Virtual worlds apart | MIT News
What is virtual reality? Technically, it’s a headset-enabled system that uses images and sounds to make the user feel like they’re somewhere else. But as for the content and essence of virtual reality, well, that may depend on where you are.
In the United States, for example, virtual reality (VR) has its deep roots as a form of military training technology. It later took on a “techno-utopian” air as it began to draw more attention in the 1980s and 1990s, as noted by MIT professor Paul Roquet in a new book on the subject. But in Japan, virtual reality has revolved around “isekai” or “otherworldly” fantasies, including scenarios in which the RV user enters a portal to another world and has to find the way back.
“Part of my goal, in getting these different senses out of virtual reality, is that it can mean different things in different parts of the world and it’s changing a lot over time,” says Roquet, an associate professor of media studies in Japan. studies at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies / Writing program.
As such, virtual reality is a useful case study in the interactions of society and technology, and how innovations can evolve in relation to the cultures that adopt them. Roquet details these differences in his new book, The Immersive Enclosure: Virtual Reality in Japan, published this week by Columbia University Press.
As Roquet points out in the book, virtual reality has a long line of pioneering innovations, dating back at least to the military flight simulators of the early 20th century. A stereoscopic arcade machine from the 1960s, the Sensorama, is considered the first commercial virtual reality device. Later in the decade, Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist with a doctorate at MIT, developed a pioneering computer screen mounted on his head.
In the 1980s in the United States, however, virtual reality, often linked to technologist Jaron Lanier, had been diverted in a different direction, being presented as a liberating tool, “purer than before,” as says Roquet. He adds: “It goes back to the Platonic ideal of the world that can be separated from everyday materiality. And in the popular imagination, virtual reality becomes this space where we can solve things like sexism, racism, discrimination and inequality. A lot of promises are being made in the US context. “
In Japan, however, virtual reality has a different trajectory. Partly because the post-war constitution of Japan banned most military activities, virtual reality developed more in relation to popular forms of entertainment such as manga, anime, and video games. Roquet believes that his Japanese technology lineup also includes the Sony Walkman, which created a private space for media consumption.
“It’s going in different directions,” says Roquet. “Technology is moving away from the kind of military and industrial uses promised in the US”
As Roquet details in the book, different Japanese phrases for virtual reality reflect this. One term, “bacharu riariti,” reflects the more idealistic notion that a virtual space could functionally replace a real one; another, “kaso genjitsu,” places virtual reality more as entertainment where “feeling matters as much as technology itself.”
The actual content of VR entertainment can range from multiplayer battle games to other activities in the fantasy world. As Roquet examines in the book, Japanese virtual reality also has a different gender profile: a survey in Japan showed that 87 percent of social virtual reality users were men, but 88 percent of them played main characters. female, and not necessarily in settings that are empowering women. Therefore, men have “control everywhere but are nowhere to be seen,” writes Roquet, while “covertly re-inscribing gender norms.”
A potentially very different application for virtual reality is teleworking. As Roquet also explains, considerable research has been applied to the idea of using virtual reality to control robots for use in many environments, from healthcare to industrial tasks. This is something that Japanese technologists share with, for example, Mark Zuckerberg of Meta, whose company has become the main sponsor of virtual reality in the United States.
“It’s not so much that there is an absolute division [between the U.S. and Japan], says Roquet; instead, he points out, there is a different emphasis in terms of “what virtual reality is all about.”
That escape cannot escape
Other scholars have praised The Immersive Enclosure. Yuriko Furuhata, an associate professor at McGill University, described the book as “a refreshing new vision of virtual reality as a consumer technology.” James J. Hodge, an associate professor at Northwestern University, described the book as “a must-read for both media scholars and general readers fascinated by the flawed revolutionary potential of virtual reality.”
In short, as Roquet concludes at the end of the book, virtual reality still faces key political, commercial and social issues. One of them, he writes, is “like imagining a future VR ruled by something other than a small set of corporate owners and the same old geopolitical struggles.” Another, as the book points out, is “what it means for a multimedia interface to assert control over someone’s spatial consciousness.”
In both respects, this means understanding virtual reality, and technology in general, as modeled by society. Virtual reality can often present itself as a form of escape, but it cannot escape the circumstances in which it has developed and perfected.
“You can create a space outside the social world, but it ends up being very shaped by whoever creates it,” says Roquet.