As a technique used to create special visual effects, phantasmagoria now rests with other long-forgotten media. A play of projections, movement, and light allowed stories to unfold visually, giving shape to nearly tangible, frightening, ghostly apparitions. We've come a long way, and the ghosts of today are rarely frightening. Digital technologies are used to materialise something that is not present, but instead of terrifying, these apparitions are entertaining, desired, addictive, and enriching.
Virtual and augmented reality engage with perception and space, making what´s near seem distant, as they replace the content of that space with something else. Arguably ghostly in nature, these mediums make illusion their content, as they bring on new intellectual and emotional ways of engaging with these artificial visual worlds. The VR experience is most often heavily affective – the senses are heightened and “pleasure” is a key word. The human body becomes part of these technologically constructed episodes, which completely take over the field of vision. The distance between the individual as seeing subject and these constructed visual scenarios as objects is made null by the necessary immersive experience. There is no “over there” – the image, as object, engulfs the viewer, as reality and virtuality intertwine at the crossroads of memory, imagination, and pleasure. Etymologically, “phantasmagoria” is related to the notion of “public” (agora), pointing at its nature as spectacle. What are the ghosts of today, and how can we describe the public and private nature of our “ghostly” experiences? Can we use these phantasms of modern life to address the larger issues at the core of our societies?
Intrigued, curious, and a little sceptical, I spoke of all this with virtual reality developer Karsten Nymand at InnoPixel, a cluster of Danish tech companies that focus on new technologies, growth, and innovation, and “handcraft pixels to fit tomorrow´s reality.”
Elena Stanciu: How did you come to work with virtual and augmented reality?
Karsten Nymand: I studied Computer Science at University of Southern Denmark, Kolding, and as part of the program, I did a lot of prototyping of different products, which raised an interest in robotics. I saw virtual reality as a means to working in robotics, as it allows for an interesting play with space and perspective. I started learning for myself and I also want to teach other people to use makerspaces, such as do-it-yourself prototyping and make your own products for various needs. During my studies, I visited Innopixel and was offered the possibility to work here. I said yes, naturally.
ES: I find it interesting that you started working with very tangible things, making products you can hold in your hands, and now work with VR. How do you connect these two, the “virtualness” of VR with your interest for making tangible things?
KN: I don´t think it´s different at all, because when I make prototypes I have some kind of idea or a customer in mind, then I make the product and have people use it and I look at their reaction, at how they interact with the product and learn some stuff from that, find the faults with it, if any, and make a better product. It´s similar when we build VR programs – we have a client with a request, we start building it, and while we 3D model it, we have people look at it, test our solution, and we look at their reactions, and so on. From the perspective of developing a solution, be it material or virtual, the approach is the same.
ES: What do you focus on, in terms of field of application for VR?
KN: Most of our products are not games; we do training simulators using quite new technology, similar to what NASA has been using to train their astronauts: basically create the conditions of space travel in VR. We design experiences to train for various other professions or domains. For the production part, I use some time for programming, for 3D modelling, and then I put them together to create the actual experience. Then there is always meeting and speaking with clients, which basically informs our idea of what they expect from our solution.
ES: It sounds like a very customer-oriented process. Do you also design stuff on your own and then present it to clients, who probably never thought of that?
KN: We do spend some time coming up with very cool solutions and then we how them to clients we think might like or need them. However, it´s really up to them how the product will end up looking.
ES: I find interesting that you use the word “solution” a lot in talking about your work. What are usually the problems or challenges that your solutions target?
KN: I guess we do work a lot with solution-based design process. You can turn around problem-oriented design process and have a picture of what we do: instead of targeting existing problems, we focus more on other ways of doing something, without necessarily finding existing errors. There´s more a focus on innovation that makes lives easier or offers alternatives to how we do things. Of course, we can find some clients who can use it. Sometimes, the clients have already come up with some solution that they want to scale, which means we get to work with existing products.
ES: Beyond this client-oriented, rather commercial aspect of your work, do you have any projects that you develop just for the sake of using the technology/ innovate.
KN There´s always something new in the technology behind VR, so we have some projects that we do just to learn and design things that our clients don´t need yet. It´s also really fun to design without limits or outlines.
ES: What can you tell me about the idea of responsibility in designing VR and AR? Are there ethical standards that keep the technology in check? I´m thinking of the merging of VR with Artificial Intelligence, which makes me personally quite anxious. What´s your take on the use of AI in VR development?
KN: We make products that are safe and that give users a good experience. This is not an ethical issue, but more of a technical concern – how do you make products and design solutions that won´t harm people and are actually desirable. There is potential to make products that are harmful, and there is also a middle ground when you can use the product as means to an end, in the sense that temporarily putting the user in an uncomfortable situation might help them in the end – for instance people with phobias are exposed to what they are afraid of, so they can go over their fear of the real thing. I can imagine a dystopic future where VR can be used to harm people, the technology is possible, but I believe there are ethical standards that people follow.
ES: What are now the limits of VR and is there a predictable moment when they´ll be crossed?
KN: At the moment, VR is very visual. There is a lot of focus on visual experiences, but there are people working with expanding the use of senses. There is quite a lot of technology in the field now going in the direction of designing for all senses.
ES: We are now faced with all the fuss around political implications of fake information and manipulation. Is this something the VR&AR field is concerned about or tackles? Are there any critiques of it, which consider the capacity of this technology to manipulate and replace knowledge and be invasive?
KN: Every kind of medium can be abused in some way. At the moment, I don´t think a lot of information or knowledge is actually transmitted through VR and AR. The difference between VR and AR is that the latter is a version of the real world around you, so there is a different starting point when you use it that might affect how you perceive what you experience.
ES: But can Google Maps, for instance, be hacked and have things in there that are not truly there? I´m thinking this could be an incredible tool for propaganda and misinformation.
KN: I think it´s possible, but I don’t know how to do it. Which is a good thing, I guess. Google Maps content can be used to create VR experiences, where over the original photos you overlap content that is not there, or use them to put together the “world” in a particular way using interesting algorithms. It is something very business-oriented I would say – where businesses use this tool for visibility and commercial purposes for instance.
ES: I know VR is used a lot recently as a medium in visual art, where the viewers´ affective response and aesthetics are central – are these two elements and their balance something you consider in your work? How are emotions embedded in working with VR in general?
KN: We consider emotions in so far as our goal is to design good and pleasant experience. There is a combination of sensory reaction, memory, and emotions, but emotions are important. If a business wants to sell products and create a VR solution for their customers, as a pre-purchase step, they will absolutely seek to entice and charm, which is very immediate and affective. A lot of people will get a “wow” feeling from just trying this new technology and maybe overlap their reaction to the product with their reaction to the medium. This impacts the new type of storytelling that goes when using VR, which is very different from other media.
ES: Would you say Virtual Reality is being liberating and offers freedom? Can it limit freedom in any way?
KN: It´s definitely liberating. You can use VR to go beyond the limits of your body, for instance and try things that are normally impossible under conditions of reality. You can also just cut distance and travel virtually, which of course does not fully replicate the first-hand experience of being in a new place, but it satisfies to some degree the need to escape the place you are in. We can also use some VR solutions to provide experience to people with handicap, limited mobility or otherwise restricted from trying the real thing.
Words: Elena Stanciu
Image Source: Projects by InnoPixel