From Thought to Reality

This particular entry discusses a perspective that can be had towards Virtual Reality technology, and in so describes a certain way of understanding or relating to it. The aim is to provide, if not a theory, at least a perspective that resonates with the experience of creating and experiencing a virtual world.  This perspective was first worked upon in preparation for the 2019 Christie Conference at The University of Bergen — and is here developed further in text. The perspective tries to approach an understanding of what gives the virtual its magical qualities — and how this comes to be.

The Hobgoblin, a powerful wizard that travels through realms on his black panther. Illustration by Tove Jansson.

The Experience of Virtual Reality

VR has the capability of enchanting us. It has the power to introduce us to virtual worlds — and represent our designs in ‘the format of reality’. The content appears non-mediated, something Metzinger relates to the «phenomenal transparency» of the mind — we see «through the medium» —  and so only the content of the representation is available for introspective access. As with our mind, the underlying processes are hidden to us, and to experience VR is to experience the content it presents, not what lies beneath it.

There is a certain kind of experience that is exclusive to VR.  Finding oneself in a virtual world — orienting, navigating and interacting with it — produces an experience of a certain distinct character.  There is something intriguing, stimulating and marvelously weird in experiencing virtual realities. The experiential quality is affected by the sheer virtuality, or unreality, of it — and this, in turn, may make the illusion unexpected and beautiful. The experience has a certain quality to it: the disassociation between its unreality on the one hand and feeling of reality on the other. We know that VR is a synthesized, not-naturally-occurring experience, and further that we react to these stimuli as if they were real. Due to its unique character of offering convincing illusions, and our unique quality of, on the one hand seeing through them, and on the other being totally helpless in responding to it as if it weren’t real — we get the weird, thrilling experience of VR. The clear illusion; the transparent veil — a weaving of smoke: beautiful, but not substantial.

How did this oxymoron of technology — VR — come to be? What does it represent in us as humans? And last but not least, how should we view, relate to, and approach the emerging virtual worlds that the technology will enable for us?

Origins of Virtual Reality

A central aspect we have to address as part of this investigation is the origins of VR. Why did it arise, and what does it mean to us? This will ultimately affect the way we relate to and understand the medium. To do this, we can look into what desire of ours that the technology has fulfilled. Although we have previously discussed the History of VR this does not really account for the underlying motivations or dreams, but rather their outward results in terms of the resulting technology. Thus, when we instead want to discuss the origins of the idea of VR, we are attempting to approach technology “in its essence” — through its origin. For some readers, this may not be unfamiliar, as we have discussed this somewhat lengthy and theoretically in our three-series entry on Heidegger and VR. Here we will limit his technology criticism to a brief summary of two sentences:  Heidegger’s definition of technology as “not in itself something technological” means that the origins of the technology we use, and what it is and means to us in its essence, leans more towards an underlying ideal and thought than what it does towards different physical artifacts. Technology is, essentially, a way of viewing the world.

Fingolfin, Elf and High King of the Noldor, in a duel against Morgoth Bauglir, fallen Melkor of the Valar. Fingolfin and Morgoth can each represent different ways of embracing technology (read below)

Virtual Reality as Thought

If we shall try to understand the earliest origin of VR, it is appropriate to consider VR as an idea. Essentially a thought, or even a dream. The dream of being able to define reality, creating a re-presentation: the same dream that inspired cave paintings several ten thousands of years ago. VR is a product of the creative element in humans, for good and for worse. The dream of absolute control over matter, but also, the dream of a creative medium without limitations.

Similarly to how Heidegger imagined art as the potential savior of the way technology enframes the world and ourselves, J.R.R Tolkien’s distinction of magic in the universe of The Lord of The Rings can serve as a metaphor. The Elves use their magic only for artistic purposes and are consciously aware of the difference between reality and deception — the enemy, however, uses it to deceive and control. Heidegger’s point of technology is similar — technology (techne) may separate us from a more original revealing of truth by enframing the world in a certain narrative or story, while art (poiesis) may open up reality towards new interpretations. In Tolkien’s magic for purposes of domination, there is a will that is opposed to nature and thus will have to veil nature in its bringing-forth of its ‘truth’ or end. Similarly, Heidegger’s technology, as a way of revealing-concealing, will, to achieve its success, have to enframe nature and man with it — it reduces us to mere means to ends, not ends in ourselves. Tolkien’s elves use their magic in harmony with the real world; and similarly, Heidegger’s more preferred technologies let nature be as it is, instead of enframing it as a means to an end.

How are we to think of VR according to these technology criticisms? Whether we view the potentiality of the virtual as the dream of absolute control or domination (as Morgoth would have), or rather its potential for creative revealing and enhancement of the world (Fingolfin) — we can view VR as a Technology according to Heidegger, or as Magic according to Tolkien. Readers who are interested in what or how a Heidegger or Tolkien-inspired VR-application could be can go on to read the authors position paper in one of our latest blog entries. There we discuss the concept of an existentialist design — a “controlled accident” —which does not seek to dominate the user experience, but rather open the world up to new interpretations.

Virtual Reality as Reality

The exploration of VR as thought, or essentially as an idea, have taken us thus far. This idea or thought of VR is, however, now more actualized than ever — and what was once primarily an idea, is now more than ever a reality that we can relate to. We are able to step in, and immerse ourselves, in worlds after our own design. We can actualize, externalize, and instantiate our designs.

Memory Palaces are systems of thought that utilizes visual and spatial cues to aid memorization.

An example of this that can illuminate the perspective of VR as thought, is the Virtual Reality Memory Palace. This ancient mnemonic (it is mentioned by Cicero in De Oratore as early as 55 BC) is based on thought: we are to close our eyes and visualize what we want to recall in the memory palace.

The memory palace is then, as the origins of VR, an idea or thought. It is internal and subjective. VR, however, allows the externalization of thought. In the same way that the idea of VR is now actualized, it allows the externalization of other ideas. We can use technology to immerse ourselves in the instantiated ideas of our mind. Is then akin to the works of Morgoth Bauglir, or Fingolfin son of Fëanor? This will depend on which thoughts are actualized: it depends on which levels of our inner being we want to realize as our outer world.

Conclusion

This entry has discussed a perspective on VR that compares it to the magic: through VR, we can define our external reality based on our inner thought. VR can be perceived as the materializer of form; the instantiator of the abstract. We described Heidegger’s explicit technology criticism and paralleled it to Tolkien’s implicit one. We also linked this to the authors position paper on a Heidegger-inspired VR technology.

This entry is at the core of Matrise’s interests, and if you want further reading, these previous entries are related:

1: Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as External Reality

2: Sensory Deprivation — Floating in Virtual Reality

3: On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency

4: Heidegger’s Virtual Reality

5: The Mind as Medium

 

 

Camera Lucida

We have previously discussed several interesting optical technologies of relevance to VR. For instance we discussed the fascinating 17th century Camera Obscura and in our entry on a History of VR, we discussed the 19th century Stereoscope, which technology still is used in modern day VR Head-Mounted Displays.

In this entry we will discuss yet another,  similarly old, optical technology, which in category leans more towards that of Augmented Reality than Virtual Reality; the Camera Lucida.

Invented by phycisist William Hyde Wollaston in 1807, the Lucida was a device praised by artists and illustrators for its aid in their art. Similarly to the earlier dated Obscura, the optical artifact could project and redirect images from the external world, making it easier to recreate them in ink. While the Obscura required a dark room to project its images on a surface, the Lucida had the benefit of redirecting the light directly to its users eyes, and was thus more appropriate to use in a lit office, or even while travelling.

Apart from the underlying technical difference, the practice of use was relatively similar; the user would perceive the redirected light representing the object of projection on the surface that should be drawn, and by following the lines with a pen, the image could be reproduced in ink. To draw objects far off, the light could also be captured by a telescope, or for very small details, even a microscope, as seen in the illustration below.

Camera Lucida and Modern day AR technology
The camera lucida share many conceptual and experiential similarities with Augmented Reality (the concept of augmenting our real world with virtual phenomena). When a user is looking through the Camera Lucida,  a ‘virtual’ representation of what the Lucida is directed at, is added to and combined with the user’s normal vision. In AR goggles such as the Microsoft Hololens, this concepts remain the same, only the HoloLens’ holographic images originate from software and not redirected light from the external world.

 

The Microsoft HoloLens, an AR Head-Mounted Display by Microsoft.

Obviously, this is not the only difference between the two — compared to modern AR tech, the functionality and applicability of the Lucida is bleak. The HoloLens is  capable of stereo pictures, and features placement and projection of almost any virtually conceivable object in to the environment. Yet, the beautiful Camera Lucida artifact does share the essential underpinnings of augmenting the environment with re-presentations.

A curious example of the similarity between the two, is how the Lucida these days are being recreated with (mobile) AR. Using for instance an iPad with its camera, the canvas and your hand drawing is displayed to you on the screen, with a see-through image of that which you want to draw. Even better, a similar application has also been developed for the Microsoft HoloLens, called SketchAR HoloLensEDU — and is currently being employed teaching young artists.


Do you know of any good, useful applications within the AR domain? Please comment below!

 

SaveSave

Art in Virtual Reality

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the fantastic “Loving Vincent” at the cinema. Unique in its cinematography and visual effects, it depicts the life and death of Vincent van Gogh. There is, however, not much depiction of the great painter himself, as the film starts with the news about his death. Despite of this, the Van Gogh-hungry are not left unsatisfied — the whole film is oil-painted in his style, and so he is present in every stroke.

Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent Van Gogh, in Loving Vincent

Before this turns into a movie review, I should pinpoint that this entry is in fact about Virtual Reality (VR). Loving Vincent instantly reminded me of one of my favorite VR experiences. Depicted in the film itself, “The Night Café”, originally a painting by Van Gogh, has been turned into a VR experience by Borrowed Light Studios.

A Gif from the virtual experience of “The Night Café”, from Borrowed Light Studios.

The Night Café
On enteringThe Night Café in Immersive VR, one starts to hear piano music. Further, the scene fades from black, and one finds oneself present in a somewhat psychedelic bar depicted in “Van Gogh style”: the lights flare and pulse, and the animated characters definitely come straight from the “Uncanny Valley“. The fascinating aspect of the experience is to feel  present in a live painting: while moving around one definitely feels apart of the virtual environment. Because of the rather simple style, the resolution and refresh rates can be maximised even on mobile VR goggles, which turns it into a very graphically rich VR experience in the context of mobile VR. The experience of “The Night Café” definitely immerse you in an ecstatic, dynamic Van Gogh painting, which Van Gogh-fans and layman alike should check out. I would not be surprised if the whole  film was inspired by this VR experience.

The original painting of “The Night Café” by Van Gogh.

The Virtual Van Gogh
Something similar to “The Night Café” was created by The Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum in 2015, where they invited their visitors to enter the bedrooms of Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch in VR. Although the event has now passed, the application “Virtual Bedrooms” is available for download for Google Cardboard-devices, at App Store and at Google Play. Unlike The Night Café, however, none of these offer any navigation within the virtual environment.

The Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum’s Illustration of their Virtual Van Gogh.

The expression of Van Gogh is enrichened, heightened, augmented and arguably also changed through the medium of VR.  VR is a medium with a lot of expression potential, and this is the immediate relevance between art and virtual reality. To broadcast their message, artists utilize every new medium in their power. In this context, it is very useful to pinpoint that the medium of VR is an especially powerful one: by enabling users to adopt different identities within any conceivable programmed world, the potential for expression is endless. Another artist we will use to examplify VR’s potential within art, is Pushwagner.

Pushwagner Self-Portrait. which has seen a re-creation also in VR.

Pushwagner
The Norwegian contemporary artist “Pushwagner”, who unfortunately died last month, is another artist whose art is seen reimagined in the medium of VR. As part of a master’s project at the Western University of Applied Sciences, Runar Tistel has recreated the art of Pushwagner in a 360° 3D Virtual Environment. Pushwagner’s works often feature repetitive patterns and an abundance of geometrical shapes, which made Tistel approach the generating of these virtual environments mathematically. By adopting this mathematic-reductionist approach to the art, the re-creation of Pushwagner’s art to VR, is performed by a script that procedurally generates Pushwagner’s work. Essentially, the art is rendered on site, from source code text to imagery. I have myself had the joy of stepping into a recreation of Pushwagner’s self portrait in VR and found it to be a very interesting experience.

Bergen International Festival
As a resident of Bergen, I am anxiously awaiting Festspillene (Bergen International Festival); an annual event in Bergen, Norway, which is the greatest music- and theater festival in the North. The aim of the festival is to present art in every genre: music, theater, dance, opera, and the visual arts. For the first time in 2018, the Festival is introducing a “VR Lounge”, a free exhibit of VR experiences in Grieghallen. Here you can come to enjoy first class VR experiences for free: the Festival will set up several HTC Vive’s in the lounge.

Of the works being presented are The Virtual Orchestra by London Philharmonic Orchestra, which takes you to Southbank Centre, London, while they play the last part of Sibelius’ 5th symphony. In addition to this, you can see the theater show “My Name is Peter Stillmann”, inspired by Paul Austers’ City of Glass. Similarly to Loving Vincent and The Night Café, it features handdrawn animation. The experience is delivered by 59 productions, who arranged the video- and design production during the Olympic opening in London in 2012, so this should be really exciting.

BIFF
“Festspillene” is not the first event of its kind in Bergen to embrace the visual expression power of VR technologies. Residents of Bergen were equally lucky during Bergen International Film Festival (BIFF) at the exhibit “BIFF Expanded”, where they previewed various VR and AR experiences. The scope of the exhibit was to display the cross section between film, visual arts and new technology, where VR was well represented. Amongst others, the guys and gals at Crossover Labs displayed their VR experiences there, in addition to holding a workshop on Unity in VR for us at the local library. Lucky us.

Art in Virtual Reality
To summarize this entry, we can definitively say that the medium of VR proves a great venue for artists, designers, etc., to present art in 3D and 360 degrees. Not only for presenting older art, obviously, as this post presented, but to display new art that plays with established principles of visual presentation. In addition to this, VR can aid users in the creation of new art as well (check out Google Tiltbrush, or Kodon by the Bergen-based TenkLabs, which lets you draw in 360 3D).  It will be exciting to see what creative projects that emerge during the next years. For now, we have the Bergen International Festival to look forward too. If you want to join me as a VR assistant volunteer at the Festival, you can sign up here.

Oilpaint style in Unity
If you enjoy the oil-painted style in Virtual Environments, I would strongly encourage to play with the NPR Oil Paint Effect for Unity 3D, available in Unity Asset Store. The effect can turn any game or VR experience into oil-painted style. A youtube video illustrating the concept, can be seen here.

To make it a hat-trick of Van Gogh-screenshots, here is The Night Café as depicted in Loving Vincent as well. Go buy the film if you want to see it in motion  it’s worth it.

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave