Virtual Reality’s Uncanny Valley

The Matrix Series

Most everybody adores the first Matrix movie.

It was the tail end of the 20th century, and the end of the millennium. It seemed to be the right time to be asking the big questions. Were we really at the “end of history?” With the USSR meltdown and the end of the Cold War, globalization gave people the idea that perhaps we are done with ideas of the analog world, and we’re ready to picture something digital. Combined with new powers of the internet and Moore’s Law in computing, it was unavoidable that we would be asking questions about simulation. What is it about our culture that is designed to be so uniform? How do we explain the weird in our lives like déjà vu? The Matrix was the answer: it is not you that is troubled, it is the world constructed around you. It is designed to keep you from asking questions.

But people seemed to despise the second movie.

The Matrix Reloaded takes the concept and expands on it. It is not only that the original world was simulated, but the arc of recognizing it to be a fraud, “leaving the cave”, and achieving Enlightenment, it all too was a series of “simulations.”

As the architect explains in a very heady (and almost fourth-wall breaking) discussion directly with the viewer (i.e. Neo), the entirety of existence was a series of loops played out in order to solve a problem that seemed never to be solved.

This seemed too much for people. It could hardly be said to be surprising ontologically that this would be the next step for the Wachowski siblings, but the way in which the movie presented itself, whether through the poor writing, or the emphasis on action that became gradually separated from the narrative, it didn’t take.

Still, we can learn from these two views on simulation and extrapolate it into neuroscience and our use of tools that adopt to what we’ve considered (un)known before: virtual reality, and our own heads.

The Oculus Rift

I have had a virtual reality headset for some time now. It gathers dust underneath the tower of my PC.

Occasionally I take it out for nostalgia purposes. For a time I got into art and design with Oculus Quill and Oculus Medium, and I believed this to be an incredible way for human beings to leave their mark on design, one that was fun, imperfect, and decidedly new. Instead of creating perspective using pencil and paper, you could inhabit that artistic space. Make a tunnel with your hands and then put your head through it, and you were living an episode of The Twilight Zone we thought we would never see.

But nowadays it rests without any purpose or action. Because we have incredible technological improvements, but we have not come up with creative ways to use it. There are certain products that warrant a look, like the aforementioned artistic tools, but also games like Superhot VR, where your body becomes a tool to exact temporal justice on the glass world, or something like Lone Echo, where you play the role of a robot assisting a human with an anomaly out in deep space.

The biggest problem with the rest, however, is that you always seem to be aware that you are in a VR space. While Minecraft in VR offers the opportunity to feel the grandeur of some of your creations, the scale of your towers and porticoes, the graphics when viewed close up can create a sense of nausea.

Or take the opposite of that. In No Man’s Sky VR, for example, the graphics of planet generation are fantastic, but the feeling of scale somehow feels flattened. The world feels as though it only exists 100 feet around you, and the rest is simply a projection of a world. This was a problem of the original experience, but with VR it is exaggerated.

Yes, crossing the uncanny valley of virtual reality needs a lot of work. It seems to me that the best experiences of VR, like Elite Dangerous, take as gospel that you are sitting down. Many people do not have the massive garage space required for some simulation like that of Boneworks or Onward, though after the pandemic is over we can imagine a new sort of laser tag, where people don VR ready laptops with massive battery packs and play a portable version of VR with “inside-out” visible light tracking. But to imagine all that contact, all that sweat, inside and around the visor, just makes my skin crawl.

But one of the most unspoken of features of virtual reality is how alone it makes you feel.

When I have showcased the headset to my friends, one of the defining aspects you need to have when playing this is 1) a method for people to see what the person sees. 2) people around them commenting and communicating with them, and possibly 3) a blended game like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes that takes the observations of the player seriously.

Because without these things, VR is quite lonely.

The VR We All Carry

This is not too different from the analog experience we have all the time. Our brains carry around a multiple drafts bit of software that is constantly approaching the world and updating it. Sometimes our sense of Self can be hijacked with perceptual illusions that are so fun to explore, like the rabbit or duck image.

But for the most part, our brains are so good at perceiving and creating a sense of reality, that we are duped into believing either that we have control over it, or that it does not exist.

We are all time travelers in a way. Because how on Earth do I experience the feeling of the keys on my keyboard at the same time as I hear the sound of the keys pressing down? Knowing one travels at 120 meters per second (nerve impulses) while the speed of sound travels at 343 meters per second, something is not right.

That is because we experience all the sensations, and then consciousness imperceptibly collects them and gives them to us for our own bodies to interpret.

Extrapolated further, and it becomes clear that our bodies needed this “interface,” this way to process that world, not because we needed more information, but because we needed less. Consciousness is so efficient that we do not even recognize it is happening.

“There is a Hand to Turn the Time”

So goes the beginning of the final poem to end Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Our brains provide the content to turn the time. Given our difficulty with understanding quantum mechanics, it is any wonder whether our sense of time is really how the universe functions, or if it is a method to keep us engaged with it.

The videogames of today are not ready for VR, not because we do not have the technology, but because we have not created the illusion well enough. The uncanny valley still remains, unlike the way that our evolutionary bodies have so efficiently captured. To have a body is like a flight simulator with no plane.

We still feel sweaty and clammy with the headset on, and we still hope more than anything that someone is watching us play. Otherwise we feel stupid and alone.

And unintentionally, that is the experience that VR reminds us of with our own bodies. We crave the attention and care of other people. And until VR manages to democratize what it is about us as social beings, it will continue to be alienating.

Originally published at on August 1, 2020.



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