I’ve been pondering suspension of disbelief lately. It’s a thing we’re all familiar with, I think. It’s the state that keeps us from standing up in the middle of a movie theater during any given action film, pointing at the screen, and yelling “What?! That doesn’t even make any damn sense!” It’s the (extremely necessary) ability that lets me look at video games and say “This looks sort of like real life, I buy it”—and the one that leaves me reeling when I go back to the same games ten years later and realize how horrendous they actually looked.
But virtual reality is proving to be the greatest challenge yet to my willful suspension of disbelief, and it always surfaces in the strangest ways. The more these digital worlds become lifelike, become real, the more I realize the true challenge isn’t in making them perfect. It’s in making them imperfect.
Recreating reality is simultaneously the most pedestrian and most difficult trick you can do with virtual reality.
It’s the most pedestrian because…well, you’ve been given a blank slate with nearly limitless possibilities, and what do you choose to do? Create something that already exists. This is what’s so frustrating about Netflix’s recent foray into virtual reality , for instance. Given an infinite amount of possibilities, Netflix chose to let you watch TV in a living room—something I (and many others) am already innately familiar with.
But it’s this familiarity that also makes it the hardest trick to pull off. I’ve watched TV in dozens of living rooms in my life—my childhood home, my college dorm, my college apartment, my current apartment, friends’ homes and apartments, my grandparents’ house. I have a lot of references as far as the “Watching TV In a Living Room” experience is concerned. By contrast, I have zero reference as to what “Meeting an alien on the moon” is like in real life.
What I find increasingly fascinating about the uncanny valley phenomenon is noting the small things that set me off, that make me uneasy.
Often it’s the sterility. It’s the subtle nobody-lives-here sensation that makes an abandoned house so eerie. In Netflix’s idyllic approximation of the Modern Wealthy American’s living room it’s the way all the items are arranged just so, the perky way the couch sits as if it’s never fulfilled its god-given destiny of having people’s butts on it, the way the TV sits free of all dust and grubby fingerprints.
We are creating museums. Amazing virtual museums.
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