The return of Virtual Reality – who are the puppets and who is pulling the strings?

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illustration: Richie Penno

As virtual reality technology continues to develop, Getintothis’ Jono Podmore weighs up the forms’ pros and cons. 

Sometime over 20 years ago, a friend and I took time out from a punishing studio schedule to spend a little of our ill gotten gains swanning around London’s West End. We found ourselves in The Trocadero, which boasted a fabulous, futuristic virtual reality game.

WICKED!

VR was a massively hot topic at the time. Virtual Sex was the hippest techno album drawing on that most thrilling of potential VR applications, and there were high hopes that donning a headset and disappearing onto the information super-highway to ponce around dressed as a Samurai was virtually a reality. Even adults were reading novels such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer. After all, this was an aspect of the future we’d been promised since we saw Tron as teenagers. So I paid the seemingly enormous cost at the time and had a go.

The three players stood on a raised platform facing away from each other; donned plastic helmets with the VR goggles and swayed around, each waving a plastic gun. Despite the Tron-esque graphics and barrage of sound effects, to say the experience was a disappointment falls well short of the mark. It was crap.

First up was the utter sense of vulnerability and social isolation standing there on a pedestal in public, effectively blindfolded, self-consciously moving around to stimulus only I could see.

Getintothis’ Dick Gently kept abreast of developments at Tidal so you didn’t have to. You can revisit his thoughts here and see if he was right!

Next up was the misaligned stereoscopy: a side effect of immersion in cyberspace appeared to be chronic double vision.

And as with all digital audio-visual experiences, as part of its very nature, there was latency – the lag between my actions and my gozzy perception of them was ridiculous. All this with the benefit of an idiotic plastic box on my head.

By remaining aware of my actual surroundings I was completely uncomfortable, but to give up entirely to this simplistic, violent, graphic world was even more unpleasant as I was totally isolated, and both visually and physically impaired. This is why, despite our increasing addiction to digital media and gaming, VR died a death in the 90s and we all moved on.

Since then of course the technology has improved and processor power has reduced latency to almost insignificant levels, but the anti-social nature of VR is a problem that will never go. It’s inherent in the very concept, and it looks like this:

This is a technology that’s had 20 years to enter the mainstream and has consistently failed – with pioneers in the field filing for bankruptcy as early as 1990. It goes against the grain of what many of us are trying to achieve in our lives: greater awareness of our surroundings, and more profound social interaction and empowerment. The driving force of the digital world as we know it is social networking, not cutting ourselves off completely from others and our environment in a world created for us by unscrupulous entertainment moguls.

And yet, there is now a sudden renewed interest in VR – everyone is talking about it; The techies, the academics, comedy philosophers. It’s the future of the music video. The future of paintball…and even the future of Hollywood! Yes – there was even VR in Cannes.

Shortly before he died in 2011 I had a long chat with Peter Przygodda about the future of filmmaking. Peter was one of the most influential film editors of the 20th century. His most lasting contribution was as editor of Wim Wenders’ films – piecing together Wim’s improvised and chaotic footage into powerful, flowing narratives. His predictions were bleak.

The growing obsession with technology and special effects were, in his view, driving cinema back into the tent of the magic lantern sideshow. He had personally been put under pressure to edit out character development, elements of narrative, and to distort the pace of films in order to make way for expensive special effects. He was a tough and respected character and could fight his corner, but younger editors were reduced to butt editing the explosions, the animations and the car chases together. All at the expense of content that spoke of any humanity, or that stimulated the intellect rather than produced adrenaline.

This process will intensify as Hollywood degrades itself further by embracing this anti-social gaming technology. So what could possibly be driving all this interest and investment into VR? The link to cinema provides a clue.

Leading lights in the dumbing down of cinema are companies such as Imageworks. They are currently promoting the gentle and questioning intelligence of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass – but now proudly reduced to little more than an SFX free for all. This is alongside their stock in trade of the language of cinema as nothing more than promo for games: Suicide Squad and The Angry Birds MovieImageworks is not an independent organisation but part of Sony entertainment.

The Sony Archives appeared in April 2016 on Wikileaks: “The Sony Archives show that behind the scenes this is an influential corporation, with ties to the White House (there are almost 100 US government email addresses in the archive), with an ability to impact laws and policies, and with connections to the US military-industrial complex…Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton is on the board of trustees of RAND Corporation, an organisation specialising in research and development for the United States military and intelligence sector…”

VR is now the hot technology for military training, remote control of drones and, perhaps most horrifyingly, torture – and the CEO of Sony is on the board.

Take a look at the Virtual Reality Society’s website; “2016: the year of VR?” it asks. Then we find out that the year of VR will look like this.

These are the military applications the site boasts:

There are more military applications available to whet the palate of your dictator of choice across the web.

The military aspect of VR is even being touted as something chic – training to take out civilians in the Middle East couldn’t be more fashionable than when you’re wearing the VR headset, or train in teams of up to 13 as seen in this rousingly patriotic clip!

Note the scenarios. VR is being used to train soldiers for civil warfare. These are not battlefield settings; these are cities – preparing the military for warfare on our streets, for combating civil uprisings. As the worldwide application of austerity bites further, our VR trained infantry may end up wandering down your street.

In a way, perhaps the most spine chilling aspect of this trend is the potential use of VR for torture. This article by Simon Parkin appeared in the New Yorker in May. In it he quotes from a report made by Johannes Gutenberg, from the University of Mainz, Germany; “The power of V.R. to induce particular kinds of emotions could be used deliberately to cause suffering… Conceivably, the suffering could be so extreme as to be considered torture.

With recent US and UK adventures in the middle east, it’s not a great leap of the imagination to envisage rooms of prisoners of war in absolute psychological agony wearing VR headsets. That’s if it’s not already happening. The CIA has used music for years for torture and psychological control, with Eminem, Queen and Marilyn Manson in the top ten

Now just add the headset and you’ve got even more profound torture.

Getintothis’ Jono Podmore regularly ponders intellectual minefields. Read his enlightening archives here. 

As Parkin notes: “Capcom reports that, after a few minutes with (VR game} Kitchen, many players tear off their headsets in an attempt to flee the scene.” What happens when the player is naked and strapped down, with the headset attached to their eyes and ears for days on end?

So where does the humble consumer fit in to this degrading pattern? Apparently Military standard VR and consumer headsets are now of similar quality, or in the case of the Oculus Rift headset are one and the sameTorture ready technology!™

The Oculus rift headset can cost as little as $599 in the states but will set you back up to £1200 in the UK. This is only a controller and playback system; you then have to have an Oculus ready PC or Xbox to hook it up to, and of course pay for the games, which will become a rolling expense. So where does all that money go? We’ve seen already the close financial ties between Sony and the military. What’s happening here is the military is employing a contemporary capitalist model. In the way that Uber drivers need to pay for their own cars, or Deliveroo need to provide their own uniforms, the consumer is paying for military R&D. By buying one of these headsets, this torture equipment, you’re investing heavily into military hardware, software and R&D but without getting shares or dividends. Popular ownership of shares is becoming an outmoded model of capitalism it seems.

The consumer provides the finance and the content – the corporation takes the wealth. All this promoted and sold to us with the smiling, clownish face of fun.

Despite the dark motivations behind the promotion of VR, shady behaviour within the games and entertainment industry should not really come as a surprise.

In summer 2014 a number of prominent women in the shockingly macho and male dominated video games industry became the target of abuse that ranged from sexist tweets up to threats of rape and murder. The whole debacle became known as Gamergate The attacks on these women were co-ordinated by groups within the industry. Although this became a legal issue and the harassment has been roundly condemned, have a quick look around and you realise it’s still resolutely a world of boys with the toys.

Take this lot for example. One of the few companies that present their staff, and as if by magic there’s a WOMAN! But on closer inspection we find that Gisela is in fact the office manager. An invaluable position but basically it’s clear, even from her expression, she could be the office manager in a company making hats. Elsewhere on the site it’s 99% males. So it’s no surprise their contribution to world culture is the game Just Cause 3. This ultra violent shooter set in the Mediterranean boasts a weirdly encephalitic protagonist, who encounters a handful of subservient, token, secondary female characters, which are either based on the male roles, or simply there as sex objects.

This company is by no means the worst, simply an average, which demonstrates by its sad and tokenistic attempts to cover it up, the utterly sexist nature of their business. We are all degraded by shit like this.

There’s more to come! Next year will see “the first big open-world game to get an official, studio-released virtual reality mode.”

Fallout 4, a game with some of the highest worldwide rankings is about to be released in VR format, encouraging a sizeable fan base to shell out for the HTC Vive VR headset. There are promises that Doom may be next. The PR for VR seems to know no bounds.

I know for a fact that there are strong social ties between VR, games and SFX companies. They are in each other’s pockets: festival-goers partying together, and often with the capital to supply the drugs. You’ll find them at the more obvious and mainstream European festivals this summer. Yet these fun-lovin’, superficial, MDMA munching gamers are actually in the pockets of the military: doing their master’s bidding, gleaning the funds and another handful of saps ready to don the headset. To a degree unconsciously, they are looking out for the socially isolated, infantile and vulnerable like themselves. Lost little souls in need of escape, but inadvertently paving the way for brutal regimes the world over to crush their enemies, to silence those that speak out against oppression. Saddest of all are perhaps the older ones. Still with the mind-set of 8-year-old boys; playing with toy guns and imagining themselves as the ultimate macho, but in reality more like Gepetto from Pinocchio, vainly trying to breath life in to their puppets.

Meanwhile the real killers; dirty, covert and unheroic, are rubbing their hands in glee at sight of these men/boys competing with each other to provide funding for them. Despite the persuasive and surreptitiously soft power of the military and the entertainment giants, there is another, more genuine narrative that will not go away.

We’re not all suffering from the various forms of social and psychological arrested development so inherent in the games industry, so it won’t be easy to convince a population in desperate need of genuine experiences to spend a fortune on spectacles to see into a world of vacuity and abandonment. The genuine thrust of our culture remains intact and critical. Novelist David Foster Wallace who died in 2008 predicted the impact of VR porn: “[It is going to become] more and more pleasurable to sit alone, with images on a screen given to us by people who do not love us, but who want our money. That’s fine in low doses, but if it’s the mainstay of your diet you’re going to die. In a very meaningful way, you are going to die.”

This image came in for great criticism as it clearly represented a potential dystopian future, with the elite played by Mark Zuckerberg strolling past cohorts of self-blindfolded underlings.

2048

To quote Simon Parkin; The scene… is not alien. Our species’ emigration into screens for both work and play has, for decades, been steady and unrelenting. The VR helmet simply completes the unnatural attachment by blocking out all peripheral vision, while the umbilical cord twizzles from head to computer.”

The fallacious “philosophy” creeping in to support VR extending into our lives that we are somehow living in a “computer simulation” anyway, is also getting short shrift. Promoted largely by business magnates with vested interests such as Elon Musk, this nonsense has become prominent enough to deserve scrutiny – and then of course dismissal. Here, for example, a philosopher and a cognitive scientist reassure us that: “The apple that looks so convincing to Musk on a VR computer screen would be utterly disappointing for a butterfly looking for a home or for a Robin looking for a worm.

The French government is on the brink of legislating against sexism in video games, by creating tax incentives for games companies that “promote a positive image of women”. Perhaps another avenue to more tokenism in this lad’s world, but a decisive step in the right direction.

One of the current buzzwords in western media is mindfulness.

There are courses available exploring all the potential aspects, and of course an thriving industry of self-help literature. Even the NHS is recommending mindfulness as an aid to physical and mental wellbeing:

An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of a banister as we walk upstairs.

Isn’t that precisely the opposite of the VR concept and experience?

If this is all too smart for you, why not read our Cosmic Slop archive? The guy who writes that is a total moron. 

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet one of the China’s finest living Tai Chi practitioners, Grandmaster Wu Kwong Yu. He referred to the current vogue in the West for mindfulness – and then with a slightly exasperated shrug of the shoulders said – “we’ve had this in China for 2,000 years”. The process of enhancing your awareness, not only your surroundings but also of physical and mental processes in yourself, is in Chinese culture considered essential for health and longevity – and consequently for developing greater social responsibility. Demonstrated by the nuanced understanding of the tiny fluctuations of nature in Chinese poetry, or the comprehensive self-awareness of the Shaolin Monk, these age-old principles are empirically tested over millennia – and are the very antithesis of VR escapism, both in impact and cultural value.

We’re living through critical times – businesses and products we trust are funding vicious and clandestine operations that would horrify us consumers. People we consider our friends could be inadvertent operatives for the most vile and brutal of forces that function beyond the power of our elected governments. Young adults feel powerless – there’s nothing to protest for, or against. But daily their rights, income and environment are being degraded.

So when you switch on the Xbox or the PlayStation, or even don the headset, and the protagonists in the game do your bidding, just ask yourself: who exactly is the puppet and who is pulling the strings?

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