Virtual Reality: A Journey across the links - Moviemela: A MFF Story

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature

Last week, MAMI organized Moviemela at Bandra Balgandharva Rangmandir. A major attraction at the venue was the Virtual Reality platform jointly organized by MAMI, WICA (Western Indian Cinematographers Association) and Cinematographers Combine. Under the moderation of Shakun Batra, three virtual reality experts - the VR filmmaker Gabo Arora, AMD Radeon Chief Architect and VP Raja Kadouri and the filmmaker turned VR producer Anand Gandhi, who heads ELSEVR, the first Indian studio for VR content creation.

For the uninitiated, and the intelligent layman, Virtual Reality is around for the last four decades now. But, the possibility of immersive VR, where the participant observer would find no difference between the reality and the computer generated world, is imminent for the last few years. 

                                          Oculus Rift Advertisement   

Brett Leonard made a film, The Lawnmower Man, in 1992. A congenial imbecile becomes a super -intelligent entity through a grinding in virtual reality. In the end, Jobe Smith, the lawnmower man, projects himself to the mainframe computer (mainframes still exist. Before the distributed client-server topologies, mainframes used to provide the computing power to the local nodes.) Thus, the man's consciousness pervades all web, throughout the world - from personal computers to telephones.

It was a marked feat of imagination in 1992, no doubt, when ARPANET evolved into the world wide web and personal computer had finally got a popular GUI (Windows 3.0), but the implementation of universal protocols for machine-to-machine talk was in its infancy. This was also the first film where I, as a teenager fan of Physics and Sci Fi, had a glimpse of human and machine consciousness mixing.

                                              Last ten minutes from The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Pretty romantically, the evolution of the meme machine - the information exchange network - imitated the evolution in the biological world. The need for communication as a survival strategy comes from the need to search for food (without which you will die) and the need to get a partner for sex (without which your genes would not pass to the next generation. Without sex, there will be no next generation.) Hence, intelligence is born out of the need for searching. A culture of memory is needed to remember the food sources and the sexual partnership. Man already improved both before the last ice age, when he invented storytelling and the post of priests to keep certain important stories and the post of the bard (Suta, सूत, in the North Indian languages) to keep the popular stories. The Mahabharata would be narrated, many times, by such Sutas. 

The post of the Historian was created as the keeper of functional memories. Map-making or cartography was an important skill when the need to colonize large lands was apparent, in the wake of the mass migration after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. Finally, this led to the invention of movable, metal type, and the press. These would culminate in the explosion, through literacy and democratization of communication. This would be known as the Renaissance to the generations to come.

                              In future, spectators would socialize in virtual environment

In the Eighteenth Century, in the wake of navigation, colonization and the change in the world order, recording of secular knowledge would be more important than it was in the previous Centuries. Longer records always needed detailed indexing, hierarchy, cross-referencing and a stipulated mode of reading. All these were present in Vedic studies, Biblical studies, Buddhist studies or in the Avestan liturgy. 

Search and search engines were always important. Searching cultural records led to creation of new records, which were never used or forgotten. Such excess records have been created, since time immemorial, as tools in the survival strategy.

The process of search is based on few formulaic steps, each of which is present in the biological world. Reading (i.e. sensing a communication packet for what it is - it can be the smell for a particular variety of guava at a particular stage of its ripeness) starts with parsing - breaking the whole sensation in to sizable components. This is how we learnt new languages, conventionally. Parts of speech from our childhood Wren & Martin gives a basic idea about Parsing.

Next step is comparison with pre-stored information or schemata. I cannot understand the meaning of a word, a phrase or a sentence if (1) I do not know the syntax - how different parts of speech are to be arranged, and (2) if the word, phrase or sentence does not link to my experience.

The first factor for understanding is known as syntactic, which is part of a bigger linguistic function called semiotic. The second factor is known as semantic. These are not mutually exclusive. Just like the debate around form and content, semiotic and semantic influence each other.
Exactly this is why a person brainwashed in one ideology fails to understand another, although the new ideology is expressed (rather, written) in the same language in which the person usually communicates.

One way of getting rid of this problem is to get back to a standard understanding of the words used to describe the new ideology. We call that standard understanding the word's dictionary meaning. However, in most cases, the person denies to accept the dictionary meaning as the valid one. S/he sticks to the personal meaning, calling that the popular one.

In reality, the popular meaning of any nondescript word, phrase or sentence depends on a particular ideology. It becomes impossible to read any other ideology with that popular meaning of that word, phrase or sentence, in that case. 

This is where communication fails completely . Tarzan becomes Lord Greystoke at this point.

However, once the meaning of a word, phrase or sentence is parked by both parties, that expression is listed in the virtual dictionary common to them. Such virtual dictionary and rules for using that become common as tools for survival strategy when the majority start using that. It is now called language.

How the majority start using a language is a different question. Marxists and non-Marxists look at it in different ways. Without going into the exact modalities of such different readings, we may safely say that language is connected to power. How power is concentrated at one or a handful of individuals is the story where Marxists and non-Marxists differ.

How we make meaning of the reality around us has been a basic question of philosophy from the beginning of the recorded culture. The pursuit of this question may take one to theory of maya (or, artificial creation in the mind - Matrix) or some kind of Solipsism. One hundred years ago, after the invention of Quantum Mechanics, Physicists saw that the wave function of a particle (wave function of a particle such as electron, proton or photon - or the building components of these - is its behavior in space when none is looking at that particle) changes the moment an observer looks at it. This observation from the subatomic world was projected on to the macro world before us, by some philosophers. The result was bringing back the theory of Maya. The macro world has nothing to do with these physical observations. This was just a pretext. Western philosophy, as well as the Eastern ones, always carried the idea of Matrix, in clandestine cults.

The germ of communication, and the challenge, was hidden in this.

Everything can be my imagination. I may be the only mind in the whole universe. My life, death and rebirth is my own creation. Sincerely, this is exactly how one branch of Monism in Indian theology builds itself. 

Even if I am not the only mind, I sense the world through an interface called perception. My five senses and an internal sense of being present the world to my mind. Although I do not know what mind is, I can perceive my own reactions to the sensations from the external world. There is no way for me to tell if there is any real difference between the real world outside and my reactions to this world. 

Both perceptions are similar so far my mind is concerned. If I consider my mind as the theater screen, projection of the outside world and sensation of my internal self are similar on that screen. Both are perceptions, despite I divide them into internal and external perceptions.

That division is a habit taught to us through socialization. This becomes evident if we try to remember our childhood. The border between hard reality and imagination was faint, and, at times, non-existent. We get back similar blurriness between reality and self-imposed reality when we are intoxicated or sick. We perceive concrete reality in dreams.

In a way, we are not totally sure of what reality is. It depends on our perception. Perception depends on senses and their interpretation by mind. Mind is socialized to think in certain ways.

So far, we do not know if there is some standard model to Perception. It seems that perception is little bit different for everyone.

But, one thing is clear. Perception depends on senses and the interpretation system. Both are susceptible to error. To gross error.

Somehow, we enjoy such errors. This is why we love to dream, to get intoxicated, to enjoy art. A popular discussion on this would be available in BBC's 6-part documentary, How Art Made the World

Psychoanalysts concocted an empire of theories on why we love such errors. Mostly, these theories do not have any scientific backup to prove their validity. Here steps in Neuropsychology. 

The first popular versions of the shift in reality from brain-damaged persons came from the Russian neurosurgeon A R Luria, and more recently from Oliver Sacks. Neurosurgeon Dr Ramachandran expounds some of these in his popular lectures too. 

                                              Ramachandran on Perception

This is where the trio, in the Arora, Kadouri and Gandhi took the thread, and pronounced VR as the tell-tale medium of the future.This is how cinema began, in late 1870s. Muybridge's famous horse movie was not an accidental discovery. Society was ready for the new industrial art - a step ahead of photography.

Today, after digitization, internet and smartphone, society is again ready for the next step. Just like the older generation of 1878, today's veteran filmmakers disagree. They have made cinema sacrosanct, as if cinema is natural, as if it has existed forever.

Cinema died the day when it stopped existing for people. For the last seventy years, people existed for cinema, for the stars. Too many youngsters have joined the industry worldwide, in the last fifteen years. We do not have such increase in any other profession (except for IT and ITES); certainly not in basic engineering branches, medicine, law and basic sciences. 

The contemporary viewer is prepared for the next step. The transition may take decades. Or, it may not. But, a revolutionary change in audio-visual storytelling is on the way.

As Anand Gandhi points out, the new modes of storytelling would not be only audio-visual. It would work on the other sensations too. If the viewer chooses to be a participant in the story, s/he would reside in a zone in between game and cinema.

Arora's films, such as Clouds Over Sidra, My Mother's Wing and Clouds of Grace were on playback on the Samsung VR device and VR Gear. Everyone was allotted 15 minutes of VR experience, choosing from a wide platter, including some films made by Anand Gandhi's ELSEVR.

You may watch some of these films at Arora's site. You are advised to check the How to watch VR section before trying any of the films. In a future article, we shall discuss how the immersive VR headset works, and if you can make it yourself.

Raja Kadouri gave us a peek into the Bahubali-2 VR sequences, which is largely his brainchild. The first look of Bahubali was officially released at the Moviemela. 

                                      The Discussions at Moviemela

As the future of cinematic presentation wrapped around the discussion, Augmented Reality came to the forefront. AR is like photoart. Purists snigger at such aberrations. But, Art, as the neuroscientist V Ramachandran says, is heightened, augmented reality. Nothing is pure in such a method. How much one would augment depends on one's own taste and the cultural convention in which one is working.

If VR is more like the immersive, separate reality, to be used for gaming, simulation programs (you can learn piloting a plane through such VR lessons) and fictional immersion, AR would be more like the answering what if.

Ramachandran's article never came up in the discussion, of course. But, one may delve in that to get more ideas about Art and how the AR may be shaped. You can access the paper here.

AR adds a digital overlay on top of the 3D environment, where one can place virtual objects in the real world in real time. Planning a home, or operating computer. Remember Minority Report (2002), where they used to work on a virtual surface for computer operation?

                                      Augmented Reality in Minority Report (2002)
The first step to commercial, contemporary AR were google glass and microsoft hololens. The first instances of household VR are Oculus Rift and Samsung VR Gear.

AMD Radeon's Senior Vice President and the Chief Architect Raja Kadouri enlightened the audience about researches in CNS (Central Nervous System) implantation. That day is not too far when anyone can send thought directly to another person. You would literally tweet thought. However, this future sounds too much like a combination of Orwell's 1984 and Wachowski Brothers' Matrix. State would be more powerful than anytime in history, with a precise surveillance and one-to-one brain impulse influencing. But, this is not science fiction! 

The cinematic narrative in the future of VR and AR could not remain what it is now. Anand Gandhi drew the curtain with some glimpses of how the future of storytelling is going to be.

                             One could watch 15 minute assorted platter

Theatrical storytelling would cease to exist. Socialization, including sports activities, travel and any kinesthetic function would be possible in immersive VR. With the Augmented reality, democratization in design, as well as medical treatments, would cross the wildest imagination.

A new category of six-sense (not audio-visual) storytellers would plan their arguments on a new aesthetics, in this strange future, which we shall see in our lifetime.

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!  

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