, are key to affecting the body's spatio-perceptual systems. Consider the basic problem that the body has to solve: Staying stable and functional on a planet flying through space that is spinning and wobbling at an extremely high rate, and dealing with all the secondary/tertiary forces, structures and lifeforms that result from this. The body utilizes several autonomous and overlapping perceptual systems in order to coordinate sensory information in multiple dimensions. The Oculus Rift highlights the relationships between visual cues, the eyes, the head, and proprioceptive system. More specifically, the Oculus Rift taps into the Vestibular-Ocular Reflex- the image-centering function that links eye movement with head movement. The possibility of activating the body's multiple perceptual systems through images have been explored in the past. Optical illusions, proto-cinematic techniques, and other artistic/scientific experiments have tapped into the possibilities of isolating components of perceptual systems to activate spatial sensations. However, the potential with VR is the ability to manipulate both ends of the system in a more elegant feedback configuration- leading the body of a viewer through the moving image environment which then re-configures according to her body. In this scenario, it's impossible to ignore the image's deep symbiotic relationship to the body. The image is not merely a sign or a symbol, and the 'viewer' is not simply a floating pair of eyeballs webbed to a system of signs- there are more complex and blatantly visual relationships formed across multiple scales. These relationships are being constantly negotiated between sensory information, various perceptual systems, interpretive apparatuses and bodily responses. The Oculus Rift has the potential to shift the conception of the 'viewer' by articulating the different levels of autonomy and collaboration that our perceptual systems constantly re-enact. Imagine a tightly constructed simulation that induces the feeling of weightlessness, purely through visual cues. With this re-conceptualization of the basic human visual and sensory infrastructure as an assemblage that has both individuated and collective agency and structures, there is no 'viewer' per se, but incredibly complex swarms of competing and collaborating bacteria, organs, tissues, limb combinations, synapses, mind instantiations, etc. Artistic experiments with the Oculus Rift could explore the effects of synthetic bodily sensations through images, the continuous feedback loop between image, head position, and moving image, and the entrainment of these systems. This practice does not require the kind of precision that 'research' demands. It simply requires exploration and a sensitive approach to screen-based structures as powerful light-enzymes that catalyze the enormously sophisticated navigational systems of the body. The Oculus Rift is not a device for jettisoning our bodies for other worlds. Our bodies are already incredibly complex instruments for navigating reality. The potential for the Oculus Rift lies in its ability to sensitize and habituate to the inherent pluralities of our bodily assemblages.