A few nights ago, SyFy debuted their new VR cop series Halcyon inside of metaverse-apparent AltspaceVR. A couple dozen nondescript avatars gathered around a “traditional” 2D display inside of a bespoke Altspace room and watched the “premiere” of the show in a fashion not unlike how film and television premieres are traditionally conducted, with groups of people gathered around non-interactive screens, eyes glued to the presentation.
To which one must ask…is this it? The idea that the experience itself closely mirrors reality is both exciting and boring, which is to say it perhaps nicely captures the sentiments around VR in general. The premiere was followed by a Q+A with the show’s director and creative director which, too, stuck to a format familiar to anyone who’s been to a film screening. The verisimilitude made the event seem less exceptional and more perfunctory—yes, we should laud the fact that we are able to render a virtual socratic dialogue in a (mostly) democratic open forum, but to think that the rendering itself is something to be praised seems like folly. Little was achieved here that wouldn’t have been identical with streaming video.
The question of “why” permeates other aspects of the experience too. The promotional materials for the show stress the VR aspect: watch a show about VR, in VR! In Altspace’s announcement of the event itself, its avatars were shown behind a fan barrier, possibly to serve as an easy visual cue for “hey, a premiere,” but also establishing a clear, inherited, and unquestioned power dichotomy between the attendees’ position and the presenters’. Though Altspace’s motto is “Be there together,” the positioning of this promotional material posits a disheartening, if predictable, stance on how any two virtual bodies may “be.” Some are behind the barrier, and some are not.
The participatory aspect of Altspace’s otherwise wonderfully crafted metaverse was seemingly hushed. Though they have struggled with harassment issues before and made moves to fix them, one wishes that in their engagement with the wider world of entertainment media that they would have chosen to celebrate their flawed democracy instead of present it as a controlled space. Thankfully, the event itself lacked such barriers, though Altspace has implemented a similar idea in their Reggie Watts events, placing him on an unreachable stage. Why is this dichotomy preserved?
Better examples of this digital show-and-tell do thankfully exist, though in a slightly different form. The Foo Show by FooVR is one such experience, and has you visit the creators of games inside the games they’ve created in a strange mix of a behind-the-scenes tour and MTV’s Cribs. Though you lack direct agency over how the interview is conducted (an aspect thankfully present in Altspace), the idea that you are sharing this space with others is preserved, as, in that moment, you are all occupying the same digital space and are given the same tools to manipulate it.
It’s this shared agency over a space that makes the Halcyon premiere strange, because it’s clear multiple parties were there on different terms, all perhaps not agreed upon. This is somewhat true writ large, as we all bring our own selves and ideas into the virtual, but by setting up clear boundaries between us and them in both the presentation and performance, these virtual spaces start to feel more limited than we may have initially imagined. It is nice to dream of the virtual as a space of infinite possibility, but the reality of it is that it is simply another space, one not so different than the space we occupy now.