Virtual worlds apart

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What is virtual reality? On a technical level, it is a headset-enabled system using images and sounds to make the user feel as if they are in another place altogether. But in terms of the content and essence of virtual reality – well, that may depend on where you are.

In the U.S., for instance, virtual reality (VR) has its deep roots as a form of military training technology. Later it took on a “techno-utopian” air when it started getting more attention in the 1980s and 1990s, as MIT Professor Paul Roquet observes in a new book about the subject. But in Japan, virtual reality has become heavily oriented around “isekai,” or “other world” fantasies, including scenarios where the VR user enters a portal to another world and must find their way back.

“Part of my goal, in pulling out these different senses of virtual reality, is that it can mean different things in different parts of the world, and is changing a lot over time,” says Roquet, an associate professor of media studies and Japan studies in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing program.

As such, VR constitutes a useful case study in the interactions of society and technology, and the way innovations can evolve in relation to the cultures that adopt them. Roquet details these differences in the new book, “The Immersive Enclosure: Virtual reality in Japan,” published this week by Columbia University Press.

Different lineages

As Roquet notes in the book, virtual reality has a lengthy lineage of precursor innovations, dating at least to early 20th-century military flight simulators. A 1960s stereoscopic arcade machine, the Sensorama, is regarded as the first commercial VR device. Later in the decade, Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist with an MIT PhD, developed a pioneering computerized head-mounted display.

By the 1980s in the U.S., however, virtual reality, often linked with technologist Jaron Lanier, had veered off in a different direction, being cast as a liberatory tool, “more pure 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 becomes this space where we can fix things like sexism, racism, discrimination, and inequality. There’s a lot of promises being made in the U.S. context.”

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