InterCommunication No.14 1995


Twenty Centuries of Virtual Reality


Go Japanese


The following essay was written in 1991, before the flurry of media excitement over Virtual Reality. That flurry has now subsided, allowing VR to be considered as simply a point on the historical trajectory of media technologies, free from the nonsensical utopian rhetorics which surrounded it. Over 1992/3, the ideas in this paper were differentiated and developed in several papers.[*1]


Contrary to the imputations of technophilic rhetorics, it is clear that the real time interactive digital image processing known as Virtual Reality represents a realization of an aspiration deeply embedded in western culture. Jaron Lanier once remarked that Virtual Reality was the 'culmination of culture'. This is true, not in the sense that it is perfect, or that it is the digital gesamptkunstwerk, but that it can be seen as the product of a succession of western philosophical and cultural enterprises. This essay asks: how is VR continuous with historical aspects of western culture? I intend to sketch some of the significant landmarks along two related historical trajectories, of pictorial representation and the perspectival illusion; and of theatrical spectacles and immersive simulations. These trajectories are themselves underpinned by a consistent train of philosophical ideas, which include christian religious thought, renaissance humanism, Enlightenment rationalism and the condition of consumer culture. A central motivation for this essay is to emphasize that technologies do not simply happen, they are products of specific social and cultural histories. Technologies embody philosophical ideas. Here I have attempted to assemble some critical approaches to reveal the ideas reified in the technology we call VR.


The developers of VR have, perhaps unwittingly, inherited a humanistic world view (an attitude to life and a way of making pictures) which places the eye of the viewer in a position of command, a privileged viewpoint on the world. As such it is integrally connected with the rise of the notion of the individual. Asian imagery offers us alternative ways of looking or of picture construction, medieval european imagery offers another. Television offers a third, with its multiple viewpoints and rapid cuts which dissolve the body.
What if VR had developed along principles other than renaissance humanism? Could we feel we could inhabit it at all? How much is any so called VR dependant upon culturally acquired knowledge in order to be decipherable? Western perspective, or any system of pictorial representation, is in no sense innate, but a learned (often arduously) convention. But this is much more than a drawing technique. Inscribed into the conventions of renaissance perspective is a system of values which place the viewer at the single authoritative location. The power of the gaze. Virtual Reality has taken the limited technology of renaissance perspective (limited because it only works for a 10-15 degree angle of view) and has wrapped it right around the (powerful) viewer.
A recent article on Indian dance relates: "The sense of space was wholly long runs or soaring leaps or efforts to transform the stage into a boundless arena, a kind of metaphysical everywhere, but content within the realm of the body, comfortable with dimension and gravity, all ease, all centered." The author described the attitude of the dance teacher to the body " sense of elevation or extension... body self contained ...inwardness, inwardness ...In Hinduism" said the teacher "there is no beyond."1 This is an understanding of the relationship between the body and space antithetical to that inherent in VR. The corporeal sense of touch requires immediate physical contact with its object, not so the eye. VR arms the eye, it allows the eye a hand of its own, propelled (appears to be propelled) by the gaze itself. The primacy of the visual: action at a distance, the authoritative viewpoint of renaissance pictorial space. The entire body is propelled by scopic desire.
VR, as currently formulated, is a direct continuation of the tradition of illusionistic pictorial representation which was already in evidence in Pompeii. It was rediscovered in the renaissance along with classical optics. These two became integral ideas in the formulation of the renaissance humanistic world view, a view upon which our contemporary culture still depends. In the following centuries this illusionism became technologized, first through the use of optical drafting devices and through the development of photography, both mono- and stereo-scopic. This drive toward 'complete' or 'immersive' illusionism gained a time dimension with the development of cinema.
Parallel with this technologizing of illusionism is the long tradition of grand theatrical spectacles and of world's fairs, amusement piers and theme parks: these present another continuity of increasingly sophisticated simulation.This desire for the spectacular, the simulated, runs deep in western culture, and has always been carried as far as the available technology would allow. The following loose string of historical examples will serve as viewpoints from which VR may be considered.
Grand theatrical spectacles were regular occurrences through the renaissance and the baroque. In 1548 the Queen of Hungary welcomed Phillip II of Spain with a grand two day event spectacle which began as a dance tournament. During the dance, 'savages' attacked and carried off a number of the women when repelled. The next day 'knights' attacked the castle in which the 'savages' had barricaded themselves. During the battle that ensued, Phillip was served a banquet by nymphs and niaids, in the middle of the raging battle. The king sat safely at the center of the immersive spectacle.
Baroque ceiling painting must properly be included in this history of technologies of simulation. The vertigo inducing draftsmanship constructs for the viewer the sense of 'peering up into heaven'; the pictorial illusion dissolving the physical architecture. This historical utilisation of advanced simulation technologies by the church to present a persuasive representation of realities other than those we experience day to day is a clear example of the long interest of the church in Virtual Reality.
The latter part of the nineteenth century saw an extraordinary explosion is invention in technologies we might call proto-cinematic. It was not until 1838 that the british scientist Wheatstone built the first stereographic image projection system. The first multiple user stereographic projection system was exhibited in Lyons on 1890. Along with the well known time lapse photography of Marey and Muybridge, Edisons' kinetoscope and the cinematograph of the Lumiere brothers; numerous more or less bizarre optical/mechanical theatres were constructed.
Daguerre's Diorama was one such mechanized theatre, in which the audience was propelled on a revolving viewing platform, past enormous scene paintings which were painstakingly painted with differing degrees of transparency, such that by controlling lighting from the front and the back, the illusion of the transition from daylight to dusk to night, could be effected. After a faltering career as a hack realist and theatrical scene painter, Daguerre found great success in this invention, the revenue from which funded his photographic experiments, for which he is better known today.
The World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 sported several of these optical mechanical theatres. The Mareorama simulated a sea voyage from Nice to Constantinople via Venice. During the simulation, two screens, 40ft high and 2500 ft long were to be unrolled while the viewers stood on a pitching ships deck. The inventor of this system was yet another minor realist painter, Hugo d'Alesi, who spent a year on board ship painting the sections of the screens. A contemporary newspaper report trumpets: "Few visitors to the Exhibition will be able to resist the temptation ... to make an inexpensive voyage which involves no hazards whatsoever, yet is so natural.... even on the high seas, amid raging elements, one can get out and tread on terra firma at any moment."[*2]
A simulated Trans- Siberian Railway was another mechanical theatre which utilized a complex system of moving backdrops at the Exhibition. The railway was placed strategically nearby the Russian and Chinese pavilions and was built by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. There is recognizable here a certain historical continuity in the utilisation of high tech for corporate PR. The EPCOT scheme is not significantly different.
About the same time, the scholarly Marquis de Selby seems to have been engaged in experiments into a more truly 'virtual' tourism:
"During his stay in England, he happened at one time to be living in Bath and found it necessary to go from there to Folkestone on pressing business. His method for doing this was far from conventional. Instead of going to the railway station and enquiring about trains, he shut himself up in a room in his lodgings with a supply of picture postcards of the areas which would be traversed on such a journey, together with an elaborate arrangement of clocks and barometric instruments and a device for regulating the gaslight in conformity with the changing light of the outside day. What happened in the room or how precisely the clocks and other machines were manipulated will never be known. It seems that he emerged after a lapse of seven hours convinced that he was in Folkestone and possibly that he had evolved a formula for travellers which would be extremely distasteful to railway and shipping companies." [*3]


The technophilic rhetoric characteristic of VR, like other aspects of VR, not new. Utopian techno-hype seems to have been an aspect of technological PR since the beginning of the industrial revolution, as is evidenced by this piece of C19th doggerel:

Lay down your rails, ye nations near and far--
Yoke your full trains to Steam's triumphal car.
Link town to town; unite with iron bands
The long estranged and oft embattled lands.
Peace, mild-eyed seraph--Knowledge, light divine,
Shall send their messengers by every line...
Blessings on Science, and her handmaid Steam!
They make Utopia only half a dream.[*4]

The infiltration of the machine into western culture has induced the formation of an oppositional rhetoric, utopian and dystopian. The dystopian side is characterized by a panic at once psychological and pragmatic: the fear of redundancy, both as labor and as mind. On the Utopian side, Theodore Roszak notes the "salvational longings ... entwine themselves around new technology"[*5] and give rise to artistic pinnacles such as these. This verse encapsulates the Enlightenment calculus: Peace, Knowledge, Science, Technology sum to Utopia.
Thomas Edison imagined that his phonograph would find it's niche as acoustic 'happy snaps', a way of preserving the voices of beloved relatives after they died. He had no conception of the uses that corporate capitalism would put his invention to: ie the music commodity industry. Bazin makes similar observations regarding the cinema: " Those who had the least confidence in the future of the cinema were precisely the two industrialists Edison and Lumiere. Edison was satisfied with just his kinetoscope and if Lumiere judiciously refused to sell his patent to Melies it was undoubtedly because he hoped to make a large profit for himself, but only as a plaything of which the public would soon tire."[*6] Brecht eulogized over the emancipatory potential of radio.[*7] Television, contrary to the idealistic rhetoric of the early years, evolved not into an ideal democratic information network, but into a fantastic way to sell commodities and inculcate values. 8 VR has inherited the liberationist, democratic rhetoric that has surrounded these previous waves of new technologies. Sadly, in these cases, the rhetoric stands as a bleak counterpoint to institutionalized application of these technologies, which tend to result in a greater degree of domination, manipulation and control. We must recognize that the current condition of utopian euphoria for VR represents a stage in the familiar history of the development of technologies in a laissez faire capitalist economic context. The utopian rhetoric, no matter how heartfelt by the inventor community, is ultimately very useful PR for the corporate merchants.
At the now legendary Virtual Reality panel at SIGGRAPH'90[*9] , VR 'came out' at least to a community of '25,000 of it's closest friends, as Siggraph people like to refer to the conference. During question time, I suggested to the panel that, to my knowledge, there had never been a case in the history of the world when a ruling group did not avail itself of the most advanced technology in order to remain in power. I asked the panel why they thought Virtual Reality would be any different. I was not particularly surprised when the question was politely sidestepped.
It is common knowledge that tobacco and junk food corporations pay substantial amounts of money to have their product appear on Hollywood movies. Back in the '70's Richard Serra noted that in order to receive the delivered television broadcasts, the consumer pays $40 for every dollar invested by the networks.[*10] In the face of this, only a fool would wallow in the illusion that Virtual Reality will be any different. One can imagine possible Disneyland-style consumeristic virtual worlds with interactive and quasi intelligent cans of Coke and cuddly giant hot-dogs with sexy giggles. A virtual supermarket where the products lean out at youi from the shelves imploring you to buy them, explaining how you will be happier, healthier, sexier, wealthier...
In terms of corporate economics, VR serves the computer industry very well. It is intuitive (no learning curve, no consumer resistance) and calls for unlimited computer power. It thus fulfills the industry's need for Technological Desire: the transference of libidinal desire onto fetish objects which offer the promise of ecstasy but never finally consumate, driving the consumer to the next purchase the next purchase in a continual process of delayed gratification.


As early as 1967, Guy Debord observed that in modern societies : "... all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation."[*10] He quotes Feuerbach: "But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence,...illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness."[*10]

VR will slip frictionlessly into our culture because our culture has prepared us for it. I have suggested that every significant media technological development since the renaissance has been employed to create theatres of simulation. This idea was shared by Andre Bazin, who noted mid-century that: " The guiding myth...inspiring the invention of cinema, is the accomplishment of that which dominated in a more or less vague fashion all the techniques of mechanical reproduction of reality in the nineteenth century, from photography to the phonograph, namely an integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time." [*10]
This readiness for VR has been produced by such phenomena as Disneyland, Hollywood, Liposuction and Nintendo. Conceptually vacuous theme parks, anesthetizing cinema, interactive games that perpetuate the myth of the individual and the cult of violence-as-liberty. And perhaps most significantly, the acceptance that the body may be customized at will like some kind of hotrod. US culture now customizes its bodies the way it used to customize its cars. The body is a representation only, an external appearance, and may be adjusted to suit the taste of the owner. The absolute malleability of the Virtual Body is different only in degree. The attitude to the surgical customizing of the flesh, "body sculpting" and the designing of the Virtual Body both assume and reinforce the Cartesian duality by restating the body as pure representation. Thus VR is an easy step because the body is already a representation. I understand that during early April 1992, daytime TV host Jeraldo Rivera had liposuction live on TV in front of a studio audience. Gobs of yellow fat were sucked from his buttocks and injected into his lips and around his eyes.
How real is VR? The cultural underpinnings already in palce induce a general acceptance that VR does adequately represent 'reality'. TV and cars have done it. To a culture that thinks you can "experience" the countryside from inside an airconditioned car travelling at 60mph: very real. VR is as real as a picture of a toothache. A reality in which you can walk through walls with impunity, a reality which has no odor or temperature isn't very real. And construction of more and more complex and expensive interfaces is beside the point.
There is a paradoxical aspect to increased verisimilitude of simulation: as the representation becomes increasingly complex, the gap yawns: the greater precision only more clearly defines the ways and degrees in which the representation will not stand for the reality. This is all rather reminiscent of Arthur Dent's tea dilemma: "After a fairly shaky start to the day, Arthur's mind was beginning to reassemble itself from the shell-shocked fragments the previous day had left him with. He had found the Nutri-matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite entirely unlike tea. (my italics)""[*10]


One of the claims made of VR is that it constitutes a liberation from the mind-body duality. It is argued that VR achieves this by sidestepping the process of translation into, and out of, symbolic representation. This is called post-symbolic communication by William Bricken and others. This claim is, in my view, questionable. My sense is that it reinforces the Cartesial duality, replacing the body with a body image, a creation of mind. As such it is a clear continuation of the rationalist dream of disembodied mind, part of the long western tradition of denial of the body.
Lanier argues that "the way you talk to your body doesn't use symbols"[*10]. Fair enough, but what is then suggested to be a logical corollary doesn't follow: "you can make a cup that someone else can pick up...without ever having to use a picture or the word 'cup' create the experiential object 'cup' rather than the symbolic object"10 But a cup in VR is a representation, it is a stereographic image.You can't drink out of it.
There is clearly a paradigm shift in the VR experience, but it does not replace the symbolic with the 'real' (in the sense of experiential), rather it nests one within the other, or superimposes them, so that the object is simultaneously a representation and an experiential phenomenon. VR is a communications technology which on the one hand directly interfaces with the body, the kinesthetic, bypassing 'language'. But on the other hand, any VR is itself a giant (albeit interactive) representation, and thus just as subject to critical analysis as any other representation.

Now it is fair to say that the possibility of handing a co-participant in a shared VR a virtual object in the shape of a hyperbolic paraboloid is a more directly communicative gesture that to offer a written algebraic equation which must be decoded by the mind of the receiver. The Virtual form is doubly useful as the object is itself a visual representation of precisely that data encapsulated in the equation, and this mathematical information remains available. A plaster cast of the same form does not offer this fluid access to information. In fact William Bricken maintains that all the operations of symbolic logic can be performed in VR without recourse to symbolic languages, that logic is equivalent to inference in visual programing. Set theory, number theory, algebra can all be represented as objects in space that is non-symbolic and totally math-rigorous! Binary logic can be represented as open and shut doors, knot theory as fish swimming upstream over dams. "All computation is algebraic pattern matching and substitution (proven)"[*11] What is required is a new critique, a way of thinking about the meeting point between the immediate physiological reality of the body as lived in, and the critique of representation.


Although some military and industrial simulator systems utilise force-feedback or hydraulic motion simulation, the available 'civilian' systems synthesize only the visual and auditory sense inputs. But we live in our bodies, and a large portion of our sense of 'being in the world' is derived from our internal body senses, the sense of balance and the kinesthetic or proprioceptive sense in particular; not to mention the body surface senses that relate temperature, texture etc. A fully simulated 'body' experience would need to simulate all theses senses, but this is way beyond the range of current technologies. Thus Virtual Reality technology splits the body in two. The visual and auditory simulation presents a representation of a body to the eyes and ears, while the 'meat body' remains in the chair.
VR replaces the body with two partial bodies: the corporeal body and an (incomplete) electronic 'body image'. In terms of the rhetoric there is no question which is in the ascendant. This is a kind of sensory apartheid. A confirmation, rather than a liberation from, Cartesian dualism. The body representation of VR is, in this sense, a culmination of western culture. When we go into VR we enter a realm of pure mental abstraction, populated with 'ideals' Plato would recognise. Going into VR is like going to christian heaven, we finally leave the troublesome, messy body behind. All that remains of the body is the powerful gaze, the gaze that travels and conquers without physical limitation, the authoritative viewpoint of renaissance perspective finally freed to act.

Copyright Simon PENNY, May 1992 (with amendments 1995). All rights reserved by the author.

The cosmic dance. Ross Wetzsteon Village voice Feb11 1992 pp95

Quoted in Victorian Inventions Leonard DeVries. John Murray 1971 p126

The Third Policeman Flann OBrien, Plume 1976, p51. OBrien is here referring to an episode related in Hatchjaw's De Selby's Life and Times.

from the Illustrated London News, quoted in The Cult of Information, Theodore Roszak, Pantheon, NY 1986.p 45

ibid p45

The Myth of Total Cinema, in What is Cinema, volume 1, Andre Bazin. University of California Press 1967 p22.

The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication, Bertold Brecht. Reprinted in Video Culture, a critical investigation, ed John Hanhardt. Visual Studies Workshop/ Peregrine books 1987.

William Boddy has recently presented a study of the transformation of the rhetoric surrounding early radio in "Proto-VR: archeologies of electronic vision and the gendered spectator" Society for Cinema Studies conference 1992.

SIGGRAPH is the annual conference of the Special interest group on computer graphics and interactive techniques of the Association for Computing Machine.



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