Why Do People Always Talk About Content When They Talk About Virtual Reality As A New Medium

Virtual reality (VR) is not a new invention in the digital age. The stereoscopy technique has been used to create the illusion of the reality since two hundred years ago. During the development of such technology, the VR pioneers have never stopped trying to deliver the more realistic experience. Bringing people to where they will never get the chance to go has become the goal for nearly every VR company — one can simply tell that by paying attention to the number of appearances of the phrase “being there” in the press about VR nowadays (e.g., [2] ). This catchphrase resonates with another term “the perfect illusion of space” when Söke Dinkla talked about the panorama and the digital cave before the mass adoption of the current VR technology [1]. According to Söke’s paper, people considered the panorama painting at that time, purely on the content level, as an imaginative representation of the reality that was “intended to resemble as closely as possible the experience of being surrounded by or being inside nature in reality”, and arguably, only few would treat it as a new medium. In this light, looking at all VR practitioners’ efforts of delivering the photo-realistic experience, all of them could be seen as working on polishing the content of the panorama painting in a way. It leads to the question in the title of this post: why do people regard virtual reality as a new medium but only focus on its content that already exists in reality?

In Cinema and the Code [3] where Gene Youngblood gives a detailed comparison between the mechanical and the electronic cinema, he uses the term “psychological realism” many times to address the limitation of the traditional film grammar. He articulates that the realm of psychological realism will be abandoned when the image becomes the object in virtual reality (“a three-dimensional database with stereo vision in a wraparound head-mounted-display”). However, the contradiction could be found when Gene pictured VR as the exact reality that is also based on the perception of psychological realism. Indeed, every other medium is witnessed to be integrated into the digital media nowadays, even for the most ubiquitous one — the reality, and Gene’s vision about future digital cinema could also be seen in many fictional works, such as The Matrix or Ghost in the Shell where all human-beings live in inside the electronically virtual world that is a perfect mimic of the reality that we currently live in. But is re-creating the reality the ultimate capability of digital media? In other words, the idea of “virtual realism” seemingly confines virtual reality solely to the content that already exists in reality (or the content that could exist according to the epistemology), and limits its possibility of becoming a new medium beyond it.

My above doubt about the psychological realism in virtual reality originates from my experiments of transplanting the “art of transition” in mechanical cinema to the “art of transformation” [3] in electronic cinema by re-creating the transitions VR. The first VR transition gets the inspiration from Trainspotting (1996) where Ewan McGregor’s character puts his head into the toilet and suddenly goes into the ocean, and the second VR transition depicts a situation where the character’s left eye is poked, which enables him to see things differently. Interestingly, I found that when showing people the screen-recording of the two transitions instead of asking them to put the headset on to experience the transitions by themselves, most of them could get a clear sense of what it feels like in the first toilet-ocean scene, but none of them could imagine the feeling of the second one as they never have one eye filled with blood in their real life before. So I pushed this idea further by showing two different images on two eyes in VR (e.g., you see a cat with your left eye but a dog with your right eye) that one could never experienced in reality. The result is clear: no one could get an understanding of what that experience is until “seeing” it in VR. The further you make the VR experience away from psychological realism (in terms of the form, not the content), the harder people could feel it without the VR medium. It is something about the medium specificity of VR that goes beyond people’s perception of reality which is formed by looking at the surroundings from their eyes. In this light, if separating virtual reality from the apparatus of the headset, it would be like a dream — the mere illusion in people’s mind regardless what they see when they are awake. Then why should such dream only exist in the form of human’s epistemology? Why do we have to limit our idea to the content of reality when talking about virtual reality?

Siyuan Qiu

[1] Dinkla, Söke. The art of narrative–Towards the floating work of art. na, 2002.

[2] Howells, Laura. ‘It’s really like being there’: Photographer creates virtual reality tours of Newfoundland. CBC News, 2016.

[3] Youngblood, Gene. “Cinema and the Code.” Leonardo. Supplemental Issue (1989): 27-30. 

VR Transition 1:

VR Transition 2: