Thinking about Embodiment in VR

“VR is perfect for things you couldn’t do in the real world, but not for things you wouldn’t do in the real world. Flying to the moon like Superman is okay. Participating in virtual mass murder—especially if it is designed to be realistic—is not. This is a big deal. Everything we know about training in VR points to the realization that the medium is incredibly influential on future attitudes and behavior. We don’t want to train future terrorists on VR, or desensitize people to violent acts.”

Excerpt From: Jeremy Bailenson. “Experience on Demand.” iBooks.

I assume Bailenson’s statement about virtual mass murder is specifically geared toward a game that would portray you as a serial killer, but I wonder how that works with military, war, and first-person shooter games. Bailenson also describes from the above book three things to consider when creating VR. Does it need to be in VR? Don’t make people sick? Be safe.

Superhot (published by Superhot Team) is a first-person “shooter,” made for a lot of platforms, but I played it for the first (and only) time on the Oculus Quest. I quote the word shooter because you can pick up different weapons other than a gun to kill your assailants. You are loaded into a white room, with a white box to your left with a weapon on it. The first task is to figure out how to grab a weapon and shoot or stab the bright red bodies walking towards you. These bodies explode into shards of red when you are successful in making contact and as they drop their weapons, you can grab them and other weapons also appear around the board as well.

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The game requires you to duck, stab, shoot, dodge, hide, and find your way through a maze of white and red. I found my anxiety level rising as more and more red bodies came my way; it seemed as if they were so close, so quickly, and I had no time to respond. I found the world very disorienting and one time ended up lunging out of the way into my parent’s television. However, my 16-year-old cousin had no problem. Response time has to be very quick in this game. I found it difficult to grab the weapons and often died trying to get a weapon before I was killed by an oncoming red body.

I did not play this game long, the physical room was in jeopardy, but I can imagine how this game would appeal to people who like first-person shooters. I am not one of those people, however, the striking, clean artwork of red on white was stunning. The precision needed to pick up and hit your assailant required a skill I did not have, but perhaps if I kept playing, this game might heighten my reflexes. I wonder if I would have the same reaction in a non-VR platform? A little more distance between myself and the game might make all the difference.

Where is Superhot on the mass-murder spectrum? Even though it is not designed to be realistic, there are elements of realism that make you react as if you are being attacked. How realistic does the experience need to be to be considered mass-murder? How does the anxiety and frantic speed provoked in order to maim a body differ in the virtual world? Is it easier to stab or shoot this body because of their faceless and shard-like appearance that explodes when attacked of shards? Is this body’s absent frame enough to remove the empathy the player feels when completing these violent actions?

When a trigger is pulled or a stabbing motion practiced, it is imprinted on the body. The impulse, instinct, and musculature are trained into the muscle memory of the player’s body. When the repeated actions are practiced they are then housed in the player’s body as they complete this game and after. This is why VR is used for flight simulators and quarterbacks as they research gameplays.

Where is the line drawn and who determines whether VR content falls under the realm of “training future terrorists” or “desensitizing people to violent acts?”

Tilt World’s 2nd Iteration

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KJ, Tara & Keith

My final “Tilt Brush” iteration this semester was an installation/performance during ACCAD’s open house on April 5th in the Motion Lab. The audience/participants entered a circle of projection screens where cardboard boxes, feather boas, pool noodles, and random small balls littered the space. Tasks were written on cards around the space for the audience to complete such as, “Build a castle.” Two performers were also in the space, one acted as safety and instigator of movement (KJ Dye), while the other (myself) was immersed in VR. As the performance transpired, painted traces of the immersed’s VR experience was projected throughout the space.

I wore the VR headset in the black void of Google’s Tilt Brush and except for running into the occasional cardboard box obstacle or feather boa adornment I was in my own world, a world absent from that of the audience-participants. People came in, sat on blankets or “played” in the space while KJ and I completed our score.

The technology stopped working at the beginning. A tower had been created out of cardboard boxes and was possibly obstructing the view of one of the cameras making it difficult for us to complete part of the score that began on the floor. The house I was to build, the tracing of bodies and the reflection of looking at the house from a transported place had to be skipped over. We completed this iteration with the standing portion of the score.

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KJ crawling through a box and Tara wearing a boa. Keith is a spectator.

Documentation was also on the fritz, schedules had been mixed up and although Oded filmed the event, his video was corrupted. Technology often breaks or doesn’t work at moments when I am around. However, even though it didn’t work perfectly, I’m not sure it mattered. From my perspective, my world was cutting out, but from everyone else’s perspective (from what I have gathered so far from people’s explanations of what happened) they didn’t notice. It was swirling, surrounding colors in a space where the audience became performers. They watched me navigate blindly through a messy environment with KJ keeping me safe and directing my movement in alternate routes.

There was a push and pull to KJ and my relationship. Do I allow her to draw for me or do I draw residually? When she stops me, do I let her? Ideas of permission and control came up for me, perhaps, in part, because I wasn’t able to see her. One of the most unexpected things was that I have no memory of what the audience was doing while I was in VR. When performing without a VR headset, I could remember who came to see the event and what they did. But here, I only remember the brief time I took the headset off and hugged my babies because it wasn’t working. That moment is particularly magical for me because it is the only moment I knew what the space looked like and when I took my headset off the first thing I saw were my two girls.

Reflecting back to the beginning of this project, I was planning on short iterations of three different projects. The other two fell away as I became enamored with objects in space and the theory of absence/presence introduced in Dr. Nadine George-Graves Performing Bodies. In Leder’s “The Absent Body” the idea of yourself as nullpoint played right into the idea of yourself in VR. Sensation at the forefront, other theorists exploring perception (Merleau-Ponty), subjection, and the “zero point of orientation” (Husserl) informed my interest in these two worlds.

Finally the use of task to empower the participant in a way that the performer is empowered. Through Freire’s ideas of liberation pedagogy and praxis, I found a connection between Freire’s definition of praxis and what is happening in participant environments. Freire’s definition of praxis, “reflection and action upon the world to transform it,” can be applied to these environments. I was transformed. KJ protected me and the audience’s world left traces that were beautiful, creative and a reminder that they were there too, even though I didn’t see them.

Click here or here to view two of 12 traces created during the semester of rehearsals I had inside of Google’s Tilt Brush. During these rehearsals, I was researching how to create an improvisational score that I would paint live.  These are traces 11 and 10. (These links are best viewed and interacted with on a touch screen, like your phone or tablet, you can swipe around to see different angles and zoom in and out. They will only work on computers with enough computing power.)

Photos from Tilt World Sandbox

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, a Sandbox is something Norah uses in her Research Studio class that allows room for change and brainstorming of a group. In the following photos by Dan Shellenbarger (thank you!!) he documented some experiments in my sandbox in February. This project, titled “Tilt World” is an exploration of how an embodied mover informs physical painting in VR using Google’s Tilt Brush while an audience creates an outside environment using found objects.

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Photos and Drawing by Dan Shellenbarger (you’re awesome!)

The stakes got a little higher this semester

We are now beginning week 5 and I have no idea where the time went. I have read the entire Emergent Strategies book by Adrienne Marie Brown and I’ve learned Emergent Strategies can be placed on your entire life. Change the lens, change the world. We’ll see.

I’ve been working on creating something using Tilt Brush in VR and so far I realize I like to create houses and known environments. I find the disembodiment disorienting and exciting. You have no hands or legs, only a mind, vision, and sound if you wanted it inside Tilt Brush land.  I hopefully will get a chance to try out an improvisational score I’ve built this week. It’s based on the sensations I’ve felt inside the system so far and some brief interactions with some other dancers. Click here and here to see some things I’ve created so far to glean inspiration.

I have a lot more agency this semester. If I have assignments I have to decide how I want to do them and learn from my mistakes. I guess it’s good I decided last semester I was ready to begin failing. All of my classes ask me to present/teach material at some point. I have my MFA required paper in my Theory course (Performing Bodies with Dr. Nadine George-Graves) where I have to create my own topic and defend it. My Research Studio course is basically created by me to build a project (Tilt Brush) using the scope of Emergent Strategies, the resources of ACCAD and the others in the class. This week I’m teaching a class for my fellow graduate students. Thank goodness for my technique class, although it’s hard in a different way.

It’s all hard, it’s all good and I’ve finally got my engine revved up. Now if only we could stop having -6-degree weather and snow days.