DIONYSUS CHO (M.Arch ’15)
Each of us today possesses two bodies: the primitive body that a human being always possessed and the virtual body that has come into being with the spread of the media. The former seeks the beautiful light and fresh breeze found in nature. The other body which responds to the electronic environment, might be called a media-like body in search of information. The relationship between these two bodies is constantly shifting. – Toyo Ito
Today, we are increasingly invested – both with time and money – in the virtual world. Studies place today’s youth in front of computer, console, or television at 7 hours and 38 minutes per day. As a global population, the amount of hours spent gaming alone reaches 3 billion hours per week. One’s waking existence is spent between the physical and virtual worlds. These numbers are backed by the rapid release of digital ‘prosthetics.’ Without mentioning the prevalence of smartphone and mobile screens, AR/VR technologies have received a torrent of interest from both the developer community and an eagerly awaiting consumer mass. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg posted this statement after his purchase of Oculus:
This is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.
This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life.
But is this truly new?
Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), American inventor, writer, and editor, pushed the advancement of communication technologies by promoting first the radio, followed by the idea of television in 1909, though it would not be realized until a decade or so later. An electronics entrepreneur, Gernsback was interested in speculative technology, leading him to publish America’s first science fiction magazine and earning him the title of the “Father of Science Fiction”. It is from these fictions, before even many of his actual inventions came to fruition, that much can be drawn about his desires for virtual experience. Two of these concepts illustrate distinct paradigms which last to this day.
While the cover of ‘Radio News’ depicts Gernsback with a comedically oversized contraption sporting a disproportionately miniscule screen — the television receiver — his idea for “Television Eyeglasses” (1936) skips past then-existing technological constraints to become the forefather of the digital virtual prosthetics.
This first contraption simultaneously illustrates the need to be completely immersed and removed from one’s environment and the desire to enjoy this environment whilst being mobile — away from the furniture-sized apparatuses of the 1930s era television receivers, away from a specific place.
Gernsback’s Television Glasses reflect a rather optimistic desire akin to that behind the Oculus Rift developed decades later; a virtual reality prosthetic which one can move with, but, ironically, also tethers.
The second concept is decidedly comedic and not without a degree of tongue-in cheek. The Isolator (1926) is a device that, completely opposite of the Television Glasses which conjured reality, attempted to remove all sensorial distraction to focus one on his or her particular reality.
Not only does The Isolator function as an acoustical barrier, it also limits the scope of vision to what is immediately at the foreground and counters undesired olfactory stimulation through an attached oxygen tank.
It is interesting to note that this invention accompanies the birth of the television and before the significant distractions or intrusions from media devices we face today. Despite this, Gernsback still realized the necessity to insulate oneself from the social and physical connections, existing in any environment (even those lacking a virtual overlay), which distract from one’s task.
Gernsback’s pair of inventions serve to poignantly illustrate the schism in our modern view of reality: the desire for limitless connectivity and digital immersion of the Television Glasses alongside the desire for a disconnected and insulated moment made possible by The Isolator. Both of these desires will be embraced, reiterated, and contested by generations to come.
How do we design at once for both the primitive and the virtual body? While Ito claims that there are two bodies which must be sated, Stelarc’s take is much more blunt:
Information is the prosthesis that props up the obsolete body.
Perhaps it is not merely an appetite we must understand and satisfy, but another entirely new (and more important) existence we must embrace for the sake of survival. The augmentation of the digital is an extra limb, not foreign or nuisance, but a crucial addition to oneself.