In June of 2012 Oculus VR, a previously unknown company headed by Palmer Luckey, suddenly started to gain viral attention on YouTube, Twitter and news media websites across the internet. The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) – the event at which Oculus VR’s stereoscopic “Oculus Rift” head mounted display (HMD) suddenly gained public attention – was fittingly reminiscent of the Great Exhibition of 1851 where the stereoscopic viewer was first showcased to enthusiastic media reaction. Like the first commercial stereoviewer, the Oculus Rift functions as a delivery device for the individuated consumption of 3D media. Like the stereoviewer the Oculus gained enthusiastic attention with a speed and popularity that has frequently characterised stereoscopic media in its 160-year life span (see Gurevitch 2013; Gurevitch & Ross 2013). YouTube videos quickly appeared featuring tech reporters in various states of shock, amazement and nausea at the supposedly overpowering experience of immersive 3D game space. Indeed, video after video was reminiscent of a twenty first century restaging of the ‘aesthetics of astonishment’ described by early cinema scholars such as Tom Gunning and Stephen Bottomore (Gunning 1999, Bottomore 1999). Even the media narrative of the development of the Oculus was reminiscent of earlier stories of stereographic, cinematic and even Silicon Valley computer inventors. Like figures from Charles Wheatstone to Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak, Palmer Luckey has been portrayed as a singular, home-brew developer working on his device in modest surroundings (in this case his parent’s garage). Where hundreds of lavishly expensive VR headset technologies over the years had failed, Luckey’s Oculus, it was claimed, had succeeded in resolving the problems of expense, utility and mass marketability. On a subsequent Kickstarter campaign to crowd source funding for the development of the device a project aim of raising $250,000 was surpassed in little over an hour and the campaign went on to gain a little over $2.5 million (and subsequently $8 million from private backers, among them Sony Entertainment).
Beyond the anecdotal however, the very public emergence of the Oculus Rift raises many questions not only for scholars of 3D media, but for media scholars across other fields. The experience of immersive media is hardly new. As Alison Griffith’s points out, the conception has existed since at least as far back as 1799 when the first accounts of panorama spectatorship were recorded as an experience of sending ‘shivers down your spine’ (2008: 3). Given that this is the case we might ask the following: if the experience of the individuated consumption of stereoscopic media is not new, the experience of immersive media is not new and the experience of an aesthetics of astonishment is not new, then what in the Oculus Rift is new? Leaving aside the immediate response to such a question (“does anything have to be new about it?) we might respond by instead considering what finally made the Oculus Rift a mass market possibility so many years after the hyperbolic predictions that virtual reality technology would dominate a future media landscape failed to materialise in the 1990s. More than anything else the Oculus Rift is facilitated by the uptake of mobile phones in the form of ever-smaller screens with ever higher pixel densities and a huge drop in price of the related technologies. In other words, the Oculus Rift is made possible by an expansion in ubiquitous computing and spatial media. Whilst the low powered ARM chip sets made mobile ubiquitous computing a reality, they also resulted in a precipitous miniaturisation and price drop for accelerometers that once cost $100,000 per unit and now cost only $1. What mobile phones have really made possible, then, is not only a profound expansion in locative, ubiquitous and social media but also the reconfiguration of the technologies underpinning it into new media forms.
But what, then, is the relevance of all of this technological detail? First and foremost it has facilitated not only cheap VR technology but technology in which the user can experience and consume 3D media that is quite different in its delivery of the experience of 3D space than current 3D television and cinema technologies. Perhaps most noticeably, this experience can be both profoundly individuated (as the early Victorian stereoscopes were) at the same time as it can be connected to other devices. One (somewhat tongue in cheek) program already circulating amongst the early adopters and developer community is a simulated 3D cinema auditorium. Viewers can watch a movie in a 3D simulated environment, projected as if it were displayed on a 2D cinema screen. Looking around the simulated auditorium one can see not only the screen and the chosen movie but also the seats: empty. Doubtless, it will not be long before this program allows for the interconnection (possibly over the web) with other Rifts so that viewers can watch a 2D movie in a 3D space with their friends all from the comfort of many living rooms. Of course the program was developed as a nerd joke and it is unlikely to remain anything other than this, but the question it begs is potentially profound for 3D movie consumption. What happens when the simulated 3D cinema auditorium dissolves and is replaced by the simulated immersive 3D movie set? Increasingly, as major studios transition to film making processes based around the construction of 3D digital sets and assets, Oculus users (or users of potentially new VR HMDs) would be able to experience movies fluidly and dynamically from within the set. This may not only be the case for future productions but like current 3D adaptations of back catalogues, older films could be retrospectively adapted to a new virtual mode of spectatorship. Like the fierce debates over colorisation of films in the 1980s (Edgerton, 2000) or even the retrofitting of 2D movies into 3D (see Ross 2013), one can imagine an equally sizeable discussion regarding the integrity of past film heritage. Regardless of heritage however, if the Rift is successful (and personal experience of a rudimentary developer version tells me that, technical weaknesses aside, this technology has the capacity to become a new category of media consumption device) it will inevitably lead to experimentation and diversification, not only of games, but of movies too. From these possibilities a whole host of questions will arise: how will a new audiovisual grammar be constructed for such a different way of consuming the visual culture that will result? How will this change the way in which we make and study the new audiovisual material? What new industrial configurations might result? All of these questions are predicated on the big “if” of the technological, social and industrial success of a headset still not out of the developer phase. However, just as the arrival of cinema quickly witnessed a move from observing the astonishing aesthetics to considering the broader philosophical questions regarding cultural implications and impacts of a new audiovisual technology, it is hard to imagine that the Oculus Rift or some competitor will not involve a similar path.
Bottomore, S (1999) ‘The Panicking Audience?: early cinema and the ‘train effect’’, in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 19:2, pp. 177 – 216
Edgerton G (2000) ‘“The Germans Wore Gray, You Wore Blue”: Frank Capra, Casablanca, and the Colorization Controversy of the 1980s’, in Journal of Popular Film and Television, 27:4, pp.
Griffiths A (2008) Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums and the Immersive View, New York: Colombia University Press.
Gunning, T (1999) ‘An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator’ in Braudy and Cohen (eds), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Fifth Edition, New York: Oxford University Press
Gurevitch L (2013) ‘Cinema, Video, Game: Astonishing Aesthetics and the Cinematic “Future” of Computer Graphic’s Past’ in Jeffrey Geiger and Karin Littau (eds.) Cinematicity: Expanding the Filmic, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Gurevitch L (2013) ‘The Stereoscopic Attraction: 3D Imaging and the Spectacular Paradigm 1850 – 2011’, In Convergence Journal, Sage Publications, London.
Gurevitch & Ross (2013) ‘Stereoscopic Media beyond Booms and Busts’ in Public Journal, York University, Canada
Ross, M (2013) ‘Post-production conversions, the ugly, the bad and the good’ in Stereoscopicmedia.org http://wp.me/p2OWJW-6g