The anticipation for virtual reality seems palpable, with its introduction being hailed by some as a new medium in its own right, but what’s in a medium?
In the context of art a medium presents the means by which many people can experience a single artwork. The major difference between these mediums is then how we take them in. A simplistic way to think about this is to consider what senses are required to fully access the medium and correlate this with the amount of attention it requires. Within this we can also consider how much concentration each sense requires. We primarily use hearing, sight and touch. The most ubiquitous mediums that utilise these are music,writing, visual art and video games. There are two main reasons for this: The first is that we have great pattern recognition in these particular senses and so are able to conjure vast arrays of distinct signals. This gives room for very detailed, complex and expressive communication. The second is that over the course of history we have been able to compress these signals into smaller and more easily clone-able data.
What began with the written word and the printing press, allowing for newspapers, books and the proliferation of printed music notation, has continued on into the digitised word, social media, integrated audio-visual media and the mapping of that audio visual media to buttons, interact-able by touch. At every stage of that process the future always seemed to hold engaging more senses so that one could produce a completely controlled experience. Or in more concise terms, immersion. It’s easy to see why, for an artist expressing personal experience is at the heart of almost everything you do. In that sense being able to fully control and designate someones attention has the potential to be totally expressive. Art equally and simultaneously exists to entertain. A totally immersive artwork might allow you to reliably create an experience that people either know to be enjoyable (see the considerable investment VR porn is getting), or allow you to experience something you otherwise wouldn’t and which has the potential to be enjoyable, such as fantasy settings or dangerous environments with no actual chance of bodily harm (see the VR video game market). Finally along with those rather innocent uses of immersion I would be remiss not to give a token mention to its great potential as propaganda.
I have falsely presented a ceremony of progress towards total immersion thus far. Of course in reality we do not discard mediums that don’t immerse us. The aim of art is not just to be able to all share in one experience. It is certainly an important part, one that might afford people solace in connection and validation, but another equally important part is to access new experience. The concept of something truly new is of course alien. What we commonly consider as new is simply the endless permutation of the constituent parts of what constitutes being. A new idea is, more often than not, just the combination of two established ones. An important part of enjoying any artwork and the reason why people can’t help but discuss them is that in engaging with it you make it new. You combine it with the permutations afforded by yourself (whether that’s down to biology, psychology or what ever else) and you create your own interpretation, personal to that specific time and place. The more we immerse ourselves the more we remove ourselves from the mix.
Once again I have lied. More immersive technologies like large scale RPG video games have huge numbers of inbuilt possible recourse. Even then these are limited, at least for the time being, with most “choices” in these games being largely redundant. Other popular ways to grapple with the problem are to introduce random elements. In this way you immediately and vastly open up number of possible permutations. Still, I would argue that these attempts to build up complex self contained realities will continue to pale in comparison to even the potential of simply two human beings in a blank room together. In order to create new experiences the pieces in any scenario must be able to not only change and develop but their interactions must be able to do the same. MMORPGs introduce the variety given by real humans but its severely constrained by the very limited number of ways people can interact. This constraint acts as a barrier to the communication between the people in the game, thereby making the immersive element relatively redundant. The only way I can foresee a medium that allowed for immersion without stagnation is one in which the very building blocks of the medium can be altered either by the participants or an AI. The latter seems far fetched and the former comes at the expense of the participants time and effort. In the end this leaves me feeling anticipation for VR only for its considerable novelty.
What certain mediums lack in controlled immersion they make up for via augmentation. Any medium that requires very little of your attention let’s you choose your level of engagement. This choice is passive and varies. Think of listening to a song on a loud bus to pass the time vs. in your room on your own with no other distractions. Those mediums that do not require your full attention allow you to augment your reality. In this way they remain fresh as the way you experience them is more open to change and new interpretation. Music is an obvious example but even books and film create a different impression depending on environment. A book might be better read in an exotic location, an artwork hung in an characterful building or a film watched with friends. In these scenarios it is the environment that is augmenting the experience of the artwork. Music remains my favourite medium as it’s almost always the other way round. It’s what I would consider makes music so re-listenable. Whereas I would consider video games the other end of the scale. I have certainly immersed myself into characters and worlds via that media thanks to the controlled attention of my hands, eyes and ears but i rarely sustain the intention to revisit those experiences. It’s the reason I have a preference for video games that are a direct controlled experience. The introduction of excessive amounts of choice in video games continues to feel like a stopgap for the inherent loss of real engagement by the player to me. With the best possible scenario being a handful of equally viable bottle-necked choices that have distinct outcomes (or win states), leaving little room for interpretation.
The important thing is to recognise what each medium is good for. Music is not great for a strong narrative as it is interrupted by your environment. On the other hand I don’t think VR is the best place to look for something new and abstract as it lacks room for interpretation. Each has it’s strengths and weaknesses and that’s why its a good idea to not restrict yourself to only a couple of mediums. That’s true whether your a creator or an audience member.