Whole Body Computing
Upon analyzing the ‘lived’ experience of virtual reality, I discovered that this conceptual denial of the body is accomplished through the material repression of the physical body. The phenomenological experience of cyberspace depends upon and in fact requires the willful repression of the material body.
My friend Brian Eno once said that computers need more ‘Africa’ in them. I took him to mean interaction with the whole body.
For some years now, the discourse concerning virtual reality has focused almost exclusively on a particular form of corporeal transcendence. Writers influenced by the science fiction chic of cyberpunk fiction have been captivated by the possibility of superseding the body in the digital frontier, allowing the hazy border between the body and data to trade obdurate materiality for plastic multiplicities. Their feminist critics, conversely, have been quick to fault this ambition, developing a critique of the ideological stakes in the supposed (but always incomplete) effacement of the body’s gender, race, and ability. A singular focus on the digitally unchained body thus monopolizes the conversation concerning this speculative futurism. Through this ever-increasing desire to illuminate the future-present, cultural and academic commentators have constructed their theoretical foundations almost exclusively in the futuristic aesthetics of laboratory prototypes and the concept art of the cinematic imagination.iii In the process of doing so, however, this ever forward-looking conversation has ignored the enactments of the recent past and the history of VR’s rather more embodied praxis.
A closer examination of VR’s archive of failed technologies reveals a contrary desire on the part of its would-be virtual pioneers. Rather than the erasure of the body through an escape from its materiality, a dissenting group of engineers, video game consumers and cultural commentators articulate an opposing desire to render data in tangible terms, bringing a pronounced sense of embodiment into the technological interfaces of the virtual. This counter-history, composed of unsuccessfully marketed haptic data gloves, motion sensors and spatial recognition tools, aimed to meet the body in technology half-way- extending the sensory limits of the human form into an informational space that was constructed and deformed to meet this peculiar caress. Instead of repressing the body, virtual reality technology of the 1980s to today reveals a powerful desire to touch and hold the new material of this digital ground, rather than abandon the corporeal sensorium for the freeplay of visual data.
Utopian inventory and countercultural commentator Jaron Lanier is one of the few voices articulating this desire for an embodied virtuality. Moreover, his early design work with VPL forms an integral part of this genealogy of technological haptic enactments.iv His call, by way of musician Brian Eno, for a more ‘African’ experience of technology was partially expressed in his work on the DataGlove: a wearable glove prosthetic that employed fiberoptic and electromagnetic sensors to support a means of computer interface through the whole hand: the articulation of finger joints and the tilt and pan of a hand held empty in space. Adapted from a ten-thousand dollar robotic peripheral designed for NASA’s space missions, Lanier’s DataGlove enabled its user to manipulate digital objects with an high degree of isomorphism to the hand’s mundane articulations. Alternatively, through the plasticity of its programming, the glove also enabled its user to scan through data visualizations and software tools with an arbitrary and evolving language of gestures.v Contrary to Lanier’s vision of mass cultural use, however, the glove’s fragility, high prerequisite of software literacy and considerable expense meant that it saw little application outside of specialized lab work.vi Its legacy, nevertheless, is felt in the development of subsequent glove-based interfaces, including Exo’s Dexterous Hand Master and Mattel’s Power Glove. The latter, while ostensibly designed for Nintendo’s 9-14 year-old video game demographic,vii was unexpectedly an object of great fascination to a community of personal computer users seeking a low-cost means to experience computer haptics. As one such adventurous pioneer notes, “many applications… are just crying out for a good three-dimensional input device.”viii The few who were able to rewire the Power Glove and code their own interface software report with great excitement on the potential of the technology.ix
The unstated impetus behind this need for computer haptics, however, and the Afrocentric appellation from progenitor suggest a greatly more a lubricious desire motivating the call for full body computing. Africa, resonant with cultural origin stories and the air of authenticity, suggests a return to an imagined past rather than the creation of an uncharted future.x The temporality of the discourse on virtual reality as well as the spatial site of its enactment, might therefore be productively shifted. Rather than Gibson or the laboratory, childhood connections with video play and excited touches in the home supply a more productive means to account for the desire motivating VR production. Instead of the unmaking of the body-present in exchange for futuristic potentials, the history of VR haptics suggests a different narrative: a restoration of the integral body from its phenomenological fall from grace.
i Anne Balsamo, “The Virtual Body in Cyberspace,” in The Feminist and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones (New York: Routledge, 2010), 624.
ii Jaron Lanier, “Jaron’s World: Virtual Horizon” Discovery Magazine, May 2007, available from http://discovermagazine.com/2007/may/jaron2019s-world#.UPq_PidUySo.
iii Anne Balsamo, in particular, can be faulted for basing her critique of VR disembodiment out of a reading of Necromancer and limited time spent in a VR rig consisting of a screen helmet and a track ball.
iv VPL, supposedly standing for “Visual Programming Language”, was a speculative VR engineering company run by Jason Lanier and Thomas Zimmerman. It was financially solvent from 1985-1990. Its patents were later acquired by Sun Microsystems.
v Howard Eglowstein, “Reach Out and Touch Your Data,” Byte 15, no. 7 (July 1990): 283.
vi Dana L. Gardner, “Inside Story On The Power Glove,” Design News, 45, no. 23 (December 1989): 64.
vii Ibid, 67.
viii Ibid, 290.
ix Eglowstein, “Reach Out,” 288-289.
x Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge and Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), 31.