“How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. Sooner or later you’re going to realize, just as I did, that there’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.”
– Morpheus, The Matrix
It’s an uncomfortable image; claustrophobic, even perverse. It brings up a series of familiar visual tropes, some more benign than others: the hamster in his ball, the boy in the bubble, DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man inscribed in a circle. But the image’s moustached protagonist doesn’t seem to be struggling for air, nor trying to escape. As a result, we can deduce that he is not imprisoned. In fact, if we were to look through his eyes at this very moment we’d see that he is (1) completely unaware of his spherical enclosure, and (2) walking freely through a virtual, potentially endless, unconstrained world.
Our hero is (physically) inside a contraption called the Virtusphere, one of the most advanced means of simulating three-hundred-and-sixty degrees of computed reality available on the market today. He is also (virtually) inside a world designed by computer programmers, running on a game engine designed to simulate any imaginable environment for any conceivable purpose. This human hamster-ball is fabricated exclusively by the eponymous Virtusphere, Inc. According to them, the simulator can be used for “[training] military, counter-terrorism units, police, firefighters, security, operators of nuclear power plants…The video gaming industry…Fitness clubs and medical centers…Museums, education, tourism…Architects and real estate professionals.”1 I cannot think of another single (spatial) object applicable to all those industries. This exhaustive list of varied uses and environments suggest that the Virtusphere is first and foremost a peripheral. Like a mouse or a joystick, it is an input device designed to feed tracking data into an operating system. Yet, unlike a plug-and-play controller, you can inhabit it.
Recall for a second, Jean Baudrillard’s introduction to Simulacra and Simulation where he describes Jose Luis Borges’s fable of the full scale map: a map drawn at one-to-one scale so that it de facto covers the entire world. For Baudrillard, this was the “most beautiful allegory of simulation.”2 It described the state of the western world as he saw it in 1981; dependent on virtual representations of itself, relying solely on the image as fact. In a way, Virtusphere, Inc’s contraption is no different. It is a means of maneuvering seamlessly within this new virtual world and asserting individual agency over it. Like Borges’s map, it presents a duplicate copy of the world, but the redundancy here is multidimensional, occupiable. Baudrillard’s simulated images give way to simulated enclosures, opening up the potential for a new “allegory of simulation.” When “full freedom of movement in virtual space becomes possible,” the inhabitant of the world is no longer an observer of a designed environment, but an active participant. She can run, jump, grab, shoot, duck, roll in any direction, and the environment will respond.
Designed in 1995 by Russian scientist, Nurakhmed Nurislamovich Latypov, the sphere also boasts a surprisingly rich history. It was patented in 1998 as a “Method and Apparatus for Immersion of a User into Virtual Reality,” and predates Oculus, HTC Vive, Google Cardboard, mobile accelerometers, and other contemporary VR peripherals.3 The patent drawings are scaleless and abstract, suggesting that what was really being protected was the concept of an omnidirectional rolling mechanism linked to a “Head Mounted Display” rather than a specific engineered solution. Descriptions are vague and offer varied mounting scenarios with recommended specifications (eg. “It is advantageous that the shell be made of a transparent material”). In fact, the drawings show spheres of various sizes mounted on the ceiling as well as the ground, containing vehicles, and even populated with interior furnishings. Latypov’s patent description also reveals his own poetic bravado (“In this apparatus the virtual world becomes full-size, extends beyond the limits of the screen and surrounds the user”). Paradoxically, he is patenting a cage which seeks to represent infinite environments at a one-to-one scale, and he is extremely aware of the world-shifting ramifications.
It is perhaps the geometry of the Virtusphere that gives way to another “allegory of simulation.” A sphere has no boundaries and no seams, thus provides an infinite surface as it rotates around its center. Think of Superstudio’s Continuous Monument redux, or Archizoom’s No Stop City in a capsule. It is all the allegories of infinity presented in a condensed package, ready to be shipped for the price of $50,000. Mathematically, spheres themselves are vital to the development of virtual environments in general. Spherical mapping and panoramic distortion algorithms constitute the mechanisms through which reality is translated into data for visualization. Because current VR technology is dependent on a single user experience, the image of the Virtusphere is less a representation of an object, and more of an idealized diagram of a relationship to alternate realities in general with the self in the center surrounded by a layer of “the world.”
But for the moment, let’s return to Virtusphere, Inc’s first advertised use of their simulator. It is no secret that simulation technologies tend to emerge initially with military training interests. Flight simulation, for example, became necessary to train pilots in safe environments after World War II, and in 1961 the Philco Corporation designed the Headsight (a precursor to the Head Mounted Display) specifically for military use. Using the Virtusphere for war games might seem like a natural evolution of the military-industrial complex, yet there is something disconcerting about the boy in the bubble becoming the soldier in the simulator—our moustached protagonist might seem more sinister equipped with a toy AK-47 and camouflage. The gamification of war, and in turn the militarization of computer games, constitutes an unprecedented shift in the representation of real-world violence, meaning that potential doubling of the world carries with it the mirror image of our conflicts and less-than-perfect realities. While training simulations are useful to explore contingencies modeled on actual scenarios, one could see extended exposure to alternate “safe” realities effectively desensitizing some and affecting real world behavior.
Take for example the current mode of architectural representation, in which buildings are sited in perfect scenarios within ideal conditions. As the virtual becomes “more real”, and virtual experiences engender new design processes, we might be more inclined to represent architecture as a war game—see Arata Isozaki’s drawings of the Tsukuba Center in ruins or John Soane’s Bank of England renders. The realpolitik of the Virtusphere will depend on what kind of realities are programmed and whether the virtual need mirror the real, or can it stand apart? As architects like Greg Lynn have recently demonstrated, design processes and methodologies will inevitably incorporate virtual realities, therefore designers must take positions on the kinds of realities we wish to represent. Eventually, we will need updated theories of knowledge to define what is real, simulated, and in-between. After all, as Morpheus warned us, it is imperative that we learn to differentiate between knowing and feeling, or else we may as well just live in a Virtusphere of our own.