How the physical body is virtualized raises questions about how to best represent our virtual selves: can we shuffle off limiting, physically bounded identities by inhabiting virtual ghost bodies? And can the experience of incorporeality in VR also change how we think about our bodies in meatspace…?
meatspace noun The physical world, as opposed to cyberspace or a virtual environment.
Theorists in the genre of cyberpunk and internet sociology debate where the term “meatspace” originated, but commonly date it between the coining of “cyberspace,” by William Gibson in 1982, and its definition in John Perry Barlow’s essay Is There A There In Cyberspace?, published in 1995.
Entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in the year 2000, Merriam-Webster now believes this term is common, citing its usage in articles for Vanity Fair and The New York Times without any surrounding information to explain or define it.
Why then, do we hear people more commonly referring to offline situations as “real life” (or IRL) than “meat life”? As much as we enhance the capabilities of our bodies with technology, there is no denying the soft center of the cyborg: we are made out of meat.
Terry Bisson’s hilarious short story on this topic still circulates on the internet, a dialogue between two aliens probing Earth’s corner of the universe who are so shocked at our physical composition (“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal!”) they refuse to make contact with us.
Transhumanists believe technology will eventually allow us to exceed the limitations imposed on us by physical bodies (beyond intergalactic discrimination), “to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities,” including higher states of human consciousness. Many of these hopes are also hung on virtual reality, where a diversity of experiences aspire to foster empathy and open minds.
With virtual reality, we are faced with the great philosophical quandary of whether or not sense data is a reliable metric for determining what is reality.
With virtual reality, we are faced with the great philosophical quandary of whether or not sense data is a reliable metric for determining what is reality. Those who doubt that we can ever accurately perceive reality with our human senses can be assured by the notion that virtual reality is unreal, yet it fools our powers of perception, thus proving sense data to be fallible.
The opposing view, however, argues that the capacity for our senses to be so fooled by virtual reality only proves the possibility that reality as we know it is entirely unreal.
Seekers of higher states of consciousness have tried to alter their perception using hallucinogenic drugs, meditation, and techniques like sensory deprivation floatation tanks to extend the mind beyond the normal confines of bodily experience.
By enveloping the body in new sensations, the brain rewires itself to accommodate – which can have persistent effects, and sometimes results in short-term out-of-body experiences. Those who produce these altered states intentionally often seek to induce out-of-body experiences and claim that they are catalysts for personal growth.
The position of the body is crucial to the illusion of immersion in virtual reality. There are many VR experiences available, such as simulations of flying, roller coasters, and underwater exploration, where the user will never notice their representation is entirely incorporeal, because they aren’t assuming any identity except as a passive observer.
When the head and hands are necessary for the user’s virtual body to interact with the environment, however, things get more interesting.
A common technique used by lucid dreamers and psychonauts alike is to study one’s own hands.
To know “like the back of your hand,” is to be familiar enough to have a solid grip on reality. If one’s own hand presents itself as something unique and unseen before, the test is a testament to a severely altered state of perception. In virtual reality, where the unreal is the expected, even this simple test is hard to pass.
When using the HTC Vive at room-scale, with motion tracking cameras placed in an appropriate spatial configuration, the entire room, including the user’s body, can be virtualized. In “chaperone mode” – also known as “tron mode” – all physical objects in the playing space are viewed through a powerful cyan filter, with the outlines illuminated and smoothed.
What’s most exciting about inhabiting a virtual ghost body, the ability to leave the meat behind, is to break the limitations of physical space and explore vast and ever more beautiful virtual realms
The room is simultaneously murky and neon-tinged, and solid objects, including the user’s physical body, take on an ethereal appearance. The Oculus Home interface, in comparison, situates the user in a sleek, modern living room with contemporary furnishings including a crackling fireplace, rug, and books, but there is no physical self to be found. The feeling of inhabiting this livable, comfortable space, with no corporeal form representing the user’s body, has been described by many as ghostly.
This choice, while somewhat spooky in practice, has a sound ideological basis when considering the alternatives. Consider the challenges of establishing a default identity to embody the user in their first step through the portal of the virtual. In the past, many virtual worlds’ developers have considered it safe to assume the user is a white cisgendered male.
A more progressive choice could have been to follow Nintendo Wii or Xbox Live’s model of allowing the user to build a 3D cartoon avatar that resembles themselves, but the choices for these graphics would necessarily be limited and the reality of virtual reality would be forfeit from the start.
Users could choose from a set of customizable realistic body parts and clothing, but there are sadly few mainstream platforms that allow for the expression of identities that differ from binary gender norms, or allow for a variety of skin tones, body types, or abilities.
Linden Lab’s Second Life may come closest. While it can be argued that erasing identity is far from an adequate substitute for accurate representation of the full spectrum of humanity, it seems that being entirely disembodied by default is not only the easiest and least likely to break the immersive illusion of virtual reality, but also the most egalitarian choice.
Imagine how jarring it is to find yourself possessing a radically different virtual body than the one you inhabit in meatspace.
Imagine how jarring it is to find yourself possessing a radically different virtual body than the one you inhabit in meatspace. Virtual reality developers are figuring out how this profound psychological effect can be used intentionally to take people out of their comfort zones, to see through others’ eyes and empathize by virtually standing in their shoes.
It doesn’t seem as scary to be a ghost as it does to be forced to assume an uncomfortable identity. The ghost body, or incorporeal embodiment, causes only one type of cognitive dissonance: the lack of a self, which users somehow adapt to naturally as a mild out-of-body experience.
The way the ghost body interacts with the virtual world frees the user from the constraints of their physicality; they can fly, walk on the moon, breathe underwater. That’s what’s most exciting about inhabiting a virtual ghost body, the ability to leave the meat behind, to break the limitations of physical space and explore vast and ever more beautiful virtual realms.
Virtual ghost bodies are post-space, post-embodiment, and post-identity, and can open the mind to let us think outside the body.