The Spaces we Create, the Spaces we Inhabit

Imperfect VR and the Miserable Idea of ​​Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is a rather miserable idea. This thesis by Slovenian philosopher/provocateur Slavoj Žižek serves as the opener to the “Imperfect VR” workshops that I have been offering since 2016.

Imperfect VR workshop, London
Imperfect VR workshop, London

In my workshops I help people, most of whom do not identify as “techies”, to create their own virtual realities, with a bit of coding, their smartphones and affordable cardboard VR glasses. I have done this in locations as diverse as an outdoor hacker event, Chinese universities, the Anti-university in London, and a course for German drama teachers.

Like Žižek, I think we should care less about the technology of Virtual Reality than about the reality of the virtual before Big Tech takes over this space completely, and through their control of VR technology dictates the content that we are nudged to consume, closely watched by advertisers.

Flashback to the 60s: around the time when Morton Heilig and Ivan Sutherland developed the first iterations of wearable VR equipment, artist Brion Gysin and technologist Ian Sommerville achieved virtual realities through altered states of perception. Their technology: a lamp. A photo from that period shows Gysin and William S. Burroughs with their eyes closed in front of the “Dreamachine”, an apparatus that throws the light of a light bulb onto the two of them through the slits of a rotating cylinder.

During the 80s and 90s, Cyberdelics had become the term for a wild mixture of chaos theory and fractals, sci-fi and self-discovery, days and nights of raves with trance music and all kinds of chemically and technologically induced trance states. When psychedelics-cyberpunk icon Timothy Leary first declared “turn on, tune in, drop out”, then “turn on, boot up, jack in”, he was going to transform the personal computer into the LSD of the 90s. Like the early “Komputerfrieks” of the fledgling Chaos Computer Club, Leary’s message was about liberation — how we create our own realities through the creative appropriation of technology. Not just to escape from physical meatspace, but to critically question and liberate ourselves from the mainstream and from authorities.

My own initiation into techno-induced altered states began with flicker as well — in a place called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, where a priest of the Church of the Subgenius solemnly handed me a pair of LED glasses. That “mind machine” contained light-emitting diodes, designed to put my brain into various expanded states of consciousness. Looking back, I cannot say conclusively whether the effect was due to the cyberdelic experience or to the simultaneous use of relaxing substances.

Today, the successors of dream and mind machines are sold in the form of therapeutic VR experiences by a techno-wellness industry that promises effortless mindfulness and increased empathy. The idea of ​​VR as a clean drug resonates with other practices that are prevalent in Silicon Valley such as “microdosing”, a kind of homoeopathy of intoxication. Drug use, but rather to increase performance. Hallucination, but rather without side effects. And yet some of those side effects continue to haunt us, like potential seizures and “VR nausea”, despite an industry that tries to banish them through technological progress. Some kind of resistance seems to remain within the medium, one that cannot be entirely exorcised, even through the voodoo of marketing.

As Silicon Valley operates without memory, Virtual Reality was simply declared as something new in 2012, when a nerd named Palmer Luckey triggered another VR wave with his crowdfunding campaign for the Oculus Rift. Amnesia can be beneficial to experiment freely with technology without historical baggage. However, combined with a deeply rooted contempt for creativity in parts of the creative industry, it leads to the iteration of the same, just with more pixels and with more polish. Thus VR found its way again into mainstream entertainment, besides other applications in research, education, industry and the military. And this is where the above-mentioned nerd ended up almost 10 years later, within the military-industrial complex, erecting virtual walls for a patriotic future. In 2014, Facebook had taken over his startup for two billion US dollars. It is now linking its VR glasses to social network accounts, and soon to ads served in virtual space.

Even if this makes the hardware more affordable for consumers, the deal is likely to be costly for the “VR enthusiasts” in the long term. Although in theory there are several contenders present in the market, except for Sony’s PlayStation VR, no real competition takes place. Facebook has achieved an actual virtual monopoly, while alternative attempts, like the establishment of open source hardware, have failed miserably.

Other manufacturers of virtual and augmented reality equipment have been switching to “business-to-business” models, which means selling devices at outrageous prices to naive corporate customers. The average prices of most VR games also appear outrageously expensive, at least in comparison to the games without VR. This could also suggest that the latter are thrown on the market much too cheap. Yet I somehow cannot get rid of the impression that many commercial producers of virtual reality don’t actually trust the future of the field. Therefore they prefer to cash in before the next “VR winter”, a phase in which interest in VR cools down again. Some think that winter has already arrived.

And still, virtual reality not only promises magical moments; it also provides them. I experienced my magical moment in the basement of a crashed space station in Berlin. The VR story itself was not spectacular, but the experience was well done. The piece was a reconstruction of an excavation site, and if you wanted, you could be lifted up on a virtual glass platform for a panoramic view of the virtual scenery. I went for it and it felt frighteningly real. “Now jump down,” I heard a voice from the other reality, apparently from a cellar that still existed somewhere, in the same but different space.

I tried, but I was not able to “jump”. I carefully put one foot in front of the other until I balanced on the edge of the platform. I thought, now I’ll do a little hop and see what happens, but I remained frozen. Although I knew I was safe, in a friendly space in Berlin and not on that platform, the illusion of the VR world was overwhelming. I tortured myself with the decision of whether or not to jump for what felt like a little eternity. Finally, I took off the glasses and looked into a row of grinning faces. “It wasn’t just you, who wouldn’t jump”.

And this is the magic of VR.

So far, the development of VR raises both causes for concern and reasons for hope. In this virtual space of possibility, rich with immersive potential, creative insignificance and threatening monoculture, it is now time to develop subversive artistic strategies — or to wake them up again. Examples of such strategies are emerging. They can be found in the aesthetics of Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey, the critical works of Julian Oliver, the political stance of NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism by hyphen-labs, the merging realities of Daryna Fes, and the experimental playfulness of Sara Lisa Vogl and Thorsten Wiedemann.

A thrown together VR scene with some Žižek in it
A thrown together VR scene with some Žižek in it

The claim that an emerging medium requires a wide variety of expressions by the most diverse authors, artists, designers, and hackers possible was made by Julio García Espinosa (the “grandfather” of Imperfect VR), Janet Murray and Robert Yang, among others. Nevertheless, this idea has to be defended again and again, even against those who believe that the number of polygons or the resolution of textures decides whether an immersive experience is successful or whether an artistic work can be exciting.

Imperfect VR consciously refuses polygon fetishism and happily and self-determinedly plays with the breaks and inadequacies that open platforms, web-based formats and ill-fitting cardboard VR glasses bring with them. It is about experimenting, risking something, getting your virtual fingers dirty. We take what works out of an inadequate material situation, in other words: we “swede” (based on the movie “Be Kind Rewind” by Michel Gondry), and we surprise ourselves. We encourage those who consider themselves “technically unskilled” as well as those who always persuade themselves that they still need the latest equipment to get started.

In fact, imperfection is a very successful strategy against procrastination.

Lynn Maharas and Erik Burke: Pieces of Berlin, 2012. Photo by the artists.
Lynn Maharas and Erik Burke: Pieces of Berlin, 2012. Photo by the artists.

Although we sometimes let ourselves be inspired by high-tech magic, we find virtual reality in the painted plastic foils by Lynn Maharas and Erik Burke as well as in the high-resolution pixel clouds by Marshmallow Laser Feast.

As a practice, Imperfect VR employs open source software that runs completely in the web browser, smartphones and the corresponding cardboard glasses. Unlike high-tech VR, this allows a wide range of people to participate in the creation of their own virtual realities.

Imperfect VR Workshop in Birmingham
Imperfect VR Workshop in Birmingham

Inclusion and accessibility of virtual worlds are topics of Imperfect VR as well as a critical discourse about the reality of the virtual, about VR as a medium and about the conditions of its production and reception.

Practical work with VR is central, which means we don’t just want to theorize, rather, we program and design virtual spaces and we make our own experiences in them. In each workshop, the participants learn to build their own virtual realities and to act in them, be it in an existing context such as theater, play or social encounters, or to find out how such virtual constructs arise. Depending on the focus, we use the A-Frame development library or the Mozilla Hubs social VR environment and its associated Spoke editor.

For some of the participants this is their first encounter with VR, programming or modeling of 3D environments. Others are well advanced and come to discuss their ideas, get tips, or just hang out with a few like-minded people. All are welcome.

Imperfect VR Manifesto
Imperfect VR Manifesto

Embodied in the Imperfect VR Manifesto (see illustration), Imperfect VR frees us from the compulsion of perfection and invites people of all origins and backgrounds to become creators of virtual worlds.

So let us forget about the VR mainstream and tech perfectionism. Rather, let us get together, physically or online, and build many, many virtual realities, experiment with energy-efficient blockchains and NFTs, surf the metaverse, drift through strange environments and queer social spaces. Let us stumble through these new worlds we are building together, with smartphones in cardboard glasses strapped to our faces. And have a lot of fun doing it.

Maybe Virtual Reality isn’t such a miserable idea after all.

Musings on subjects such as systems, ai, virtual reality, human-machine interaction, theatre, art, play and culture.