The New, New Media

In which I am really bullish about VR.

4 minute read

Here’s the thing about virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). (Collectively I will call them V/AR for now.)

If your expectation is something like— “But when I see The Weeknd live, I can feel the bass.” or “Part of actually being in Paris is the noise, the smell, the sound.” or “But I can’t touch the things I see.” —then you should embrace those real experiences as they are, in the present, in all their glory.

If, on the other hand, your expectations are more like “Hell yes, I can see 100+ concerts this year without getting on a single plane.” or “The Lion King? On Broadway? Great, lemme gear up!” or “Oooh, oooh, Scott Kelly is VR streaming his spacewalk!” (VR spacewalk sim, not Scott Kelly) then you already get the potential of V/AR to allow us to experience those things we might never have otherwise had the opportunity to be a part of.

Furthermore, beyond what can be done within reality, VR allows people to create entirely imagined realities. It allows us to inhabit dreams, visions and imagined worlds created by others in a way that is deeply engaging and wonderfully intimate.

And AR can map those worlds onto our own. Imagine a museum tour enhancing its audio walkthrough with visuals that show an artist’s process or similar artwork in other collections around the globe. In practice, you can already ride early 20th century trains and see dinosaurs take shape in museums today.

V/AR technology is a way to be a part of those experiences, and many more we have yet to define. It is a way to bring them to the entire world, in a democratized way. And we should recognize that V/AR are not an attempt to subvert those experiences in any way. From the above article:

What makes VR exciting, is that we are a provincial museum, and it gives us an opportunity to do some outreach and reach some of these communities that don’t have access to our galleries.

Maybe we need to stop looking at exhibitions as the only way for a museum to engage. Maybe we should stop talking about attendance to these exhibitions as the measure for success.

As media, V/AR will not replace other forms of creative expression any more than Youtube killed broadcast TV or the iPad Pro replaced pencil and paper. And it certainly will not replace the tactility of actual experience (not soon at least).

They will, however, challenge us to think differently about how we create for them, how we inhabit those creations, what are their limitations and what are their strengths, and just how deep down the rabbit hole will viewers feel comfortable going.

They will challenge us to consider cultural and political sensitivities at the same time that they will allow us to appreciate more directly the well-established traditions and experiences of others around the globe.

I, for one, would have welcomed with open eyes the ability to “walk” the Great Wall in second grade as we learned about it, or strolled through Edo Period Japan in tenth grade history classes. [1]

And today I cannot contain my excitement at the possibilities for storytelling, education, cultural exchange, medicine (this one is amazing), exploration (terrestrial or otherwise), activism, journalism, and just about any scenario where immersion in the experience is the experience.

There’s been a lot of excitement about V/AR this past year, and there’s also been a lot of hyperbolic headlines both enthusiastically for and cautiously against V/AR. As always, we should be careful and considerate of the consequences of new technology, as much as we are excited about the possibilities they bring.

But let’s not resist a medium, or inhibit its natural course of adoption and growth, simply because it challenges us, our beliefs, or our preconceptions. Let’s recognize those as valid concerns and constraints on what we create, and use those boundaries to elevate the level of discourse and the quality of our production.

And one more thing, certainly let’s not discount V/AR because the tech is still primitive or clunky. Remember these?

[1] If you are interested in VR and/or AR, Timoni West is as good a source for all things V/AR as you will find anywhere. Thanks to her for the Edo and surgery links, and many more.