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


Hamelin Accounts: A dedicated follower of… everyone?

Hamelin Accounts: A dedicated follower of… everyone?

A stranger is following you.

If this happens in a park, late at night – it becomes the stuff of pick-up-the-pace walking; as you try and stay under the secluded shafts of street light.  

If this happens in a prime-time, crime-drama – it’s the opening sequence: where bit-part becomes body.  

If this happens online – it’s cause for celebration.  In cases of extreme joy, the trumpet/confetti emoji is used (two of them if the whole thing occurs on a Friday).

You stare at your new follower’s round, bulbous profile picture (thanks Twitter UI update) and wonder – what was it, that made you, follow me?

You decide that you must be getting wittier, or at least, better looking.  Something drew them in.  It was either your last (heavily-filtered) profile picture, or that one-liner about baked beans….

But what if you did nothing?

What if you were only being followed, so you’d follow back? 

Hamelin Accounts. 

You know them, they’re easy to spot – a roughly identical number of followers and following.  They may be a local company trying to build business, or a personal blog, focusing on self-promotion.  They may be dedicated to a vague topic, (like aesthetics) that has nothing tangible attached to it. 

From the outside, they look like the piped-piper with hoards of followers trailing behind them. 

In actuality, it’s more reciprocal.

These accounts follow us (like the children in the story) and hope we will follow them, (like the children in the story) – but it’s never a passive exercise.  At varying points, either party can possess the power of the piper. 

For the Hamelin account, their piper-song is their high follower account (to encourage us to follow them). If we follow, we are then exposed to a high number of accounts. 

However, we aren’t children, idly dancing into the abyss. Our piper-song is the unfollow button. We possess the power of the piper, because if we abandon them, their follower account decreases – reducing them to nothing more than a rat-catcher in a funny suit, playing an off-key tune (or whatever the Twitter equivalent may be).

The Nokia Nostalgia Machine

The Nokia Nostalgia Machine

Nokia have revealed that they are soon relaunching the beloved Nokia 3310.  

This might seem like a strange move, in a world where move people than ever connect to the net via a mobile device – after all, the original had no internet capabilities – so why are people (myself included) so excited?

The original was a phone that people owned, not the other way round.  The simple fact was – people could open up the back of the phone and change the battery at any given point.  You did not have to send it back to the manufacturer.  Arguably, the 3310 was the Trill Symbiont of the mobile world: a new battery and an express-on cover later and your phone was as new as the day you took it out of the box.  Such zombie-levels of resurrection are something modern phones can only dream of.

More than the ease of being able to hack your own phone – the relaunch of the 3310 will succeed for one other reason: nostalgia.  

Ask anyone about the 3310, and while harking back to the joy of the high-score on snake, they’ll also tell you the joys of being a teenage-Beethoven as they composed their own ringtone.

The 3310 reminds us of a simpler time (for a lot of people, their teenage years) when we weren’t constantly connected or updated.  This was a phone that news (fake or otherwise) could not get to.

If anyone doubts that nostalgia really is that big a deal – ask yourself why the iPhone has heptic feedback and a option to make the screen-buttons sound like a physical keypad…

If you think it’s just Nokia, Blackberry have just announced that they are releasing a phone with physical buttons.

It’s no surprise, really, that mobile giants turn to the nostalgia machine in 2017.  The release of the Nokia (and Blackberry) will undoubtedly be huge money spinners (in the wake of last year’s failed mobile launches) but they will also act as societial pascifiers in a world where ideologies have gone askew.

So when the new Nokia 3310 launches, I suggest you take a long, hard look at the product you’re buying.  

Are one of the world’s biggest mobile giants selling you a phone; or rose tinted glasses?