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.