Last month, Facebook-owned virtual reality company, Oculus, announced its new device, Oculus Go.
Go, the successor to Oculus Rift, is a cheaper standalone virtual reality (VR) headset and controller system set for release in 2018. The company boasts that the new system allows users to immerse themselves in over 1,000 games, social apps and 360˚ experiences, and step inside a personal portable theatre to watch movies, TV shows, sports and play games.
At a much lower cost than the previous iteration (US$199 compared to $599 for the Oculus Rift), Oculus Go is likely to become very popular.
Similarly, Microsoft partners, including Acer, Dell, HP and Lenovo, announced their own headsets in the US$299 to $530 range, built to the technology giant’s specifications. And Google announced its $99 Daydream View — up in price from $79 for the previous smartphone-headset model.
These increasingly affordable devices are likely to excite many. But VR has long been a part of our popular culture. Throughout its history, new VR technologies have forced us to ask questions about its impact on culture and society.
In my research on media, popular culture and ideology, I’ve traced some of the ways that new media have changed how we see and experience reality.
VR in popular culture
Following the arrival of photography in the 1830s, the diorama, and then the panorama, were built structures that reproduced scenes made to look like the real world. Panoramas and dioramas are still used in shopping malls, window displays, museums and galleries to emulate the appearance of the traditional town square.
The arrival of cinema, and then television, truly gave us a new sense of VR. Movies and TV brought scenes, fantasies and fictions closer to us.
The way we tend to imagine new fully immersive VR technology has come from its depiction in popular literature, film and television.
William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer (1984), deals with a VR “cyberspace” environment called “the matrix.” The book is a precursor to the 1999 film, The Matrix. Other popular sci-fi and cyberpunk films in the 1990s also portray the arrival of immersive VR. These films include Brett Leonard’s The Lawnmower Man (1992), Josef Rusnak’s The Thirteenth Floor (1999), David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995).
Star Trek: The Next Generation’s (1987-1994) holodeck showed a much more optimistic portrayal of the possibilities of VR. But unlike its depiction on Star Trek, VR is used in other works to question the impact of the media and entertainment in creating alternate and possibly harmful realities. Perhaps that’s a reflection of our suspicions about the dangers of media manipulation.
Propaganda, “fake news” and “alternative facts”
Recently, the idea of alternate or alternative realities has moved from the fantasy worlds of the big screen to the small real-time screens of the news. The idea of “alternate realities” has been brought into the spotlight by political commentators observing the presidency of Donald Trump.
Trump shows his disdain for the mainstream mass media by calling it the “fake news.” His former campaign manager and now adviser, Kellyanne Conway, coined the term “alternative facts” to support the false claims of former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
Spicer had claimed that Trump’s inauguration was the most highly attended in history. This was not true. The idea of so-called “alternative facts” shows that even fact, truth and reality have become politically divisive and contentious topics.
Much of the discussion around so-called “fake news” and “alternative facts” has also looked at the role of social media, such as Facebook (the parent company of Oculus). Social media has reportedly played a major role in circulating false information that helped to get Trump elected.
Part of the problem with social media is that it produces information bubbles. Because of the algorithmic logic of the platform, people end up trapped in feedback loops of information. Users end up only seeing information in their newsfeeds that reinforces — rather than combats or contradicts — their own world views. Because of this, social media seems to have created more opinion-based segregation in society. This flies in the face of the more traditional democratic notion of the public sphere.
In the democratic public sphere, people are supposed to come together to engage in critical rational debate. Instead, corporate new media offers users safe spaces of rhetorical support for their existing conceptions of reality.
Both sides of the story
There is also a parallel that runs here with the meaning of “objectivity” in the media — of reporting fairly and without bias. But misconceptions about “objective journalism” might add to the problem. People think that objectivity means showing “both sides” of the story. But what if one side is factually false?
A good example is climate change and the debate between climate scientists, who research the human causes of climate change, and those who deny the “human footprint” in climate change, ignoring the overwhelming majority of research that supports the climate science.
The new U.S. ambassador to Canada, Kelly Craft, has said that she believes “both sides” of the climate science. But this raises the question: If “objectivity” is merely the attempt to give legitimacy equally to different “views,” what then is the impact on reality? Does this mean that there is no single reality? No single, objective truth?
The history of VR and entertainment new media suggests that our experiences of reality are constantly reinscribed and redeployed with each new form. This means that representations of reality in different media affect how we see the world and our place within it.
Reality’s portrayal and depiction varies depending upon how it is being represented, and by who is doing or producing the representation of reality. It affects our ethical judgments about how to act and treat other people in the real world.
In the Charlie Brooker sci-fi series Black Mirror‘s “Men Against Fire” episode, soldiers are implanted with augmented reality technology — a not-too-distant variation on existing forms such as Google Glass, or even Pokémon Go. The technology lets soldiers see their enemy as vicious monster mutants called “roaches.”
But once the technology fails, one of the soldiers is able to see the enemy for what they really are: Human, poor people trying to escape genocide by the dominant group.
The episode reverses the line from art historian and cultural critic, John Berger, who says: “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.” In the episode, what we know and believe is affected by the way we see things.
Total entertainment forever
Obsessions and critiques of new media are already part of popular culture. Green Day’s “American Idiot” talks about media control. Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm” portrays a culture of conformity led by our new media. Even Father John Misty’s “Total Entertainment Forever” begins with the lines, “Bedding Taylor Swift/Every night inside the Oculus Rift.”
Misty (whose real name is Josh Tillman) sings about the darker side of our emerging new media and entertainment technologies. The song itself is a testament to our over-investment in entertainment and its ability to obscure reality.
As new media and entertainment technologies are normalized, they tend to have an impact on the way that we experience actual reality. This is not to suggest that our entertainment technologies are necessarily dangerous, or that we face a moral conundrum as we enjoy new media.
But it’s worth asking how our mediated practices of enjoyment in the virtual world still have real-world social and political implications.
As VR technologies like Oculus Go become more popular, we might ask ourselves how our immersion in its world of high-definition simulation impacts our experiences of reality.
As we’ve already witnessed through the political implications of Facebook, and its difficulty with so-called “fake news,” such a question is not entirely politically neutral.