“Virtual Reality’s Digital Physicality”
Michael LaRocco (Bellarmine University)
Despite the fact that it is shot entirely within VR, We Met in Virtual Reality (WMIVR) is an interesting case study for discussing the IRL (“in real life”) body in relation to digital spaces. Perhaps more accurately, it is because of director Joe Hunting’s decision to not show any IRL bodies that the film becomes such fruitful terrain for discussing the body as a threshold between the physical and the virtual. VR marketing often touts digital space as being boundless, transportive, offering the freedom to do whatever and be whoever you would like. In a sense, it is proclaimed to be a medium in which you can be free of your physical restrictions, whether they be with one’s space or with one’s IRL body itself. This utopian rhetoric appears repeatedly throughout WMIVR, and I would suggest that the film’s consistently uncritical presentation of VR is due in no small part to the lack of real human bodies on screen.
Bodies in the film are plentiful. Indeed, the film is enamored with bodies, as long as they are digital. Monstrous adornments, bare (digital) skin, giant breasts, rippling abs, outlandish custom outfits, and pop culture avatars abound. But the IRL body is conspicuously absent. WMIVR effectively erases it, much like the VR utopia itself is supposed to do. For the film’s viewer, IRL bodies exist only as a verbal reference, a far-off place in an anecdote. But this is never actually the case for the VR user, wherein the seemingly boundless digital utopia is in fact bound quite heavily by the invisible, physical space that supports the digital realm. A user can change their visual environment and physical characteristics, but to do so requires the IRL body’s ability to see, hear, and/or feel in order to even utilize the technology. Thus, the experience is never truly post-body.
VR is usually a medium of only two senses: sight and sound. But beyond seeing and hearing digital worlds, we exist in an IRL world in ways that VR does not currently replicate. While in VR, we smell dinner cooking IRL. We shift in our chairs to get comfortable. We taste the IRL cocktail at the digital cocktail party. There is a continuous negotiation between voluntary digital choices and the less voluntary constraints of a physical world. In the last scene of the film, a participant named Jenny lies on her back near a lake, watching the clouds overhead. She remarks, “I’m actually just sitting in my living room. I’m enjoying this beach scenery, but I’m just in my living room, on the carpet.” In this sequence, the carpet is just as much a part of Jenny’s VR experience as the digital grass. As I’ve long contended, VR is a medium marked much more by the utilization of the user body rather than the transcendence of it.
So many of the obstacles that exist for VR developers – obstacles to achieving a sense of immersion, to presenting certain types of content, to garnering artistic and popular and financial success – are because of the physical body. The body itself is the obstacle. Bodies get motion sick, feel dizzy, experience discomfort, have trouble seeing, present with different head shapes. Bodies have needs beyond the headset. WMIVR – a 2D cinematic representation of an immersive 3D space – is inherently the most utopian that VR can be, because it removes that bodily obstacle completely. There is no simulator sickness, no eye strain, no focus or depth perception issues, no sore limbs, no running into the wall, no loud roommates.
A keen eye (or even a not-so-keen one) can see IRL physicality creep into the film – in the glitching bodies, the seated avatars flying unnaturally across the digital landscape, the uncanny embraces, or the digital arms puncturing digital bodies. But to a VR user, these discrepancies between digital and physical aren’t just seen but experienced by the user’s whole physical body. And that discrepancy is, to me, one of VR’s core characteristics. I can’t walk down the aisle because I’d walk into my wall. I can’t ride the roller coaster because I’d become physically ill. I can’t see my friend put her arm around me (never mind feeling it) because I have no peripheral vision. Working around and within these physical limitations is a major factor driving the development of the medium in its still-nascent state – probing the limits of a medium prophesied to have none. WMIVR’s presentation of VR is so utopian precisely because the limitations of VR as a medium are largely obscured. In watching the film, I often felt myself drawn to questions of physicality. Where do these people live? What is their housing situation? With whom do they live? How much time do they spend in VR? What is their tech setup? How much did it cost? How much space do they have to move?
Discussions of physicality and the obstacles it presents often tend toward the experience of individual users’ immersion in a VR space – that which is colloquially known in the VR community as “presence” – and often come at the expense of questions of interpersonal connection. “Presence” is so often individualized, and WMIVR demonstrates the potential and the stakes of considering VR not just as an individual experience but as one of community. And you can see the achievement of it in WMIVR – in the parties, the weddings, the steadfast dedication to awkward VR kisses. The platform on display in the film (VRChat) may be crudely rendered and technically glitchy, lacking some of the hallmarks of immersive presence, but it clearly offers a sense of connection. VR is often considered a logical extension and evolution of video games, and that may be, but WMIVR also demonstrates its extension from long-established text-based online communities like the chat room or the message board. It is a manifestation of that sense of digital connection that has been evolving in the popular sphere since the 1990s, but it is now visualized in digital worlds and physicalized in the movements and the sensations of its users. WMIVR illustrates that what is unique about VR is its sociocultural mechanisms of assimilation, joining, intimacy, and interpersonal negotiation of ideals in a novel societal space. The IRL body may never fully disappear from the VR experience, but regardless of this fact, new forms of community are emerging in this space in between the physically and virtually embodied.
“‘We’ Met in Virtual Reality”
Da Ye Kim (New York University)
“Potential” has been the buzzword in VR discourses for years. The business sector, in particular, has overused the term to promote VR technology as the key ingredient in devising the next mass medium, or the “meta” technology to actualize Meta’s dream of creating a virtual universe. However, as potential always looks into the future for completion, the “now” of VR has been often overlooked. The value of Joe Hunting’s We Met in Virtual Reality (2022) lies here. Instead of projecting the hopes and dreams of VR into the future, the film explores how the technology offers new ways of social connection and interaction today. The film immerses the viewers into the diverse worlds of VRChat, a social VR platform, and lets them experience what being inside VR feels like as it is now. The current state of VR that Hunting captures in his virtual camera is far from seamless, but it was striking enough to garner critical attention for We Met in Virtual Reality on the festival circuit following its official premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
That the film was produced during the pandemic also adds historical specificity to it as a document, reminding us how social VR platforms presented another type of mask during the Covid era. While millions wore facial masks to keep themselves safe from the virus, hundreds of thousands of VRChat users started putting on virtual masks in the forms of VR avatars. This not only helped them feel safe and included in the emerging virtual community, as Jenny, the American Sign Language teacher inside VRChat, emphasizes in her interviews, but the virtual masks have also allowed several users to become who they “really are,” as user IsYourBoi claims. The pandemic crisis—which cut off traditional avenues of social engagement— offered Hunting an artistic opportunity to get inside the current social reality of VR and make art out of his own experience.
Much of the hype around We Met in Virtual Reality focused on the fact that it is “the first film to be shot entirely inside VRChat.” But, as Hunting stated in a Sundance interview, the film is not about VR technology, but rather is interested in “the ways in which we find belonging, support and community today.” The film’s focus, then, is not on VR’s capacity to provide these virtual masks, but rather the people behind them, and how they engage with each other.
Formally, the observational style of filmmaking (mixed with intimate interviews with individuals and the deliberate alternation between the communal scenes and one-on-one conversations) positions each viewer right in the middle of the VRChat environment, as if experiencing a 3 DoF (Degrees of Freedom) VR. Although the film’s viewers cannot control where they look, We Met in Virtual Reality provides a variety of scenes and characters to immerse them into the social scenes in its diegetic world. We meet a number of avatars in different settings. Some share their real-life skills inside VR, some enjoy meeting and hanging out with other people, and some even develop relationships that extend into real life. Seeing and experiencing from the point of view of the director’s virtual camera, we encounter the virtual scenes where voices overlap while the avatars’ default expressions fail to catch up with emotional cries and laughter of the users. Yet, the film suggests that these technical drawbacks are insignificant compared to the social, romantic, and even therapeutic cure VRChat offers to the people we meet throughout the film.
In spite of the film’s focus on what VR can do for people seeking social connection in the midst of the global pandemic, it is ultimately because We Met in Virtual Reality is a 2D documentary film rather than a 3D immersive or interactive experience that it invites critical inquiries related to the filmmaker’s perspective. We do not see Hunting’s avatar in the film, but he is very much present in every scene. The “distinctive sense of presence” in immersive VR that Hunting aimed to reproduce within 2D frames is mediated by his experience. The viewer’s perspective is meant to be aligned to the director’s point of view in this ethnographic account of social VR experience. As a result, the film becomes a remediation of Hunting’s VR experience. For example, Hunting’s empathetic reaction to the tragic family loss of Ray, a deaf character, is mediated by his choice of cinematic techniques. The silent long take that frames Jenny and Ray’s paper lantern scene adds solemnity by purposefully omitting Jenny’s verbal translation of Ray’s sign language. The scene’s slow pace and the addition of a new-age vocal score further enhances the scene’s emotional impact.
In privileging the director’s experience and point of view, however, what emerges is a framing of the social VR platform that ignores or overlooks the potential harm of VR as both medium and technology. Perhaps the director met all these wonderful people on VRChat, but that’s not always the case as several reports on cyberbullying and VR harassments have shown. The utopic idea of “anyone can create one’s own world” and “can be who you always wanted to be” may result in inappropriate and toxic behaviors among the platform users, especially towards children. But such issues are only briefly mentioned in We Met in Virtual Reality, such as the warning to call out “creepy” behavior that prefaces sexually provocative dance party sequence. This begs the question: who are the “we” invoked by this film’s title? If the film is about people finding a new kind of belonging inside VR, who is included and who is excluded? The communities Hunting discovered are almost entirely populated by Western, English-speaking, liberal adults who can afford to buy headsets and play with the new technology. The interviewed characters repeatedly praise VRChat for providing a new kind of community that transcends the social, cultural, and political boundaries in real life. Meanwhile, the “we” in the film seems to create another exclusive boundary within VR. Or perhaps that is just the current reality of social VR platforms, which have yet-to-become truly inclusive. For now, the ideal remains in the realm of the potential.
One thought on “We Met in Virtual Reality”
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Documenting Animation: We Met in VR and Virtual Documentaries
We Met in VR was filmed entirely within the world of VR. This documentary depicts the communities, activities, relationships and unique possibilities of VRChat, reminding viewers that “the setting is virtual. The connections are real”. Why is it important to remind viewers of the reality of the interactions? Is it because animation still seems removed from “real” life, despite the exploding trend of animated documentaries since Ari Folman’s Walt with Bashir in 2008? Or is it because avatars still seem fictional as a form of identity, despite the central role of gaming in contemporary culture and most people having multiple online profiles in varying forms and virtual platforms? Do documentaries such as these depict actual experiences, albeit not in the physical world but rather online; and can such differentiations be upheld in an era of mixed realities where the physical and virtual converge? Does animation function differently as a documentary aesthetic when dealing with online platforms? The many questions that We Met in VR raises demonstrate the blurred boundaries that exist today. Not only are real and virtual experiences combined in these contexts, the aesthetics used, how they are defined and how this influences viewer expectations regarding the imagery’s functions and believability are also unclear. New debates are thus clearly essential.
As a documentary, We Met in VR questions the capture and documentation of online immersive worlds and as such, should be placed within the history of virtual documentaries that engage with games and online worlds and which have raised similar questions before. Douglas Gayeton’s 2007 HBO documentary film Molotov Alva and his Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey is labeled as the first virtual documentary, and is a landmark example of the evolution of documentaries about animated game realities such as Juan Carlos Piñeiro-Escoriaza’s 2008 documentary Second Skin, Sandra Danilovic’s 2009 Second Bodies (to name just a few) or the long list of machinima works capturing in-game experiences and virtual puppeteering. This is also related to the popularity of Twitch where videos of in-game virtual activities are streamed and which can be seen as a form of virtual or mixed reality documentation that combines photographic footage of users alongside their online animated avatars.
Molotov Alva and his Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey begins by explaining that, ‘In January of 2007 a man named Molotov Alva disappeared from his California home… recently, a series of video dispatches by a traveler of the same name have appeared within a popular online world called Second Life. What follows is his story’. In the film, Alva constructs a new identity for himself by creating an avatar who explores lifestyles and online communities, meets people, creates personal relationships, and investigates the world of SL. We Met in VR reincarnates this journey in the newer immersive technology of VRChat.
A Second Life Odyssey, introduces the main themes in Molotov Alva which reflect those of Homer’s Odyssey: travel, experiences along the way, and the meaning of ‘home’. Describing Alva as a traveler is an allusion to early historical documentary films which—in a similar manner to the exploration of new online worlds—were used to capture lesser-known destinations and cultures for audiences ‘back home’. Similarly, as a comment to a YouTube video discussing We Met in VR, user BeldansFire states that “I do enjoy normies experiencing the behemoth that is VRCHAT from the outside, missing so much context”. Once again, documentaries of new immersive spaces and the culture they enable act as a glimpse into otherwise unseen worlds or “faraway lands” for outside audiences.
Having chosen Second Life over the carbon-based world, Alva searches out new territories and, as in The Odyssey, the film follows his adventures and discoveries. The idea of ‘home’ also relates to Edward Castronova’s 2007 book Exodus to the Virtual World. This growing migration into the virtual means that the back story of Molotov Alva, about a man who disappears from the ‘first world’ into Second Life, echoes a dominant (and quite real) cultural trend, which became all the more prominent during COVID.
As seen in We Met in VR, choosing virtual platforms instead of shared physical space became the new reality during COVID and, consequently, animation’s role within documentary filmmaking should be reconsidered. During lockdown, many felt the centrality of an in-screen existence, as screens became vital portals for different experiences and events when physical space and actions were restricted. In May 2020, for example, since actual attendance at a graduation ceremony was impossible, UC Berkeley students built the virtual Blockeley University in the popular Minecraft video game where more than 100 buildings were meticulously reinvented. In this animated online version of their university hundreds of graduates held a virtual ceremony. Similarly, although the popularity of the online chat services of Zoom (Zoom Video Communications, Inc.) skyrocketed during the lockdowns, many users found Zoom’s limited options frustrating since the atmosphere of professional, personal and entertainment meetings all felt unbearably similar. By contrast, gaming environments and virtual reality became strong alternatives to video calls because they offered participants varied, unique environments that could be shared by the like-minded. These VR spaces can be designed in limitless ways to create countless different atmospheres and events, all using diverse visualizations and avatars. Indeed, within this context VRChat-related Twitch streams experienced record viewership and VRChat raised in popularity.
How does this influence ideas about documentary aesthetics? The circumstances of quarantine made it abruptly clear that the virtualization of culture creates new living conditions. Omnipresent screens act as portals into ‘other’ extended aspects of today’s real, which is increasingly a mixed reality that combines the virtual with the physical. Since daily actions are progressively screen-mediated, new visual representations and interfaces are needed to construct and transmit information in these digital virtual worlds. While virtual interactive realms proliferate, the use of animation grows too because digital animation is a dynamic visual language that can react to user input in real time. As technology shapes culture, contemporary virtual realities—ubiquitous screens and the centrality of online platforms—require new visualization methods. Once virtual screen worlds become interactive, the on-screen world becomes an in-screen world, in which the user-viewer plays an active role. Animation has thus become central as a virtual aesthetic, visualizing code as a graphic user interface (GUI).
As quarantine foregrounded an existence almost completely mediated by screens, animation’s role as a vital visual language of the 21st century was highlighted. In virtual documentaries such as We Met in VR the use of animation is no longer an interpretation of physical events that could have been photographed or a depiction of subjective experiences that could not be photographed, as is the case in many animated documentaries. Instead, in virtual documentaries the role of animation as a documentary language shifts. Here animation is not interpretative, but rather a direct capture, producing animated documents of the virtual. Virtual worlds such as games are real-time animated spaces. Today’s mixed realities require animation as a documentary aesthetic that exceeds the capacity of photography as more traditional documentary imagery. The documentation of such worlds is, therefore, the act of documenting animation which, I think, will become increasingly pervasive in today’s virtualized culture, the metaverse (both existing aspects and future developments) and the changes in documentary aesthetics we will inevitably see. I discuss these ideas in more detail in my book Animating Truth: Documentary and Visual Culture in the 21st Century (Edinburgh University Press, 2021)