What We Talk About When We Talk About Virtual Reality

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feature image via Shutterstock.

I’ve tried Virtual Reality twice. Once at Lesbians Who Tech in New York City—they had a bunch of Samsung Gear VR units for demonstration. Based on my interest in acrobatics and circus arts in general, they recommended I try the Cirque du Soleil demo. It’s a five minute virtual reality movie where you’re sitting on the stage and a bunch of cirque clowns come interact with you, followed by an aerialist performance. It was cool enough, but the conference was loud enough that I couldn’t really hear what was going on in the simulation and the video quality was plagued with grainy lines. While it was neat that I could look behind me to see the empty theatre, it didn’t feel like reality. It still felt virtual.

The second time I tried VR, I was blown away. It was the HTC Vive. My first experience with it was an eight minute Portal demo where a giant robot pronounces me obsolete and then terminates me.

I was shocked at how large everything was. It was something I wasn’t expecting, even with my previous Gear VR experience; one of the robots was my size, another the size of a house. The “termination” at the end made my heart race even though the writing in the demo was comedic. My body couldn’t tell the difference between real danger and virtual danger. Then there was Tilt Brush. Tilt Brush is a program that allows you to draw in 3D space with brushes made of light, smoke, ink splatters, all sorts of things. I was completely immersed, doodling in the air in front of me. I drew a face and tried to put hair on it. I reached as tall as I could get, pulled the trigger and then—CLANG. “Careful!” I heard someone say behind me—the person whose controllers I almost just ruined by cracking one against the exposed basement heating vent. I’d forgotten there was a ceiling. Reality achieved.

I tell you all this now because two juggernauts of the VR world have recently gone on pre-order and will be shipping soon: the HTC Vive (powered by Steam) and Oculus Rift. Considering what I thought this new technology would cost, they’re actually quite affordable: the Vive is going for $799 (not including shipping) and the Rift is going for $599. Of course, you need a compatible PC to play with either one, so congratulations Windows users! You might be able to hop on the early adaption train on this one, depending on the systems you have. Sony isn’t far behind—their Playstation VR bundle ($550) went on pre-order this week and will be shipping in October. There are more systems on the way.

A whole bunch of stories have come out about them—one of which confirms, yeah, there are already porn companies on this. In fact, Pornhub is working on a whole virtual reality section of their site that’ll be available on Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift. Porn is actually an industry responsible for a lot of tech developments—many experts say that the internet is as fast and large as it is because of the demand for porn. Now I’m a huge fan of feminist porn as a concept, but the porn industry has some super problematic components to it. Which brings me to exactly why I think we as a community of queer women and non-binary folks need to be talking about virtual reality at this exact moment.

We are already encountering a situation where a small subset of users designed a structure, a world, that we’re all pretty reliant on now. The APRPANET designers are all listed as men, and that’s what the internet grew out of. That means a whole ton of inherent biases are present in tools like Twitter, and that the shitty bits of the real world have been injected into our man-made cyberworld as well. Is that unavoidable? Maybe—this week did a pretty bang-up job of reminding us that we can’t have progress or nice things because we, humans, will inevitably destroy what we create (Microsoft’s bot debacle, anyone?). And it stands to reason that only a few people will make a breakthrough when it comes to technology. But how do we know we can’t do a better job if only a small amount of us are doing the pushing and creating in this weird frontier, and the rest of us are following the drum major, excluded from the cutting edge without even the chance to participate?

It’s my opinion that we’re seeing another space form right now, a subset of the internet that promises you’ll be able to hang out with far away friends in virtual reality and feel like you’re all there, in the same place. Where previously we’ve been lines of texts attached to 2D avatars or even ourselves filmed and processed for 2D viewing on YouTube, we’re now heading into a time where digital space will include bodies. Bodies we inhabit in spaces where we’ll forget there is a ceiling above us, that the glorious miles of sky our physical bodies are telling us is up there isn’t actually real in the physical sense.

This new digital space is happening whether we feel entirely comfortable about it or not—personally, I feel pretty strongly in both directions. Drawing in 3D and then laying down to observe my creation from below was spectacular; how much I want to go back to that place again is terrifying. Reality is being remade, and we have some options right now that we didn’t have when the internet was getting born. Tech fields are hemorrhaging women because of the inhospitable environments they’re steeped in, but imagine the inhospitable environment that will be created without them? Without us? Heck, we don’t even really have to imagine; we’re living it. We see the harassment, we see what it is to be a woman on the internet. But add in the bodies—bodies that are already being sexualized in this virtual space, where we know interactivity will be a factor. The possibilities for harassment in the context of bodies without the alleged consequences of the real world is HUGE. Women, and more specifically queer and trans women, need to be a part of this conversation as we’re making decisions about what this new world will be.

We need to figure out a way to exist in this territory as users and as leaders, and y’all, I do not know what that way is. As I’ve mentioned before, tech is sticky thing when it comes to including marginalized communities due to price point, but there are ways to mess around with VR without dropping hundreds of dollars off the bat—Google Cardboard, for example, can be used with several compatible smartphones and costs $15. It is made out of, as the name suggests, cardboard. But that still presumes the possession of a one of a few specific smartphones. There’s also the high time overhead when it comes to researching and learning to practically apply tech knowledge; time that some members of marginalized communities just don’t have because they’re busy surviving. It’s hard. But, I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s important, and if you have some time or thought or energy to dedicate to this emerging world, you should. We need to be writing about it, talking about it, thinking about it. And those of who can, those of us with the developer chops, need to be innovating it, too. Don’t let the next man-made world be made entirely by men; we know how that goes.


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A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 543 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. You’re spot on and correct in being concerned. New technologies will proceed in the same way as the old – and by ‘old’ here I mean as old as the printing press. The means for mass distribution of information was controlled and constrained by the dominant groups (by and large) and the messages put out were those that served the interests and obsessions of the dominant. Becoming a self-serving machine for creating the kinds of ‘consumers’ that the dominant could intellectually own, technological development is blind to 4 fifths of the world.
    So, all the AS techies … y’all need to band together to make your own printing presses – not literally, you know what I mean.

  2. Al

    I have read a reviews or two of VR porn(both by women, though not sure of how each one identifies), and both said it was marketed towards mostly straight men and not fully ready for prime time, so to speak.

    The bigger issue is, at from what I read about the Oculus, one would need reasonably powerful computer. I told the base minimum is a $700 desktop with a gaming-ish gpu. I think the 5th gen Intel Iris Pro gpu(not sure if desktop or laptop variant though), may work for videos, and other less intensive stuff. However, most of what I have read about this says, suggests at least a $1000 build, with a proper gaming gpu, to smoothly handle everything VR has to offer. Not sure what the Vive requires, though.

  3. kinda bummed to hear pornhub are branching out into vr porn, since a large driving factor as i understood it (beyond the novelty/technology of the future side of things) was to create something that couldn’t be easily stolen or pirated… and yeah, feminist/queer-created feminist vr porn exists, hope it’s possible for those performers to still make money.

  4. Some great points here and food for thought, thanks Ali! This particularly jumped out at me:

    There’s also the high time overhead when it comes to researching and learning to practically apply tech knowledge; time that some members of marginalized communities just don’t have because they’re busy surviving.

    There’s a wider situation happening with tech in general; as time goes on and it gets more advanced and more ‘niche’; the greater the gap in knowledge between consumers/users and experts/producers. Therefore, presumably the balance of power between the multi-national producers of this technology and everyone else who is increasingly reliant on it. It’s also important to somehow tackle the myths of technological defeatism, and how these are propagated and perpetuated in the media. Critical analysis of the form and structure of the tech itself is crucial…

    Coincidentally I’ve recently been reading some literature talking about this exact issue! I’m a total geek about this kind of thing.

  5. Was really happy to see an article about VR and definitely love the points of view you raise about it. I’ve been reading so many articles and having so many convos about the awesome side of VR and its potential that I really didn’t want to think about the ramifications of someone essentially being able to make a VR Grand Theft Auto. We all knew porn was gonna be a top industry to take it on, but I am really excited to see what film does with it and what educational content does with it as well. This company called WEVR did a whole Jurassic VR build for the premiere of Jurassic World where you could walk around with the dinosaurs and be immersed in the park essentially. Let’s hope we stick to things like that.

  6. this is super important. I keep thinking the internet has such amazing potential for changing global power dynamics and helping marginalised people… but this really seems like the crunch time of who it’s going to serve best in the future, and I seriously hope all the power doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.

  7. Have you read danah boyd’s articles about oculus rift and gender/sex? Might be an interesting addition to this conversation about virtual reality and how it relates to our communities.

  8. Katie

    Thanks Ali for the article–glad to see more ladies getting into the VR space and discussion. I work for AltspaceVR, one of the first social VR companies that hosts public spaces where people come to hang out. We had a comedy show in VR on Friday that filled two virtual rooms. I’m bent on making this a space that is super queer and women friendly. We definitely need more women to get the tech to make sure we get there. If you have a Samsung Gear VR, try out AltspaceVR, it’s free and I’d love your thoughts specifically from a community/inclusive angle.

  9. I saw this today. Apparently Occulus is sponsoring a VR bootcamp that is calling for diverse applicants. Here is what they say:

    Virtual reality is one of the most exciting and fastest-growing branches of the tech industry, but to reach its full potential, it needs a diverse team of creators. That’s why we started Launch Pad!

    Launch Pad is a program designed to support promising VR content creators so they can take their unique ideas and bring them to market. Starting with a one-day bootcamp and potentially leading to a fully-realized VR app.

    VR is for everyone, and the best way to foster a widely-appealing breadth of content is to incorporate the full range of unique perspectives from our development community.

    We hope to inspire developers that represent our global audience. By investing in developers with unique perspectives, we can bring more exciting content to VR fans everywhere. This includes women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and anyone who is willing to share how their perspective adds to the “diversity of thought” in our community.

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