Are virtual worlds all they’re cracked up to be? Walter Benjamin’s ‘Glitch in the Matrix’.

Are virtual worlds all they’re cracked up to be? Walter Benjamin’s ‘Glitch in the Matrix’.

*If you feel like a ‘soundtrack’ to this piece, try Clubbed to Death (Matrix OST)*

Until a few days ago, I’d only ever experienced flat-packed virtual reality: Google Cardboard meant I was a few origami folds and the odd washer away from my own budget Holodeck.  
It delivered, too.  

For the grand sum of £10, (ok, they have come down in price) I now had access to a whole new (virtual) world (ok, Google Cardboard isn’t exactly NEW, but, you know what I mean). Naturally the first video I checked out was this one.  

But the novelty of cardboard wears off really quickly.  We all know this, because as children, we were obsessed with the boxes our toys came in, instead of the actual toy. But soon enough, we chucked the boxes out, and got busy chopping off Barbie’s hair.  Same goes for Google’s VR offering.  After a while, even David Attenborough talking about dinosaurs looses its appeal – and the Google viewer lies dismantled and pancake-flat in the back of a drawer.

Part of the issue here, might be the fact that I was only getting my content from Youtube.  Aside from big dinosaurs; there was the odd 360 music video and a few horror-type offerings that I wasn’t about to explore in the midnight hours.

I never really felt like I was doing much, or interacting in any real way.  It was more of a really awesome cinema-going experinece – and not so awesome that I didn’t jettison the viewer (although I should stress, I got a [bigger] phone upgrade – so the reason Google VR and I parted ways has as much to do with phone size, as anything else).

Then I met the HTC VIVE.  People I knew had been using it (and looking momentarily like Hellboy, when they came up for ‘air’ with the VR headsets propped on their foreheads) – so I was interested. 

I have no idea what games I tried: one zombie shoot ’em up; a virtual museum tour and some awesome game where I got to Captain the Starship Enterprise (the photon torpedoes wouldn’t engage, though!)

This made Google Cardboard look like a paper aeroplane next to a Fighter Jet.  It was totally immersive (there was always an awareness of watching a screen with Google). 

I couldn’t quite get to grips (no pun intended) with the controllers for HTC Vive. There was something odd about the very actual, very real sensation of gripping the controller – which I couldn’t match up to my virtual hands (viewed tthrough headset).  My ‘real’ hands were still – but my virtual hands were loading a handgun (zombie shoot ’em up!).  With more game play, I’m guessing I would have become used to it.

I came away from the whole experience effervescent and enthusiastic.  The museum tour, with the Terracotta Army ‘soundtrack’ was really something else.  The museum also offered a quick way to travel (you teleport around – which seems weirdly natural in that environment) and an out-of-this-world glass lift (it really feels like you’re in a lift – no idea how they managed that one).

One exhibit, however, was the proverbial glitch in the Matrix: The Mona Lisa.  I’d been lucky enough to see Da Vinci’s original up-close-and-personal (ok, behind some bullet-proof glass while standing behind a bunch of way-taller tourists) – and this virtual Mona Lisa could never compare.  

Sure, you could get right up close in the virtual museum – but that was the point – you shouldn’t be able to.  In real life, you will never be able to reach out and touch the Mona Lisa – like all things we hold in reverence – it is off limits and that is part of its enduring appeal. 

This virtual Mona Lisa, was, lacking something that Walter Benjamin had been writing about long before the advent of modern VR.  This virtual amuseum and it’s virtual Mona Lisa lacked the aura (that which withers in the age of mechanical production is the aura of the work of art). What is special about the piece, cannot be replicated by the painting’s placing in a virtual museum.

Of course, there is a great benefit to the VR version of Mona Lisa – something that Walter Benjamin predicted all that time ago: 

Technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself

But what’s the point?

What’s the point of seeing a copy of the Mona Lisa if it’s somehow less?

Part of Walter Benjamin’s notion of the aura is:

the object’s unique location in time and space 

That is to say, that it’s the Lourve itself, that is in some way, shape, or form, auratic.  It is the same for all museums.  There is something about them.  The way the light passes through the windows; the way visitor’s footsteps echo as they walk around the exhibits; the strange smell that seems to hang in the air: an odd sort of filtered dustiness (close your eyes and think museum smell – you’ll know what I mean).

So really, until VR can give me virtual people running around ruining my virtual exhibit, or overly-chilled museum air-con – then – well, I’m still very, very impressed and hugely excited – I suppose it’s just no matter how immersive these things get – if they can’t do that, then users will always be aware of the simulation.

Then again, I did grow up watching Star Trek – so I won’t really be happy until someone builds a full-on Holodeck in the middle of the street – maybe they already did

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