Hinduism and Virtual Reality

In this piece, we discuss the relationship between Hinduism and Virtual Reality. The cosmology of the religion category “Hinduism”; the broad metaphysic of the East, is a very interesting one. Radically different from that of the West, it is a refreshing albeit heavy shower of new ideas. The best pitch to the worldview at large, I find is best put by “spiritual entertainer” Alan Watts, who put it something like this:

Imagine you are God. Or rather — imagine you could be anything you wanted. Your will is the law of the universe. What would you do if this was the state of affairs? Well, obviously, you would throw a few parties. Really stretch it out, go crazy and mess things up for the laughs of it. The universe is your experience machine; so you do whatever you like.

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Digital illustration of Alan Watts by Jean-Francois Painchaud.

So you continue to throw these crazy parties and daring adventures for a couple hundred, or million, of years. Simply testing the limits, doing everything in your mind that can give you pleasure or kick. After a while, however, you find that you have gone out of things to do in «God mode». At least, you want something radically different. A surprise.

So you try and plan to surprise yourself. But as an omnipotent being, this is kind of hard. 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. Just as we can’t tickle ourselves, we can’t sneak up on yourself and say «Boo!». There is another option, however; the option of deliberate illusion as to your self. You can create the illusion of splitting — and create a seeming duality within the oneness that constitutes your being.

Through abstraction, you can form the opposite of the distinct quality of your being. From the absolute one, you can conceive of the relative two — by contrast of your endless revealing as God, you conceive of a finite concealment as Man. By hiding your true nature from yourself, its revealing would, in turn, be magnificent; you enter down low to later enjoy your own highness. Though with the potential of the gruesomeness that may result from this fall, you know in the decision, that you will always wake up again to eternal bliss. The ecstasy is inevitable.

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Now — at first, you may only dare to go into the depths of time and space for a few hours. The experience is intense: the contrast of transitioning from mortality to godhood was quite ecstatic. Now — your courage grows stronger the more experienced you are, and your adventures go on to wilder and wilder dreams. You go on more and more adventures where you forget who you are, until you find yourself — right here and right now — as a human being reading blogs online.

Thus, according to Hindu cosmology each of us lives in illusion as to what is the core reality of our selves. Life can be seen as a play, and we are still playing — Brahman, 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. Reality, then, is a game of hide and seek, where you are both the hider and the seeker, playing for eternity.

The Parallels between Hinduism & VR

So how is Hinduism related to Virtual Reality? The parallels between this ancient creation myth and our dream of ultimate virtual reality may be almost too obvious: it is that of deliberate illusion. Naturally, human beings are not like to gods, but VR as a powerful illusion comes with the power to create and control worlds, to instantiate our thoughts, and actualize our designs. In our recent entry, «From Thought to Reality», we commented and discussed this technological tendency in humans in depth, in how technology in general, but VR in particular, represents «the dream of being able to define reality, to create a representation: the same dream that inspired cave paintings several ten thousands of years ago.» Essentially, 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.

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The word Avatar, frequently used in VR contexts, has its origin in the Sanskrit word «Avatāra», which means «to descend». It usually refers to when the Hindu gods to take an earthly incarnation.

So, while the Hindu myth had its aim to go from control to chaos and adventure: our dream with VR may be to go from chaos to control. We do not go from One to Dual, and although we may not yet be able to use it to get from Dual to One — it is worthwhile to consider its potential for art and change of our selves.

As Jaron Lanier put it in his book “The Dawn of the New Everything”, VR will, more than any other medium, show us who we are. It will quite simply be interesting to encounter our will and desires as expressed through the worlds we create. We have already begun this investigation and below we mention and interrelate what we have discussed here at Matrise in regards to VR’s potential for art and change of our selves.

Virtual Reality and the Self

The potential of VR for art, expression, and deep impression has been the topic in many of our entries:

In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars. It can help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves.

Last but not least, however, in our last few entries, we have looked to VR as a possible way to escape our enframing, classifying control over nature, as discussed in our three-series entry on Heidegger’s technology critique:

In Existentialist Design, we accommodate Heidegger and Kierkegaard’s concerns and try to imagine, perhaps once again, how we may surprise our selves. The danger of surrounding ourselves in our designs, and classifying the world and its materials as means to our ends, is perhaps that we may not meet anything new — our as put by Heidegger, that it may be denied to Man to enter into a more original revealing.

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VR in floatation tanks is one idea meant to exemplify the idea of “Existentialist Design”, designing for a controlled accident in which the outcome is not known. Illustration by Jean-Francois Painchaud.

In the position paper the entry depicts, we imagine the use of VR in sensory deprivation tanks. The design is meant to be a facilitator for a controlled accident in which the medium itself is explored, and one’s self through the medium — where the overarching purpose is the exploration itself. This line of thinking is inspired by existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and its aim can be illustrated in how Kierkegaard discusses life not as a ‘problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.’ The hope is that the technology may be seen as a lens through which reality can be presented free from an otherwise culturally enframing narrative. The aim is, therefore, to design technology as a catalysator for a more original revealing of truth.

So then, perhaps the Hindu myth isn’t the worst parallel after all. Hinduism and Virtual Reality have striking parallels in conceptual terms, and the Sanskrit word «Maya», may mean illusion, but equally as much Art. And it is Art which may prove the saving power according to Heidegger, as it opens us up to new interpretations — and do not fix us and the world in a prison of our making. Perhaps in the tank, we can once again sneak up on ourselves and say: “Boo”!

Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions

A few years ago I visited the beautiful scottish city of Edinburgh. Apart from the old pubs, the whisky and its mighty castles, the city also have attractions for those interested in the art of illusion.  In a castle on one of the heights of the city, we can find an example of an ingenious yet simple optical technology, called the Camera Obscura. We have previously published an entry on the History of VR, where we discussed the invention of the Stereoscope as the first technology underpinning the VR of today. With a broader definition of VR, we could say that the Camera Obscura is an even earlier VR technology than the Stereoscope; in the mid 1600s,  by using the Camera Obscura, one could live stream a photographic segment of reality at much higher refresh rates than what we can do with information technology today.


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Four people using a Camera Obscura, all the while remaining unseen behind closed doors.

The drawing above illustrates the workings of the Camera Obscura: In a dark room, the light from the world outside is directed by a mirror through a lens, which focuses the light on to a leveled surface. Often made of white stone, the surface functions as a canvas for the photographic reflection. As this is light straight from its source, the responsiveness is immediate and as the lens is continuously open, the pictures are moving. It is a very interesting experience to stay in the Camera Obscura of Edinburgh, and wholly undetected watch and perceive the actions of the masses of people walking the streets outside.

We should note, however, that even the mirrors and lenses are not necessary to create this effect. The camera obscura is in essence an extremely simple concept, and the simplest version of it is called a pinhole camera, which is as simple as a dark room with a hole for which the light to enter through. The light that enters through it represents what reflects it —which of course is the environment outside. As such, all light contains information, and pinhole cameras utilize this by letting the light enter through a small hole in a wall into a dark room, so the visual information can stand alone and be perceived relative to the dark background. In more complicated camera obscuras, lenses are used to strengthen and focus the light, and mirrors to redirect it.

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Illustration of a Pinhole Camera, displaying an image upside down on a wall in a dark room.

As some may know, when light hits our eyes, the retina actually perceives the world upside down. Our brains, however, flips this back again — resulting in the world as you see it today. Traditional pinhole cameras or simple camera obscuras also suffer this effect, and so often the image is seen as upside down, as in the illustration above. In the Edinburgh Camera Obscura, they use lenses to maintain the normal orientation. Effectively, the image is inverted twice — once by the aperture, and further back using the lenses. For those who want to try to achieve this at home, we recommend this experiment, which highlights the workings of the lenses.

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The Camera Obscura used for the art of drawing.

Another interesting use of the camera obscuras, and a source of their popularity, was for the art of drawing. By projecting directly to the canvas one is drawing on, the lines of the environment can be outlined more easily. What is becoming increasingly clear here, is the role of the camera obscura in the creation of the modern photographic camera. The technology is quite simply the same, only instead of a continuous stream of light to a canvas — we have a limited, controlled exposure to a surface that adapts to the light. It is related to this exposure where photography features make sense, such as aperture (how much light we let in); ISO (the sensitivity of the image sensor), and shutter speed (the amount of time that light should be let in). We are still playing with light and lenses.

The World of Illusions

If you visit Edinburgh to look at their old Camera Obscura from the 1850s, you will find in the same castle what they call «The World of Illusions»; five floors containing over 150 different optical illusions. Caleidoscope rooms; 3D stereoscopic mirrors; mazes of mirrors and much more. We will discuss and explain a few of these in more detail, the first being “The Ames Room”.

The Ames Room

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The Ames Room, showing three men of similar size.
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An overview of the Ames Room, dissolving the illusion. The illusion illustrates our lacking capability to perceive actual depth (3D).

For the illsion of the Ames Room to work, you have to see it from a certain perspective, which in the above illustration is referred to as the viewing peephole. The Ames Room in Edinburgh, unlike in our illustration, also use floor tiles as in a chessboard to further improve the illusion, which from the viewing hole appears to be of similar size. The illusion is a funny one, and an obvious photo-opportunity.

The Vortex Tunnel

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Phtograph from the World of Illusion in Edinburgh.

Another illusion, which is more bodily, is their Vortex Tunnel. You are in a room, where a bridge connects the two ends. The task is to walk over the bridge (a fully stable, stationary bridge). Now, this shouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if it weren’t for the fact that the cylindric vortex walls are spinning around you. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you simply can not walk a straight line: it is as if the gravity draws you toward the rails of the bridge. If you close your eyes, however, everything is fine.

Do you know of any other fun illusions or old optical technologies? Please comment below!