Dreaming Awake - Can VR experience be a kind of dream state?

Ever noticed how similar a VR experience is to dreaming? Once you put on the headset, you are inside a dreamscape. Anything is possible. You can turn around the corner of a busy city street and suddenly walk onto a beach. You can meet Shakespeare at a nightclub. You can recreate your childhood house and take your grandkids to visit the past. Place, time, context and object can all be jumbled up and shuffled around like a pack of cards… and it would not seem absurd at all. Just like a dream. And furthermore, isn’t taking the VR headset off very similar to waking up from a dream? So many times, I have watched people taking off the headset and immediately looking around themselves, as if to reconfirm where they are now and how they got there. “Welcome back!” I say to them.

Realistic vs Believable

As the number of VR titles grow in the market, we are beginning to realize that realism is not necessary for how ‘immersed’ we feel. It is more about creating - and sustaining - the illusion of presence. Even if your hands are cartoony and unrealistic, as long as they move in the way you want to move your hands… it will feel real. If the sensory stimuli and motor movements coincide to create the illusion of presence, our brain will naturally connect the dots and suspend disbelief. ‘Suspending disbelief’ does not mean that our questioning, skeptical intellect is switched off. It simply means that the things we did not believe to be possible in reality (simply because we did not perceive them) appear to be believable in the context of the experience. Just like dreams.

Ever have the feeling of falling in a dream and then waking up suddenly in your bed? Curiously enough, the same sensations occur in VR. The feeling of height when one is standing on top of a skyscraper, or the shivery sensation in the spine when one falls from a virtual height, or when one is moving very fast and our body can feel speed… These are all examples of how VR experience can be very dream-like. It feels real but it is not. It feels immersive because it successfully suspends our disbelief. After having a vivid dream/immersive VR experience, we take off the headset/open our eyes and let out a sigh, “Oh that’s right, I’m just in my room. I almost believed I was elsewhere, even though I knew I wasn’t.”

Walking into the Human Unconscious

Reality is not a dream. But the human mind can be very dream-like. Our mind usually programs itself in a closed-circuit using the semantic structure and cultural influences that we are exposed to around us. These cultural symbols, memes and attitudes are like blocks of data (sense impressions) that are stored in a collective cloud server (collective unconscious). People then replicate these ‘blocks’ in their own behavior, thereby creating an action (or ‘transaction’ with reality). These transactions are recorded in the cloud server, hence validating the ‘culture’ and propagating it further.

Am I proposing that culture is a blockchain based sociogram? Maybe. But that’s not the point I want to elaborate. I want to point out that these ‘cloud servers’ are information pools that transact in our unconscious mind. And as we begin to extract information from these ‘cloud servers’ of our unconscious mind (which is the job of an artist), and use technology to build VR experiences out of them… there is going to be fundamental rift in how we perceive reality (and I don’t mean the headset). Dreams were the original way of accessing the human unconscious - therefore, it is not a coincidence that visionaries in human progress are often called ‘dreamers’. But now, as technology advances into an era of VR, AR and holograms… all our dreams (both private and collective) have the potential to come true. And I say this with as much optimism as with caution - not all dreams/virtual realities are going to be good for us. We must proceed consciously and responsibly on this exciting new path.

Just a few decades ago, virtual reality seemed like a dream from the distant future. Now it is a part of our reality and it is here to stay. But as it develops, we might discover... that perhaps our reality is more dream-like than it seems.

My thoughts on Augmentation

As AR and VR become more and more popular, I feel there is a need to look deeply into the nature of this technological phenomenon. It feels like our technologically-driven media is trying to break through the confines of the screen. Through spatial awareness (i.e., tracking, motion capture, point clouds) our imagination is trying to become manifest into reality. Thus, I thought it would be a good exercise to define some philosophical fundamentals around this phenomenon of the Digital Age.

‘Virtual elements’ as perceptual augments

As we progress further into the Digital Age, I expect that augmentation of natural reality using virtual elements will increase significantly. Let’s define virtual elements as something that shows these three main features -

  • They are mental constructs that can be perceived by technological means

  • They are representations of any kind of object, subject, concept or person(s) from our natural reality

  • They are born out of the interaction between humans and computers

Virtual elements connect the physical reality with our mental realities. Mental realities include cultural structures, linguistic structures, social structures, institutions and hierarchies… basically anything that the human mind gives form to and overlays on top of their experience of natural reality.

Augmentation as a process of the mind

Since virtual elements exist in our mind (Sphere of Imagination), perceived through the use of technology, it is subject to the amorphous quality of the mind as well. This amorphous quality results in augmentation, which enables us to retain perceptions beyond their physical forms and conform them to develop with our needs. Augmentation is what converts perception into mental constructs by processing reality through the faculties of the mind. This implies that we are able to manipulate our perception of reality by simply (re)imagining perceptions. However, this can be a double edged sword - either empowering us to change our lives or causing misinformation and delusion.

Virtual elements are a kind of signifiers, i.e., carriers of meaning, rather than the meaning itself. Sometimes the meaning undergoes many levels of representation and re-representation. We are constantly augmenting our natural reality using these kinds of signifiers; like symbols, signs, language, sounds, gestures, mannerisms, etc… and now virtual elements.

VR and AR is truly a revolution in this regard, because it makes the Sphere of Imagination so accessible and easy to interact with. In VR and AR, the tangibility of the imagination is affirmed and reinforced by interaction and response - generating a participatory feedback loop.

Let’s take Angry Birds AR on the Magic Leap for example - it augments the original concept of the Angry Birds game by reproducing a spatial aspect to it. In the AR version, you can walk around the game and interact with it from different angles. Another example is that of Snapchat’s filters which overlay virtual elements based on face mapping and following our head movement. This creates the participatory feedback loop and augments a pre-existing form or concept from our natural reality.

Based on this, I think there are two main requirements for successful augmentation -

  1. Aesthetic appropriation of virtual elements on the basis of function (in other words, meme generation)

  2. Developing a strong participatory feedback loop.

Aesthetic appropriation makes us redefine meaning in terms of our own experience. This helps us change old ideas and create new ones. On the other hand, the participatory feedback loop generates an acceptable Sense of Self to experience with - “I am typing, I am holding a glass, I am walking towards the table” - so on.

Self-embodiment in VR

Basis of Experience

Before jumping into VR experience, I want to develop a better understanding of ‘experience’ itself – real or virtual, waking or dreaming, yours or mine. Fundamentally, it seems that experience can only happen when consciousness is there to experience it. Similar to how a movie cannot be projected without a screen to project it upon, ‘experience’ cannot be experienced without a ‘conscious self’ to experience it with.

What is self-embodiment?

The human body has five sense organs that receive sensory information (visual, audio, touch, smell, taste) as well as motor components (head, hands, feet) which re-affirm this information, and hence we perceive both ourselves and the world. By virtue of this process, we formulate ‘my body’ and ‘a responsive world beyond my body’. This is the beginning of self-embodiment process. However, human imagination is also capable of developing techniques/technologies to augment this Sense of Embodiment (SoE).

Sense of Embodiment is still a very new and ambiguous term. There is not enough conceptual clarity regarding this phenomenon. A lot of research is being done in the field. Here is an excellent research compiled by M.Slater and K.Kilteni at University of Barcelona, where they attempt to define the characteristics and extent of the SoE in Virtual Reality: http://diposit.ub.edu/dspace/bitstream/2445/53294/1/634024.pdf.

Does technology affect how we perceive our own body?

I believe so, because we estimate our ‘bodily-ness’ respective to our awareness of the world around us, and technology changes our perspective on the world. For example - telescopes, microscopes, binoculars, cameras… are all visual augments to our existing senses. Notice how each of these technologies have affected the ways in which we think and interact with the world.

Or in another instance, let’s take a walking stick, - if one is conscious of the tip touching the ground and the weight of the whole system (i.e. body), then the walking stick is an augmentation of the body, becoming almost like second nature. But if one is conscious of the touch between the hand and the stick, then the stick seems to be external and not part of the body. Similarly, the use of a pen for writing, brush for painting, bowstring to play the violin, typing on a keyboard, and so on, can all become augmentations of our embodied selfif we consciously assimilate them. Of course, this means that a certain kind of practice is required.

This is exactly how most VR is being practiced in the industry right now - for training, education, therapy and gaming. Pilot training, maneuvering heavy machinery, or psychotherapy (since self-embodiment is inevitably psychosomatic)… these are some of the big attractions for enterprises wanting to implement VR into their methodologies. VR is quickly growing into a technology that accelerates our capacity to assimilate different states of self-embodiment.

Why ‘self’-embodiment?

I am a big fan of Thomas Metzinger’s philosophy of the self (read this article to know more). He explains how the ‘self’ is not something real or constant, but simply a process of conscious experience… “We are processes” says Metzinger.

Following this schema of thought, I use the term ‘self-embodiment’ because it empowers control over the embodiment phenomena where the “self” is an operating process. It suggests that we are embodied in sensory experience and are capable of becoming conscious of this through the “self”.

I want to understand the mechanics of both the virtual world and the virtual self. I believe it is essential for developers of the future to become more conscious of this process. VR could be a powerful tool to develop human consciousness - and as Stan Lee said - with power comes responsibility.

Welcome to my blog

In a short time, VR has grabbed the attention of the entire world. As a 3D Artist, I was enticed right away. (You mean I can walk into the worlds I create?!) But soon I began to realize… it was much more than that. VR experience can be powerful because it is immersive. It can trick our brain by altering our cognition and Sense of Embodiment (the feeling of body ownership). You do not need VR to trick the brain, even a simple rubber glove can do it (read this article). This discovery actually points to something very interesting... the idea of a ‘self’ owning the body. It points to the problem/solution of consciousness.

VR is an amazing technology that allows us to construct (and reconstruct) our cognitive processes of self and perception. As a technology, it is going to enhance all our industries. But as an experience, it is going to change our minds - how we think and perceive… all depending on how we choose to use it.

This blog is a journal where I'll explore these questions, discuss my observations and share my findings. I will write about my experiments as a VR developer, about VR as a media for content production and recent developments in the industry. Feel free to leave comments or contact me.

And welcome to my blog.