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What is Virtual Reality?

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Matthew Wilson Smith, a professor in the Departments of German Studies and Theater & Performance Studies at Stanford, is exploring the idea of virtual reality.

Theater historian Matthew Wilson Smith, the Donald Andrews Whittier Fellow at the Humanities Center, explains how virtual reality's roots go back to the operas of Richard Wagner and before.

Professor Smith teaches in the Departments of German Studies and Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford. His books include The Total Work of Art: From Bayreuth to Cyberspace, The Nervous Stage: Nineteenth-century Neuroscience and the Birth of Modern Theater, and the edited volumes Georg Büchner: The Major Works and Modernism and Opera.  

To put it simply, exactly what is virtual reality?

We could define VR as an immersive and interactive digital simulation that provides an experience of embodied presence in another world. We might think of Star Trek’s “Holodeck” as one example. Similarly, The Matrix trilogy largely takes place in a universe that we discover to be virtual reality. 

But VR is also already with us—it’s being used in fields from medicine to the military. It’s especially well suited to training, especially when improvement requires frequent reps, and when those repetitions are expensive or dangerous. Flight training is the paradigmatic example. 

VR’s current high-end version is the Oculus Rift and its competitor, the HTC Vive. For the rest of us there are cheaper options like Google Cardboard, which works with your smartphone and costs about ten bucks. 

There are a lot of science fiction speculations about VR that have been with us for many decades. But one of the things I argue and teach in my classes is that this idea actually goes back much, much further in intellectual history—all the way back to Plato and his idea of the Allegory of the Cave.

Are your students surprised how far back VR goes? 

Strictly speaking, VR doesn't predate digital media. But the idea that inspires it and some of the technology that drives it are much older. What does surprise many of my students is the idea that there’s a pre-history to the technology, much of which was developed from the Baroque period through the 19th century. Examples of this kind of thing would include panoramas and dioramas—technical, artistic, theatrical, entertainment devices that would attempt to fully immerse a spectator in an alternate world. 

Another example, which my students can experience more directly, is the stereoscope—a pair of lenses that give two-dimensional images the illusion of three-dimensionality. Remember the old View-Masters? Those are basically stereoscopes. One of the things we do as a class is to go to the Cantor Arts Center and use their antique stereoscopes to explore some of the collection of stereoscopic imagery. It can be disconcerting, even on such antiquated technology, to see a three-dimensional image of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession pop out at you, or see the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake. 


Virtual tourism was an element of the appeal of the stereoscope that carries over into present-day VR. Then as now, this form of encounter sometimes raises real ethical questions. 

A big question about VR is desensitization—whether repeated exposure to these experiences make us more or less empathetic.

One very effective, you might say, VR experience is called Clouds over Sidra, which is filmed in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and narrated by a girl who’s a Syrian refugee. On one hand one could very well say: What a wonderful tool this is for exposing us to the lives these people are leading! On the other hand, however, it's worth asking: At what point does the consumption of not just imagery but full-scale experience become more about thrill than enlightenment, more about exoticism than education? This is the kind of question we need to bring to bear on a medium that offers a sense of “being there” that goes far beyond the capacities of photography or film.

Much of the answer will depend on where we as a society choose to take the medium, a choice that includes questions of funding and regulation. Taking just the field of VR journalism, who is paying for it and to what ends? Should laws, rules, or customs be developed to limit or prohibit certain types of content? If all these experiences are being offered simply for profit, then the experiences themselves will likely become only more sensationalized and addictive.

What do you want your students or people in general understand about VR?

There are two basic things. First, I want us to start to understand what this medium is, how it got that way, and where it might be headed. Because in some ways VR is a very strange thing. For example, I find that one of its defining features is that there’s a sense that we already know what it’s supposed to be. Unlike when photography emerged, film emerged, radio, what have you, there’s a sense with VR that we already know its ideal ultimate state: a perfectly immersive simulation, a truly alternate world. This is in part because, as I’ve already mentioned, VR’s roots lie so deep in at least Western thought. It’s as though we’ve dreamt this dream before, and dreamt it time and again over the course of history, sometimes as a nightmare, sometimes as a paradise. And because we consistently feel that we already know what VR is supposed to be, we also regularly feel let down by what it actually, in practice, is. This is one of the ironies of VR that I don't find in the history of other media.

The other thing I want people to think about is: What are the perils and promises of this medium? That’s where ethics come in. And also, you might say, cultural criticism. How, for example, might our interest in a uniquely immersive medium connect to a broader culture in which we are being constantly barraged by appeals to our attention? How might a longing for absorption arise out of a culture of relentless distraction? And is there a relation between our longing for artificial worlds and our destruction of the natural one?

As to the future of VR, I have my own guesses and theories like everybody, but I’m basically agnostic. I certainly don’t believe myself to be a booster, nor do I feel like I’m someone who just sees this as some sort of satanic instrument. It’s the unknown about it that interests me.

In the end, however, I suppose I come to this mainly as a theater historian. 

As a theater and performance scholar, why are you so interested in VR?

 My first book was on an aesthetic form called the “total work of art”—an attempt to bring all the major art forms together in a single immersive unity—which emerged in the 19th century. It's particularly connected to the operas of Richard Wagner. 

Indeed some people who are working in VR explicitly cite Wagner or the theory of the “total work of art” [Gesamtkunstwerk in German] as inspiration. So I kind of came to VR from the world of theater and opera and its interest in immersion and technology. 

Wagner's "Ring" at the San Francisco Opera (Image credit: Corey Weaver)Wagner's powerful Ring exemplifies the "total work of art."  (Image credit: Corey Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

How do you think the arts and technology influence each other?

The dialogue between art and technology is quite simply one of the most exciting things going on at Stanford right now. Look, one of the functions of VR is to aid us in seeing the world around us with new eyes. And one of the great potencies of the arts is that they can take something we regard as simply part of the natural background of our lives, something that we don’t reflect upon or think about or maybe even notice, and show it to us in a new light. Art can make the wallpaper of our world leap out of the background and into our awareness—make it leap out as something peculiar and worthy of attention. VR, at its best, can also produce a surprising and enlightening reorientation of our attention.

And at a certain point I think it’s extremely important to reflect on what our tools are making us into versus what we want to be. Here above all it’s crucial that the arts be not just in conversation with technology but be really using technology, be exploring and exploding technology, reflecting back on technology, making technology strange to us so that we will not simply be that which is made by the tools that we make.