Virtual reality technology is a dead-end of media evolution

Admiration and oblivion, the same prospects Google Glass are facing, are waiting ahead for virtual reality technology. This is not necessarily due to the difficulties in VR-content production (VR-consumers have had little to consume so far); it is the bulkiness of VR-devices that raises an impassible barrier to VR becoming regularly used in everyday life.

No matter how well-designed VR-devices will be, any device with such a set of functions will exceed the acceptable threshold of users’ laziness. Such devices can provide some entertainment and gain some followers, but will never win over the masses because of their ergonomic “redundancy”.

The fact is that all new devices, even those providing an amazing experience, fall into the same category as smartphones in terms of their bearing/usage complexity. They all are portals to cyberspace. Smartphones lose out in terms of emotional vibrancy and immersion, but win thanks to their “ease of entry”. When it comes to daily needs, “usable” is better than “fascinating”.

VR is a dead-end of technological evolution, similar to, for example, space flights. However, as a side effect, the space programs introduced many useful things to our lives, such as Velcro or Teflon. As for VR technology, its most useful side effect is that it brings to us, along with AR – augmented reality, the very first experience of induced reality. What books facilitate at the level of imagination and abstract thinking, VR and AR technologies perform almost at the level of sensorium. They return us to the sensual perception of reality, however, this time reality is artificially induced, not naturally given.

This is quite the heart of the matter. From a taxi, we want a ride, not a yellow colour. The direct sensual experience of the induced reality is the contribution of VR technology to media evolution. As for VR headsets and the technology itself, they will die right after the boom, which means tomorrow. What is needed is the ability to experience the induced reality, not the technology capable of providing this ability. VR technology only provides the first primitive exercises of immersion into the induced reality. This function will be fully applied with neuron interfaces. Gadgets will have become unnecessary by that time. Full-scale immersion into the induced reality will not be mediated by the stone axe of the VR headset. And yes, it will be about the eve of the Resettlement.

As for now, people still discuss an entire set of humorously primitive “bright prospects” of applications commonly expected from VR. These prospects are well represented, for example, in the article “Inside the VR Boom: New Opportunities for Marketers and Creators.

The prospects of VR in marketing: placing a brand in virtual reality gives the customer the sensual experience of familiarity with the brand, which increases the customer’s loyalty and forces them to buy branded goods or services in reality. Yes, it sounds as if induced reality, i.e. the reality of the higher level, is destined to serve the physical reality. Marshall McLuhan wrote that any new medium is destined first to satisfy old needs and then to shape new ones. So, the use of a new medium for the satisfaction of old needs is just an example of the traditional thinking. It is easy to see that the bright marketing prospects of virtual reality have to do with the good old product placement taken from movies and games into VR.

The prospect of VR in media content production: VR enables the user to experience events from inside the bubble of sensations. The most famous example usually recalled is Project Syria. This shows the everyday life of refugee camps and includes scenes of bombings. The story and the way it is developed are no doubt impressive. But is it the future of journalism?

vr-popOne of the substantial commodities of journalism is compression, namely the compression of events and emotions into the news. Compression means cutting off unnecessary constituents by extracting and refining essential ones. Such a compression allows perceiving the huge and shapeless picture of the world in the digestible form of the organized agenda (it allows manipulation too, but this is a separate matter). The essence of journalism is not to repeat the event but to compress it for the size of the news to deliver the main conclusion and/or main emotion. The text narrative or TV/radio narrative allows this to easily be done (largely thanks to their sensual deficiency; perception of the world via cognitive passways, not via sensorium, allows compression). VR-narration is just redundant for journalism.

Living through the event as it happened means spending the same amount of time as the event lasted. It directly contradicts the compressional function (and value) of journalism. Those applying VR technology for a journalistic narrative go against the essence of journalism. They may find a deserved place in the synthetic art of documentary and immersive media, but certainly not in mass media. In fact, statistically, a few “readers” will honestly follow the journalistic VR-reports, even having unlimited and technically well-facilitated access. The use of VR for journalism will end up similarly to multimedia longreads, such as legendary New York Times’ Snowfall: many celebrate, but no one really consumes. For media orgs, it is good to have for promotion or to build hype, but expensive to produce and meaningless to “sell”.

So far, the only content that suits VR narration is porn. VR places the user into the better, induced world (not into the real one, which is not good enough to be desired). Also, there is no need to compress the events in porn, as journalism does to the news agenda. Porn as a type of content fits well VR’s main function of training people to operate inside the induced reality. The ability to put users into the induced reality makes VR technology also suitable for other, more utilitarian uses – for training in the military, medicine, pilotage, and so on, where full-scale simulation makes the user’s immersion into a certain situation useful and safe.

All these types of training and entertainment are just side effects of the main function of VR – to give us the first, real-life experience of the induced reality. Strategically, VR is not the enhancement of the old; it is a training of the new. VR is just one of the first exercises of the resettlement, the entry-level training of the human sensorium in the transition from the biological environment to the digital one.

…Here an interesting comparison arises. Paradoxically, smartphones may happen to be the proximate or even the only and last heir of the Gutenberg book. If we assume that humans perceive the world via either sensation or cognition, smartphones rather fall into the category of cognition, along with books, not with those devices aimed to provide a direct sensual experience of reality. Smartphones mostly transfer semantically mediated content, a Gutenberg type of content. Yes, smartphones shorten the Gutenberg length of reading but these devices still represent, not induces reality. Perhaps the outstanding “book-ness” of smartphones is what makes them unbeaten among all other devices, no matter how amazing these other devices are.

To really switch from smartphones to something else, humans perhaps need to overcome the dichotomy of sensual-cognitive perception shaped by literate (written and print) media. As words doubled the world by means of semantic representation, so did word-based media. They alienated the world from humans – McLuhan wrote about the schizophrenia of the literate man.

New digital devices seek to bring the represented world back to the realm of sensorium. They create an artificial reality that can be perceived in a natural way, which means they induce a natural-like reality. The digital reality is the reality of the induced; it requires new cognition and new sensorium, or rather something new instead of both of them.

The next really big medium will dismiss this schizophrenic dichotomy by merging sensual and cognitive passways for humans to experience the world. This new and ultimate extension of the body must be literally in-bodied. Until this moment, smartphones or similar gadgets will most likely stay the main digital portal of choice. VR, AR devices, or any technologies of immersive media represent just a transitional link, the first, very primitive, and partial prototype of the final media.

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Author of Human as media. The emancipation of authorship – available on Amazon


Categories: Augmented reality, Content marketing, Decline of newspapers, Future and Futurology, Immersive experience, Singularity and Transhumanism

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