Pygmalion’s Spectacles: Using Berkeley’s Immaterialism to Understand the Potential for Telepresence in Virtual Reality

What follows is a short essay I produced earlier this year concerning the nature of virtual reality when faced with the assertions of Weinbaum’s 1935 short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles which, in effect, introduces the notion of the virtual reality headset way back in the 30s!

“You are in the story, you speak to the shadows and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it”, this enticing line could easily be part of a virtual reality marketing scheme in 2017, and yet it instead resides in a 1935 short story by American science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum. The story describes one skeptic’s journey into Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism via a mystical set of goggles created by an eccentric inventor. When wearing the goggles, Dan is fully immersed in an interactive environment created by the professor. Pygmalion’s Spectacles clearly foreshadows the virtual reality revolution, in eerie detail. However, the questions that concern us here are of the relationship between the metaphorical introduction to immaterialism we see produced in 1935 and the virtual reality phenomenon currently gripping the technology industry. The wider implications of this text, and its philosophical backbone, for the virtual reality industry today cannot be ignored. I therefore argue that using Pygmalion’s Spectacles and Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism, we can enter a new age of digital development which works to create a heightened sense of telepresence by filling gaps between sensation and perception with association and memory.

It is remarkable how close Weinbaum comes to predicting the future of virtual entertainment. Throughout Pygmalion’s Spectacles, there are several instances where the current state of immersive digital development is accurately prefigured some eighty years previously. From common gameplay mechanics such as leaving a blank space in the experience for the user to enter their name, to the strikingly prophetic drawbacks of the technology: “It isn’t clear. Only one person can use it at a time. It’s too expensive!” the professor announces, despairing at the mainstream entertainment industry’s lack of interest in his product. The goggles detailed in Pygmalion’s Spectacles also adhere to subtle nuances of technology as we know it today. Galatea, a character in the dream world, tells Dan that “[She] never heard of such a thing as the end of life!… no one grows old unless he wants to”. Essentially, the professor’s mediated experience remains the same when the technology is not in use, her later assertions that “everything had been foreseen” providing concrete evidence for this mediation.

This mediation of experience, and reliance of the game world on the user’s participation is widely theorized within the world of video game criticism. Mark J.P Wolf and Bernard Perron note that “without player activity there would be no game” (15). The player is necessary for the existence of the game world, the experience does not exist without a user. It is easy to see parallels here between the state of game design and the theory of immaterialism portrayed through Weinbaum’s metaphorical prophecy of virtual reality. In its crudest form, Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism states that nothing exists in material form, that material ‘sensible objects’ rely on the complex ideas of perception and sensation they create in the mind of the perceiver for existence (15). The game world can therefore be seen as an embodiment of this understanding of the material world. Objects only exist in our minds as ideas, and only once we perceive them.

In Pygmalion’s Spectacles, Dan asks “why can’t you take a dream and make it real? If it works one way, it must work the other”, and the professor simply tells him that all artists do this. This is particularly pertinent to our discussion of the game development potential presented in this text. Can we consider an object in a VR experience as having the same level of reality as something we see in our everyday lives? Berkeley suggests that primary qualities (the look of something) and secondary qualities (a sensation that accompanies that object’s physicality – smell, touch, etc.) create a sensible object (The Principles of Human Knowledge). If we consider only primary qualities, perceiving an object in a video game would constitute the same sensible object as if we perceived the same object in real life. If we are looking and not touching, we perceive both objects in the same capacity and they exist in parallel to each other in either the fictional or real world. However, secondary qualities do not translate so neatly into the video game world. Developers today therefore focus on the reality of perception in their VR titles. With the rise of photorealistic graphics, everyday storyline circumstances, and relatable characters, these digital artists are aiming to represent a reality for full immersion by the user. However, to fully integrate the messages present in Pygmalion’s Spectacles as informed by Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism, developers need to pay more attention to the role sensation plays in user immersion. Clive Fencott argues that “presence is a mental state, it is therefore a direct result of perception rather than sensation” (qtd. McMahan, 75). This statement is however problematic. If presence truly is “a mental state” then the role perception plays in constituting a sensible object in the words of Berkeley is surely only half of the equation. The second half (sensation) is arguably best realized through emphasis on the mental processes associated with understanding an object’s reality and therefore user presence. To truly blur the lines between reality and illusion using Berkeley’s ideas of immaterialism, we need to consider the full process of understanding our conception of the material world.

During his ‘virtual’ experience, our protagonist admits that “he had forgotten the paradoxes of illusion; this was no longer illusion to him but reality itself”. He is perceiving the world around him as real, and therefore it is so. Reality and illusion blur in this fictional precursor to the virtual reality we know today, however today’s technologies have the capabilities to blur reality and illusion in their very product. Esteemed video game theorist Jesper Juul’s book Half-Real details the unique space occupied by the video game in our perceptions of reality. He argues that “the fictional world of a game strongly depends on the real world in order to exist”, we have already detailed the truth behind this statement, however Juul takes this notion further, arguing for the reversal of the dream world just as Dan does. “The fictional world cues the player into making assumptions about the real world in which the player plays a game” (168) – the game world exists within a fictional world that is part of the real world. Video games essentially inhabit a space between fictional and real world where they bleed into each via their players but inhabit neither when not engaged with. When we play a game, for example, the characters exist to us as conceptualized figures within the game world. However, their habitation of the game world, and the game world’s presence in the real world creates a conceptual reality in their existence. You can say, for example, that Uncharted’s Nathan Drake exists. Perhaps in our physical sense of being, the adventurer and treasure hunter heart throb is not fully realized. And yet, we share a conceptualized perception of Nathan Drake. He is a character that we know, understand, and recognize, and may live to the same level of reality in our minds as the people we encounter every day on the street. It is this unique placement of the virtual experience that is critical in Dan’s dismissal of his dream world as illusion. He essentially forgets that he is taking part in a mediated experience, where the characters have been created and exist at a crossroads between fiction and reality. Taking Juul’s assumptions on this matter alongside Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism, we can begin to see how perception itself aligns the virtual world with the real world in our conceptualization of ‘sensible objects’ and their realities.

Before we continue, we must consider the definition of telepresence. Steuer defines the term as “the experience of presence in an environment by means of a communication medium” (75). However, Lombard and Ditton’s definition may yield more constructive discussion here when they describe it as “the artificial sense that a user has in a virtual environment that the environment is unmediated” (qtd. McMahan, 72). The protagonist in Pygmalion’s Spectacles forgets that he is experiencing an “illusion” because he abandons the idea that the dream world is simply a mediated communication medium. He therefore enters the optimal state of telepresence as defined here. This is not currently replicable with the technology at hand today. Weinbaum’s construction of such an experience allows for sensation to be transferred. The text describes how Dan “tried to feel the arms of that drab hotel chair beneath his hands – and failed”. Here, then we come to the crux of this analysis. In order to fully replicate Weinbaum’s level of telepresence offered to his protagonist, we must not only build on our understanding of Berkeley’s concepts of perception, but also sensation.

Video games and virtual reality experiences provide us with perception of objects that can, according to Berkeley and to an extent Juul, align themselves with reality in our experience of them. However, to fully realize the level of virtual reality immersion, or telepresence, we see in Pygmalion’s Spectacles we must further embody Berkeley’s immaterialism. We also need sensation (secondary qualities), something that the conventional gaming industry does not yet provide. The actions of the surrogate player-character are controlled by a spectator, thus creating a vicarious experience (Wolf, 3) that prioritises sight over sensation. Pygmalion’s Spectacles offers an intriguing solution to the problem of sensation in immersion, the professor tells us that “if your interest is taken, your mind supplies [touch]”.

Returning to Clive Fencott’s understanding of perception of sensation, we can see a reconciliation in his previously problematic statements. He echoes the professor’s sentiments from decades earlier when stating that “the mental constructions that people build from stimuli are more important than the stimuli themselves” (qtd. McMahan, 75). Indeed, much research has been conducted into the way the human mind constructs a story, with Torben Grodal arguing that stories are “innate mental functions”, essentially built on association and memory through perception, emotion, and cognition (130). When Dan speaks, he experiences how “a strained excited voice sounded in his ears” describing the experience as “remembered music”. His reaction is both internal and instinctive, the way he speaks (or believes himself to be speaking) in the dream world is based in memory and association. His own understanding, previous experiences and cognitions supplied by both perceptions and emotions are in accordance with Berkeley’s theory that abstract thought is signified through a process of association. Dan’s experience of the world around him largely comes to depend on his own willingness to appropriate his perceptions to the sensation memory supplied by this association. At the end of the ordeal, the professor tells him that the goggles were so effective because “[he] co-operated… it takes self-hypnosis”.

So what does this mean for virtual reality today? Pygmalion’s Spectacles emphasizes the idea that secondary qualities in Berkeley’s sense can be remembered and exist in the same level of reality in the fictional experience. We already see this in conventional gaming to an extent; players duck or flinch when an object hurtles towards the screen, or cringe at a particularly painful death. These emotive associations with the on-screen reality of perception in VR, according to Berkeley, attribute reality to the abstract ideas and sensations presented in the game world. Fear, anger, and pain are secondary qualities we regularly experience during our experience of digital fiction. As Berkeley, Weinbaum, and Fencott demonstrate, we cannot underestimate the power of memory and association in sensation. Individuals taking part in a virtual reality experience where they are placed on a skyscraper, for example, exhibit the same fear, tentative steps, and falling motions as if they were actually above a city (“The Walk PlayStation VR Simulation”, SR Trailers and Interviews). This is appealing to sensation through association and memory at its most primal, the need to survive and the evolutionary discomfort when placed in situations where survival is limited drowning out all understandings of illusion. Game development, particularly VR, would greatly benefit from shifting focus from photo realistic perception to associative sensation in order to increase telepresence to a level prescribed by Weinbaum and supported philosophically by Berkeley.

Using Pygmalion’s Spectacles and Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism allows us further insight into the immersive potential of virtual reality as well as conventional gaming experiences. According to Berkeley, it is our perceptions of objects in the digital world that make them as real as the objects we see in reality in the singular sense of primary qualities. However we require secondary qualities, sensation, in order to fully realize the level of telepresence detailed by Weinbaum. Through this exploration of the levels of transference in Pygmalion’s Spectacles alongside the philosophies the text demonstrates and contemporary video game critical theory, it is clear that this is best achieved using the mental processes of association and memory.

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