Virtualize me, cap’n

Graphic by Joseph Valdez

XINYUAN: So I heard from a friend that there was this humanities class with a 3D scanner. You know, that thing from sci-fi movies that shoots out a laser grid and virtualizes an image of you into the mainframe? Yeah, one of those things. What could a humanities class be doing with one of those?


XC: Well, let’s go to class.

MF: I’m Marta Figlerowicz—

AR: And I’m Ayesha Ramachandran.

XC: These are the professors for that class

AR: I’m assistant professor of comparative literature and English—

MF: [simultaneous] assistant professor of comparative literature here at Yale, and we are team-teaching a course that’s called Modernities: Selfhood, Race, Class, and Gender.

XC: Marta and Ayesha spoke to me in Ayesha’s office. They don’t fit your typical stereotype of college professors- both are very young, female, with a distinct lack of elbow patches. But their minds? Razor sharp. I asked them to tell me about their class.

AR: Part of the intellectual goal of the course is to think about how can we have a conversation about selfhood that moves beyond identity politics, that moves beyond what seems to be clearly drawn lines around categories like race, gender, and class, and so to put them together and to think in more complex, multilayered ways about what it means to be a self in the modern world in kind of long historical view.

XC: And that’s how you know it’s a Yale course. Let me try to explain to you what the class is about. Ayesha and Marta are interested in grouping conceptions of self by concept rather than by time. For example, one week the class read a translation of the Kama Sutra, that ancient Indian text on love, with a book that came out in 2016 about dating in 20th century America. The students could then see the similarities and differences between courtship then and now.

AR: This allows students clearly to understand in long historical terms both what has changed and also what has not changed.

XC: So all this was well and good, but what about the 3D scanners? What were they for?

MF: The notion of kind of having 3D scanner and 3D printers and all of those things that feel very cutting edge and that people don’t yet know how to use most appropriately or effectively kind of seem very congenial with the idea of with exploring open-ended notions of selfhood.

XC: So as it turns out, they didn’t quite know what the scanners were for, other than just to be cutting edge technology. Kind of a disappointing end to our mystery, even if the class it was pretty cool. Well, At least I got to hear some passionate professors talk about their class!

AR: Yeah, I want to just insist here that for both of us that questions of open-endedness, experimentalness, playfulness, so to come into a course like this not thinking that here’s the little package of knowledge I’m gonna take away, and like, you know, do my final exam on, but rather to come in and say “I’m gonna have some of my fundamental ideas about myself and my world deeply challenged. I’m gonna take away a set of questions and attitude toward engaging with other people in the world that I’m gonna take into other courses and into my life, like that was our goal. And so the blended reality fits in with that because it’s so new and you don’t yet know what to do with it, that there is a kind of critical capacity that just forces you to play and to experiment

[Music fades up, then record scratch]

XC: Actually, wait, hold on, what did Ayesha just say?

[Rewind noise]

AR: blended reality

[Rewind noise]

AR: blended reality

XC: Blended reality? What the heck is that? It sounds kind of like the name of a smoothie shop. A really hipster smoothie shop. Well, I guess we have another mystery to solve. Let’s see where this one takes us!


XC: it looks kind of I’m strapping a brick to my face? Alright oh woah woah ok. Ok. So uh wow, this is weird. Oh my gosh, this is really weird

XC: Yep, that’s me

XC: I’m standing on what appears to be a… a… don’t take this the wrong way, Justin, but what appears to be a biscuit?  (laugh) Yeh, I’m standing on a biscuit, it looks like. Oh, I can walk around it too! Oh woah, what?

XC: And there was my first time Virtual Reality, or VR. Oh, but wait, sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, you should probably meet Justin. He’s the one who was chuckling in the background.

JB: yeah, so uh my name is Justin Berry, I’m a critic at the school of art.

XC: I found Justin because we work in the same building, and he’s talked to me about virtual reality in the past. Virtual, blended, close enough, right? Let’s see if he know what this blended reality project is.

JB: So HP has donated um a lot of equipment- the Sprout PCs.

XC: That’s the 3D scanner that Ayesha’s class had.

JB: the dremel 3D printers, um, and some other stuff and then they’ve provided funding to a number of grant recipients doing all different kinds of stuff in different departments all across the school.

XC: So Blended Reality is a grant. Here’s how it works. Recently, Hewlett Packard, you know, the printer guys? They came and threw a bunch of their 3-D scanners, printers, and money at Yale, asking “What are you gonna do with them? How are you going to use them?” so they’re really trying to find out how people from different disciplines would use these new quote blended reality machines. Yale took these machines and the pile of money, and set up this grant, called blended reality. If you had a cool idea that involved blended reality, you could apply for the grant and get some money and/or machines to play with.

JB: My involvement with the blended reality project is that um, I have a group of students that I’m working with We’ve been uh… hosting a series of workshops and also doing some experiments with uh virtual reality.

XC: Justin’s one of the grant recipient from HP. He’s got a group of six students who’s blending reality using VR

JB: and I think that a lot of what we as a group are trying to discover is just sort of what’s the vocabulary for this space. You know, a lot of other mediums like film and music have a vocabulary for talking about them that’s pretty easy to understand and that culturally we’re all pretty familiar with. But virtual reality and augmented reality and these other new emerging technologies, they don’t have a easy accessible vocabulary for just talking about what’s going on. For instance, if I were talking about a film and I said “and then we made a cut” we all know what I mean by that, but how do we talk about VR? It’s a totally different kind of experience um it’s immersive in a very different way from the way that a film is or even music.

XC: Like he said, virtual reality is so new that there’s no real way to discuss its details. Justin’s group is trying to figure out a system by building simple VR worlds and putting people through them.

JB:  one of our students, teddy mathias, did a really interesting virtual reality experience this was actually one of the first things actually that that he did just sort of like, when we were trying to sort of test out the technology and see what it could become we created kind of a giant rock floating in space uhm. With a number of other rocks kind of falling towards you almost like asteroids.

XC: So have you put a lot of people through this? Kind of thing?

JB: Yeah! I can put you through it if you want, Chen!

XC: Are you kidding me? I was super in.  Justin brought me down the hall to a noisy room where green tape marked off a rectangular corner. That was where my virtual reality experience was going to take place. And so—

XC: —it looks kind of I’m strapping a brick to my face?

I strapped a VR device to my face, and I went into virtual reality land


[“Double Helix” by Emeralds]

XC: So like I’ve I I just put on the headset, like, what do I what do I see what’s happening?

JB: So you put on the headset and the first thing you see is you’re standing on a big rock uh in the middle of space

XC: This was that biscuit I said I was standing on earlier. I might have been a little hungry, all right?

Ah, it’s a really pretty space. Space is really pretty. It’s it’s just there’s this blue like constellation-like thing to my left and there’s like stars everywhere and then nebula uh and like gas wisp.

JB: There’s a campfire on the rock, um , just kind of flickering, sending up smoke and ashes.

XC: Uh yup there’s the fire, it’s right in front of me. Uh I don’t really want to walk into it, even though I know it’s not actually there. Uh let’s just stay clear from that. I mean, it’s not a real fire, but I’m pretty sure I’m starting to feel a little warm.

JB: And you can kind of walk to the edge of this rock and look down and see that it falls into the void of space.

XC: Oh, and here’s the edge of the rock and oh jeez! Okay, so there’s the I see the edge of the rock here, and it’s uh… it’s just void underneath this edge of the rock I… getting a little bit of vertigo here. Not that scared of heights, but like uuuuuuuuh it feels a little weird to be staring like, essentially off a cliff. Alright.

JB: At some point you start to notice the rocks falling around you, to either side, and you look up and the act of looking up shows you, coming from this kind of unimaginable distance these rocks falling down towards you from space.

XC: Oh shoot! Okay, I looked up and the rocks are kind of falling towards me. Oh wow! Okay. Yep yep asteroids are uh… they’re falling down on me. Uh they’re missing my little biscuit of a rock here, which his nice. ‘cause otherwise I’d be freaking out a little more. Yeah, it looks like uh… chocolate chips are kind of falling towards me, except they’re getting really big as as the woah! Jeez. [Laughs] I just dodged one! Uh that’s so silly! I’m not dodging anything, I’m just dodging a like a simulation but I just kind of jerked my shoulder out of the way ‘cause ‘cause oh, there’s another one! ‘cause it almost fell on my [laughs] oh my gosh. This is ridiculous.

You can kind of tell in that last clip that as I’m saying these things, I’m realizing how ridiculous they are.

Ah, there’re the rocks, falling towards me again. Hey rocks.

Like, if I just stood totally still, a rock wouldn’t actually hit me in the head. That was all virtual.

Ah, they’re pretty big. And they’re definitely falling towards me.

And yet, while I was in it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were real. That was the blending—virtual worlds mixed with my real emotions.

Okay. Just returned from the virtual reality to the real reality. Uh… that was really trippy!

Justin says that’s pretty normal.

JB: I think that one of the most profound um things to to see when people are kind of experiencing virtual reality for the first time is that it you really feel it. It really feels like it’s happening. often these worlds are fairly cartoonish but they feel like they have gravity and weight. And you can get dizzy if you feel like you’re rocking, you can feel like you’re running quickly even though you might be standing still, and it’s pretty fascinating to see how this virtual world acts like a direct line to your emotions and to your sensations.

XC: By this point I was getting a little worried about something having a direct line to my emotions and sensations. It was just so much stronger than the feeling I get through art or music. Wasn’t there the possibility of this powerful technology getting misused? I mean, you’ve seen The Matrix, right?

[Red pill blue pill clip]

XC: I put the question to Justin. Was he worried about this technology?

JB: Absolutely I worry about this technology! I worry about what it means to be able to have such a completely immersive experience, to have it be so portable, to have it come at so little cost uh on a real basic level, you know, hey, why do we need a beautiful forest? I mean, I got one in my pocket, you know? But I think the flipped side of that is is that as creators as artists as designers as dramatists, learning to use this medium it’s up to us to be responsible about it and to be critical as we’re engaged in the technology and the reason this vocabulary is so important

XC: The vocabulary, if you remember, is one of the goals of Justin’s research.

JB: Because only when we’re able to fully understand or describe the experience we’re having will we be able to make you know coherent or thoughtful um critiques but also uh ways of experiencing the space that are maybe more meaningful than say, you know, running around shooting zombies.

XC: That’s true. Though I’m still a little scared of people’s misuse of it, I also know firsthand what an incredible experience VR is. Knowing that people like Justin are thinking about how to use this tech responsibly also makes me feel a lot better. If we could harness the force for good, we could be looking at a whole new age in human experience! I’m on board if thoughtful people like Justin are blending my reality. Virtualize me, Cap’n!

Leave a Reply