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:

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.