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The Conversation About VR Struggles to Get Real

Experts debated the hype surrounding VR, with mixed success.

On Friday evening, as part of the Montreal International Documentary Festival, a panel of experts gathered to do something we don't much see around virtual reality: debate.

If you've paid any attention to VR, you've probably heard that it marks a revolution in empathy. Or journalism. Or the way we socialize. While VR is a promising technology, the machine we might do better to discuss is the one that hypes up basically every emerging consumer technology.

The VR (Anti) Manifesto aimed to do just that. Experts like documentarian Katerina Cizek, neurologist Simon Drouin, designer Clint Beharry, transmedia artist Simon Wilkinson, and nearly a dozen other esteemed panelists and designated 'agitators' sparred over the presumptions and promises of one of the most anticipated technologies yet seen. It was time to remove the rose colored headset and bring some constructive contention to the conversation about VR.

"Every new technological development has also been labeled with the promise of a true revolution," said moderator Sandra Rodriguez at the outset, an MIT filmmaker and sociologist of new media technologies. "Considering this pressure to define a future to come, we thought perhaps it's time for us all today to just chill. Take a step back and think about why we ask ourselves such anxious questions about what VR should or should not be."

Image: Doug Bierend

With every new technology, a choir of evangelists fill our minds with magical thinking about the next era, often shaving off critical nuance. The explosion of networked computers brought much anticipation about their transformative impact on society and daily life, but eventually capitalism did its thing and we became the products of a short list of massive tech corporations. This critical outcome wasn't part of the promise of that technology. Still, one can't help wanting to believe someone like Mark Zuckerberg when his eyes go doe-like and he waxes poetic about connecting the world.

Zuckerberg of course is also one of the chief cheerleaders of (and shareholder in) the future of VR as owner of Oculus, and he infuses the property with a similar vision of social utility and future ubiquity. It's a take, his take, and coming from the likes of Facebook's CEO it sounds like gospel— but it doesn't necessarily reflect the applications and implications that will come to define the technology itself. It's nice to believe that VR will add some critical new dimension to our social interactions and empathy for one another, but why are these the aspects that dominate our conversation about it?

"There are a ton of values being projected on this medium, and I attribute that to a certain set of memes that people grabbed hold of," panelist and Chief Digital Officer of the Canadian Film Center Ana Serrano told me afterwards. "The memes got passed around so many times that everybody decided that that's what this VR medium is all about. I think we've been led down the garden path of this bloody 'empathy machine' which prevents us from talking about the real thing."

The VR (Anti) Manifesto razzled some of these tired talking points. Several sacred cows of VR were playfully pressed against, generating insightful reflections and contrarian points of view. Chief among the assumptions being challenged is that VR marks a truly distinct step into a new kind of medium, one defined by dimensionality, a sense of presence, of enhanced agency on the part of the user and a more personal experience. Notions like these were met by the criticism that this point of view disconnects VR from the entire history of interactive media which has already engaged these questions, that VR is doing little but bringing a dimension of depth to existing network and economic structures, along with all its inherent biases. Does the revolutionary potential of VR extend to those who have been largely excluded from previous consumer technologies?

At the outset of the talk, participants were asked to describe in a single term what they thought VR is or isn't. Almost everyone chose an is: 'freedom', 'a mirage', 'nothing anything that these guys have said yet', perhaps demonstrating how easy it is to be reductive about far-reaching technologies. "I already feel like arguing," said Clint Beharry of the Harmony Institute, before giving his own answer of 'VR is a medium not a result.'" Are we 3D beings in need of evolving beyond 2D tools? What about our reality isn't virtual? Isn't this bound to remain more an elite medium than a democratic one? How worried should we be that the gaming industry is blazing the trajectory of this technology? What if any insight can we gain from the many meanings of the term 'medium' itself?

But walking out the door, one felt just as uncertain about the answers to any of it. At times, the conversation ascended to the same level of idealism that left so many hankering for real talk in the first place. By the end, it was clear that we have so many preconceptions to talk about that there was little to say. "I don't think we got there," says Serrano, who was the most vocal about questioning broader structures of economics and access as the deciding factor in whether VR really will mark a 'revolution'. "I think it's a start, I think conversations like this are necessary, but we need to go deeper."

Image: Doug Bierend

That's not to say the conversation wasn't a productive one. But if the problem is hype, the better question might be why we're willing to suspend critical thinking in favor of these fantasies about emerging, transformative technologies.

"The same questions are asked over and over again about VR," Rodriguez said in her opening remarks. "It makes us constantly long for this new thing, this new medium that will finally mark the start of a new world. The discourse with VR now is no different. … Why do we always love to believe in the revolutionary power of a new media tool?"

And it's an important question, especially at times like these—when people could be looking to one another in building, say, empathy, or community, or an artistic renaissance, it could be seen as a harmful distraction to be counting on a new technology platform to deliver a capacity we don't seem to have.

It's worth noting that no one from Facebook or Google were on stage or even in the conversation. For companies like these, whose driving interest is the scaling up of a new technology and who stand to be the chief beneficiaries of any impending VR revolution, the hype being questioned here is of real utility in generating excitement. But they should also be part of the conversation in explaining how generating interest on promises of revolutionary potential really serves ends worth reaching, or enables the developers and content creators who will actually be doing the work of realizing what this technology has to offer.

If we're ever going to stop looking to technology to solve meaningful human problems, we may have to first ask ourselves why we're so ready to hear that technology has the answers.