Virtual Reality Like Tobacco

In A Sense of Place, 12. SOP 2.0 by Alejandro Ribadeneira1 Comment

About five years ago my family thought that it would be brilliant to give my seventy-something year old grandfather an electric cigarette. This old man who smoked tobacco since he was a teenager, and loved it, did not say thank you for the gift. Instead, he said—“this is like having sex with a sex doll, I do not want it.” I have not really been able to relate to his feelings then many times in my life other than the instance when I tried an Oculus Virtual Reality headset. I was amused and decided to entertain the experience of being somewhat immersed in a digital space, but I could not truly enjoy it. At least, not as an alternative to reality—like some people portray them in dystopian narratives.

A place that only exists virtually, but can somehow be felt with my (some of my) senses sounds confusing to me. And, although I do not think virtual reality will catch any great momentum, there is a possibility that it will. Maybe we will be able to travel anywhere and experience anything from the comfort of our living room someday. My imagination goes a bit nuts with this possibility, I imagine myself going to all of those buildings I study in my history of architecture class, perhaps even visiting recreated structures from the past, and even entire cities that no longer exist. The possibilities truly are endless. However, the fact that I cannot feel the space with ALL of my senses if the confusing part. In reality, virtual reality is only good if we want to indulge our eyes. That is simply not enough.

I put those uncomfortable black goggles on and looked around a digital jungle. Everything was accurate for a fake jungle, the colors, the plants, etcetera. But it was too easy. By easy, I mean that being in a real jungle is humid, the floor is often muddy, the noise of the monkeys, birds and rivers can be quite overwhelming. All in all, it would be more sensorially challenging or demanding to be in a real rainforest. That is what I want when I travel (now an elastic term, since you can travel through goggles, I suppose). On a similar note, that was what my grandfather wanted when he smoked, a bit of pain in the throat and smelly fingers.

This is all a bit of a rant against the notion of Placemaking 2.0, but in its defense, if it is used in a safe context I believe it has great potential. For instance, it would be a lot better for children to be engaged in history class if they get to sit in the Roman colosseum for a couple of minutes after their lecture about it. Or, even better, being able to share distinct realities around the globe, a kid in NYC visiting a normal house in Cabul through VR. Imagine how successful that would be in creating more sympathy towards people and cultures foreign to us? Even if I question the authenticity of virtual spaces, it all depends on how we use them. Although, it is important to keep in mind that the essence of a place (Oxford Dictionaries: A particular position, point, or area in space; a location.) is its physicality.


  1. Alejandro- Good points in this post! I definitely agree that VR is sadly lacking. I tried the Oculus Rift Goggles as well, and the woman who was demo-ing them for me recommended a rock climbing game. This was interesting, because I have in fact done a lot of rock climbing.. so in the place where the game was meant to simulate an experience that many people are unfamiliar with, I was seeing a virtually constructed version of something I’d already been exposed to in real life. I wasn’t expecting to feel so sick when she instructed me to turn my head and I realized (virtually) how high up I was. But I immediately noticed the disappointment I felt when the virtual spiders in rock crevices failed to invoke any real sense of fear, and when my perception of distances within the virtual reality was off due to the distortion caused by the inability of the VR to accurately generate a visual understanding of my surroundings that correctly corresponded with my real life movements and the movements of my avatar. It is interesting that things that should be perceived as negatives and imperfections truly make reality real, in both your grandfathers cigarette, your jungle experience, and my rock climbing spider.

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