Over the past decade programmers and developers have made monumental steps to deliver a digitally fabricated experience that simulates what we can comprehend, a three-dimensional environment that can be observed and manipulated through our input. My own experiences with the medium, however, have only underscored the fact that the simulation of a digital interface is fundamentally different than its real counterpart. This became abundantly clear during a walkable VR demonstration where the visual representation of a barrier did not restrict my movement. I could walk through objects and out the opposite side. This kind of disconnect means that although we can see and occasionally hear these new simulated realms, we are ultimately limited to being observers rather than occupants.

Technology cannot currently allow us to touch what we see and hear, and I wonder if it ever will. To experience physical objects with all of our senses could potentially lead to violent ends. Given the current parameters of visual and auditory experience, we can interact with digital worlds but they cannot interact with us. This condition is exemplified by how we view ourselves in these digital environments. From the user’s perspective, a digital representation of his or her body is not visible.  Without being able to see relative objects, such as looking down one’s arms or glimpsing one’s torso, virtual space and digital realms exist as a disembodied and existential state.

Psychologically, these conditions are foreign to the human experience as we know it. Because the sensory input of touch is manifested throughout the body, why should digital environments recreate a body if it is not linked to your physical one? Without seeing one’s self, this current iteration of virtual spaces inherently creates a metaphysical experience that is not connected to the body and exists purely in the mind. Apart from dreams, this is the first instance that the human condition can operate independently from the body, from the reality of touch. What if we were to view such implementations as liberating, that we can create and inhabitant an entirely new reality, one that follows its own logic, instead of simulating ours?

Much of what we can rationalize is based around its relative size to that of the human body. The scale of objects and landscapes is how we gain understanding of a place or use. Navigating a digital environment without a representational body is navigating a world without scale, as there is nothing to make associations with. Remember Alice’s confusion when she fell down the rabbit hole and entered a “Wonderland” where her body could no longer be relied on to orient her? Virtual landscapes are devoid of physical sensorial input and endlessly fractal due to not having a relative scale.

As more applications such as VRchat allow for VR communication and landscapes, how might we begin to understand the implications of these environments and design to their specific conditions, specifically ones that recognize the separation of the mind and body? Disassociation from the body can allow the manifestation of bizarre and spectacular landscapes, but may also allow for a variety of people to connect and communicate through a shared experience regardless of physical limitations. These digital landscapes will create environments where voice and thought are predominant rather than the physical realm. Landscape architects could become prominent figures in how the spatial qualities of these digital environments are assembled. These spaces might not be physical environments at all, but may have the ability to be developed into new, habitable spaces that organically develop over time.

Evan Lee is  a designer in the Laguna Beach studio.

Imagery from Shigeto: “Hovering” by 79 Ancestors, part of Territories VR episodes. To view full video, please visit its website at: http://bit.ly/2Ecm1sp


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