What is Virtual Reality? On a technical level, it’s a headset-enabled system that uses images and sounds to make the user feel like they’re in a different place altogether. But in terms of the content and essence of virtual reality – well, that may depend on where you are.
In the US, for example, virtual reality (VR) has deep roots as a form of military training technology. It later took on a “techno-utopian” character as it gained more attention in the 1980s and 1990s, as MIT professor Paul Roquet points out in a new book on the subject. But in Japan, virtual reality is heavily oriented towards ‘isekai’ or ‘other world’ fantasies, including scenarios where the VR user enters a portal to another world and has to find the way back.
“Part of my goal, in bringing out these different senses of virtual reality, is that it can mean different things in different parts of the world, and change a lot over time,” said Roquet, associate professor media studies and Japan studies in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing program.
As such, VR provides a useful case study into the interactions of society and technology, and how innovations can evolve in relation to the cultures they adopt. Roquet details these differences in the new book, “The Immersive Enclosure: Virtual Reality in Japan,” published this week by Columbia University Press.
As Roquet points out in the book, virtual reality has a long line of precursor innovations, dating at least to early 20th-century military flight simulators. A stereoscopic arcade machine from the 1960s, the Sensorama is considered the first commercial VR device. Later in the decade, Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist with an MIT PhD, developed a groundbreaking computerized head-mounted display.
By the 1980s in the US, however, virtual reality, often associated with technologist Jaron Lanier, had moved in a different direction and was used as a liberating tool, “purer than what came before,” as Roquet puts it. He adds: “It goes back to the Platonic ideal of the world that can be separated from everyday materiality. And in the popular imagination, VR is becoming this space where we can solve issues like sexism, racism, discrimination and inequality. A lot of promises are being made in the American context.”
In Japan, however, VR has a different trajectory. Partly because Japan’s post-war constitution banned most military activities, virtual reality evolved more in relation to forms of popular entertainment such as manga, anime, and video games. Roquet believes his Japanese technological heritage also includes the Sony Walkman, which created private space for media consumption.
“It’s going in different directions,” Roquet says. “The technology is different from the kind of military and industrial applications promised in the US”
As Roquet describes in the book, several Japanese expressions for virtual reality reflect this. One term, ‘bacharu riariti’, reflects the more idealistic idea that a virtual space could replace a real one; another, ‘kaso genjitsu’, situates virtual reality more as entertainment where the ‘feeling is just as important as the technology itself’.
The actual content of VR entertainment can vary from multiplayer fighting games to other types of fantasy world activities. As Roquet explores in the book, Japanese virtual reality also has a distinct gender profile: A survey in Japan showed that 87 percent of social virtual reality users were men, but 88 percent of them embodied female protagonists, and not necessarily in screenplays. which are empowering for women. Thus, men are “in control everywhere, but nowhere to be seen,” Roquet writes, while “it is surreptitiously reintroducing gender norms.”
A completely different possible application of virtual reality is telecommuting. As Roquet also points out, a lot of research has gone into the idea of using VR to control robots for use in a variety of environments, from healthcare to industrial tasks. This is something Japanese technologists share with, say, Mark Zuckerberg of Meta, whose company has become the largest US funder of virtual reality.
“It’s not so much that there is an absolute gap” [between the U.S. and Japan], says Roquet; instead, he notes, there’s a different emphasis in terms of “what virtual reality is all about.”
Where Escapism Cannot Escape
Other scholars have praised “The Immersive Enclosure”. Yuriko Furuhata, an associate professor at McGill University, calls the book “a refreshing new look at VR as a consumer technology.” James J. Hodge, an associate professor at Northwestern University, calls the book “a must-read for media studies scholars and general readers alike fascinated by VR’s flawed revolutionary potential.”
Ultimately, as Roquet concludes at the end of the book, virtual reality still faces important political, commercial and social questions. One of them, he writes, is “how to envision a VR future ruled by something other than a small number of corporate landlords and the same old geopolitical battle.” Another, as the book points out, is “what it means for a media interface to take control of one’s spatial awareness.”
In either case, that means understanding virtual reality – and technology in general – as it is shaped by society. Virtual reality often masquerades as a form of escapism, but there is no escaping the conditions in which it was developed and refined.
“You can create a space that’s outside the social world, but it’s ultimately very much shaped by whoever is doing the creation,” says Roquet.