The old adage of “seeing is believing” is being proven wrong every day. Augmented reality is becoming a thing of the past, quickly replaced by virtual reality the likes of which we’ve never before experienced. We’re now living in a digital age, and the lines between what’s real and what isn’t are blurring every day.
I want to harken back to my previous essay with this one, expanding in a different direction on the idea of memory spaces and experience in the context of how unreal but immersive experiences influence our perception of the world. With the ways electronic media is conferred and experienced advancing and changing on almost a daily basis, traditional media (read print, in this case) is seen as lagging behind.
The real question, however, is whether or not this is the truth. Perhaps the real argument here is that the constant bombardment our senses are being submitted to by technology seeking to fill the real world with the viscera of fictional universes will lend itself to the revival of simple print. That the battle between print and technology is, at its foundation, more about the consumer’s acceptance or resistance to being robbed of agency. With virtual media remaining a prescriptive experience – as it has been since its inception – it could be argued that we are moving back towards a model in which the consumption of passive media like print out of a desire to regain control over how we interact with our forms of entertainment.
Virtual Realities, Real Implications
The idea of virtual realities has always been a popular one, the idea of the simulacrum, of replicating and transferring (sometimes impossible) experiences, is something that humans have been trying to express since the very first work of artistic expression was immortalized. Great works of literature, paintings, murals, engrossing retellings of classical epics, all of them were meant to be portals used to transport their audiences – to alter their states of mind by presenting them with engaging enough stimuli that they would be transported to the worlds of the authors’ or artist’s imagining.
I have a very visceral memory of the first time I actually experienced what we then called virtual reality. It was in a large arcade center, and the game in question was a first person hang gliding simulator, where you lay down on a swiveling platform and attempted to steer yourself through a canyon rife with jutting spires of rock by twisting your body from side to side and adjusting your grip on a handle bar. I, at twelve years of age, had never been hang gliding, nor had I ever entertained thoughts of it, but all that I felt was missing from the experience was the feeling of wind rushing through my hair and the heat from the sun that was beating down on the cliffs. I was terrible at the game, crashing to the ground every time and never making it half as far as I thought I should, but the experience stayed with me, and remained visceral enough that I still remember the game in all of its admittedly terrible glory. To this day, I feel no need to go hang gliding – though it isn’t something I’m particularly proud of, I’m convinced that I’d be as bad at the real thing as I was at the fake.
For all that it seems like an odd anecdote, I feel my ‘virtual hang gliding’ adventure is particularly pertinent to this argument because it has stuck with me for more than a decade. Conversely, I can’t recall a single detail about the first book I ever read, though I’m completely positive that the experience was infinitely more enjoyable than crashing a hang glider into a cliff. I was robbed of the feeling of control by the game’s programming; my virtual fate was prescribed by touchy input methods and a complete lack of explanation or tutorial regarding the parameters I was working with. It was the loss of control that stuck with me, where my overall reading experience has been less a prescribed one and more a subjective one. Rather than having a given experience crammed forcibly down my throat, written narrative insinuates itself into my mind and calls on my own experiences to provide the fictional worlds presented by the author a familiar kind of depth.
Progressing Technologies and Shattering Barriers
The newest piece of technology in the virtual reality lineup is the admittedly impressive Oculus Rift. A headset that allows not only for stereoscopic 3D vision but three hundred and sixty degree, low latency head tracking, the Oculus Rift gives its wearer the chance to be completely immersed in the experience of whatever game it can be hooked up to. Though the technology didn’t start out perfect – some issues included visual blur when the user moved their head too rapidly and the device’s inability to track when it had been repositioned (Kypreos) – the most recent version of the hardware comes with fixes to these problems. Paired with the Oculus Rift, a bevy of new games are being released to engage the gameplaying community with truly immersive dynamics that include the ability to naturally and organically carry out actions like peeking around corners without the need to input button commands.
The Virtuix Omni’s latest iteration makes use of the Oculus Rift system to allow gamers to experience game worlds in even greater depth, allowing players to move through in-game landscapes by actually running and pivoting through the environment with the aid of a rig and special equipment that don’t appear to take much away from the gaming experience – though it too has its moments of imperfection (Fleming). Ideas that used to be relegated to the realms of fiction – such as the ability to learn skills or tour areas in a digital landscape – are all being made that much closer to reality with these growing technologies.
In contrast, new reading technologies are offering little more than haphazard digital simulations that at best attempt to replicate with hardware and software the experience of holding a single page book and at worst are more comfortably used as a multimedia hub – the most notable examples of the former being the Kobo from Chapters/Indigo ($49.99 at its smallest and cheapest), and of the latter being the high-end, high profile Kindle by Amazon (currently priced at $299) and the Apple iPad ($319 at its cheapest). Though e-readers have seen popularity because of their portability, they are still oddities, and like a metaphorical Ferris wheel in the middle of an old-growth forest, this otherness is an indicator of their rarity. The idea of reading novels on a screen as opposed to on a physical page is an idea that has yet to be properly absorbed into the common consciousness, and with resistance to something as simple as that shift in technology still prevalent it would seem that the majority is still displaying a preference for print as it is.
The Potential of Boundless Perception
Just like I mentioned in my earlier paper on multidimensional memory, new technologies are opening the world up to an even greater wealth of shared experience and perception. Should the Oculus Rift and Virtuix Omni systems become household items used for consuming media and transferring experiences, imagine the depth and breadth of new experience each of us will be able to access. The lines of personal and external experience will blur even farther, the potential for infinite experience will become closer and closer to being a reality.
And yet, in this future, I can still only imagine shelves of books still standing in libraries rather than repositories of e-readers linked to a database of books. Coming back to my initial argument, I can only see the publishing industry as becoming stronger – one of the last artistic trades to create physical artifacts for which there can never be a truly digital simulation, or at least not a satisfactory one. The print book will continue to offer the reader exactly what it has always offered – low impact, low stress and most of all low interference messages packaged in a container that doesn’t need bells and whistles to function properly. In an era when producers are creating electronic devices with a degree of multi-functionality that sometimes renders them incapable of performing a single function well (my biggest bones to pick with the Kindle and iPad are that they aren’t particularly good at being televisions, personal computers, or e-readers, all functions that they were created to perform), the pure simplicity and lack of overstimulation afforded the owner of a physical book might see its renaissance.
After all, when you read a novel, you never walk into an invisible wall placed there to impede your progress into an unwritten part of a book that you can still see. And you certainly don’t fall prey of optical glitches or pop-up ads.
Fleming, Ryan. “Virtuix Omni Review”, Digital Trends.com – http://www.digitaltrends.com/game-controller-reviews/virtuix-omni-review/
Kypreos, Evan. “Hands-On: Oculus Rift Review”, Trusted Reviews.com– http://www.trustedreviews.com/oculus-rift_Games-Accessory_review
Wikipedia, Virtual Reality – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_reality
Oculus Rift – http://www.oculusvr.com/
Markiplier tests the Virtuix Omni – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPSqM-g7_r0
PewDiePie uses the Oculus Rift – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7xWp2iQDwU
Virtuix Omni – http://www.virtuix.com/
“The Cool New Run-Around-In-Vertual-Reality Treadmill”, Geekologie.com– http://geekologie.com/2013/06/an-affordable-run-around-in-virtual-real.php