Virtual Reality -vs- Reading
  Up Late    April 12, 2015     Eric Larkin

I’m sure you think being a blogger is a golden ticket to the High Life, and that I am literally rolling in piles of illegal substances in silk underpants, making thousands of dollars a year, but think again.

I’m at Dreamworks Animation Studios in Glendale, having lunch with a friend and my cousin.  As happens at magical places like Dreamworks, they’re offering dragon rides.  To bloggers.  I am a blogger.  I should get a dragon ride, n’est pas?  Bien sur.  Mais non.  Cuz I didn’t go thru proper damn channels. No dragon. No High Life.

It was a Virtual Reality booth for the premiere of How To Train Your Dragon 2, and they were showing it off to bloggers, LIKE ME.  Well, I didn’t know about the event til I got there, but there I am, live and in person, a blogger, willing to churn out a nice little post with a book/movie/VR dragon theme – whatever, I’ll post anything – BUT I didn’t go thru the proper channels blahdy blah blah.  So, what?  Am I right?  SO?!  I mean, it’s not like being a blogger is some Navy Seal, People-Who-Have-Been-On-The-Moon, Club 33 kinda exclusive coterie.  A Ring-Tailed Lemur with a Speak-N-Spell could be a blogger.  From personal experience, I can say there are precisely zero prerequisites or qualifications for this job. I used to drive the van, for @#%$’s sake. So, why wouldn’t they just let me do it?  “Sorry!  The HTTYD2 VR Experience is touring, though!  We’ll be in NY Thursday.”  We’re in Glendale, bro; my blogging job doesn’t pay enough for me to just up and fly to New York to ride a dragon. But yeah, thanks for the deflective “assistance”.


They let this guy ride the dragon. photo courtesy of Anna Panáková , CC2.0

So, in a few short paragraphs here, fueled by sharp bitterness and maybe a half quart of Elijah Craig, I am going to single-handedly take down the entire VR machine before it even lands on our beaches in force.  I will do this by comparing the phenomenon of “reading a cool story” to that of “Virtual Reality”. It gets foggy towards the end, as the EC takes effect – and yes, I know this is “apples to oranges”.  Do not bother me with your logic: I am raging.

First off, and most obviously, while Virtual Reality claims to be immersive, it is merely presentational.  Reading a story on the other hand, is profoundly immersive.  Virtual Reality happens to your senses, sight and hearing.  You are basically watching TV, with the TV strapped to your face.  It could perhaps be used to present some sort of story, but it’s still just noises and lights and pathetically passive, from an imagination standpoint.  Yes, you can sort of “move around” or “do things” in that world, but it’s still purely sensory.  Reading, on the other hand, floods over your senses – like a silky, dulcet perfume – to be unfolded by your brain, like a perfect-but-still-a-surprise-not-even-your-birthday Gift.  Voila, mon amour!   With reading, you, the reader, take the merest monochrome words from a surface (page, screen) and transform them into your own version of Industrial Age London or Roman occupied Palestine or the moon Io or wherever, in your brain.  You yourself turn that raw code into the thing it was meant to be.  If you read, “The pocked, alabaster pillars stretched higher than trees, straight up, but ended at the sky, the decorated capitals and roof having fallen ages since”, your first-rate brain is constructing all of that: the place, the time, the texture.  If, however, you “see” it in VR, your brain merely identifies the objects, “Oh, look.  Columns.”   Pffft.  Lazy.  Brain function: wasted.



A book club is wayyyy more fun than lame dragon rides. photo courtesy of Alvin Smith , CC2.0

Reading is a communal affair; Virtual Reality is isolating.  Compared with watching a movie in a theater with 200 complete strangers half of whom insist on eating noisy food and laughing at the wrong parts, reading is a (blessedly) solitary affair.  However, the thinness of the VR experience is even less communal than reading.  Though interpretation will undoubtedly vary, you can read the same story as other people and have a lot to talk about.  You have each built a world of the same materials, that much is shared, and the differences will stem from whatever native materials you brought to the experience, and that is what develops that community.  “Oh – I was confused by that part of the book, but now I get it” or “You make a good point, but I think it means yada yada”.  VR is like, “I went to the left, and then I went into this door.”  “Me, too.” “Guys, it’s my turn – strap the TV to my face.”  What’s there to talk about?  Is it just a really expensive optical illusion? Is it like those m#@$% f&%@#ing Magic Eye books? It’s not even on the level of a carnival funhouse, since you don’t do it as a group. (ok – this might be bullshit, if they do these games as MMOs.) You may do the actual reading in isolation, but you will be entering the community of others who’ve read the same thing.


Durability.  Virtual Reality just got here, so it’s unfair to talk about its durability.  But let’s just have some sort of primarily visual art stand in for VR and wind the clock for writing back a bit…. to the Cave Days.  So, “Cave Painting [VR] -vs- Proto-writing with Ground Ochre on the Back of a Sloth Hide [writing/reading a story]”.   Say, Australopithecine Andy and Afarensic Steve are on a hunt.  “I say, old man, if you turn ‘round now, you may notice a mammoth of considerable size bearing down upon you in some haste” quoth Andy.   Steve, known for his wacky antics, rather than turning, ducking or running, affects a mock, exaggerated running-in-place motion, “Ohhh nooo!  Whatever shall I dooooo?! hahahaha!”  The mammoth flattens him.   When Andy gets back to the cave, he has to tell everyone what happened to Steve.  He draws a diagram in the dirt or, better, a picture on the cave wall (for the visual learners), but he still explains it with… a story.  This is the Story of Steve.  All the cave children are told the Story of Steve, probably in conjunction with the Cave Drawing of Steve, to teach them the importance of paying the f*ck attention to what you’re doing so you don’t get stepped on by giant hairy elephants.  Words to that effect.  And this Cave Drawing is a piece of work, really excellent – Steve flailing hilariously, Andy off to the side – hands cupped around his mouth “I Sayyyyyy!!”, the giant mammoth form, looming across the rough limestone – maybe just a teensy bit enhanced for effect.  One day, a sleuth (streak? okay, a pack) of sabertooth bears decides they want to live in that particular cave.  Time for Andy and his clan to go.  They find another cave a safe distance away from the sleuth of bears.  From then on, when the clan wants to teach the youngins about the importance of paying the f*ck attention, they can’t show them the painting, because it’s back in the old cave.  But they still have the Story of Steve.  After awhile the story gets a little tweaked in the retelling, till it becomes a comedy about Wacky Steve and his crazy antics, and next thing you know, the kids wanna be like Steve.  Cuz he’s funny.  Like the story.  Luckily, cave woman Lucy wrote that shit down on the inside of a sloth skin with some ground ochre.  She whips that baby out, having hauled it from cave to cave during the clan’s migrations, and sets the record straight:  “You all think poor Stephen very amusing, don’t you children?  Well, levity may be alright at times, but never ever on the Hunt.  I have here written down the original Story of Steve as told to me when I was your age, by Grandpa Andy himself…”  Lucy has saved her clan and all of humanity.


From the prehistoric Epp-Kott region of the southeastern corner of the North American continent, Andy tells his story, using visual aids, while Lucy makes a carefully detailed record, using red ochre, a sloth hide and WORDS. (courtesy of Benjamin Esham , CC2.0)

No one will even see the Drawing of Steve again until 1842 AD when it’s discovered by a scandal-ridden classics professor from FSU on vacation with his “personal secretary”.  So, writing holds its purpose longer than drawing.  The readable story has detail and portability that gives it a durability that far exceeds that of the merely visual, or, in our case, Virtual Reality.


Conclusion:  a written story is more immersive and detailed than VR, as it requires the active involvement of the participant.  Though an individual activity, it has more potential to create community than VR through its complexity and resultant variety of experience.  In conveying its original meaning, the detail and portability of writing/reading make it much more durable than not only Virtual Reality, but visual arts in general.   Take THAT Dreamworks!  Next time, lemme ride the damn dragon, and I won’t have to destroy you.*


Here’s an extraordinarily long piece on virtual reality from Verge. Read it, if you’ve got that kinda time.


*Note:  I do appreciate the amazing yogurt bar in your cafeteria.  It’s a bar for yogurt, which I don’t even really like, but the technology could be applied in so many ways:  nacho bar, for instance, would be life-changing (for me).

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