Whether Posing Questions Makes Any Sense in VR
The last two chapters dealt with the computer’s role in producing (CAD) and experiencing (SMART-tech) the physical, material environment. A worst-case combination of these two applications would lead to predictable standardized construction and an environment where wealth of experience is sacrificed to higher productivity and efficiency. Architecture is then no more than an assembled building kit equipped with a building management system. At its best such a CAD/SMART combination would lead to nothing less than a new and glorious episode in the history of architecture. CAD technology makes possible a radical design overhaul, a spatial game beside which even Piranesi would pale into insignificance. The resulting space would be able to accommodate an artificial intelligence that enhances experience rather than neutralizing it. An intelligence which, instead of anticipating desires for safety, comfort and economy, responds to human intelligence.
Nor does the computer’s role end here. It is also capable of mediating experiences which no longer require the existence of a real building. The cybernetic environment becomes virtual. This is what is meant by virtual reality (VR): the production and experience of totally simulated environments. Projected improvements in bandwidth, resolution and the speed of data processing suggest that whereas today’s virtual reality products are regarded as mere surrogates, in future they will be preferred to the real thing. But we’re not there yet. And the question remains whether the contracting out of human imagination is a cause for much rejoicing.
Virtual reality is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of meanings. The idea of a virtual world - in the sense of recreated reality - dates as far back as the paintings in the Lascaux caves and ever since the discovery of linear perspective during the Renaissance, Western cultural history in particular has been full of ‘lifelike’ representations. Even the idea of the Wunderkammer is quite old. Accordingly, the latest wave of simulations, whether they are experienced in VR booths or under HMDs (head-mounted display units), can be seen as part of a long-standing tradition of ooh and aah. Nor, finally, is VR in the form of a rhetorical gesture exactly new; every classical rhetorician dreamed of a synthesis of logos, pathos and mythos. Seen in this light, virtual reality is simply a continuation of an old tradition using new, digital tools.
There is, however, good reason for maintaining that this tradition is now entering a new phase that will change its very nature. It is no longer a matter of a short-lived simulation of reality for adjuration, education or pleasure, but of actually creating that reality. Once this has been done with any degree of success, the original can be discarded, at which moment virtual reality will become virtuality. No longer a fleeting representation, but a general, permanent condition. The dialectic between real and unreal will be a thing of the past.
But we’ve a long way to go yet before we reach that point. There’s a difference between VR in the form of applicable technology and VR as a utopian ambition, and there is no consensus as to whether these two will ever become one. Indeed, some people regard VR as at best a practical aid in developing prototypes and/or for putting together attractive presentations and that’s as far as they want it to go. For others, however, VR represents the realization of a perfect world where the Creation can be repeated from scratch, but this time on our terms. They regard today’s fairly schematic form of VR, which provides mere animations of environments that may one day really ‘come to life’, and where people just practice for the real world, as no more than a crude foretaste of the ’21st century’ or ‘the Third Millennium’, when VR will make full-blown teleliving possible. And more! When we live in the electro-unit, we will log in to an on-line world that will provide us with everything we now have to go out and fetch for ourselves. The two most important elements of VR, interaction and immersion, will then have become absolute. Everything will be compatible. The eye, which now enjoys primacy in every VR environment, will be supported by the other senses, including the sixth. For the present, though, such a picture belongs largely to the realms of the imagination.
Despite the huge discrepancy between fact and fiction, VR dominates the current world view. The technical realization of VR is less important than our intense preoccupation with it. There are a number of facets to this preoccupation and it is these I would now like to address.
The Price of Progress
The economy is riding high, the deciduous forests are recovering and public violence appears to be declining. The statistics are cheerful. The big problems concerning the earth have scarcely any relevance to daily life. The crux of the matter - that we pursue infinite progress with finite resources - is so abstract that it cannot serve as a guide for anyone, and certainly not for those whose responsibility is chopped into four-year terms.
In the meanwhile, our modern-day Cassandras have not been idle. For those who make society their study it has long been obvious that such universal principles as freedom, mobility, self-realization, equality, self-determination, the pursuit of happiness, freedom of speech, the right to shelter, individualism, curiosity, adventurousness, voluntarism and so on, have their limits. In recent times this has been increasingly expressed in terms of an abstract limiting factor indicating the extent to which we must reduce our consumption of natural resources in order to achieve ’sustainability’. At present we are at ‘factor 20′; in a few years time we will have reached factor 30. And so on, right up to Stunde Null. It’s a neat way of reducing an necessary ecological revolution to a simple mathematical problem, but essentially what it says is that in RealSpace the price of Enlightenment ideals is simply too high. The Great Revolution is going to require more than mathematics.
Or perhaps not. If that mathematics is binary, perhaps something can be done after all. Can the computer save the world?
graphic by René van Raalte
Architecture has played a not inconsiderable role in the realization of aforecited Enlightenment ideals. Not only was architecture as organized space a rewarding metaphor for the positivist conquest of the world, but architecture as a material order was also directly involved in the gigantic consumption of space, the environment and resources entailed by the process of modernization. (A total moratorium on architecture would in itself result in a dramatic reduction of that factor 20.) Perhaps the price of architecture has become too high for the continuing emancipation of humanity.
The most obvious response is: no more emancipation then. Yet quite apart from the question of whether that would not be a negation of history, it is simply inconceivable. As Adam Smith already realized, emancipation is the only acceptable justification for capitalism’s endless expansion and innovation. In VR, however, (late) capitalism could carry on without fatal consequences.
VR, then, is a New Frontier, a luminous reworking of the time-honoured notion of ‘Go West’. Once a three-dimensional grid has been laid over the real earth, culminating in the global village, a new universe will emerge where the explorer mentality will find new employment. The Frontier was never a real target but rather psychological compensation for the death of the great watchmaker. Insofar as Cyberspace is a terra incognita, a place where everything is still beautiful and unspoilt, it is an Ersatz for paradise. The only pity is that the process of mapping and conquering this realm all too often goes hand in hand with the disciplining and impoverishment of the real world.
So there is good reason for asking which values (intimacy, compassion, solidarity, community spirit, etc.) we must renounce and to what extent VR really can deliver further emancipation. Is not the imposition of discipline and stupidity inherent in the very structure of virtuality? Be that as it may, ignoring VR will not get us very far either. Instead of abandoning this sector of cyberspace to producers who promise to banish boredom, solve problems and sell services, we would do better to turn our attention to VR as a dimension in which it is possible to think and to develop new ideas. This project is still very much in its infancy.
Live Like a Spartan, Feel Like Caligula
In order to make people more willing to embark on this project, we must first discard a number of durable psychological processes. It is striking how loudly people talk of ‘freedom’ in connection with the introduction of systems constructed strictly according to rules. When all’s said and done, digitales are logarithmical and protocol-driven. Although some VR offers a refined simulation of a world that is free from time, place and personal identity, and to some extent succeeds in bringing the divine privileges of infinity, immortality and omniscience within reach, one would be hard put to see the average computer devotee as a model of independent behaviour. On the contrary, his (occasionally her) freedom amounts to choosing from a menu bar. The great attraction of cyberspace lies precisely in the strict rules applying to every action. There’s no getting around the fact that computers work with programs and that these are seldom written by visionaries.
Another important mechanism standing in the way of a truly liberated use of the computer, is the abiding need to see cyberspace as a sort of latter-day Carnival and the cyborg as a latter-day grotesque. The posthumanist android can just as easily be seen as a premodern Rabelaisian figure who is not opposed to the world but one with it. VR becomes the domain of a reborn, medieval innocence. VR as a land of plenty is an upside-down world of waste, a social outlet, a mythical universe. Just as the VR Electronic Frontier can be seen as providing some compensation for the impending ecological reckoning, so the VR Carnival can be seen as compensation for an impending diet that will make Lent look like gluttony. Must we really economize to the tune of factor 20? Then at least let us do it in the Orgasmatron. It’s possible to imagine a type of VR that is directly connected to the central nervous system and which allows you can live like a Spartan and think and feel like Caligula.
Thoughts do not have to expressed through words or images in a given symbolic order; they can be ‘experienced’ without benefit of mediation. And be honest, wouldn’t this be the ultimate fulfilment of the wisdom of Blaise Pascal, who said: ‘All the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, which is their inability to be at ease in a room’. VR allows you to scour the galaxies and still be back in time for tea.
The preprogrammed actions associated with the current interfaces on the one hand, and the carnivalesque relationship with the computer on the other, constitute pretty stiff obstacles to a self-confident, critical and creative use of the possibilities offered by VR. The only hope of a breakthrough on this front is a change in approach, most likely forced through by a new breed of operators. We need to stop seeing VR as a new ‘medium’ and view it as the next and crucial step in the cultural process of digitization. Instead of wondering whether or not to adopt the new medium, creative minds bursting with ideas could then address themselves to their relationship to a cultural process that is destined to shape the present era. In this respect, a reallocation of available talent is urgently needed.
The ‘digitization’ process not only confronts us with new means of communication but also with the consequences of those means for our world view. On the one hand these consequences do not look all that serious. The old familiar perspectival, homocentric view of things is more powerful than ever in VR and there are countless protocols and conditions that must be satisfied. In addition, it is clear that the insights of the major thinkers of the last 150 years - including Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Einstein - have scarcely penetrated the VR domain. Cartesian logic is the order of the day.
On the other hand VR undeniably entails a paradigm shift. VR is not a ‘found’ world, but the invention of computer programmers. Instead of a life ‘after nature’, VR in principle is a world according to a mental pojection. As such it is circumscribed by what goes on in the minds of those programmers. And to date this has clearly been of an almost exclusively Cartesian order. But it does not have to stay that way. Here indeed lies the germ of genuine innovation.
The designers of VR are usually preoccupied with how it works rather than how it should be. The program writer’s engineering outlook is reminiscent of the cool gaze of the neurophysiologists whose analyses of, say, neocortex, hypothalamus, limbic system, Papez’s circuit and the synapses and neurotransmissions in between, have given us a pretty good picture of what goes on up top. The secret of thought processes has been made visible to such an extent now that there is no longer any need to speculate about the ghost in the machine. The ghost exists and proof of its existence has been provided by computerized tomography of X-ray pictures (CT), positron emission tomography (PET scans) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Whether you want something, remember something, analyse or feel something, they can see you thinking. (They being the men and women in white coats, of course.) Psychic phenomena and telepathy have had their day. Computer animations have now helped to demonstrate that the inventors of those same animations possess an anima.
Well then, it is this anima that dominates most VR productions. They are simply the products of the analytical minds that have applied themselves to reality, something that should be borne in mind when assessing the cultural value of VR. It is quite likely that if this technology were to be controlled by other minds, the nature of VR would change dramatically. VR might then extend beyond electronic mimesis to encompass independent ideas. At such a moment VR would no longer compensate an inevitable absence of individual imagination and judgement; instead it would be a medium that gives free play to a whole range of good and not-so-good qualities. To the extent that there is a ‘challenge’, this is where it’s at.
It is not at all certain that VR as the embodiment of the New Frontier really does offer a solution to the dialectic of the Enlightenment. Nor is it possible to say with any certainty that it will not. It would not be the first time that technology was expected to provide a solution to problems that are primarily a matter of mentality. But if we are determined to follow this course into uncharted waters, then let it not be in the sole company of agressive conquerors intent on staking a claim to their new territory as soon as possible, but rather together with those who possess sufficient civility, openness to possibilities and nomadic wonderment.
graphic by René van Raalte
Space, Time and Architecture in VR
Can architecture become go virtual? If so, how? If not, will it survive the digital revolution? It seems to me to come down to an academic question of definition. The fact is that VR has a role to play both in maintaining historical and existing architecture and in future construction. Both entail momentous consequences for our sense of nearness and our experience of the environment.
1) Until recently, if you wanted to know what your country looked like in the past or how it might have looked, you had to rely on your own powers of imagination sparked off by drawings and photos in a wide array of architectural publications. But suppose you had no imagination. In that case the existing literature would not have been much help. However fine the pictures, however exhaustively the buildings are documented in four-colour prints, the spatial play of architecture is the exclusive preserve of material reality.
Now, however, it is possible to imagine a databank, a super hologram, where a country could be transformed at will into the desired built environment, albeit a VR environment. The visitor would be able to choose from a lavish inventory of structures that can in fact no longer be visited, but which he or she can now walk around as if they were real. This would also be a sensible way of spending cultural heritage funds, goals such as preservation and popularization would be dealt with in one fell swoop. Commission a specialized firm to virtualize Duiker’s Zonnestraal Sanatorium and not only would the government save millions on the preservation and maintenance of the building, it would also make this Nieuwe Bouwen monument accessible to countless numbers of people. What’s more, the same government could make money selling the rights, while at the same time avoiding an endless stream of tourists heading for Hilversum. Profit all round.
And that’s not the end of it: the entire history of architecture can be put on line. It is simply a question of time and feeding in the data. There is already a growing database containing the wonders of the world and the monuments on the World Heritage List. If you surf the Internet with ‘Virtual Tourist’, you can already visit quite a number of the world’s great cities. And should you happen to know the password for the CIA Intelink program, and hence have a direct link to the spy satellite network, you can see everything in real time which is on an architectural scale. Access to everything from one central computer terminal, plus the theoretically endless digital reproduction and distribution of everything cultural, adds up to a decisive development in our relationship with the world around us. The past = the present. The far-off is the here. In such circumstances there is an urgent need to undermine the tendency towards slavish reproduction of what is past or far-off with self-willed ‘interactivity’. That is to say that within the documentary, ready-made nature of the images called up, the user should retain a certain room to manoeuvre, to follow his/her own agenda. It is of course vital that the quality of this agenda should be well developed from an early age by means of training in digital literacy.
2) As far as the future is concerned there are two possibilities for architecture, once again depending on what you understand by architecture. A) Architecture will restrict itself to the material environment and accept its modest role in a multi-player system governed by market forces. (Apart from the familiar exceptions to the rule.) Its critical task, for example, would then consist of being as economical as possible in its use of resources, although this also is an objective that is all too liable to be interpreted in favour of the market. B) Architecture will extend the definition of its mandate so that it covers not just the making of objects but also the making of all kinds of environments, including digital ones.
The first scenario signifies the end of a historical cycle. Architecture will loose its indispensability as a separate discipline. The second scenario offers architecture a second lease of life for centuries to come. No matter which direction the time-space concept takes we are still going to find ourselves inhabiting ‘environments’. More than ever before we are going to have to learn to find our way around these environments, we are going to be following unfamiliar, multidimensional paths. Those architects who address themselves to the new technology should strive for optimum conceptual clarity. But movement through this virtual space is not the only concern. The quality of the ‘accommodation’ - compared with what is presently available - can also be vastly improved. The VR of the future will not be restricted to finding and passing on edutainment; it will be possible to create places similar to the major historical architectural types. From places of worship to casinos, from prisons to music theatres, every function has a potential virtual version.
Architecture today is minimally prepared for this new mandate. Meagre capital, meagre know-how and meagre confidence lead to meagre innovation. On the other hand, the new field of activity is ready and waiting. The dramatic growth of cyberspace makes it increasingly easy to ‘just start somewhere’. The only real problem is a chronic lack of time. Almost all developments in this field are brought about by people who are paid - i.e. given the time - to do just that. Lack of time is the greatest obstacle to a versatile, creative and alternative use of the computer.
To sum up: the material environment is losing its significance vis-à-vis the new electronic dimensions where an increasing part of the action is. So long as architecture is seen as a pure service profession it does not have much to offer in this new context and the designing of Cyberia will continue to be left to computer engineers and marketing men. So far this state of affairs has produced not much more than market-oriented schematic clichés. But if, in addition to taking their role of service provider seriously, architects were also to aspire to the role of expeditionary leader, a magnificent future would open up. Software engineering and interface design are all areas where an architectural perspective could make a vital contribution. Architects of all dimensions, there is an immense amount of work to be done!