Thoughts on Virtual Embodiment

hammer-tusk-SSFCaOyI1X4-unsplashI pop on my Oculus Go headset and venture into a different world. I’m surrounded by generally friendly, if odd-looking companions. Most of the robots or aliens or anime people just float by and ignore me. Others are bold to strike up a “conversation” by voice or a text message. It’s really awkward for newbies, and it has always remained a kind of odd novelty to me. Full-disclosure, I’m old, enough. But each adventure in worlds like AltspaceVR leaves me both intrigued and thinking deeply.

How should we think about different ways of relating and communing with each other, especially when using technology? What are some implications and questions that we should be asking in relation to innovations like virtual reality, online communities, etc.?

I’ll use an academic-sounding term for this: technologically mediated communion. We all know what this is like as we do it every day. It’s when we talk on the phone, message each other, make video calls, play online games in real-time using different communication tools, etc.

I think we can all agree that technologically mediated communion/relationships have practical value to provide a level of connection and experience that is preferable to no connection at all. I spend many hours a week in such mediated communication with team members, family members, etc. If we live across the ocean from each other, I value the chance to make the connection.

However, we must acknowledge that a technologically mediated relationship is missing important elements of true human connection. We are not present, together, in physical space. It is always “virtual” in some way.

Here’s a trick though, as technological tools increase in complexity and sophistication, it can feel to us as though our communion is becoming more real. This is where I want to begin a real conversation; the point where we begin to consider these mediated relationships and communities to be “just as good as” or “good enough” or even “the bright future” for us, especially if we’re talking about communities of faith and expressions of Church.

sky wires

How might we describe phases of experiencing “reality” apart from reality?

Let’s look at some steps of technological progress in our communication methods (with gaps, to be sure):

  • For millennia, we have depended on written communication. This gives us a very low sense of real presence of the person with whom we are communicating, but we communicate.
  • The inventions of auditory communication (radio, telephone, etc.) gave us an increased sense of presence–we can recognize the voice–but only a single channel of real communication.
  • Audio/Visual communication (video calls, Facetime, Skype, etc.) increase the sense of presence even more. More channels give us things like: 2D visuals, auditory signals, and some limited perception of body language.
  • Simple VR – through avatars in virtual worlds (AltSpaceVR, games, VR meeting technology) provides a crude simulation of reality, but even less sense of real human presence. We intuitively feel the disconnect (unreality) when we interact so our minds must decide to play along when we’re talking with our friend who is represented by a CGI human, an alien, animal, etc. In actuality, we’re back to more auditory cues to give us a sense of the real person we know. We get very little else.

As VR technology progresses, we will certainly see things become more “real” in appearance. We can expect more and more lifelike avatars and worlds; the gaming world proves this. It should give more of a sense of personal communion, but our brains always know it’s not real life. Our brains are hard to fool. We perceive the artificial space, motion, physics, environment, etc.

  • What about the addition of other sensory technologies, which will certainly come?  We’ll have tactile feedback through simple things like gloves, or even whole-body suits that attempt to mimic physical touch, though solving problems like mass of objects and normal physical motion through spaces will likely remain issues. Again, we’ll likely experience some increase in “believability” but likely never approaching the level to really “fool” our brains. Will it feel the same as really being with a person? Not really, but it may be a fun and practical substitute in some circumstances.
  • The next, and ultimate logical step is direct influence of our brain’s receptors through technology. We can imagine nanotechnology implants that are essentially imperceptible to us in a physical sense – no goggles, suits, etc. These may be able to stimulate so many micro facets of our brains that we would be unable to tell the difference between a real experience and something virtual. It’s extremely difficult to fool our brains and bodies, but it seems plausible to create a really realistic “dream” that might even remain clear in our minds.

Where could that take us? Is the next logical extension to be lives lived in dark spaces without any actual physical movement or interaction in the real world? We could be “living” completely in our minds and perceptions. Some may argue in favor of the ultimate extension of this – the abandonment of our physical bodies entirely – prone as they are to fatigue, disease, and limited in time and space. If our  brains are still required for consciousness (?) we could imagine truly dis-embodied tissue being sustained through some means as “all we would need” to be alive and experiencing life. Transhumanist ideas already posit this ideal. Many works of art speculate about these futures: The Matrix, Bladerunner, etc. But these tend to be dystopian visions of a future where artificial life forms, relationships, and virtual lives are not held up as ideal.

When I’m asking questions like these, I have to go back to the deepest levels of my worldview. Do we know what ours is? Can we trace an evolution, or a logical progression of a worldview that is reflected in the full embrace of virtuality?  These aren’t new ideas, for sure. Buddhism posits our world as an illusion. The early Church fought against the influence of Gnosticism which, among other things, held that the material physical world was evil and the spiritual world was good.  I’d suggest that, if our theology resembles Gnosticism, Christian Science, Buddhism, and Transhumanism, we will have few objections to raise with the direction of any technological developments, even in the evangelical Church.

However, if our theology and worldview follows the path of historic orthodox (small and big O) Christianity, then we must push back and question these developments and their proper place in our lives. Christianity has always held to the view that God created the physical world as good and that we, as created beings, are being transformed into the original image (ikon) rather than being released as pure spirits/minds in the End. Jesus rose with a body; he wasn’t a ghost. They’ll be different, for sure, but the Church has always taught that our bodies will be resurrected, not just our minds/spirits.

God created human beings to be in communion with Him, and with others, in a physical created world. A Biblical worldview affirms and assumes the goodness of the created world and the integrity of human beings. We are made in the image of God: body, soul, spirit. None of these “pieces” is optional or disposable. Each is important and has a role and healing in God’s redemptive salvation plan.

If this is true, it leaves us with some questions:

Are technologically mediated relationships and communities an end goal for which we should be pushing?

Is a virtual experience of worship, community, and relationships, as good, good enough, or the fullness of what God desires for us?

Or is there another place for the wise use of these kinds of technologies, one that helps to overcome some practical limitations, but one that doesn’t become an idealized end for which we strive?


Top Photo by Hammer & Tusk on Unsplash

Second photo by me.

Orchid Arboretums in 360 VR

A little fun with my (now-ancient!) Ricoh Theta SC VR camera.

I had part of a morning in Thailand to explore the Tweechol Botanic Garden outside Chiang Mai. I’ve been there several times and love to walk around the many garden sections. I hadn’t been inside these arboretums in the past, and love these kinds of environments.

This is a little walk-through in 360VR. The video quality isn’t great because of the limitations of this older camera. Pondering an upgrade now… 😉


A Few Thoughts on “The Limit” – New VR film from Robert Rodriguez

I’m looking for a narrative VR film I can really love and want to watch over and over again. Could it be, “The Limit?”

“The Limit” is Robert Rodriguez’ latest entry into the world of narrative filmmaking using VR technology. Released on November 20, 2018, it’s an action film that takes the audience on a brief journey to find out why some bad guys are chasing “us.” It’s not much more than that. It’s fun, but in the end not very ambitious as storytelling. Rodriguez, joined by his son, Racer on this outing, isn’t known for his thoughtful character dramas, but for action and trying new things. This film reflects those values. It’s a non-stop action sequence, with only a few moments of relief. For action fans, it may be the next thing. Or?

Let’s Talk Story
The story begins with “us” (the viewer) sitting in a bar, and meeting M-13 (Michelle Rodriquez) who is obviously a badass waitress. The filmmakers take little time to set up anything, but we quickly learn that we can’t speak and have some kind of AR “enhancements” that enable us to see bad guys. Other than that, we have no idea why we’re here. If you read the synopsis for the film, you’ll discover that we are “…a rogue agent with a mysterious past…” — whatever.

We are quickly forced to flee said bad guys with M-13. After that, we mostly get shot, help drive her Jeep, and suffer repeated blackouts after bad things happen to us. But, for some reason, we don’t seem to die from anything we suffer, including a gunshot to the stomach and a freefall from an airplane. Guess that all needs some explanation, which M-13 gladly gives in a long static monologue that tries to fill in a few details in an attempt to convince us that this all matters for some reason. Oh, we’re kind of alike. And now she’s got a plan and goal for herself. Finally! But it mostly involves us walking in to a poorly defended warehouse, killing the stupid henchmen, and confronting the Big Bad Guy (played by Norman Reedus of Walking Dead fame.) He wants something we’ve got, of course. A kind of slow, pitiful chase ensues. We have another blackout. But then there’s a twist ending. You get the idea. Oh, and the story will continue. Theoretically. If anyone would shell out for more. I’m not convinced they’ve given us anything to hope for. Michelle is badass and they treat her pretty well in terms of not really playing on her sexuality. Points for that.

Ultimately, as with many films in this genre, the story suffers for the sake of the experience. Why does this have to be? I’d call it more of a ‘ride-along’ experience. We (the audience) are immersed in the action but are almost completely passive characters, only taking initiative for a moment toward the end. So, we get to watch M-13, the real Protagonist, go through her journey that our appearance at the beginning seems to spark.

The problem with this, and many stories, is that we have no reason to care. We don’t know who we are, or who she is, other than a little backstory and a twist at the end. The stakes aren’t even that high for most of the film because it seems that we can just get shot, survive a car crash, a freefall from a plane, etc., and it’s no big deal. Guess “we’re” pretty badass, too. But “we” don’t say or think much of anything the whole time.

On the medium and techniques used in “The Limit.”
Just a note for would-be viewers; it’s not full 360 VR, more like 180 in a custom “Surreal Theater” that does fill in the other 180 with a dark cineplex, in case you want to see how cool it is to be alone in a dark cineplex.

It’s not an open world by any stretch. The directors choose and maintain our focus using the camera as in traditional cinema and it’s a completely linear timeline. The main difference here is the increased sense of immersion and some ability to look around a limited frame. I think it works pretty well, and it seems to me to be the best option for story-telling. If you let the audience just wander around, it’s hard to create a narrative flow and pacing. That works for exploring worlds in a game setting, but I don’t think we humans will lose our enjoyment of and desire for stories to be told to us. I’m not alone in thinking about ways to guide a viewer, using other cues (visual & auditory) to direct attention but without locking an audience’s POV one frame. But it’s a big challenge, to be sure. The directors do choose to pull us out of the POV a few times so we can watch ourselves drive away, etc. Also, they cut to insert shots that are from our POV, but are done in traditional cuts rather than “moving” us closer. It works fine.

Our character cannot speak for some reason. We communicate, very little, via some kind of text screen, but I can’t figure out where it may be located, if our body and face are supposed to be normal looking. At the beginning the logic doesn’t work. Maybe it begins to make sense later (spoiler!) when M-13 reveals that she’s also a biconically enhanced person. Can she see our communications in a kind of heads-up AR display?

The main problem with a lack of our ability to communicate is that the film is mostly a monologue by M-13. It gets really tedious when she has a long exposition scene where she puts the pieces together for herself and for us. Was this just lazy on the part of the writers, or an inherent limitation of the medium?

Final observation; my feeling is that running time on an immersive VR action film must be kept short. This film is really about 15 mins of actual narrative and Rodriquez made a good decision to keep it brief. Because the viewer is immersed and can’t control their point of view much, the intense action and motion will certainly cause some queasiness for many viewers. It did for me. I could never watch a feature length film without breaks if it is shot in this style. Maybe with some downtime scenes? I’m sure they took that into consideration, but it’s something for all of us to consider if we’re planning a VR film. On that note, an immersive story without all of the intense action is likely just fine for a longer run time. Then, the challenge is to have a real story. And, does anyone want to watch a ‘talky’ character drama in VR? Perhaps?

Other notes: I watched the 3D version on an Oculus Go headset. The film is delivered as an app from the Occulus story and includes a lot of behind-the-scenes material that I think will be fun to watch. The app download is pretty big, over 3GB,ut it’s not a problem to me. You can watch this sitting in a chair as the film is not a full 360 experience.

Why Use a Director’s Viewfinder? – A Tutorial in VR

Here’s a quick explanation of how I use director’s viewfinders – either physical finders (like the Alan Gordon Mark Vb) or smartphone apps (like the Artemis Director’s Viewfinder)

 

Note: I’m playing with VR/360video a bit more and getting my filmmaker’s brain around ways to use it for different kinds of stories. This isn’t really a story, but I got an urge to do a very quick tutorial in VR.

This hastily shot draft gives me ideas for the future. What do you think, does VR add, or detract from the experience? I’m already making my list of things I’d do differently, or add to the next one.

We’re all still learning here.

[Update: YouTube VR is now available on headsets like Occulus Go. You can watch it there, in Occulus, using this link: https://youtu.be/kayay5yl3nM ]

[Production Notes: I shot this with a very basic Ricoh Theta SC camera. I recorded the audio double-system, using a small smartphone lav mic plugged into a spare iPhone 4S sitting behind me on the chair. I synced the sound in Adobe Premiere CC and edited the clips there, exporting and uploading straight to Vimeo for hosting.]