The Experience Machine

In  a previous entry, we discussed the potential of using VR technologies for journalistic purposes. In this post, we will both examplify and abstract the underlying principles of this theme. We will start with a philosophical introduction to the concept of “The Experience Machine”, before presenting and discussing four new VR Journalism prototypes developed during a course at the University of Bergen, Norway.

The Evil Deceiver
Since Rene Descartes published his Meditations in 1647, the West has been interested in what is real or authentic, and whether any knowledge of this is at all possible. In his text, Descartes outlines the idea of a potential “Evil Deceiver”; a demon that could alter his impressions of the external world. He writes that he can not know whether what he sees and perceives is real, or if it is a demon that is fooling him.  Although Descartes later in his Meditations provides arguments for why this can not be the case, based on his provided “evidence of God”, this argument of his does not bring solace to most, and as such the skepticism he postulated have outlived him, and is just as relevant a theme today.

Descartes’ Illustration of Stereoscopic Vision

When this is discussed philosophically today, the imagery of an Evil Deceiver comes a bit short. Rather, it is discussed in more technological or “physical” terms – instead the demon, we think of the potential scenario of our brains encapsulated in a vat. We know (although it always feels unnatural to use the word “know” when discussing the grounds of epistemic reasoning),  that our perception of reality is sensory impressions interpreted by the brain. We can then imagine the “Brain-In-A-Vat” as the philosopher Gilbert Harman describes it; a brain disconnected from its body, yet being fed electrical pulses that simulate sensory impressions. This has been the theme of several popular films, such as The Matrix series, in which AI has imprisoned humanity in a Virtual Reality. The first film brilliantly examplifies our philosophical points, as it depicts both an Evil Deceiver in the form of the AI, and the imprisonment of human brains in a vat. Conceptually, Harman’s reformulation does not bring anything new to this thought experiment, except a sort of updated imagery as a vessel on which to explain it. Of that reason, however, it is more relevant to our associations, as the “Brain-In-A-Vat” idea reminds us of the Immersive Virtual Reality technology that we see emerge today.

Clockwork Eyes by Michael Ryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this is the direction that we are heading in this entry – towards VR rather than epistemology.  Instead of discussing whether knowledge about the external world can be had, we will investigate this theme further through a philosopher that take a different approach to the concept of artificial stimuli: he is not speaking of the impending doom of AI demonic domination, but rather uses these concepts in thought experiments, as a means to reason on what matters to us. What matters to us is deeply related to what we do, and what we do is deeply related to who we are. As such, these questions can be illuminating in exploring who we are, or  want to be, as human beings.

The Experience Machine, Unknown Illustrator.

The Experience Machine
In 1974, Robert Nozick introduced the term “Experience Machine”, or “Pleasure Machine”, as a thought experiment. The experiment is a brilliant way to put the idea of Hedonism in individuals on trial. Now, hedonism is the view that happiness or pleasure is, the only thing that is in its essence good. Other things can be “instrumentally good”, as they may lead to happiness or pleasure, but they are only given their value then, by being the means to the end. The thought experiment is this: if you had a machine that could give you any experience that you ever wanted, including pleasure for the rest of your life, would you use it? Would you plug in?

We are here awfully close to the idea of the Brain-In-A-Vat, but yet the perspective is shifting: in this case we would not be trapped in a false reality against our will, but according to it. The value of the thought experiment is clear – in answering to it, we answer to whether we value truth as an “attribute” of sensory impressions in and out of itself; if authenticity and reality or whatever we want to call it has a value in itself, and is to be preferred despite its potential, say, gruesomeness. If one accepts Hedonism, the whole world is enframed as being a means to the end of pleasure, and as such, if such a Pleasure Machine presented itself, we could abandon the means in favor of the ends, going straight for the juice. Nozick’s idea is that if one does not want to plug into the machine, one effectively ‘proves’ that pleasure is not all Man wants or needs, and Hedonism can as such be refuted.

Some, however, feel that this formulation of the thought experiment is not sharp enough in its ability to try out the idea of Hedonism. The critique is that concern for authenticity or “realness” is not the only possible motive one may have to decline: many would prefer to not plug into the machine, not necessarily because they really care for truth, but because they are creatures of habit, and simply prefers the world they have accustomed themselves to. There is in other words other motivations for negating the question than the preference for truth. A better formulation that avoids this pitfall, is this: if you were told that your life up to now had been such an illusion, a pleasure machine, would you then like to wake up? 

Hinduism
These thoughts can be traced back to long before the rise of the particular Western philosophy as followed Descartes. According to Hindu cosmology, each of us lives in maya (illusion) as to what is the core reality of Self, or Atman. Life can be seen as a play, and Brahman is the actor that plays all the parts, totally immersed and engaged in them so it forgets its real self, and instead is amusing itself in its ignorance (for instance by passing time reading blogs online). Reality then, is a game of hide and seek, where you are both the hider and the seeker, playing for eternity. Similarly to the Experience Machine, the subject is ignorant to the true nature of reality, by choice.

The Five Aspects of Shiva

Why, then, would God hide from himself? The idea is simple: being God gets boring after a while. Imagine that you are God, and could have any experience you ever wanted. You would perhaps start by throwing some crazy parties, creating some planets, etc., for a few million years. Eventually, you have kind of “been there, done that”. The curse of being all-knowing and omnipotent is, of course, despite the supreme bliss, that it’s hard to get a true kick out of it anymore. You lack the element of surprise. Surprise, as reaction, needs duality, but you are One. The idea strikes you: what if we were not One? You decide to go for it: split into multiples, and so each can surprise the other. Atman, becomes Brahman, the player of all the parts in the play of life. At times it gets terrifyingly real, after all you have to die to wake up.  But this is what you came for, because no surprise is greater than to wake up, and to realize that you were Atman, the Permanent, all along.

Modern Day Experience Machines
In 1974, for Nozick, the experience machine was a thought experiment far away from reality. Today, it is perhaps far too easy to see the potential of its realization. When VR applications are released today, they are often presented as “experiences”; not always games, not necessarily videos, but experiences. We have in a previous entry discussed Art in Virtual Reality, where the focus on “experience” is particularly present, and shows the potential of the medium for artistic expression. The same is the case with Immersive Journalism, where the first person perspective is especially exploited as a means to provide a user with a different experience than what otherwise is had in everyday life. Within VR Journalism, the discussion of experience machines has almost been had, as Milk in his 2016 Ted Talk described VR as the ultimate empathy machine. In Immersive Journalism, the 360° (sometimes 3D) camera work as the eyes of the observer, and lets one virtually step into someone elses shoes, or at least to put on their eyes.

In a course that we have ran at the University of Bergen this spring, we have taught Immersive Journalism within an Innovation Pedagogy regime. As the rules and practices within the new concept is not very well established, we do not teach the students exactly to solve their tasks, but rather how to experiment with the novelties of the medium and try to innovate and create new genres. The end result have been four prototypes, that was presented yesterday, at the Norwegian Centre of Excellence (NCE) Media’s media lab in Media City Bergen. All of these productions are well fit for the topic of “modern day experience machines”, and as such they will be presented here in this entry.

Drug addict
The first of the VR experiences is called “Narkomani” which from Norwegian can roughly be translated to “Drug addict”. The aim of the production is to see the world from the point of view of a drug addict, perhaps living on the streets in Bergen. How is it to be frowned upon, walking around the streets, uneasy to get the next shot of dope? As my colleague Nyre stated in the introduction the projects, this VR project features “not a first person shooter from Los Angeles, but first person social realism from Bergen”.

Schizophrenia
The second of the VR experiences, attempts to create understanding on how it is to live with schizophrenia. In the experience, the user perceives visual hallucinations, and audio of up to five different personalities. The concept is brilliantly illustrated by the poster, and the experience tries to portrait a subjective reality falling apart.

Plastic
The third VR experience has children as its target group, and aims to introduce the world problem of plastic to them. In this case, the VR medium is being exploited for its capabilities for visualization. For children, numbers may be too abstract, and visual images may be more appealing to get the message across.  The experience features combinations of 360° video footage with 3D objects.

Cryonics
The final VR experience has the topic of cryonics, i.e., freezing oneself down immediately upon death. The production aims to educate on the topic with interviews from different philosophers, religious leaders, etc., which you hear and see while chilling in your freeze tank. When the production starts, you find yourself lying down on an operation table before insterted into the capsule and frozen.

Images and more information about the event, can be seen at the websites of research project ViSmedia.

Conclusion
The relation between Self and Other, the Internal and the External, Inner and Outer, has always fascinated us. This dualism comes with problems, and we are skeptic to whether the seemingly similar values on both sides of the Self – Other equation, can be cancelled out and forgotten. These problems enter a new fascinating light when we encounter new technology that has the capability of actualizing them. All sorts of experience machines are being created today, although we still are quite far from escapism into VR as a societal issue.

The topic of authenticity in relation to VR, will be further discussed at Matrise in a three-entry series that steers towards a metaphysic of VR. The entries will discuss the topic in light of, particularly, Heidegger’s existentialism. The entries will be published next week.

Literature list

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VR Journalism at Watching in the Media 2018

During Joakim’s talk on “Virtual Reality Journalism” at the Watching in the Media conference, ViSmedia handed out close to 200 Cardboard VR goggles. In this post, you can get some tips on how to use them to experience Immersive Journalism. Don’t have a cheap pair of Cardboard yourself? You could always get a pair for less than 1 USD at eBay.

If you need an introduction to the theme, or want to read more on the subject, you can read our previous article on VR Journalism here. In the entry we briefly discuss ethical and conceptual issues with VR Journalism, for those interested.

To see a few 360 images from the conference, you can go to this link.
Remember to tilt your phone sideways and click the VR Goggles icon before you put the phone into the cardboard viewer. Below is a small list of recommended content for you to explore.

Watch Joakim’s talk here:


1. View 360 images from the ViSmedia conference.
Students at the University of Bergen took a few 360 images during the Watching in the Media conference. These images are unfortunately no longer available.

2. New York Times’ VR app.
The NYT VR app can be found at the app store or at Google Play
We can recommend the stories Fight for Fallujah, Donald Trump Rally and The Displaced.

3. The Guardian VR.
The Guardian also has their own app for iPhone and Android.
Their most popular VR story is 6×9: a VR experience of solitary confinement, but their app also offer a whole lot more.

4. YouTube.
YouTube offers 360 videos in VR mode. Download the app, and browse with keywords such as “360” and “VR”. In our experience, especially in the Playstation VR Head-Mounted Display, these do not deliver very high resolution as with most 360 streaming.

5. Other apps
Your VR goggles can be used for other things than just journalistic viewing. The app store and play store is filled with VR apps for your goggles. Just search for keywords such as “360” and “VR”, and download what you like.

6. The VR Web
Although still in its infancy, with the rise of WebVR support in more and more browsers, we can browse VR applications on the web. Matrise has experience developing WebVR apps with A-Frame (read our entry on Virtual Reality Memory Palaces here), and would recommend going to A-Frame’s website for examples on what the framework is capable of.

Happy exploring.

Virtual Reality Journalism

Journalism is largely defined by which medium it uses to convey its message. The last hundred years, it has moved from medium to medium: from text to radio, and further from photographs to video. With each new medium the fidelity of the message it is providing is steadily increasing. This is perhaps especially clear now with the use of Virtual Reality (VR) technologies for journalistic purposes. By using 360° stereoscopic (3D) cameras, we are getting very close to capturing subjective realities at given points in spacetime.

The Ultimate Empathy Machine

In his Ted Talk, Chris Milk describes the potential of VR for creating “the ultimate empathy machine”, which later has been the subject for extensive debate. The message is that we may be more empathetic towards others if we can “literally”, or at least virtually, view the situation through their eyes. Many journalistic projects have focused on refugees or war zones, such as the stories “Fight for Fallujah” and “The Displaced“. In these stories, the camera works as the eyes of the observer, as the screen in the VR goggles is mounted directly on to the eyes. The user is presented to the story through a first person perspective, and may feel present in the story as if he or she is actually being transferred to the environment.  This presence to the stories, and the following perceived realism, is what is believed to be able to increase empathy in the viewers. Of this reason also, Google News Lab’s Ethnographic Study on Immersive Journalism  describes VR news as more fit for the term “storyliving” rather than “storytelling”, indicating that the user feels a part of the story that is being conveyed.

‘See for yourself’: Is the NYT VR pitching their VR production by indicating that you can see the situation yourself, instead of adhering to the mediated version by a journalist who’ve been there?

Critics of VR as the “ultimate empathy machine”, or as capable of delivering “storyliving”, say that you can not possibly know how it is to be in a refugee camp while lying on the couch a friday evening with your VR goggles and a glass of wine. And, of course, you can not. It may, however, prove to be a more empathetic instrument than a regular video as it may seem more real and thus affect us differently.  It is no wonder that it may seem more ‘real’, when it is presented in the ‘format of reality’. Some do agree, however, and believe that it may have the power to make viewers more empathetic – nevertheless, they think that it may be unethical to use it as such. Should journalists have this power, to distribute realities to news consumers, and by new technologies we are not used to, affect people this strongly? These critics may be afraid of the “brainwashing” potential of the technology. It is easier to distance one self from a 21 inch screen than it is to distance yourself from an encompassing, immersive virtual reality you inhibit. Perhaps the most crucial question is whether it is brainwashing if what you are showed in fact is real?

Fake News

This brings us to another point of VR Journalism: how hard it is to manipulate the content. The journalist can not hide behind the camera. There is no artificial lighting or too narrow segment of the shot. The camera shoots in 360° horizontally and vertically — it is a totally observant witness at that given space and time.  In a sense, news in 360° is far less directed than in traditional flat videos: the viewer chooses which part of the video he or she wants to see. Naturally, the journalist is still an active role which chooses where to shoot, and does the final edit, however, it is a great shift from traditonal video footage. As we all know, during the last few years the concept of ‘fake news’ and mistrust in the media has arisen. The transparency that shooting with 360° 3D offers may help combat this. Perhaps also Journalism has to adapt to these changes, and rather deliver (immersive) content on which its readers themselves can decide and conclude upon. Euronews, one of the largest European news agencies, argues that this is why they have produced several 360° videos each week for now two years. In the VR session of the Digital World Conference in 2016, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Platforms, Duncan Hooper, stated they “want[ed] to let [the users] make their own decisions, not tell them what they should be watching, not to tell them what they should be thinking”.

It is, however, rather naïve to believe that immersive content alone can deliver objective truths — no matter how close the images correspond to reality. When the videos themselves lack in clear message or narrative, it is natural to imagine how they may rather be used as building bricks for constituting a narrative elsewhere. Besides, imagine the concrete example of the news coverage of the Israel and Palestine conflict. In this case, we may ask whether the journalist will choose to show immersive footage of a knife attack in Jerusalem, or deadly shots by the border patrol in Gaza? Both would be correct to show, but by this example, we see that to a certain extent, in the problem of news objectivity and fake news, it is not a problem of facts vs. non-facts; but which facts are focussed on. Immersive Journalism is no silver bullet in this regard, however, that is not to say that it may not find a natural place in news coverage. 

VR Journalism at the University of Bergen

During the spring of 2018, I taught 20 undergraduate students in VR Programming, 360° video shooting- and editing and photogrammetry. The aim was that the students should be able to create their own prototype delivering Immersive Journalism. As the rules and practices within the new concept is not very well established, we did not teach the students exactly to solve their tasks, but rather how to experiment with the novelties of the medium and try to innovate and create new genres. This is often called ‘Innovation Pedagogy’. The end result have been four brilliant prototypes, that was presented at the Norwegian Centre of Excellence (NCE) Media’s media lab in Media City Bergen. We discuss two of these here. Interested in the other two? These are mentioned in an entry where we go more in depth, philosophically, on the concept of Experience Machines.

Drug addict
The first of the VR experiences is called “Narkomani” which from Norwegian can roughly be translated to “Drug addict”. The aim of the production is to see the world from the point of view of a drug addict, perhaps living on the streets in Bergen. How is it to be frowned upon, walking around the streets, uneasy to get the next shot of dope? As my colleague Nyre stated in the introduction the projects, this VR project features “not a first person shooter from Los Angeles, but first person social realism from Bergen”.

Schizophrenia
The second of the VR experiences, attempts to create understanding on how it is to live with schizophrenia. In the experience, the user perceives visual hallucinations, and audio of up to five different personalities. The concept is brilliantly illustrated by the poster, and the experience tries to portrait a subjective reality falling apart.

Conclusion

Journalism through the medium/technology of VR has great potential. Immersive Journalism is still in its infancy, but the projects done so far shows promising. Much will depend on VR goggles entering into people’s homes, as with any other technology. For insights into where we are in the terrain of VR technology in 2018 — take a look at our entry discussing the History of Virtual Reality.

Literature list


Are you interested in more reading on this subject?

This executive summary on “Virtual Reality Journalism” by Owen & Pitt at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism is one of the first reports on VR Journalism.

Further, the report by Doyle, Gelman & Gill at the Knight Foundation is a good background read.

Finally, the Reuters report by Zillah Watson is more recent and sheds light on the more current situation of the medium for journalistic purposes. This report  illuminates a change we have seen recently, with the use of consumer/”prosumer” cameras for easier production by newsroom. This will definitely turn out, as with traditional cameras, to be a prerequisite for the adoption of this medium across Journalism as whole. When it is easier to produce content in 360° video, more newsrooms will do it.

As the reports by The Knight Foundation, The Tow Center, and further Sirkunnen et. al indicate, Immersive Journalism has not been so prevalent in less-affluent media houses. We may know of VR stories such as 6×9 by The Guardian, but have not necessarily heard of any from our local newspaper. This may change in the near future due to better consumer products.