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Category: Power Glove Fragments

Autodesk’s Formatless Future

A format, like a shared collection of social mores, allows a wide range of parties to act together with a common set of standards and expectations. These agreements, be they for voltage, size, hardware supports or interface design, are a vital component of a medium’s propagation through market systems. Often a format takes its shape from the media that precede it, from a corporate calculus of data efficiency or the idea of a prototypical receiving subject.[1] In the case of Virtual Reality, however, the need for a standardized format was at odds with its founding promise of unlimited plasticity and freedom. If VR was to be a virgin frontier for new forms of creativity and communication, then how could the inevitable restrictions and rigidity of standardization be justified?

These questions and conflicting drives are present under the surface of Autodesk’s public face. As one of the leading developers of early VR environments, Autodesk and its product AutoCAD were one of the first arenas in which the articulation of a format was raised. Gary Wells, an key programmer at Autodesk, set out the terms of the field thusly:

“[Cyberspace] is not a CAD system, it is not an extension of AutoCAD. It is never going to be an extension of AutoCAD. It is fundamentally a medium. It’s a whole new medium, a whole new way of interacting, a new way of communication knowledge and experience, particularly the kinds of experiences that are not described easily in words… Autodesk is very well positioned to supply tools to the people who are going to get excited about cyberspace as a medium.”[2]

Like Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue, Autodesk sought to position itself as a cybernetic network, connecting autonomous communities to a non-hierarchical market commons.[3] While Autodesk provided an “OS or a kernel” with which to “drive cyberspaces”, the kinds of spaces and “dynamic bodies” to be driven were to be completely fashioned by the means and discretion of a diverse and multitudinous group of third-party developers.[4] If VR was to be a space of artistic freedom, then AutoCAD proposed to be a dramatically empty, formatless canvas on which other companies and individuals could paint.

Unlike painting, however, the field of VR development necessitated highly complex tools and a host of compatibility concerns that would defy the inter-medial ease of Picasso. Autodesk’s “cyberspace in a briefcase” system, initially designed to provide accessible VR capabilities to small companies and hobbists, cost just under $25,000. The system, really more of a steamer trunk than a briefcase, consisted of a software package, glove and head peripherals from VPL, and two i860 boards that had to be installed into an existing PC (not included).[5] Accessibility therein can only be understood in highly qualified terms.

Nevertheless, as Autodesk’s concept of cyberspace plasticity dispersed through the nascent VR industry (most of whom sought to compete rather than collaborate with Autodesk) the problem of mediating computer and VR technology intensified. In an effort to achieve ever-better graphics, high-end headsets began to implement separate A/V or VGA signals to each the LCD screens supplying images to the eyes. This dual graphic requirement meant that two separate graphics cards were required to power the headset displays- a demand that most PCs were not prepared to accommodate gracefully.[6] The stand-alone peripherals, sourced from a variety of suppliers, also added to consumer frustration. This was parodied in a promotional video for Forte’s VFXI headset system which compared the experience of setting up their product with a generic ‘Ciber Goggles’ headset.[7] Confounded by a deluge of plugs, the Ciber Goggles user was unable to find an access port left for his DataGlove, and so resigned himself heavily to the confines of his mouse. While certainly ham-fisted, the video nevertheless provides a telling glimpse into the fraught interface between the two sets of hardware.[8]

The tension between an individual’s freedom to design their own experience and the need to standardize a universal format was also felt on the level of the body. Meredith Bricken, a psychologist working closely with the Autodesk team, would begin her introduction to cyberspace by noting, “it takes this perceptual apparatus [gesturing to her body] and gives it an entirely new frame of reference and an entirely new set of rules…. The idea of perceptual movement is completely flexible. You can see anything from anywhere.”[9] Immediately after, however, Bricken notes that this space of perceptual freedom was actually radically disorienting to users. Without the habitual spatial cues of physical reality such as horizon lines and object permanence, VR could pose a radially alienating environment to its users, at times making them vomitously ill.[10] Consequently, for the Autodesk team,

Movement is something we have to consider in terms of joining what we perceive with this great freedom of cyberspace. And that means constraining things. We’ve already taken our six degrees of freedom joystick and cut out a few of those degrees of freedom so that we have some control at all.[11]

Just as a format takes its shape from the restrictions and alterations it makes to its medium to deliver a standardized experience, so too can the human body’s perceptual apparatus be understood as a kind of format- one with which the Autodesk cynerneticians had to carefully ensure compatibility.

The standardization of perceptual experience and hardware compatibility continued to dog the industry as it approached its adolescence in the late-1990s. In the wilful absence of a clearly defined format or robust industry partnerships, many young start up companies were drawn and quartered between the paradoxical demands of the market and VR’s early hype.[12] Finding a way to mould VR into the shape of the human sensorium, while still delivering radically new perceptual experiences, proved to be an impasse at which the industry still struggles to cross. Mass consumer VR, if and when it emerges, will no doubt bend to market pressures for an accessible and efficient standard. It remains to be seen, however, if the radical promises of the medium can survive a transition to this format.


[1]Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), 14-19.

[2]Gary Wells, speaking on an Autodesk panel at an unidentified industry conference, recorded on the latter part of a VHS tape of Cyberspace: The New Explorers (1989). Autodesk, “Cyberspace: The New Explorers (1989)”, Internet Archive: Timothy O’Leary Archive, http://archive.org/details/Timothy_Leary_Archives_005.dv, accessed 7 April 2013.

[3]For more on Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and its relationship with liberal capitalism, see Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Nework, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 99.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality (New York: Summit Books, 1991), 186-187.

[6]“10 Reasons Why Virtual Reality Did Not Become a Standard,” V-Rtifacts, 18 April 2010, http://www.vrtifacts.com/hmds/10-reasons-why-virtual-reality-did-not-become-a-standard/, accessed 7 April 2013.

[7]Forte Technologies, “VHX1 Promotional Video,” 1995, availiable from http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=3yGiiU8_gnE, accessed 7 April 2013.

[8]The video goes on to promote Forte’s strict adherence to industry standards and a network of business alliances that ensured the comparability of its product with a wide range of contemporary and future games and graphics cards. It ends by noting, “Until nowVR has not lived up to its promise. In this fastest of fast changing environments, that regret now belongs to yesterday,” further hinting at the dissatisfaction of early adopters.

[9]Meredith Bricken, speaking on an Autodesk panel at an unidentified industry conference, recorded on the latter part of a VHS tape of Cyberspace: The New Explorers (1989). It should also be noted that Meredith Bricken was the wife of William Bricken, the project leader of Autodesk’s cyberspace initiative.

[10]“10 Reasons,” V-Rtifacts.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Ibid.

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Metaphors In Mind: The Framing Challenge of Immateriality

To envision cyberspace requires a break with the current world of two-dimensional data.”

– Paul Lewis, “The Executive Computer; Put on Your Data Glove and Goggles and Step Right In.”[1]

And the use of metaphor itself takes us into the realm of the virtual.

Anne Friedberg,  The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (2006)[2]

            Metaphors are proxies, aliases. As a rhetorical trope, metaphor relies on the substitution of one thing for another, a transfer of properties from the plane of the literal to the plane of the figurative. Metaphors themselves are virtual; they reside in the immateriality of language, yet they refer to the material world. At least, this was the case until the particularly plastic logic of virtual reality began to confuse these registers, mediating a medium of the immaterial. As an examination of business journalism of VR in the 1990s suggests, much of the efforts that went into articulating this new medium took place on the level of metaphors. These early voices are found grappling with a recurrent and immeasurable question: how to frame the experience of a space inside, rather than outside of the architectural screen and its material borders?

In his 1990 New York Times article “The Executive Computer; Put on Your Data Glove and Goggles and Step Right In,” Paul Lewis was quick to note that much of the excitement and difficulty that characterized the promotion VR took place on the level of metaphor.[3] Faced with the prospect of working and commercializing a virtual space with an endless visual morphology, the architectural boundaries of a workspace was continually negotiated and defined in the minds of VR entrepreneurs. For Texas Instruments’ developer Steve Pruitt, the office was an important frame of mind to be maintained so as to make VR a viable corporate environment. While his interlocutor suggests the exotic vistas of Yosemite as a possible space in which to work and (presumably) play, Pruitt is keen to frame the experience of the telecommuting executive in a more mundane situ- strolling through a virtual office, moving down a virtual hallway and pausing to read a virtual noticeboard. The imagined work in VR is purposely constrained to a limited imaginary space. ”Because the concept of a physical office is so familiar to corporations, and because the concept of virtual workplaces is so different, the office metaphor is important,” he notes.[4]

While providers of work environments sought to defend the discursive space of the office against the possibly alienating or distracting plasticity of VR, others were contemplating the potential of opening up and redefining the metaphors that framed the representation of quantitative data. Faced with a new order of magnitude of information to analyze, capital traders suggested that there was an acute need to find new ways of visualizing data beyond the old conventions of charts and graphs. A new virtual strategy, it was theorized, might give an analyst an edge in the overwhelming data flow of international commerce.[5] Re-framing this virtuality, however, called for a mental plasticity that proved challenging to the metaphor-creators of VR and information graphics. “The most difficult part of all this is not technological,” claimed Aiden McManus, an information strategist for American Express. ”The hardware is available, the software is available, but the metaphor isn’t.”[6]

This crisis of guiding frames was intensely felt in VR, but by no means specific to it. Indeed, the turn of the century might be characterized by a general befuddlement at the immaterial excess of commerce and information networks that were only nominally represented by their physical architecture.[7] As Lewis notes, “in many ways, the foundations of cyberspace are already in place. In a modern bank or brokerage house, for example, the physical shell of the building is often a relatively insignificant feature; the more important structure is the electronic computer network that processes, stores and transfers electronic representations of money along a global network.” The erosion of value and primacy assigned to physical objects thus suggests a fragility to the metaphors meant to house the discursive architectures of this new order of frameless data.

Just as Alberti’s window metaphor performs a coy slippage between instructional device and philosophical paradigm, the metaphors that colonize the expanse of VR carry their own weight and induce their own effects.[8] Now, more than ever, it is important to examine rhetoric of metaphor, be it hidden, reinscribed, or newly borne.  Metaphors construct our cultural realities, and are an essential component to how media technologies might achieve something of their liberatory promise.  New metaphors, carefully weighed, are required to make new media new, and yet, their construction proves as illusory as the technical means to achieve VR’s promised ground of virtual freedom.


[1]Paul Lewis, “The Executive Computer; Put on Your Data Glove and Goggles and Step Right In,” New York Times, May 20, 1990, accessed 29 March 2013.

[2]Anne Friedberg,  The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2009), 12.

[3]Lewis, “The Executive Computer.”

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7]For more on the chaotic outfall of this immaterial turn, see Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Creation of the World, or Globalization, trans François Raffoul and David Pettigrew (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007).

[8]For more on the metaphoric legacy of Alberti’s window, see Friedberg, The Virtual Window.

Jaron Lanier, Post-Symbolic Communication, and the Desire for Digital Intimacy

Perhaps no dream in American culture has recurred as often as the one in which a group of spiritual adepts remake the world they have inherited in the image of their ideals. For Jaron Lanier and early Virtual Reality pioneers, this dream entailed a rejection of the limits of conventional language, and a strong faith in the potential for technology to act as an extension of human thought and relationality. The new horizons dreamed therein far exceed the limited spatial critiques of the likes of VR interlocuters Anne Balsamo or Ken Hills.[1] Rather than an escape from history[2] or the body,[3] the motivating desire to construct this utopia can be found in the mixture of New Communalist ideals and interpersonal longing of its founder, Jaron Lanier. Part engineer, visionary and pundit, Lanier’s mark can be found on the shape of early VR idealism and its subsequent aspirational condition.

In many ways, Lanier’s formative years give the impression of a young New Communalist living, and suffering, without a community. At the age of eleven, following the abrupt and tragic loss of his mother, Lanier found himself on the isolated desert of Mesilla, New Mexico working with his father to build a new family home. Like the counterculture back-to-the-land hippies of the Whole Earth network, the young Jaron found inspiration in the writings of Buckminster Fuller’s systems environments and helped his father design and build a geodesic dome.[4] Unlike the communities networked by Stewart Brand, though, the Laniers wanted for communication and exchange with other nodes in a circuit of like-minded individuals. In their commune of two, the Laniers piloted their Earth Ship through desolate space in a period of pronounced withdrawal and solitude.[5] “I was very intensely lonely and very disconnected,” Jaron later noted. “It left me with a profound awkwardness that I haven’t fully overcome.”[6]

Perhaps emerging from this period of lack, an obsession with communication and the limits thereof became a recurrent thread throughout the Jaron Lanier’s varied projects. As a teen, Jaron broke his desert isolation with punctuated visits to military scientists affiliated with the nearby White Sands Missile Range. Long conversations about mathematics led the boy to enroll in the New Mexico State University at a young age, where he received a National Science Foundation grant to study the possibility of superseding mathematical notation. Seeking to sidestep the “obscure and bizarre” semiotics of mathematical equations by way of interactive, graphical representation, the young Lanier learned early computer programming skills.[7] The involvement of code, however, further added another level of communication symbols, and thus proved initially frustrating.[8]

For the next three years music served as the primary object of Jaron’s pursuits as he worked alternatively as a performer and composer of computerized music in California at the cusp of its economic boom. Freelance soundtrack work for Atatri later funded a garage workshop where he began revisit his earlier attempts to escape language through computer representation.[9] At twenty-four, these programming endeavours unexpectedly placed Lanier on the cover of Scientific America. As the magazine’s editorial policies prohibited the publication of names without affiliations, Lanier invented the moniker VPL, “standing for Visual Programming Languages, or maybe Virtual Programming Languages,” to represent his developing pursuits.[10] When, following the publication of the issue, investors began to contact Lanier looking to supply venture capital, the business began in earnest.

From 1985 to 1993, VPL represented the leading commercial developer for VR technology. In what would later find its expression in the Power Glove, Lanier’s company produced the first VR head display and glove in the industry- the VPL EyePhone and DataGlove. As the charismatic spokesman for VR’s potential, Lanier was billed as an electrifying visionary for the technological future.[11] Working in both capitalist and techno-Utopian paradigms, Lanier was an ideal component to the larger networks of reformed New-Communalist peers charted by Stewart Brand’s Global Business Network and Kevin Kelly’s Wired[12] – a critical context often excluded from academic pronouncements on VR.

Showing his counterculture values, Lanier painted a vision of Virtual Reality as a space of liberatory potential and heightened empathy, free from the material scarcity that otherwise inhibits human communication and creation.[13] A morality and cosmological significance to technology often accompanied this vision. In this conceptual future, beautiful, massively scaled public works impossible to realize in physical space would become easily attainable, leading to a heightened facility for the creative arts. VR, acting as a neutral tool, could be saturated in these ambitions, “sponge[ing] up good energy from the physical plane.”[14] Negative energy, conversely, could also be enacted in virtual space, with the effect of diverting such expressions from more tangibly violent outcomes, thereby producing net good. Suddenly able to “behave like gods, albeit in a simulation,” VR could,

…reunite us with the flow of nature. Because ultimately, a new flow we create is just the same old flow of nature popping up in a new place. We’ll just be paying attention to it since we’ll be able to feel powerful in relation to it, which we can’t with the physical one. We can do it a little bit with the atomic bomb every once in a while, but that’s about it. It’s actually very limited and I think it frustrates us terribly. [15]

Casting nuclear war and VR on a continuum of empowered creation or “flow”, Lanier suggests that the proximity to total power induces a new human relationality with a concomitant ethics and return to nature.

This desire for new creative and spiritual heights, combined with a simultaneous call for individual empowerment and communal connection, evokes the conflicted desires of the New Communalists values and the capitalist ‘New Economy’ of the 1980s and 1990s. Similar to Gregory Bateson’s theory of the networked, “immanent mind” and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic humanism, Lanier’s VR subject was simultaneously connected and autonomous, capable of a moral project of world making and human exploration.[16] Not only would access to VR bring human contact to an isolated child in New Mexico’s desert, it would bring creative potential and spiritual understanding back to technology and society at large.

Key to this political and ethical model of technological individualism was the promise of greater inter-personal connection. As VR overcame the material limitations of the physical (such as racism or poverty, in Lanier’s imagination)[17], so too would it overcome the barrier of symbolic communication. In a passage that presages academic debates on the limits of textuality, Lanier’s Whole Earth peer John Perry Barlow criticized the “absurd delusion,” that symbolic information systems could ever be an “acceptable surrogate for the boiling torrent of shapes, colors, sounds, memories and context” of lived experience.[18] To Barlow, the “thin alphanumeric stream which drips from our fingers,” was ever insufficient to truly communicate the nuances of cognition, yet VR and its potential for interactive simulations, might “scratch our eyes, blinded by information, back in again.”[19]

Lanier’s own musings on post-symbolic communication are numerous and both predate and outlive his time at the helm of the industry- yet, there can be little doubt that they vividly shaped his contribution to the field. Contrary to Barlow’s separation of mind from body, wherein the purity of thought is reduced and diminished through the materiality of language and symbols,[20] Lanier’s communication theory suggests that a liberatory technology will necessary serve as an extension of both thought and body.[21] VPL’s head saw language, borne of “a stream of little discrete symbols,” as a second order of the “continuity and gesture” which constituted the world more broadly.[22] This profoundly embodied sense of immanent communication could be found in the near-instantaneous signal transmissions of bodily movement, lucid dreaming, and the act of communing with nature.[23] VR’s intervention, through its plasticity and ease of creation, was to enable one to directly communicate experience experientially through reenacted memory, tactility and phenomena rather than through the veil of linguistic description.

Lanier’s post-symbolic communication thus fundamentally depends upon the total immersion of the human body within its matrix of intelligibility. Whether or not recreating an apple in VR constitutes an escape from its symbolic representation hinges upon the ability of VR’s technical system to supersede the poverty of experiential knowledge about an object inherent to symbolic information. The apple cannot merely look like an apple, is needs to phenomenologically be an apple. While, owing to ongoing technological limitations and the hostile takeover of VPL by a french electronics conglommerate in 1993, this ambitious goal was never achieved by Lanier, it nevertheless continues to inform his writing and consulting on contemporary technologies.[24] This goal, shaped by a mixture of counterculture ethics and a life troubled by isolation, remains absent from VR’s critics. As Barlow notes, “Virtual Reality induces a perception of huge potency underlying featureless ambiguity. There is a natural tendency to fill this gap between power and definition with ideology.”[25] Thus, while feminists and post-colonial thinkers project their politically-informed anxieties about the body into VR and its often exclusionary discourses, it remains essential to foreground the ideologies and ethics of its founders as well. Though post-symbolic communication has yet to be realized on the digital frontier, its remains a founding mythology for the denizens and bodies of Virtual Realities still to come.


[1]Anne Balsamo, “The Virtual Body in Cyberspace,” in The Feminist and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones (New York: Routledge, 2010),  and Ken Hills, Digital Sensations: Space, Identity and Embodiment in Virtual Reality (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[2]Hills, Digital Sensations, xvii.

[3]Balsamo, “The Virtual Body in Cyberspace,” 624.

[4]Jaron Lanier, “Jaron’s World: Shapes in Other Dimensions,” Discover Magazine, 5 April 2007, http://discovermagazine.com/2007/apr/jarons-world-shapes-in-other-dimensions#.UUdHPxzvtAI, accessed 18 March 2013.

[5]Jennifer Kahn, “The Visionary: A Digital Pioneer Questions What Technology Has Wrought,” The New Yorker, 11 July 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/07/11/110711fa_fact_kahn?currentPage=all, accessed 17 March 2013.

[6]“The Virtual Curmudgeon,” The Economist: Technology Quarterly Q3 2010 (2 September 2010), http://www.economist.com/node/16909935, accessed 18 March 2013.

[7]Burr Snider, “Jaron,” Wired 1.02 (May/June 1993), http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.02/jaron.html, accessed 17 March 2013.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Kahn, “The Visionary.”

[12]Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Ruse of Digital Utopianism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 195.

[13]Adam Heilbrun, Barbara Stack and Jaron Lanier, “Virtual Reality: An Interview with Jaron Lanier,” originally published in Whole Earth Review, no. 64 (Fall 1989): 108-10, now availiable via Jaron Lanier’s Homepage, http://www.jaronlanier.com/vrint.html, accessed 17 March 2013.

[14]Lanier, Ibid.

[15]Ibid.

[16]Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, 123, 23.

[17]“When people get social and see each other, especially in a context that will be so, let’s say, ‘illuminating’ in the sense …. Virtual Reality is the ultimate lack of class or race distinctions or any other form of pretense since all form is variable. When people’s personalities meet, freed of all pretense of that kind in the virtual plane, I think that will be an extraordinary tool for increasing communication and empathy. In that sense it might have a good effect on politics.” Lanier, “Virtual Reality.”

[18]John Perry Barlow, “Being in Nothingness: Virtual Reality and the Pioneers of Cyberspace,” originally published in Mundo 2000 2, 1990, now available from John Perry Barlow Library, archived on the Electronic Frontier Foundation, https://w2.eff.org/Misc/Publications/John_Perry_Barlow/HTML/being_in_nothingness.html, accessed 17 March 2013.

[19]Ibid.

[20]Ibid.

[21]Lanier, “Virtual Reality.”

[22]Ibid.

[23]Intriguingly informed by, yet ancillary to the linguistic theories of the likes of Noam Chomsky, Lanier notes:“First of all, the clearest example of receiving communication that is nonsymbolic is to commune with nature. The direct perception you have when nature communicates to you as you walk in the forest is simply prior to/beyond symbols. There’s no need to prove that. Any linguist who would argue otherwise is beneath contempt.” Ibid.

[24]Such consulting credits include the Microsoft Kinect and the futurist media glove of Minority Report. Kahn, “The Visionary.”

[25]Barlow, “Being in Nothingness.”

The Apparatus of Sensation

Note: The following was a writing exercise to pull out my very best bad Foucault impression. I think I done good. What? Let’s see your bad Foucault!

—————

If Benjamin’s Chiffonnier were to search through the detritus of our failed media histories of the past half century, he would surely find his fortunes in the dilapidated wonders of the Sensorama.[1] One imagines, between the Ferris wheel and the bumper-cars of some palimpsest California amusement park, a blue arcade booth that solicits its bystanders through an odd address of hypnotic lights and pattern. Permitting only one individual at a time, each curious body is instantiated into an apparatus of near-total address: the hands are curved around a set of handlebars, the legs are mounted around an inclined seat, the head fits into a curved enclosure that swallows its entirety, and the brow is pressed into an iron mask with spring-mounted pads for the eyes which measure and constrain the direction of the gaze. The device, then, begins to enact its sensorium over the enveloped body.[2]

Sensorama

The seat is pitched forward, the handlebars twist and the sum of the visual field is overwhelmed with the three-dimensional sights and sounds of a motorcycle ride through Brooklyn.[3] The body is pitched and rolled in synchronicity to the virtual bike, the rumble of uneven virtual pavement, and the stereophonic kaleidoscope of the New York sound-scape. With exactitude, the smell of pizza is released into the nose as the phantom bike passes a prototypical parlour. While ostensibly at the driver’s seat of this spectacle, the spectator’s hands and arms are moved rather than moving, as if rather than steering the vehicle, the seated body were driven by its machine.

Then- as if through the mercurial logic of dreams- the scene changes. The motorcycle becomes a dune buggy as the sights of the metropolis are replaced by that of the desert, sidewalks dissolve into sand dunes and air is piped ferociously over the skin, simulating the bite of acceleration. This too soon changes. The desert becomes a highway and the spectator is instantiated behind the wheel of a red convertible. A young blonde woman is seated beside this spectacularly transported body, who flirts coyly with the anonymous spectator- a voyeur travelling through someone else’s dream. The titillating conceit of manufactured affection thus disclosed, the last chapter begins: a belly-dancer approaches, ringing cymbals in either ear, smiling while her cheap perfume is wafted into the nostrils.

Morton Hellig’s device, while ostensibly levied towards pedagogical use in industry and defence training, reveals its roots in a political history of spectacle.[4] The inventor, a Hollywood filmmaker and technologist, endeavoured to pursue the aims of cinema to the far reaches of immersion – to not only capture experience, but to assume its control. In sum, “to create an art of consciousness, not just of vision.”[5] Rather than the socialist whole of Sergei Eisentein’s Stereokino, Hellig’s dispositif was rather more individualizing.[6] Unlike the movie theatre, with its catcalls and disruptions, snacks, social intimacies and furtive eroticism, the Sensorama hailed a new form of totalizing spectacle, wrought on and all around the body and to the exclusion of all other forms of relationality.

This apparatus of near total sensation, if one is to take Hellig’s pedagogical claims sincerely, can be understood to inscribe a learned politics of bodily spectatorship. The affective prostitution of the Sensorama‘s women and its automotive pleasures of simulated freedom, present themselves as childishly innocuous, yet patently ideological manifestations of the Hollywood spectacle. As a positive correlation to confined discipline, the anonymous individual in the machine is interpolated into the most revered position in American society: the exhilarated and lustful body of a virile white male. Indeed, in the political sense, we must consider the Sensorama‘s audience as students. “[A] person will have greater efficiency of learning if he can actually experience a situation as compared with merely reading about it or listening to a lecture… if a student can experience a situation or an idea in about the same way that he experiences everyday life, it has been shown that he understands better and quicker, and if a student understands better and quicker, he is drawn to the subject matter with greater pleasure and enthusiasm. What the student learns in this manner he retains for a longer period of time.”[7] Desired and desiring, the body in the apparatus is thus instantiated into an aspirational politics when they are returned to their own evermore docile sensorium with its affective lack.

A geneology can thus be drawn from this off-shoot of cinema to the later manifestations of devices of movement, desire and virtual touch. Abandoning the heterotopic sanctuary of the theatre for the apparatus of sensation, freedom is wrought through a ruse of political instantiation. With motion and emotion ever more constrained to fit within the technological dispositif, the price paid for admission is further reaching than the token inserted into the slot.


[1]Walter Benjamin.  Selected Writings, vol. 4 ed. Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA., & London: Harvard University Press, 1991–1999), 48.

[2]A cursory examination of the device and its mechanism can be obtained in the following clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSINEBZNCks

[3]Additional descriptions of the device are afforded by Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality (New York: Summit Books, 1991), 49-53.

[4]“For example, the armed services must instruct men in the operation and maintenance of extremely complicated and potentially dangerous equipment, and it is desirable to educate the men with the least possible damage to costly equipment. Industry, on the other hand, is faced with a similar problem due to present day rapid rate of development of automatic machines. Here, too, it is desired to train a labor force without the accompanying risks.” Morton Hellig, Sensorama Simulator. US Patent 3,050,870. Filed January 10, 1961 and issued August 28, 1962.

[5]Aaron Marcus, “Dead Medium: Sensorama,” The Dead Media Project, http://www.deadmedia.org/notes/41/410.html. Accessed 19 February 2013.

[6]Oliver Grau, Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion, trans. Gloria Custance (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1995), 155.

[7]Hellig, Sensorama Simulator.

Artificial Virtualities

close up- child's play

“Everything else is child’s play,”decried the Power Glove, setting up a dichotomy of empowered, futuristic users and infantile, backwards on-lookers. This temporal split, dividing its imagined public by age as well as chronology, evoked a gated community of ever-cool, powerful young adults. To wear the Power Glove, after all, was to “put on the power of the future.”[1] This future, as all imagined futures, was heavily linked to specific notions of technologically-enabled heterochronologies and power that were shared with the VR industry at large.

The ad’s rhetoric, with its frequent repetition of power, futurity and the immediacy of action, is one of many examples of the discourse of empowerment and control surrounding Virtual Reality technologies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The carte blanche promised by the built worlds of VR enticed both the popular imagination and venture capital, leading to promises of a billion-dollar industry and forthcoming immersive delights.[2]  After all, the possibilities and novelty offered by VR were all-encompassing. As Tomas A Furness III, director of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory at the University of Washington at Seattle stated in 1992, “We can change gravity, we can change the speed of light, we can change the speed of sound. We are all powerful,” (italics added).[3]

The trajectory of the technology, moreover, helped fuel its temporal caché. Skipping the gradual march from the prohibitively expensive to the affordable middle-class standard that is so germane to the early years of most electronics, the Power Glove and prospective VR seemed poised to jump the queue, moving directly “from super computer to entertainment, with nothing else in between.”[4] Thus, to much astonishment and chagrin, the first widely-available VR peripheral was a children’s video game accessory. To the amateur programmers and computer enthusiasts who might otherwise form VR’s early-adopter public, the Power Glove was frustratingly childish and restrictive. To its consumer base, however, the glove was an object resonant with promises of maturity and freedom.

Child's Play

This mixed temporality plays into almost all aspects of how the Power Glove marketed itself to its imagined consumers. While its target public was ostensibly 9-14 year old (white, middle-class, American) boys,[5] the actors and models that publicly represented the device were frequently older. The toy’s television commercial, for example, features a tall, leather-clad man, evidently in his late-teens to early-twenties, alone in an abandoned warehouse playing with the Power Glove on an industrial sized screen.[6]  A different print ad, similarly, features a young teen whose face is largely concealed by thick sunglasses, which do the double work of imbuing the figure with a counter-culture cool and ageing his persona. The independence of age is powerfully conveyed by these ads, with a total absence of parents that was echoed eerily in the contemporary, Nintendo-funded motion picture The Wizard.[7] Even the glove’s instruction manual, most tellingly, styled its content in the form of a dialogue between a young boy named Little Digit and the older, cooler Glove Master who was so much older than his pupil that he occasionally towered out of frame. This discordance is telling in that it echos, consciously or not, the demographic divide between the device’s advertised and actual users. While Mattel’s imagined and depicted consumers were divided between adults and teens, its players were more often seven-year-olds decidedly more juvenile and dependant than either market.[8]

Instruction Manual- Quick Start- page 8

The promises of the glove and the wider VR industry, however, were never fulfilled, leading to a collapse of its imagined publics into unexpected users and uses. Despite the immersive images of the Power Glove, its effect in play was universally detrimental, frustrating gamers with a cumbersome set up and nigh impossible controls. Despite its inutility, however, those lucky enough to secure Christmas 1989’s hottest toy were reluctant to totally abandoned the device. Players frequently elected to wear the glove as an awkward arm-held analog controller, disengaging the motion-sensing technology all together. In some accounts, younger players were simply content to wear the glove as a game-associated object, suggesting that its value for its users fundamentally lay in its function as a marker of social status, rather than its promised mode of use.[9]

Like juvenile gamers adjusting expectations and modes of use, the Power Glove would later form the basis of some speculative VR interface research, adopted by academics and amateurs due to the peripheral’s low cost in the years following its commercial failure. While some initial work was done exploring its potential for transcribing American Sign Language and MIDI composition[10], its physical limitations, lack of out-of-the-box computer-interface compatibility, and discontinued production soon made it an unfeasible avenue of research. This public, too, came to disappear.

Today, the act of looking back at the recent past of this heterotemporal glove has curious connotations. In 2013, the future of 1989 rings with an uncanny mixture of fulfilment and betrayal. New video game peripherals such as the Nintendo Wiimote seem the belated realization of the early ambition of the Power Glove, better supporting the interface of embodied movement with virtual action. As early commentators of the glove point out, however, the immersion achieved by these peripherals is, at best, an enhanced interaction with the controller, rather than the virtual world of the game.[11] The industry’s imagination of entering an artificial and exclusive spatial dimension remains an object of fantasy.

Nostalgia, however, still holds sway. The notoriety and desire that the glove once engendered have contributed to its continued resonance. As an internet meme,[12] techno-remix[13] and namesake of a power metal band[14], the cool, young-adult face of the glove is both parodied and glorified in its new discursive publics- still heterogeneous as ever. Once again, its use exceeds and is indebted to its failure to achieve the fantasies it promised. The history of the Power Glove’s mixed and divergent publics and users echos that of the industry more broadly. Predicated largely on temporal and power-based desires, VR is easy to sell, if not to achieve.

 


[1]“Everything Else is Child’s Play,” advertisement, Mattel, 1989, availiable at http://huguesjohnson.com/scans/nintendo-ads/power-glove-h.jpg.

[2]Mark Potts, “’Virtual Reality’: Sci-Fi Technology on Verge of Billion-Dollar Boom,” Washington Post, 16 August 1992, page H1.

[3]Ibid, H4.

[4]Mike Ransey, Senior Vice President of Silicon Graphics Inc, as quoted in Potts, “’Virtual Reality,” H4.

[5]     Dana L. Gardner, “Inside Story On The Power Glove,” Design News, 45, no. 23 (December 1989): 67.

[6]Mattel, Nintendo Power Glove Commerical, 1989, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HduEC9zBMus.

[7]    The Wizard, directed by Todd Holland, Universal City, CA: Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 1989.

[8]Bill Brownstein, “Where is this Man Leading our Kids?” Gazette, 29 September 1990, E1.

[9]Ibid.

[10]See, for example, Francis K. H. Quek, “Toward a Vision-Based Hand Gesture Interface,” in Virtual Reality Software & Technology: Proceedings of the VRST ’94 Conference, ed. Gurminder Sigh et al., River’s Edge (NJ): World Scientific Publishing Co., 1994, and Bert Bongers, “Electronic Musical Instruments: Experiences of A New Luthier,” Leonardo Music Journal vol 19 (2007): 12-23.

[11]Marshall Rosenthall, “Dare to Compare,” Electronic Gaming Monthly 2, (June 1989): 48.

[12]“I love the Power Glove. It’s so Bad,” Know Your Meme, accessed 29 January 2013, available at http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/i-love-the-power-glove-its-so-bad.

[14]Powerglove (band), http://www.vgmetal.com/.

The Good, the Bad and the Comely

         The soundtrack swells as guitar riffs give way to a hazy bar of fluted notes, borrowing their theme from the infamous duelling tune of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). The villain, dressed in black, takes off his sunglasses and appraises the dusty challengers approaching his porch. Eyes are narrowed, barbs are exchanged, and then it’s time to test reflexes in a battle of speed and skill. This desert shoot-out, however, isn’t fought by cowboys with guns- it’s a contest of bravado between two children and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the product-placement driven motion picture The Wizard (1989).[1]

            The dual continues inside. The villain- Lucas- sets his cronies to work configuring the NES, while he readies his weapon. A silver monographed box is opened, revealing a futuristic gauntlet.

            “What’s that?” one of the protagonists demands.

            The answer is preempted by the television in the background: “Fire from the gods,” offers a game-show contestant.

            Pausing to configure the device, Lucas enters a code into the glove’s keypad. The melodic tone of his input matches those of the aliens from Close Encounters of a Third Kind (1977). He flexes his armoured hand and looks over his shoulder. The camera, located above and behind the actor, as if situating Lucas as a third-person avatar, captures his gaze levied at his contestants (and also, implicitly, his cinematic audience).

            “The Power Glove,” he answers.

– – –


            This scene, perhaps the most iconic part of The Wizard, offered the first glimpse of the Power Glove to a wide consumer audience.[2] As the references above illustrate, this introduction is strikingly intertextual, portraying novelty through an amalgamation of cultural content. Designed by Image Design & Marketing, the aesthetics of device itself contain references to other sources, including manta-ray fins and futuristic armour from the firm’s concurrent work on Robocop II (1990).[3] From greek myth to science fiction, the film and the product brought together disparate forms and narratives that placed its hypothetical user in a highly mediated frame. Encompassing so many things at once so as to be novel, the Power Glove was simultaneously an object of instant comprehension and mysterious origins. Given the promotional interests of the film, it’s likely that these references were built-to-order, customizing its presentation into a carefully constructed amalgam of masculinity and power.

            It is nonetheless curious that the marketers behind the film would choose to feature the glove in the context of The Wizard‘s antagonist. Rather than acting as a key plot point towards a heroic victory for the protagonists, the Power Glove’s screen time is short and used primarily as a means to establish Lucas’ character as a formidable rival. As the scene continues, Lucas is shown as the perfect image of confidence and control. Through a montage of authoritative gestures and close screenshots of the game Rad Racer (1987), Lucas guide his virtual car to victory. The soundtrack, now rife with a characteristically American power guitar riff, accentuates the dynamism of the 8-bit medium and the power of its player by totally replacing the game’s original chip-tune audio and amplifying the roar of simulated engines. The race presumably won, Lucas turns to face the camera, adjusts (dusts?) his collar with his gloved hand, and announces, “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.”

            The sales pitch in the scene is clear: the glove evokes power, control and martial ability. Its ‘badness’- which, given the warrior narratives of American youth culture, is decidedly ‘good’- evokes the hard-fought independence and hierarchical violence of an adolescent rival or fantasy villain.[4] In fact, a contemporary psychoanalytic study of children’s toys and media at the time likened Lucas to the stylish black-gloved gunslinger of Shane (1953).[5] By selecting an older, antagonistic vehicle to represent its product, the Power Glove marketers inevitably stirred feelings of envy and sibling rivalry in their audience. This sense of unfairness and aspirational overcoming is also cut with an edge of eroticism. The gloved, differently haptic hand presents a mixture of power and touch common enough to sexual fantasy. Whether leather or latex, the gloved hand can travel to new places and probe with immunity. Indeed, this possibility rouses concern in the protagonists, who objects to Lucas’ exchange with his friend by saying, “keep your Power Gloves off her, pal.” Made for kids, yet decidedly adult, the aesthetics of the Power Glove suggest a desire to possess and usurp the limits of age.[6]

            After Lucas’ feat of video game bravado, the peripheral controller is never again seen in the rest of the film. Mirage-like, the glove appears, wavers with seductive promise and then disappears from view. Its collage of references and cameo-like feature in the movie underscored its real-world scarcity and hype. In practice, this veneration of the glove as a form of objectified cultural capital proved to be its primary- and fleeting- use.[7] As many later commentators delight in noting, the Power Glove was bad in more ways than Lucas intended. While failing to live up to its technical hype, the glove nevertheless proved to be a coveted status symbol. As a review of product’s visual and intertextual referents suggest, these aesthetic components were fundamentally the most important aspect of its currency with its young audience. It was bad in ways children wished they could be.


[1]The Wizard, directed by Todd Holland, Universal City, CA: Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 1989.

[2]The scene in question can be viewed online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AacoxHFYvZw.

[3]Dana L. Gardner, “Inside Story on the Power Glove,” Design News, 45, no. 23 (December 4 1989): 67.

[4]Ellen Jordan and Angela Cowan, “Warrior Narratives in the Kindergarten Classroom: Renegotiating the Social Contract?” in The Gendered Society Reader, ed. Michael S. Kimmel et al. ( Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2011), 203.

[5]Marsha Kinder, Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) ,100.

[6]Kinder makes a similar suggestion in her analysis of the oedipal undercurrents of video games. While I do not find the specifics of her argument to be convincing, I concur with her general assessment of the frustrated desires of youths (particularly young boys) to paradoxically rebel against and possess patriarchal authority. See Kinder, Playing with Power, 104.

[7]Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,in Education: Culture, Economy, and Society, ed. A.H. Hasley et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 47.

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.

Anne Balsamoi

 

My friend Brian Eno once said that computers need more ‘Africa’ in them. I took him to mean interaction with the whole body.

Jaron Lanierii

 

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.

Ripa- Iconologia- Artifice and Art

On artifice: “A comely Man, whose Garment is richly embroider’d; he lays his Hand upon a Screw of perpetual Motion, and by his right shews a Hive of Bees. He is nobly clothed, because Art is noble of it self. His Hand upon the Screw shews that Engines have been contriv’d be Industry; that by […]

Inherent Vice

‘Inherent Vice,’ this book’s peculiar title, comes from a phrase librarians use to describe the acidity of chemically processed wood-pulp paper, the manufacturing toxin that supposedly burns through old books, turns the interior pages yellowish brown, and makes them brittle. ‘Inherent vice,’ perhaps perversely  cuts to the core of videotape. Home video was introduced as a blank format, essentially as a bootleg technology, for the purpose of recording television without permission. As I argue through the concept of bootlegs’ aesthetics of access, the specificity of videotape becomes most apparent through repeated duplication, wear, and technical faulure: that is, we recognize videotape as tape through its inherent properties of degeneration. Its inherent vice, then, points to both its intended illicit uses in recording and its format specificity.

Lucase Hilderbrand, Inherent Vice, pg. 13.

gloves

Touch Your Data