Six pictures and three reflections

John Potter, Reader, University College London

I’ve been enjoying reading the posts about the visit to Japan and other aspects of the knowledge exchange network on the ukjapanvr blog.  My contribution about the trip is personal, like Deborah’s (great, entertaining) posts, and takes the form of six things that stick in my mind from the visit, a mix of thoughts about the technology, the place, the people, the experience, followed by 3 reflections on VR. From onboarding to agency, from immersion to watching, from the social to laminates.

Picture 1: Onboarding

One of the things that interests me about Virtual Reality (VR), in relation to storytelling and immersion, is the ‘onboarding’ process; the way in which a user of the experience is helped to be a part of the world even before they put on the headset. This was one feature I wanted to observe in the AHRC-ESRC network.  But, even before the others arrived and started up the network, a kind of ‘onboarding’ was already a feature of my first hours in Tokyo.  To arrive there from anywhere is to immediately become immersed in a massive ecosystem, built as much on the detail of ancient cultural laminates and patterns of thought is it is on pixels and light and sensory overload.  I know that many places are like this and the being lucky enough to travel anywhere and have your senses challenged is a luxury. But I think Tokyo is perhaps one of the most immediately mesmerising and engrossing places I have ever been to.  So, I was ‘onboarding’ right from the journey into the city from Narita Airport, to when I first checked into the Super Hotel in Shinjuku-Kabuchiko, to when I first set out for a meal in Tokyo:  ordering while watching K Pop on the massive screen opposite my table on the 5th floor of a building on the edge of Shinjuku.  Trains trundling ceaselessly over the bridge. People and lights everywhere.  I was immersed. And stayed that way for the whole time.

Picture 2: Agency

We were there to explore VR and its potential for immersive, locative storytelling. The blogposts have explored that in different ways.  Picture 2 for me represents the altercation between agency and surrender in immersive VR.  Moving into a VR world can – I think – be initially experienced as a loss of agency, a kind of surrender. In the VR park in Shibuya, I experienced the wrangle for agency in a system which, at first, seems to entangle you in its own worlding, even if you gain a ‘controller’ to hold. But in most games, in the one pictured for example, there was a feeling of space in which to operate, even as you surrendered to the movement, to the flying, and to the object of the game itself.  In the picture, Deborah is documenting Angus and Dylan on the Magic Carpet ride which, for me, was one of the most striking experiences there. The motion was all encompassing – but the sound also (which I will come back to), and, not for the first time, the importance of the environmental and onboarding commentary from the VR park worker.  So, the carpet, the ropes as boundary, the controller, the climb up onto it, the ‘worlding’ of it. And, for me, when it was my turn, trying to find a place in that world, to be agentive as well as immersed.

Picture 3: Immersion

The bungee jump experience in Shibuya was one of the times I stepped away from the brink of joining in. Here, being as far from ever going on an actual bungee as ever, I was happy to document a colleague’s ‘immersion’ and here is Dylan about to swing out over the abyss. In this example, I felt that the way the whole performance, from consenting, with a signature on a form, to whatever comes next in terms of your health – along with the hiding of the monitor from the watching queue of expectant users, was part of onboarding and also surrender: the immersion is already in place before the immersion.  Judging from the reaction of the various colleagues who went on it, the struggle for agency is won over by the system in this experience and the immersion is pretty full-on. Well, perhaps, another time…

Picture 4: Watching

Later in the week we visited more university research labs and exhibitions.  The picture shows Angus in a piece of work by Kota Isobe – Shadow after Shadow.  Here, one of the compelling features of the experience was the way in which the watchers were complicit in the performance. Angus is moving in the space and things are happening in the VR world but also outside of it and onscreen and other people are complicit in it: at various times interacting and creating parts of it.  This drew attention to the ways in which queuing, watching and thinking about what is happening, or could happen, are all integral to the performance.  You cannot escape the feeling of being in the space, enclosed, immersed but also observed.  Shadow after Shadow exploits this and the need to find out how the system works, how it responds to you and even, possibly try to build a narrative from it…

Picture 5: The social

We took part in a tea ceremony.  Here, the onboarding was so much a part of the experience, from waiting outside the venue, to being taken into the space, to the careful attention paid to seating and the carefully spoken instructions.  With this the listening is part of the surrender to it all and the way in which the instruction informs and directs is key.

Also important is the way the present is cast in relation to tradition and artefact. This was the first time we were all simultaneously sharing the same experience in real time and the social came to the fore.  People watched each other for cues, and worked with a partner to make and serve the tea.  How can VR replicate the sociability, the sharing of an experience?  We would find out about a different shared experience, about as far from the serenity of the tea ceremony as it could be, later in the week at Joyopolis as we anxiously scanned a VR space for incoming zombies!

Picture 6: Laminates

Laminated experience in picture 6 was key, with the past overlaid onto the present.  I’ve told a number of people about this bus and the mixed reality experience and they usually tell me it’s the first time this technology has “made sense” to them! In the picture, Deborah can see the past overlaid on the present, riding on a bus which travels slowly through a mixed reality experience rendered by motion sensors and a headset.  The Archaeology department has made use of VR/MR technology to display a rendering of the village which formerly occupied the site of the university and you could see buildings alongside and even inside the present day structures. Here we experienced the environment as a series of laminates of past and present. And this surely has huge implications for the ways in which communities can come together and share the ways in which meanings are made about their spaces.

Three reflections

Firstly, every new digital meaning-making experience builds and represents a series of shifts in practices which elsewhere I’ve described as a kind of ‘dynamic literacy’.  With VR, some of what appears to be in play is how this builds on our expectations of sense making, from what we see of what others do and say, and from how we are introduced to it.

Secondly, the social remains an important aspect of the experience, from the actual shared happenings through to the ones we ask about when someone removes the headset. To be in the space and inducted together into something, heightens the immersion and the surrender to it. Certainly, our other shared experience, outside of the tea ceremony, a VR world in which we were all battling zombies in ‘real’ space and time was acknowledged as what it was: immersive, real, even shocking, certainly not forgettable.  But the tea ceremony first reminded us that it doesn’t always have to be this way and that sometimes you just need to listen, be on board and be in company.

Thirdly, the playful and ephemeral nature of play is part of the experience, as in the l testing out of a world, being agentive and adapting the narrative, even as you change the direction of travel of the experience, and, in turn, experience the provisionality of the world.

——- THE END ——-

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