The Philosophy of VR

Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of VR!

Written by: Thomas Ambrosini
Directed by: Chris Karwowski
Narrated by: Helen Floersh
Edited by: Kim Kruse
Artwork by: JR Fleming
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar

The Philosophy of VR – Wisecrack Edition

Hey, guys – Helen here. Full disclosure, Oculus came to us and said they were fans of our work, which was 1. Really flattering and 2. Really awesome because because you know Jared and I love that new tech. Anyway, they asked if we had anything smart to say about VR, and since VR has been in the media a ton, lately – from the rise of isekais in anime like Sword Art Online and Overlord to smash hits like Ready Player One – we got pretty excited. Even Rick & Morty uses VR for one of our favorite gags: Roy. “What the hell. Wha– wha – where am I? What in the hell?” “55 years. Not bad, Morty. You kind of wasted your 30s, though, with that whole birdwatching phase.” “Where’s – where’s my wife?” “Morty, you were just playing a game. It’s called Roy. Snap out of it.”

Now, I know we here at Wisecrack can get pretty technophobic, but we wanted to try this thing out called optimism. If science fiction is any indication, the mass exodus to virtual worlds is inevitable, but instead of jumping on the prophecy train, we’re gonna talk about some of the philosophical ramifications of VR technology and how it can revolutionize storytelling and perspective. And while we could view VR as just another step in technology, like the jump from radio to film, there seems to be something more to it. That something, we think, is a philosophical concept called “qualia.” Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of VR. And, yeah, wow, no spoilers ahead. But before we get into qualia, we should say something about storytelling.

There are a million reasons why someone would tell a story. The muses told you to, or the absinthe told you to, or the amphetamines told you to. But at the core of every story is a single ask: to inhabit a character’s perspective. Roald Dahl – author of everyone’s favorite book about a greedy CEO exploiting immigrant labor – said it best in Matilda: “The books transported [Matilda] into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.” By allowing us to inhabit the mind and body of its characters, storytelling can challenge our perspective and change our views. But as amazing as these stories are, traditional mediums like literature and film stop a little short when it comes to inhabiting a perspective.

Whether we’re living vicariously through Frodo delivering the Ring to Mordor, or the Dude trying to get his rug back, — “They peed on your f**king rug?” “They peed on my f**king rug.” — we’re always reminded of the space between us and the characters. John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction calls this concept “psychic distance,” or basically how deep we are in the character’s head. It’s the difference between reading the sentence, “He walked to the store” and “He ambled to the store, wild thoughts racing on his mind.” The latter example brings us closer. But regardless of how this story is told, we can never collapse this psychic distance to zero. While staring at the pages in a book or at a TV on the wall, we’ll inevitably notice that these thoughts and feelings aren’t our own. And as it turns out, there’s a good philosophical reason why this distance can never be fully closed: this concept called qualia.

In philosophy, qualia is the idea that mentals states like perception, sensation, thoughts, and emotions all have a certain subjective feeling to them. When you sip wine or stare at the sunset, these experiences are all unique to you in that moment. The key word here is unique – your friend could do all the same things and still have a different experience. And you wouldn’t ever be able to really explain this difference, either. As philosopher Thomas Nagel explained in his paper, What Is It like to be a Bat?, we could know everything there is to know about bats, but that doesn’t translate to knowing what it’s like to be flapping about and navigating via sound. And that’s the weird thing about this whole qualia debate: there’s an “explanatory gap” between knowledge and experience, one that has some pretty big philosophical and everyday consequences.

For philosophers who believe that the world can be explained by laws and science, they now have to explain this new type of knowledge seemingly unrelated to facts. And for everyone else, we’re doomed to tell funny stories about things that happened, fail, and then fall back on the old “you should’ve been there” defense. The big takeaway is that this gap between knowledge and experience is real, and no matter how many words we write on a page, or how many flashing images we have on a screen, we can never bridge that. Well, maybe not never. So what does that have to do with VR? Well, the reason why VR is so groundbreaking – or in Morty’s case, mind bending: “I’m Morty. You’re Rick.” – is because VR gets us infinitely closer to bridging that gap.

Unlike reading a book or watching TV, VR is an “embodied experience” – you’re right there in the story, sometimes inhabiting the body of your favorite characters. This not only drastically reduces the psychic distance Gardner talked about, but it also deals with the pesky qualia problem. Can’t adequately explain how great your vacation was to your friends? Well, let them experience it themselves by throwing a headset on ’em. And we can’t emphasize this enough: the difference between knowing something and experiencing something is huge. It’s why you can feel somewhat safe watching The Ring on the TV, but crap your pants at the 360 experience.

Combine VR with haptic feedback and full body motion-tracking, and you can easily be fully immersed for hours. Now, before we move on, as I mentioned this video is sponsored by Oculus Rift. If you’re looking to dive into new worlds, it’s available for only $399. If you ever wanted to be a rage-filled green giant, or a sass-filled trash panda, you can save the world in Marvel Powers United VR. Or, if you’ve ever wanted to get your table-top strategy game on, and don’t have hundreds of hours to build intricate landscapes, there’s Brass Tactics, which looks so cool. There’s also the story-driven Lone Echo, and the robotic mayhem of Echo Arena. And, they’re all exclusive. If you want to see me try out the Oculus for myself, stick around til the end of the video. Now, back to the philosophy…

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Helen, even if VR allows you to sit behind the eyes of your favorite characters, that experience is still subjective and unique to you. Multiple friends could watch the same 360 film or play the same VR game, and they would still all have different experiences. We haven’t fully bridged qualia’s explanatory gap.

And while that’s definitely true, VR actively tries to combat this. At Comic-Con, we caught up with Ian Forester, CEO of VR Playhouse, whose team had just created a VR experience for the show Mr. Mercedes. When asked about the explanatory gap, he told us how good VR tries to bridge it: “In trying to create a fully immersive experience, there needs to be a palette cleanser almost – it’s what we refer to as ‘onboarding’. You are you – we get that – but now you’re going to assume a different role, and different circumstance.” Onboarding is essentially a tutorial section in a VR experience. It tells you about the character you’re inhabiting and how to interact with the VR world around you.

In doing so, onboarding combats the explanatory gap by asking you to forget, well, yourself. It’s kind of like the suspension of disbelief in theater, except instead of asking us to forget the stage, the curtains, the not very convincing set, it’s asking us to forget our actual selves. So, how effectively can VR bridge qualia’s explanatory gap – stripping us of us and making us assume a new identity? The short answer is: pretty damn well. Recent studies have shown some science-fiction level results. For example, in one study when white subjects inhabited a black virtual avatar, they actually exhibit notably less racial bias than those who didn’t. In another experiment, when adults were placed in a virtual child’s body, they started exhibiting more childlike behaviors. According to philosopher Frédérique de Vignemont, our sense of self is deeply entangled with the body we inhabit. Partly because our body is the only thing we both perceive and perceive with. It’s a bit like acting – we notice our costume and start adjusting our attitudes accordingly. And while we might not fully be able to know 100% what it’s like to be another person, VR can get us close.

It’s exactly VR’s ability to almost inhabit other subjective experiences that makes it ripe for new therapy techniques. Freud-Me, for example, puts patients into a motion capture suit and a VR headset. When the program starts, patients find themselves in a VR replica of their own body, moving exactly in sync with their real life body. They then tell a silent Dr. Freud across the room about their problems. After they’re done, users then inhabit the body of Dr. Freud and hear their own problems from this “outside” perspective, before offering solutions to… themselves. The results are pretty crazy, with patients reportedly experiencing greatly improved moods after undergoing the VR therapy, all because patients were able to step outside of their own bodies. And it’s not just virtual chit chats with Freud that are seeing great results in VR therapy. Things like exposure therapy – or helping patients conquer certain fears and phobias by facing them – have huge success rates in VR.

In one study, VR exposure therapy had over a 90% success rate in treating the fear of flying, which seems better than the popular “pop a Xanax and down a bottle of wine” approach. By buckling patients into a new perspective, it gives them a safer way to face their fears. While some might consider VR a form of escape from reality, we can also see how it can give us an entirely new perspective on the very not fictional world. So, what does the future of VR hold? Well, we may be a long way off from a full Ready Player One, but with computers getting stronger and wireless headsets coming out, we’re making progress. And while we as a society sometimes indulge in fear-mongering about future tech – from Skynet to the Matrix – VR has the potential to make a really positive impact. Did you know there are guys who actually lug heavy 360 cameras around mountain trails just so people who can’t hike them can still experience them? And yeah, we might be scared of creating some Ready Player One escapist nightmare, but as social philosopher Ernest Bloch argued, daydreaming and escapism actually can positively influence society. By exploring the possibilities of how things could be different, we engage in an “immature, but honest substitute for revolution” – one that can bring much needed change to society today. Alright, so as promised, I wanted to check out this Oculus and see what it’s all about. I also just want to say that, without sponsors like Oculus, many of our episodes wouldn’t even be possible. So, thanks guys. Now, where’s my headset at? Let’s do this!

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