Popping Balloons: Affordances and Obviation

If the history of media coincides with the history of the externalization of knowledge from the body–writing freeing the body from memory; robots from labor; AI from calculation; I found myself wondering what virtual reality frees the body from. And not in the neo-luddite-esque curmudgeonly way of “wondering what we’ll lose as a culture” with the digitization of experience, but just wondering what kinds of discourses are created and what kinds are obviated with the adoption of this new technology. To take the most obvious example, in my (admittedly short) virtual experience on the Vive, I found my visual senses extended insofar as I could see things no one else could, but at the same time I found them deeply impaired–and to my own peril! The techniques of navigation I have depended on for all my life no longer quite applied, and any efforts I made at walking (though Valve has done their best to integrate movement into the system) constantly compelled the question: “are you going to run into something?” limiting my movement around the room. Maybe we could call this a kind of “externalization of mobility,” which would pose a lot of interesting questions, not the least of which is: what does civilization look like without mobility?

I think one of the other fears people have about virtual reality is that it will make humans less prone to meaningful connection. I didn’t find, to this point, that the experience was “anti-social,” despite the lack of living creatures in the apps I tried, because I spent most of the time talking to the other people in the room. But maybe this would change if I were wearing Vive-brand headphones, or whatever comes with the device.

Two experiences in the Vive to which I had the strongest reactions: inflating balloons, and looking at the dog. The balloon inflating surprised me for how real the experience felt. When I blew them up, they floated in the air in front of me; when I knocked them forward with my hand, they made the exact sound balloons make when you knock them with your hand, and (this could be my memory deceiving me) I felt as though I had even probably experienced the impact–maybe through haptics, or maybe just through the power of suggestion–I can’t remember, but that fact testifies to the quality of the experience.

The second experience I had that I found moving was realizing that I was smiling IRL at the  virtual robotic dog running around me, just as I would smile at a “real” dog running around me. I don’t know if all humans are as gullible as I am, but it’s now my suspicion that my brain would have no qualms about forming a bond with a virtual pet, provided the AI were good enough to avoid breaking the illusion.

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