Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Virtual Experience of Time: VR and Online Games

In an earlier post, I explored the conflicts that can result from an attempt to compress time and space (e.g., jet lag). The question I left you with, Readers, was whether the physical and social ripples that result from navigating space-time compression can be minimized online? Recently, I suggested that the Internet may be a timeless state. But does this argument hold in virtual reality? Once the body is transported into the digital realm, it brings with it the experiences of the real world—including Time. Does VR preserve a sense of Time?

Murray and Sixsmith (1999) argue that virtual reality (VR) is an embodied They suggest that while the standard discourse on VR is that the body remains "docked" at the terminal and the mind is free to wander through cyberspace, the experience of VR is guided by real world understanding and limitations, and this creates a bounded encounter. Virtual reality allows the user to explore and interact in real-time in an artificial environment. The user has the impression of being fully present in a computer-generated world through the use of head-mounted displays. The VR experience has often been tied to visual expectations: "Tracking systems monitor the movement of a person's head, so that, as he or she physically turns, so does the point of view in the virtual environment" (Murray and Sixsmith 1999: 317). However, it has evolved to include full body representations, including the ability to hear and touch as well as see to provide a more well-rounded VR experience.

Despite the creative physical representations that may be accessed in VR, people bring their understanding of the real-world and social history to the virtual experience. For example, one study found that when traveling though a virtual cityscape, people chose to remain ground- and road-oriented, and avoided buildings, trees, and other obstacles despite having the ability to travel through objects (Murray and Sixthsmith 1999: 320).  By observing real-world rules in the virtual scape, sociocultural patterns were preserved.

So if the physical experience of VR parallels the physical experience of real life, where does that leave the experience of Time?

Murray and Sixsmith emphasize the translation of the senses in VR to generate an awareness of body:
We are able to move our limbs and twist our torsos, providing ourselves with a a stream of proprioceptive feedback of our bodies extended in space. In fact, the body occupies many phenomenal spaces. Anthony (1968) discusses the various body spaces which arise out of different activities: there is "a mouth space, a visual space, an auditory pace, a tactile space, [and] postural and kinaesthetic spaces" (1108) ... Visual inspection of our bodies completes our experince of a bounded body.

However, these markers of corporealty are artificially divided here. In fact they all form a synthesis of bodily experiences, mutually complementary in our experience. Only when the body breaks down do these corporeal threads unravel: consider the person with pralysis who has visual confirmation of their body but no proprioceptive knowledge. Such a corporeal experience provides us with a body image, that is, a phenomenological understanding of our bodies extended in space and time (1999: 323).
Despite opportunities for creative representation of self—you can, after all, choose to be a penguin if you desired or a giant orange squid—representations are still guided by real world understanding. So if you were a squid in VR, you would need to operate in the water, and learn how to manage multiple arms and tentacles. A study cited by Murray and Sixsmith offered participants the choice between four animal representations. Choosing a particular animal meant the user had to adopt the traits of the animal. For example, choosing a snake allowed for movement by crawling and equipped the user with infrared vision (1999: 327). So even while VR may allow you to assume a non-anthropoid facade, you are still bound by the natural laws associated with the representation.

So what about Time? In forthcoming work, Birth discusses the ways in which the ways of measuring Time has reduced our ability of know Time. Because we have so many means of measuring the passage of events, we are no longer intimately aware of how Time works. Yet, the biological consequences, as Birth has called them, remain. This is true in VR. Since the experience occurs within the understanding of the physical body, the virtual representation must also pause with it's real-world counterpart does. While the virtual representation has no need for sleep, it does not function on its own and its activity is limited to the temporal experience of the real person.

VR may preserve a bodily sense of Time in the way it holds onto the physical experiences of the body, but I wonder if these boundaries aren't eroding. Second Life offers VR inside of VR which may dull the senses tied to the experience. It is the representation of the user that is treated to a VR experience. And users can fly which breaks with the normal experience for a folks who don't have rocket packs in the garage. Furthermore because Second Life is a global community, there is never a shortage of participants. It is not bound to the local Time of any one participant. Can we call this Timeless?

More on Time can be found here.

Murray, C., & Sixsmith, J. (1999). The Corporeal Body in Virtual Reality Ethos, 27 (3), 315-343 DOI: 10.1525/eth.1999.27.3.315

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