Lost in a Game, Lost in a Book
In August 2015, Time magazine declared that virtual reality is about to change the world. Its infamous cover featured Oculus founder Palmer Luckey floating on a beach wearing his VR headset. In March 2016, the respected Kill Screen magazine launched a side project dedicated entirely to VR coverage: Versions. In a lengthy article entitled “The Purpose of Pokémon Go”, Gareth Damian Martin proposes a different reading of the current VR situation. According to him, Niantic and Nintendo’s application – one of the most popular ever created – can be seen as the “the most significant piece of virtual reality software we have ever seen”. As Martin points out, “1:1 is the ultimate goal of any virtual reality experience. Whether that means matching the movements of a player’s head and body to their corresponding digital avatar in headset VR, or matching a world map to the map of our own world as in Pokémon Go.” From this perspective, VR has already taken over the world.
The novelty of Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality entertainment currently draws a lot of attention from journalists. Moreover, many creative endeavours are trying to integrate these new technologies with some critical success and have been showcased in contemporary arts venues. For instance, the PHI Center in Montreal has programmed two exhibitions curated by “The Future of Storytelling” group over the past year and a half; famous VR installations such as Birdly (SOMNIACS, 2014) and Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness (Arnaud Colinart, Amaury La Burthe, Peter Middleton and James Spinney, 2016) have attracted significant audiences for this venue. In Montreal still, the Satosphère (with its 18 meters wide projection dome) is also attracting crowds. However, the commercial success of such experiments is not assured at this point in time. VR devices such as the Oculus rift, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive have a hard time convincing a broad public besides the typical early adopters. Respected media scholar Dmitri Williams recently penned a short article predicting that these technologies might become a niche market, both in the realm of cinema and video game (2017). Such a point of view is informed by the knowledge of previous episodes in media history, where the same fascination for VR or natural interfaces have led to mixed results at best – and commercial / aesthetic failure at worst.
How can media creators navigate this new episode of the VR fascination without facing the same dead ends? As researchers in the various fields of media studies, how can we account for the progressive integration – or lack thereof – of technologies associated with VR in media practices such as video games and movies? What are the concerns of the general public about the current implementation of VR technology? As the conference “Lost in a game / Lost in a book” intends to demonstrate, an exchange between these three poles will be beneficial in order to move forward in the current VR conundrum. Through a better understanding of the VR lineage in media history (previous pitfalls and unrealized promises), the contemporary wave of VR creation can be informed and engage with audiences more effectively.