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Digital Sensations: Space, Identity, and Embodiment in Virtual Reality

Ken Hillis
Volume: 1
Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 316
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  • Book Info
    Digital Sensations
    Book Description:

    Virtual reality is in the news and in the movies, on TV and in the air. Why is the technology-or the idea-so prevalent precisely now? What does it mean-what does it do-to us? Digital Sensations looks closely at the ways representational forms generated by communication technologies-especially digital and optical virtual technologies-affect the “lived” world. Ken Hillis’s penetrating perspective on the cultural power of place and space broadens our view of the interplay between social relations and technology.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8977-4
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction: Digital Relations
    (pp. xiii-xl)

    Over the last few years, Virtual Reality, or “VR,” has become something of a household term. Discussion in the popular media abounds, and a number of speculative, promotional books on the subject have achieved mass-market success. Promotional writing is a part of the hype surrounding VR. Barrie Sherman and Philip Judkins, for example, find that the technology and the experiences VR affords are “a proxy for the American dream—to be at the centre, the President, a star in your own Hollywood movie” (1993, 29). Despite VR being accorded the hype of celebrity status—facilitated in part by cultural fictions...

  2. 1. A Critical History of Virtual Reality
    (pp. 1-29)

    Do cyberspace and VR have a moment of invention? Are they a decisive break that sets them apart from telephony, TV, and digital electronic and communications technologies from which they are partly cobbled, imagined, and extended? Where might an account of the cultural trajectory informing the electromechanics of VR arbitrarily begin, given that much of the “buzz” surrounding it is concerned with asserting its novelty, thereby to author and secure its future, rather than to acknowledge a past? The 1990s’ surge of interest in the phenomenon of cyberspace is heightened by promoters describing it as a new frontier, one open...

  3. 2. Precursive Cultural and Material Technologies Informing Contemporary Virtual Reality
    (pp. 30-59)

    In the face of theorists writing critically about technology—Martin Heidegger, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Herbert Marcuse, Marshall McLuhan, Langdon Winner, and Andrew Feenberg, among others—a pervasive cultural assumption, particularly in the United States, holds that technology is only a value-neutral tool. This precludes consideration of the social relations already factored into the technology by the scientific procedures leading to its development. It is more culturally reassuring theoretically to subsume communication technology under the metaphors of “medium” or “conduit” than to acknowledge any possibility of a technology’s agency, however partial, contextualized, or inadvertent that agency might be—whether it...

  4. 3. The Sensation of Ritual Space
    (pp. 60-89)

    As the critical histories of Virtual Reality and earlier technologies provided in the previous chapters indicate, the scientists, technicians, computer programmers, and hardware engineers who make possible VR and the creation of a variety of virtual environments—whether they be of military, educational, entertainment, commercial, or medical applications—operate within social contexts. VR at one level is a utilitarian technology, built because of, and responding to, human social needs and desires. It is a technological reproduction of the process of perceiving the real, yet that process is “filtered” through the social realities and embedded cultural assumptions of VR’s creators and...

  5. 4. Sight and Space
    (pp. 90-132)

    The simulation of the deserted village under military siege described in the introduction—including such variables as the perspectives from which users view aspects of this environment, or how its landscape features are illuminated—constitutes a representational space that depends on an underlying foundation of number, language, and code.¹ No user’s body can “enter” this digital space, originally premised on information exchanged as ones and zeros within a framework of Boolean logic. Visually oriented contemporary culture, however, which generally equates seeing with knowing, is open to suggestions being made by industry players and academics that VEs will actually offer a...

  6. 5. Space, Language, and Metaphor
    (pp. 133-163)

    Neil Smith and Cindi Katz (1993) have criticized the widespread “rediscovery of space” by social theorists operating across a spectrum of academic disciplines. What has been rediscovered, in fact, are unstable metaphors of space. In the rush to city-as-text and “spaces” of power, real exploitation in real cities and other working environments is exacerbated by the impolitic use of metaphor, which causes concepts to be isolated from the active world to which they refer. Insufficient attention to the history and production of conceptions of space has kept theorists from noticing the metaphysical and political wrap that surrounds Westernconceptionsof...

  7. 6. Identity, Embodiment, and Place—VR as Postmodern Technology
    (pp. 164-199)

    Immersive virtual technology seems to offer more real sensation than older visual technologies for at least two reasons. First, it radically shrinks, if not eliminates, the actual distance between the user’s eyes and the HMD screen to less than an inch. One’s head feels thrust into the perceptual field of vision. The second reason involves the technology’s ability to facilitate the adoption, trying on, or acting out of multiple aspects of the self. VR offers conceptual access to a space perhaps best appreciated by people manifesting multiple personalities, and who, by their interest in VR, are responding to cultural demands...

  8. Epilogue: Digital Sensations
    (pp. 200-212)

    VR is several things at once: an applied philosophy, a technology, and a socio-spatial practice. It culls from amenable discourses and understandings and both responds to and stimulates long-standing and novel cultural aspirations and desires. Informed by aspects of Platonic and Neoplatonic thought, VR synthesizes an empiricist system of belief with variations of poststructural theories of identity. As such, VR is a “mix and match” technology, adapting various practical and philosophical concepts that in some way are amenable to being built in to the technology itself. Its borrowings, however, are not without implications, and my project in this work has...