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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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Into the Beast

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Into the Beast

Because it inspired 1982’s cyberpunk-noir movie Blade Runner, we tend to remember Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) as a novel about humans, androids, and the thin line that divides them. It’s easy to forget that before anything else, the novel is about animals. World War Terminus has ravaged the Earth, eradicating ecosystems and turning healthy nonhuman creatures into rare, precious commodities. People pour their life savings into goats and horses, hoping to better their social position and find a sense of purpose; the Rick Deckard we know and love, hardboiled android bounty hunter, is driven by a desire to buy himself a sheep that isn’t fake. In this largely lifeless world, a religion called Mercerism has taken root: using something called an “empathy box,” followers project themselves into the perspective of a man named Wilbur Mercer, a Sisyphus figure trudging endlessly up a dusty hill. They feel the crunch of the gravel under his feet; the sting of pain as stones of torment rain down from invisible oppressors. They feel something—something real, beyond the pre-programmed emotions they can send to their brains with 3-digit codes.

As usual, Dick predicted at least one contemporary development in startling clarity: he anticipated not only what VR would look like in 2016 but also its primary ethical selling point. VR is the “empathy box”; all the time, it’s being pitched as a technology that might show us what it’s like to be another person. There’s the VR film Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party, which allows the viewer to see things through the eyes of a young woman who gets raped at a frat party; there’s the work of the journalist Nonny de la Peña, who has “put people on the virtual streets of Los Angeles to understand hunger and on the virtual U.S.-Mexico border to live the story of a man beaten to death by U.S. Border Patrol agents”; there’s the Machine to Be Another, which allows two people to swap perspectives in real time (and draws directly on Dick’s “empathy box” as an inspiration).

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But Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? makes another prophecy about the “empathy box:” in the novel, the rise of VR is intertwined with the loss of animals. Indeed, these two things are not only correlated but mutually reinforcing. In temporary ways, the “empathy box” helps people with social isolation, giving them a satisfying sensation of human connection. But it only exacerbates species isolation, which is ultimately the problem that creates a need for it in the first place: a deeply-felt sense that we as humans are alone in a garbage pile of our own creation; a sense that animals—real animals—have receded fully into the distant wilderness, leaving us trapped within our self-enclosing technology and our solipsistic minds.

Can the “empathy box” be anything but a self-involvement box? Can it do anything to bring us closer to perspectives beyond the human? Dick’s novel had a depressing answer 50 years ago, depicting a world in which the same people who routinely transport themselves into the shoes of a suffering old man can’t tell whether a sheep is electric or not. Fast forward to 2016, however, and there are a few quixotic souls out there who have a very different view—artists who see VR not as a step away from animals but, paradoxically, a means of getting much closer to them. Like Mercer, they’re fighting an uphill battle with no particular endpoint. But it may be worth looking at VR itself through their eyes.

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Somewhere in the middle of Grizedale Forest, in the Lake District of northwest England, the artists of Marshmallow Laser Feast debuted In the Eyes of the Animal last September. The project uses four Oculus Rift DK2 units tied together, hidden under round black helmets covered in faceless moss. With the helmets on, along with haptic feedback harnesses, viewers see their immediate surroundings from the perspectives of four different creatures that inhabit the area—an owl, a frog, a dragonfly, and a humble midge. The project works best in situ because its immediate effect is to transform the familiar forest setting into a phantasmagoria of monochromatic particles, seen from different angles and in different measures of time. In frog form, you find yourself perched at swamp level with something like night vision, feeling the ripples of the water like a basic, rhythmic pulse. In dragonfly form, you soar through dizzying whirls of ultraviolet light as things shift and stutter below you. As a midge, you see almost nothing except something other creatures can’t see, which appears in startling clouds of color: the CO2 released from exhalation, which midges can detect from 20 meters away. Even the trees are breathing.

When games and popular media try to approximate the perspectives of animals, they tend to do something not entirely different from what Marshmallow Laser Feast is doing: they use visual filters, monochromatic palettes, and weird warping effects to distort the world according to some idea of “instinct.” Think of Chop the dog in GTAV, seeing things through a dull green haze punctuated by bright yellow spots of interest; think of the warg scenes in Game of Thrones, presenting the same scene cropped into a focused circle. At the same time, the collective was absolutely intent on avoiding the implication that the sensory worlds of animals are simply deprived or curtailed versions of our own. They used an array of high-definition scanning apparatuses, including LIDAR, 360-degree drone cameras, and CT scanners borrowed from London’s Museum of Natural History, to capture the same area not only in high-definition detail but in dimensions beyond the reach of the human senses. Each animal perspective ends up feeling, in a strange way, deprived yet superabundant: abstractly austere yet drenched in species-specific detail.

We wanted to use virtual reality to reveal the unseen world around us

“We weren’t really interested in mimicking the world around us,” Barney Steel, creative director of Marshmallow Laser Feast, told me. “We wanted to see if we could use virtual reality to reveal the unseen world around us: What does reality look like beyond our senses?”

Of course, it’s an open question—an ancient question—whether humans can ever truly know what reality looks like beyond our senses, as Steel is the first to admit: among other influences, he cites the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous 1974 paper “What is it Like to be a Bat?”, in which Nagel posited that the gulf between the sensory apparatuses of different species is too wide for us ever to fully grasp what it feels like to be a sonar-equipped animal from the inside. But many thinkers have challenged the apparent pessimism of Nagel’s view, even while acknowledging its logical soundness. In J.M. Coetzee’s novella The Lives of Animals, Elizabeth Costello, the novelist’s fictional avatar, gives a lecture in which she chides Nagel for ignoring the human’s tremendous potential for imaginative self-abstraction: “if we are capable of thinking our own death, why on earth should we not be capable of thinking our way into the life of a bat?” In the Eyes of the Animal seems to engage with Nagel in a similar way. Yes, it says, we cannot project ourselves fully into the subjective worlds of other animals. But isn’t there a lot of beauty—a lot of truth—in trying, using whatever resources we have?

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“The physicist Richard Feynman said that when an artist looks at a flower, they just see the aesthetic beauty. As a scientist, you know how photosynthesis works, you know about all the mechanisms beneath the surface, and through that knowledge, you have a window into all the complexities that make that flower so unique,” Steel said. “Part of our mission with these virtual-reality projects is to give everyone a window into that level of detail.”  

Empathy—what Steel calls “a different kind of compassion”—is definitely one of the payoffs. At the same time, something almost antithetical to empathy seems to be a payoff as well. On the one hand, In the Eyes of the Animal attempts to show us what it is like to be another kind of being. On the other hand, the project foregrounds everything we can’t see that other animals can, from CO2 to magnetism to ultraviolet waves. In a sense, it uses a technology of sensory deprivation and self-enclosure to reveal the sensory deprivation and self-enclosure of our species, the profound limits of a perspective that we like to believe has access to all others. It asks a very basic question about its own medium: should VR be a vehicle of empathy, or might it better serve as a vehicle of humility?

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“I couldn’t care less about empathy,” said Natalie Jeremijenko. “I don’t see VR as a prosthetic for empathy. I refuse that. I think it’s bullshit.”

Few people have been working at the intersections between art, technology, and animals for as long as Jeremijenko, whose eccentric, restlessly interdisciplinary energy has produced an impressive array of bizarre projects. In 2009, she set up an installation along the East River in which participants could send a text message to a fish and receive a response recording its overall health and wellbeing; at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, a place where many of her ideas have been realized, she built a “Salamander Superhighway” across the road that would tweet whenever salamanders migrated through it, since salamanders, in her view, represent a better potential source of ethical meat than Google’s artificial burger; more recently, she enlisted kids from New York’s PS 153 to use “Feral Robot Dogs”—some of them disturbingly repurposed AIBOs—to sniff out soil contaminants in their local community.

In 2004, Jeremijenko was already thinking about what VR could do to connect humans and animals. But she wasn’t thinking about empathy, which she views as an “atomizing, individuating phenomenon” that should never be instrumentalized. Instead, she asked a counterintuitive question: what might VR be able to do to improve the material lives of animals themselves?

Inspired by the canard digérateuror “digesting duck”—invented by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739, Jeremijenko created a fleet of duck and geese robots that could be operated by people wearing VR goggles (with beaks attached). After enlisting local kids from an LA public school, she encouraged them to drive their ersatz waterfowls directly into contact with real-life counterparts. The real ducks and geese never mistook the robots for other real ducks and geese. But the drivers could engage in rudimentary communication with them, learning quickly that a straight neck would be interpreted as aggressive behavior, a craned neck “would allow for a closer approach.” And they would see their interactions firsthand.

“I didn’t build a 3D environment, because we were in one,” she said. “I was actually using a physical avatar in physical space. But it constituted a critique of what it is we do with VR: whether it should be this closed world, fantastical, or whether it should allow us to understand the actual world.”

In one case, the project actually led to environmental change—or at least potential environmental change. After one mecha-goose found a nest full of smashed eggs, she and her team investigated and discovered the root cause: the park authorities had been using petrochemical fertilizers that had compromised the eggs’ structural integrity. They weren’t able to fix the situation, but they did discover a situation that might not have been discovered, precisely because they had been seeing things from a more gooselike POV. The project demonstrated one of Jeremijenko’s central theses in utter clarity: if and when VR and animals come together, the only worthwhile byproduct ought to be actual, material change. Anything else is mere escapism.

VR could be an agent of real change, or a dangerous way to escape

For the team behind In the Eyes of the Animal, escapism is the entire point. The project is premised on the idea that a blissful, peacefully psychedelic sensory experience can expand our vision—our moral vision—beyond the scope of the human. “Somehow it creates a cocoon,” Steel said. “It gives you this kind of isolation, in a similar kind of way that you get when you’re walking through the woods and you’ve got no mobile signal. It gives you space to think. It taps into the tranquil state of mind that you can get floating on the surface of water, or sitting on a mountain and looking at the view. That sense of presence.”

Jeremijenko would call bullshit. And in a lot of ways, she has a point, even though In the Eyes of the Animal has the advantage of being much more aesthetically and emotionally arresting than a VR-controlled duck sim in which you look for signs of petrochemical toxicity. Jeremijenko maintains that nothing good will happen from the perspective of environmental health if we let VR transport us to “nature” in the traditional sense: a space pristine, unpolluted, unaffected by our presence. VR could be an agent of real change in what she calls the “environmental commons”—a way of seeing how our animal neighbors actually live, not necessarily through their eyes but at the level of habitat. It could also be a dangerously effective way to ignore that commons: a way to strap on the headset and return to Xanadu while the world silently turns to waste.

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There is no Xanadu, of course. There is only this world. But even the idea of “this world,” for those who take nonhuman subjectivity seriously, can seem like a thinly self-indulgent fiction—a virtual reality of another kind. In 1934, the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll published a short monograph called A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, in which he argued against the traditional notion that there is one objective world that all animals experience through different lenses. Instead, Uexküll maintained that every lifeform has its own umwelt, its own perceptual “lifeworld,” produced by its distinct cognitive capacities, sensory apparatuses, and biological needs, and reality itself is built from nothing more than different umwelts intercrossing like “soap bubbles.” “Just as a gourmet picks only the raisins out of the cake, the tick only distinguishes butyric acid from among the things in its surroundings,” he wrote. To imagine the umwelt of the tick is to imagine a world in which butyric acid is vivid, highlighted, absolutely essential. To imagine the umwelt of a dog is to imagine a space not unlike Los Santos as seen by Chop: everything dim and unnecessary except crotches, criminals, and other dogs’ pee.

Although Marshmallow Laser Feast had never heard of Uexküll when they made In the Eyes of the Animal, their project resonates with his theory in uncanny ways: they, too, have created speculative illustrations based on zoological knowledge, extrapolating the animal’s umwelt from what we know of its physiological makeup and routine behaviors. But the artist Simone Ferracina was the first to envision a VR project that explicitly draws on Uexküll’s ideas, and he’ll be the first to tell you that it isn’t supposed to be VR at all. It’s AR. As it must be.

“I’m mostly interested in augmented reality,” he said. “The way the overlay works, the space of the overlay, the way it belongs to a perceiver even though reality is shared by other perceivers.”

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In 2011, Ferracina won first place in an “animal architecture” competition with Theriomorphous Cyborg, a concept for an AR game that superimposes radically different sense-worlds onto the urban space around the player. Although the game has no win-state, potentially going on forever, it’s divided into “levels” that present the player with increasingly challenging forms of experiential weirdness. Some are based in biological fact: in LEVEL 1, for instance, your field of vision is drenched in colorful lines based on the invisible forces of magnetism, approximating the magnetoreception of migratory birds. Others, however, seem less about emulating a specific creature’s perspective and more about plunging the player into complete disorientation: in LEVEL 3, “participants engage their surroundings relying entirely on the broadcast of cyborgian ‘eyes’—a network of hacked CCTV cameras activated by proximity.” The larger goal is not empathy but “discomfort,” Ferracina told me—“discomfort that can be designed.”

“What we typically do is make everything as fast as it can be, as easy as it can be, as comfortable as it can be. That’s what design typically does,” he said. “But ethics is about limiting your own possibilities, your own space of action, and doing so voluntarily.”

Theriomorphous Cyborg does not exist, and probably never will in the form that Ferracina envisioned. But it splits the difference between In the Eyes of the Animal and Jeremijenko’s project in useful ways, offering an intriguing counterpoint to the serene isolation of the former and the IRL activism of the latter. Like the former, it seems less interested in effecting real change than in producing a humility that might indirectly lead to change. But it’s humility in the face of chaos, humility through “discomfort.” Playing the game means immersing oneself in the sheer Uexküllian truth that there is not one world but many, and we have none of the mastery over “this world” that we think we have.

The project is also intriguing because it’s a game, because it reaches for game design to frame and justify the “discomfort” it would plunge us into. The others are gamelike in certain ways; the kids wouldn’t have participated in Jeremijenko’s experiment, for instance, without the motivating element of fun. (Kids, she reminded me, “are incredibly eager to terrorize local ducks and geese.”) But Theriomorphous Cyborg is definitely a game, and like Tokyo Jungle it makes mere survival—Darwin’s “struggle for existence”—the game’s point. You’re merely trying to live, following the cues and avoiding the hurdles of a lifeworld that is not yours. From that experience comes an Uexküllian appreciation for the perfect yet unimaginably different rulesets that define every waking life. From the experience of challenge—something games are uniquely able to provide—comes an appreciation not only for the difficulty of thinking beyond ourselves, but for the difficulty of simply living in a shared world.

Every life is a game. No two lives are the same game. Perhaps interspecies empathy means understanding that the same space can be Tetris and Skyrim, and never indulging the notion that one is richer, freer, easier, or more complete.

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Major new technologies of representation have a tendency to advertise themselves as ways of bringing us into closer contact with “nature”. They also have a tendency to do precisely the opposite. When the aquarium took Britain by storm in the 1850s, it was promoted as a glass box that could bring people into a completely new relationship with the inaccessible ocean depths; it also became a way of framing those depths, making them artificial, subjecting them to editorial control. One of the very first motion pictures was Eadweard Muybridge’s Horse in Motion, which revealed new truths about animal movement; another was Edison’s electrocuted elephant, which proved in the most darkly literal way that technology could destroy animals by making them into spectacles. Nature TV from the David Attenborough 1980s to now has been defined by its gradual, insistent movement toward intimacy: where we once observed them from a reserved distance, we now find ourselves among them, in their lives, in the fray. It has also been adept at hiding its own mediation, at pretending to be a form of closeness when it is really anything but.

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We already know what some animal-centric VR experiences are going to look like, and others are pretty easy to imagine. Sir Attenborough himself has already collaborated on VR nature films, insisting that “you actually really are there—inside a rainforest, diving in the ocean or exploring a pyramid, wherever you want to go.” Apps like Ocean Rift unironically use the word “safari” to encapsulate the experience of coming that much closer to exotic creatures. These experiences still place us outside the animal, albeit an inch away. More will come, though, that attempt to place us “inside,” leveraging the power of empathy that seems to be the medium’s unique ethical promise. Much more than Jeremijenko, I’m inclined to think that a piece of software that takes a stab at interspecies empathy could form the basis for material change. I can imagine seeing from the eyes of an orca at SeaWorld. I can imagine feeling a rage that lingers.

At the same time, In the Eyes of the Animal, Jeremijenko’s VR waterfowl, and Theriomorphous Cyborg share one thing in common that should serve as a warning to the creators and consumers of empathy apps in general: all three envision “VR” as a means to “AR,” the self-enclosed app as a means to a more layered, more nuanced understanding of the world—or worlds—in which we live. Perhaps this ought to be the ethical litmus test for empathy apps: what they ask us to do with the experience we’ve had as soon as we take off the headset and return to the world. What they ask us to remember. What they ask us not to forget.

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