Exploring the Virtual World

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Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to fall into a gorge? To soar across the sky, chop down a tree, or sit in the front of the classroom?  A visit to Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) might allow you to try any of the above and more besides – by way of a simulated experience.  Last week we visited this experimental work space designed by cognitive psychologist Jeremy Bailenson and run by his team in the Communications Department.  We were able to try out a couple of the demos including an adventure in logging that involved the use of a kinetic device as a saw.  But the most affecting of the experiments was by far the oldest known to psychologists working in the field – the pit demonstration.

The facilities in Bailenson’s lab are custom designed, state of the art and brand new.  In a special room equipped with a multitude of concealed sub – woofers and speakers, we were directed to a plank of wood on the floor.  Donning a $40,000 stereoscopic head-mounted display – reminiscent of the Matrix’s cyber punk mise-en-scène, complete with a power cord extending from the ceiling – we endeavored to “walk the plank”.  At first we saw an animated representation of the same room, rendered in 3D.  We had read about virtual pit experiments and were eager to participate, yet nothing had quite prepared us for the sudden appearance of a chasm beneath the plank.  We shuddered as the floor dropped out from under us and, despite lab manager Cody Karutz’s reassurances, we couldn’t help trembling as we scurried over the board/virtual bridge.  A further challenge involved jumping into the pit (a brick cellar of sorts with a visible floor and walls); the tumble, simulated via images, sound and vibrations, induced an involuntary shriek.  And not only …. we grasped for the spotters, clutching their forearms as if they might prevent the inevitable horror.  Or so it seemed.

The strengths of the experiment lie in its ability to cultivate an atmosphere and an interactive environment – one that can be seen, heard, felt and engaged with.  The combination of sensory perception with action in choice (intellectual) and movement (physical) is essential to the totality of the effect.  Though most of our experience was merely imagined, we were reeling for some time afterward.  Further, statistics show that only 1/3 of adults venture to cross the void and even fewer jump –  naturally one begins to question how we define reality.

Prof. Bailenson’s new book Infinite Reality (William Morrow, 2011), co-authored with Jim Blascovich of the University of Santa Barbara, examines the growing presence of the virtual within our world.  From chat rooms and chat bots to social networks, video games, kinetic devices, 3D LCD displays, avatars and second life, our culture is both colliding and coalescing with an immeasurable computer generated universe.  The authors of Infinite Reality are primarily concerned with the practical possibilities of this alternate realm – immersing the U.S. military in foreign custom, instilling an environmental conscience in school-age children, creating optimum learning conditions in college classrooms, work-shopping racial and sexual prejudices – to name a few of the dozens of examples they provide.  Perhaps above all however, their research shows the ways in which we might use the virtual cosmos to study ourselves as biological and social animals.

The implications for film and media studies are vast and exciting. Concepts like Francesco Casetti’s “cinematic reflexivity” have suddenly exploded under the pressure of a multiplicity of digital realities and the “viewing” experience is evolving and expanding in ways that are as fascinating as they are frightening.  Moreover, if our existence is becoming a mixed medium – something like a movie that integrates animated sequences – how does this change our social, political and moral systems? And then, what is the role of artistic representation in this place?

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