Virtual reality is weird. By its very nature, VR asks users to immerse themselves in a digitally simulated “world” and think of it as reality. An invitation might involve putting on a headset, grabbing some hand controllers, perhaps headphones for sonic proximity, and opening the door onto whatever world is on the other side. For both experienced users and the majority who haven’t even tried VR, it remains a weird phenomenon.
I want to argue here that the weirdness of VR is not captured by the way it looks, nor the way it invites users to experience simulated spaces. Rather, as China Mieville writes of the new weird movement, VR “enweird[s] ontology itself”. As its name suggests, VR is a conglomerate of real and virtual worlds that produces strangely entangled and affective experiences; to embrace such experience establishes an ontological middle-ground for critiquing VR’s immersive potential.
Immersion has become expectation. As a consequence, there is a collective failure to unpick the intricacies of what immersion means and how users inevitably play a part in it. To acknowledge how VR feels is to challenge the idea that immersion is inherently ‘good’ or ethically devoid; it enables awareness that proximity and movement are felt and that sometimes these factors can implicate compromised senses of agency, which developers and audiences alike need to be more aware of.
Immersion’s etymological roots are tied to affectively charged sensations— being submerged, drenched, flooded by the feeling of somewhere or something else. Such sensations are at the roots of “the weird’s” evolution, but manifest through more subtle affective encounters. The weird hints at the conflicts and ruptures between this world and others through the “encroaching” of an experiential outside onto the human subject (Fisher, 2016).
VR highlights the weird contours of this reality by affectively evoking the weirdness of entering another. By untangling VR from predetermined expectations of absolute immersion, there can be more active awareness of the unravelling sensations of interacting with virtual worlds. Its “dualistic” ontological model must be reconsidered: the chaotic, messy and material potential of VR persists.
Fisher, M. (2016) The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books.
Krivoruchko, E. (2017) A study in Interactive Mechanics for Virtual Reality. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/176951948.
Miéville, C. (2008). M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire: Weird; Hauntological: Versus and/or and and/or or? Collapse IV ed. R. Mackay.