In 1978, a number of film scholars gathered at a conference in Brighton to re-evaluate the early days of film in terms of a developing new medium on it’s own terms rather than though the lens of a mature narrative and storytelling communications medium. These early experimental days of film were referred to as the “cinema of attractions” by scholars like Tom Gunning, André Gaudreault, Charles Musser, and Richard Abel because these early film experiments that were focused more on showing and exhibiting something while breaking the fourth wall to make a direct connection to the audience.
Rebecca Rouse is an assistant professor of communication & media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and she was inspired to take insights from the cinema of attractions scholarship and apply it to virtual and augmented reality in a more generalized framework she calls “media of attraction.” She identifies four characteristics of an emerging medium in that they’re unassimilated, interdisciplinary, seamed, and participatory. I caught up with Rouse at the IEEE VR conference to unpack her insights about what VR can learn from the early days of film, the evolution of other immersive communication mediums before VR, and whether or not VR is really all that different from other mediums from a historical and media theory perspective.
LISTEN TO THE VOICES OF VR PODCAST
- Media of Attraction: A Media Archeology Approach to Panoramas, Kinematography, Mixed Reality and Beyond by Rebecca Rouse
- The cinema of attraction: early film, its spectator and the avant-garde by Tom Gunning
- Film and Attraction: From Kinematography to Cinema by André Gaudreault
- The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 by Charles Musser
- French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology by Richard Abel
- Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion by Oliver Grau
- The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium by Stephan Oettermann
- Remediation: Understanding New Media by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin
- New Philosophy for New Media by Mark B. N. Hansen
- What Do Pictures Want by W.J.T. Mitchell
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[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So at the IEEE VR conference this year, there was a workshop on the cinema of attractions. This is the time in film before it was standardized, all this experimentation of discovering the wild west of a new medium. And Rebecca Rouse is an assistant professor of communication and media at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and she's a big history buff and looking at the history and evolution of different communications mediums. She's wondering if virtual reality has a lot to learn from this similar time period of the cinema of attractions, and how different really is virtual reality from other communication mediums. So we'll be looking at the evolution of cinema and just the general scholarship of media theory on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Rebecca happened on Monday, March 20th, 2017 at the IEEE VR Academic Conference in Los Angeles, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:14.780] Rebecca Rouse: Hi, I'm Rebecca Rouse. I'm an assistant professor of communication and media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. And I have a background in theater originally, but I've been working with AR for a little over 10 years now. And I do things with augmented reality or mixed reality for cultural heritage and museums, and also in theatrical performance. And I've worked a little bit with virtual reality at this point. But I also have a background in media studies, and I'm just a history nut. I just love history, so I'm very attracted to learning about these things. And I think there's some fascinating connections between the people who were the very first practitioners in other emerging media, other time periods, other technologies, even pre-digital technologies, and those of us working today in new media. And I had this idea that maybe we have more in common with those people. than we will with whoever the practitioners will be when VR, for example, becomes as institutionalized as Hollywood film is. And that I often hear like a lot of sort of wishing for standardization and wishing for languages for mediums and wishing for institutionalization and all that kind of stuff from colleagues because it's so hard, you know, just on a very literal, logistical, practical level to work in emerging media. But I feel from looking back at some of those earlier practitioners, we should value the stage we're in, maybe. And, you know, standardization will happen, but maybe we shouldn't wish it upon ourselves quite so quickly, perhaps. Although it won't come that quickly, but it will. But then there'll be another new media.
[00:02:53.921] Kent Bye: Yeah, and so I attended a workshop that you did here at IEEE VR looking at the cinema of attraction. So looking at these early days of cinema and the different qualities that were happening during this time of exploration and experimentation up until what you cite as Edison, I guess in around 1908 coming up with a board to start to standardize some of these practices. So maybe you could talk a bit about, you know, what you were looking at in terms of some of the qualities that you were seeing in this early phase of the cinema of attraction.
[00:03:25.738] Rebecca Rouse: Well, I'm really inspired by other people's scholarship on cinema of attraction. So that's, I mean, I can't take credit for that work. So that's Tom Gunning, Andre Godreau, Charles Musser, Richard Abel, and others. In the 1970s, there was this landmark film conference in Brighton, and this group of scholars realized that the way early film had been studied up to then was totally misguided, or misguided in a lot of ways. and that early film hadn't been understood on its own terms. And the sort of very particular cultural and economic context surrounding early film hadn't really been looked at. That work had been devalued and kind of just looked at anachronistically through the lens of contemporary film and so therefore understood as kind of primitive. And there this kind of like modernist narrative of medium centricity that the way a medium develops is it has these sort of core essential qualities and the most talented practitioners kind of just excavate and uncover those and the medium just sort of is revealed as it becomes itself. But it's a lot messier than that and more complicated than that actually and as I said there's these cultural and economic factors that determine which doors get closed and which sort of things become standards. with a medium. So I was looking at film first and that Cinema of Attraction scholarship and those scholars wanted to give early film a new name that didn't ghettoize it or primitivize it. And they came up with this term Cinema of Attraction because they saw an incredible wealth of diversity and kind of range of exuberant experimentation in those early pieces. So they were very hard to sort of clump them together. There's so much diversity, but this attraction idea was a large enough umbrella because all of those early pieces are in some way showing off the technology's capabilities and generate this experience of wonder or amazement for the viewer. And the context in which they were shown is that of attractions. So they were shown at world's fairs and as a part of vaudeville shows with other kinds of performances and displays. So that's where the term attraction came in. And then I just sort of thought, well, could we extend that concept beyond just cinema? I mean, could we think about a larger umbrella concept, this media of attraction idea that I'm exploring now? So I've been taking a look at early radio and mechanical television, and a little bit at early games, and then looking at some previous research I'd done about pre-digital forms, the painted panoramas. And I think it can connect there, too.
[00:06:05.709] Kent Bye: Yeah. So I've been tracing the evolution of the modern consumer VR as a grammar and language for the last three years and well over a thousand experiences and talked to over 600 people. And so I haven't started to look back, though, into some of these similarities between the cultivations of new mediums and One of the things that I had never heard of until you started to talk about it were these panoramic paintings, which when you talk about the cinema of attraction, I think of these attractions of people having an experience within a context. And so the context of an amusement park or some place that they're kind of out of their normal daily routine, and then it's sort of a supplement to this other experience. And so these huge panoramic paintings seem to be a similar thing where people would go and have these experiences with these paintings to try to create this sense of immersion. Maybe you could tell me a little bit more about those panoramic paintings, because I feel like there's a lot of similarities to what they were doing and what VR is trying to do.
[00:07:03.573] Rebecca Rouse: And I can actually point to some other scholarship that's just fantastic for, you know, want to look into it more. So Oliver Grau is a world-renowned media theorist and historian. And so he's got a wonderful book called Virtual Art, an Allusion to Immersion. And he looks at the history of immersive forms, basically, tracing it from antiquity to virtual reality. And along that way, he looks at the painted panorama, too. And then Stephen Otterman has an incredible book that's just about the painted panorama and goes into incredible detail. of that form and its history and how it was made and who the major figures were. It's wonderful. And there's other sources too, but I'd say those two really stand out to me. Yeah, so Robert Barker is the one who has this patent in the late 1700s. Irishman, who had been a landscape painter for the military. There's a long history of landscape painting with the military as documentation. So landscape painting had become more and more detailed through that and with a lot of advances by then and perspectival artwork, of course. So he has the patent on the painted panorama. And he's the one who brings the panorama to London. And it's the first one he did is this panorama of Edinburgh. So it's like a virtual travel experience for people in London. And he ends up a couple years later building a purpose-built rotunda to exhibit the paintings. And he does multiple paintings. And then his son even takes over the business after he passes away. And the painted panorama becomes incredibly popular. There's a whole panomania, like the first part of the word pano gets like put on all kinds of other things. and it gets extended and played with in all different kinds of ways in terms of moving panoramas and these kind of pre-theme park ride type of experiences from the 1800s and early 1900s and there's a whole wealth there.
[00:08:55.087] Kent Bye: So I'm curious to hear your perspective of looking back to the early days of photography, to film, as well as radio and television. If there's these common themes that you see that are also kind of playing out right now with both augmented and virtual reality, if there's patterns that you see that are repeated.
[00:09:15.037] Rebecca Rouse: Well, I've tried to look and see if there are certain sort of qualities to these media of attraction that they share in common. And again, there's like such diversity, always these early phases, it is difficult, but I think there are some sort of general things you can trace across them. I mean, these media are unassimilated. So they're new. So that means there are certain consequences of that. There's no formalized training program people can go to. You know, you can't major in VR. Actually, at this conference, somebody in a university in London has a master's in VR now. I think that was the first one I'd heard of, specifically a degree program that is just VR. But usually these media are assimilated or at the beginning they are. You can't go and sort of major in that. There's not a specific training program. There's not a formalized means of criticism for understanding these media so there's not like somebody who is the AR critic for the New York Times yet. And that also means that there's not sort of a codified way of working or making this work and there's not a set of audience expectations or there's not a codified way of understanding it yet. I think another thing they all share is they're participatory in some way. So they all call out to the user in a way. And I'm thinking about participation like on a big spectrum. So all the way from those painted panoramas where you are really invited to navigate through this immersive narrative space by walking and looking to modern interactive works today, which are the user perhaps contributes more and more directly. And I think all of these works are seamed, so they're not sort of narratively self-sufficient. They may have a lot of kind of ancillary supporting structures around them, like somebody literally explaining to you how to understand what you're doing, just like all of these exhibits here at the conference. they're not set up so that you just walk in and there's no one there. There's somebody attending each booth to explain to you what you're supposed to do and how it works because it's unassimilated. We're not at the point yet where that's natural. But this is kind of a preliminary set of qualities and it's something I'm still working on and I'd be curious to know what you think. I mean, looking at like hundreds of interviews, like what do you see as emerging
[00:11:36.489] Kent Bye: Well, so I mean, I think I don't know if you have any specific thoughts about Marshall McLuhan, but anytime there's a new medium, you tend to replicate what was done in the previous medium in that medium. So I've sort of come a way of thinking about what's happening in virtual reality in terms of experience and different qualities of presence. So Here at this conference, IEEE VR, there's a presence research with Mel Slater, and they've done a lot of research of the place illusion, what it takes to feel immersed and all the technical parts of what it takes to really feel like you can be transported to another place. So that seems to be developed now where the research hasn't been very well developed is the plausibility illusion. So what are the things that make it feel plausible and real such that it makes a coherent experience? And so some of the research that is starting to be done now is trying to break up that plausibility illusion into different qualitative components. And so I had a problem with the place illusion and plausibility illusion as the only essence of presence because after going through hundreds and hundreds of experiences, I started to have like intense experience of social presence, intense experience of like I feel like I'm really interacting with this and I have high agency, or I feel like I'm actually embodied in this experience, or this was a very moving experience. And so I started to go back to the neoplatonic thinking of the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. So the earth element being embodiment, so you're actually in the experience, you have the virtual body ownership illusion, you have all of your senses that are being stimulated, whether it's your perceptual system, your auditory system. So you just have this full sensory experience, but a lot of this sense of self and sense of self-reference and feeling like you have an embodiment within the experience. And that I think is what is different than any other medium that we've had before, is this full sensory embodiment within an experience. So if you look at the water element, that's a lot of emotional presence and emotional engagement, and that can be a From an experiential design perspective, everything from color to narrative and story to facial expressions to social transfer of emotional engagement and presence. So the whole emotional dimension I think is probably the least well understood. But if you were to look at the medium that really amplifies emotional presence, I'd say film is a medium that is reducing the other types of presence to really amplify emotional presence in that way. And then if you look in the other extreme, you have video games, which is all about agency and decisions and choices. And so the agency and the fire element is that sense of you're interacting with the world and everything that you do, you have accurate physics. It's correlating to what you expect in terms of the way that you're engaging and participating within that experience. You're able to express your will and your desire and to explore around. So all of these are sort of like the fire element. And then the air element is a lot about the mental, cognitive, social presence that you can get. So anything that is sort of doing puzzles or doing strategy or thinking about things in abstract concepts or to be able to participate and communicate with other people in ways. So I feel like gaming has been a lot about the air and fire element. tend to be a little bit more of the young masculine. And the more receptive, passive receptive of both the water and the earth elements are the receiving. And so I think if you look at the research into embodied cognition, people are starting to see like, oh, you know, we don't construct our reality just in our minds. It's actually a full body process that includes full senses or emotions or filtering how we're actually perceiving the world. And so, what I kind of see happening is that during the Renaissance, we had this split of the mind and body. The Enlightenment sort of set us off into this bias towards doing all the science, and the qualitative, more subjective spiritual realms were kind of not as well-valued. And so, what I see is like with the return of photography and film, they were starting to bring back the image and the more receptive perceptual component within media. And if you go all the way back, I think you could go back to like both the printing press, which is coming in the Renaissance, which also sort of helped spur this enlightenment, but also the age of science. But even going back to the alphabet, I think people have talked about how the alphabet was a split between these abstractions. So what I kind of see is that VR as a medium is starting to marry the quantitative to qualitative. And as I come to IEEE VR, I see these echoes of different people trying to talk to each other. So the computer scientists will be trying to talk to the psychologists and they have different semantic words for the same context, and they have to do this like translation for how to get onto the same page. And so I feel like VR is going to be kind of like this transfer of language between being able to get people onto the same page, because it's all about human experience. So that's sort of like what I've been thinking about, what I've been looking at. And anyway, I just didn't know if you had any thoughts about that.
[00:16:32.268] Rebecca Rouse: Well, you've traced through a lot of different concepts there in a really interesting way. I mean, you kind of went from remediation to, you know, Renaissance history and metaphysics, and finally sort of, I think, interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity is another thing I see in common across these kinds of media of attraction, that it's usually interdisciplinary teams by necessity. And so people have to learn how to talk to each other. And I wonder, I mean, there's a wealth of research on teamwork and communication, you know, in like the communications field, organizational communication and personal communication. And I wonder, I was thinking about what other fields like have interdisciplinary teams, and I was thinking about maybe performing arts teams. And I wonder if there's a lot to learn from them and how they communicate. in fields like theater that are necessarily interdisciplinary, or opera, or things like that. But, oh, you said so many interesting things, I don't even sort of know where to start. But I think, yeah, your observation about remediation, yeah, I mean, a lot of new media are going to try and remake things done in older media. J. David Bolton and Richard Grusin have this incredible book, Remediation, that really looks through all of that, looking at cathedrals to interactive fiction. And looking back to the Renaissance and sort of a pre-Cartesian split is a really interesting strategy, I think, for understanding things today. And certainly theorists like Mark Hansen have written incredible work about embodiment and media. Yeah, there's just a lot of fascinating things to mine in terms of where we are today and looking back. Yeah, I mean, If you haven't already, you should do a PhD. That's like, I mean, that's seriously, I mean, that's like, that would be such a rich thing in terms of a dissertation topic or
[00:18:21.807] Kent Bye: I feel like every podcast I do is a little bit an explication of these ideas and sort of being in the trenches, and I'm not sort of bound to the institutional biases of that. So I'm a little bit more interested in just being in the field and talking to people that are really thinking about it. But I sort of am working with the work of Rick Tarnas, who did The Passion of the Western Mind, who's tracing kind of the evolution of Western thought. And so the narrative he ties to that is very much influenced by the way that I'm thinking about things. There seems to be this objective and subjective split that happened during the Renaissance and that over the last, you can cite sort of an evolution of postmodern thinking from Kant to Freud to Jung and a whole other line of philosophers that Triton has sort of traces that whole evolution and the passion of the Western mind. But if I were to summarize it at the highest level, there's something about the printed word that is some sort of level of abstraction that happens that is very much in the mind. And what I see is that we're moving from that level of learned experience of what other people tell us, for example, versus our own direct primary experience where there's a whole other levels of unconscious processing that is going through our perceptual system, things that are kind of even below our level of awareness. and that VR is able as a medium to start to give you that full sensory experience. And so it's like a new language in a lot of ways of what can you do in cultivating an entire experience. So it's such that when you learn it, it's in your body. It's sort of like you're able to participate in the construction of that meaning because you're participating. It's like replicating human experience. And so I think of it, if you look at the multimedia evolution, so multimedia had like hypertext linking, right, where you're able to do what you do best and link to the rest, where you write and then you link off to other people who have done that. And I think scholarship has been doing that for a long time, but the web as a communication medium has this kind of knowledge graph representation that's nonlinear in that way. You could be self-guided. And what I'm finding is that as I'm going and doing all these different VR experiences, it's almost like I'm getting an experience, but yet, you know, if other people have had that experience, then we can start to talk about it in an archetypal way. So we can talk about agency in terms of job simulator, or we can talk about embodiment in terms of life of us, or we can talk about social VR, interacting with other people with the toy box demo for Oculus. the other like VR chat. So once you have that experience, then you're able to start to say like VR chat and you know what is encompassing in that. It's very similar to what Plato was trying to do with trying to come up with these primary archetypal forms of what is the essence of that. And I think that Just having that objective and subjective, the printed word versus image, to me it's, I'm trying to find that thread to see if there is that split, then if there's these different surges that are coming up, whether it's the panoramic or whether it's photography, whether it's cinema and these different, leading up to the merging of each medium that comes along, starts to encompass all the other previous mediums. So you can do all the mediums that have come up to this point in VR.
[00:21:32.995] Rebecca Rouse: Well, I don't know if I agree with you there. That's always the claim, though. But I also wonder, like, is there so much difference between text and image on some level? I mean, they're both presenting mediated experiences. We're talking about, like, reading a book with somebody else's ideas in it. You engage with that in a certain way that is participatory in a particular way, may have a certain sense of immersion and embodiment. I mean, you are in your own body. all the time, then in virtual reality as well, you have a mediated experience and you participate in a different way. I don't know if I would say that one is more or less like direct experience. I think maybe it would depend on the particular experience and the particular person. I mean, somebody can find an experience really compelling and somebody else not. We bring a lot to it. And I think like coming from art practice, I feel comfortable with that, like that I might not speak to everybody in an audience and that's okay. You don't usually do user testing with an opera, right? Sometimes you do audience surveys and that sort of thing. But I guess maybe I don't see quite as much distinction in some ways as what I think I, or I don't know if I'm totally understanding what you're.
[00:22:54.288] Kent Bye: Yeah, I guess the, you know, the, there's always an internal and external reality that you have with any medium. So let's say you go see a film, you have no agency within to change the outcome of that film, but you still have your own internal memories that you're projecting your subjective reality onto that.
[00:23:12.870] Rebecca Rouse: a receptive agency in terms of how you interpret the film and you have your own subjectivity.
[00:23:17.833] Kent Bye: Right, right. So you're able to watch a film and it's calling up memories and you're able to project yourself into the experience based upon your own experiences. And I think the difference is that VR is able to have objective agency in that process where you're able to actually participate and not only have an internal experience, but also have your entire environment change. And I think that if you look at the principles of embodied cognition and what is different about VR is that it's putting your body into the experience such that when you turn your head around, you're mimicking what your body does in the real world. And most media, I mean, maybe the panoramic is doing that to some extent, but most film or other, you're sort of in the context of reality, of your situated reality. and that VR is tricking the mind into transporting you into another world, which some of the principles of embodied cognition say that we don't just use our brain to think, but we use our entire body and the environment.
[00:24:14.424] Rebecca Rouse: So- I wonder if people haven't maybe played down how embodied those other experiences are, like film, for example. Just thinking anecdotally, like you leave a film like Star Wars and you walk out of the theater and you feel like you're flying that fighter ship for a minute and things seem a little bit disjointed or scale seems off. I've certainly had that experience. I would think other people probably had too. So it's not maybe exactly the same as we are, but maybe things are on more of a continuum than people have sort of colloquially discussed in terms of how we're always embodied. I mean, if we aren't embodied, we're dead.
[00:24:53.725] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I think that, you know, given the elemental sort of approach, you know, all elements are happening all the time. So, they're not like separated. It's a holistic. You can't separate them. So, they're all happening. So, it's true what you're saying, but the difference I'd say with VR is that there's physiological responses. You can look at galvanic skin response or heart rate variability or, you know, you can have a physical difference of that that I think is level of immersion that is activating the body's sensory perception that is distinctly different than any other previous medium.
[00:25:24.536] Rebecca Rouse: Well, you can see, you know, those kinds of responses in film too. You know, film can make somebody scream. You know, so there's certainly physiological responses that would be perceivable too. Like, you know, if you think about horror film, for example, and that, that feeling of fear you can get if you're really surprised by a film. So yeah, I think what you just said about sort of these qualities of experience sort of all being present, but maybe they're weighted differently.
[00:25:52.575] Kent Bye: Yeah. And that's what, that's essentially what, so it's like, they're all kind of there and everything all the time. And I think it's a little bit of like, as I think about functionally, what this does is that not only are you able to use it as a, an experiential design framework to make sure you're creating it differently, but it could also be a framework for critique in terms of. having an experience and seeing if there's different dimensions that are overlooked. You know, I often do that as I have done over a thousand experiences. You start to do this category learning in terms of like what are the common things and how you start to interpret your own experience. And so the more there's like a positive feedback loop cycle such that, you know, you don't want to just have it as a strict categories because that could start to limit your depth of the presence that you have in your experience, but being open to really receive all the different dimensions of that, then as I reflect and think about it, then I can sort of conduct an interview and talk to the creator and hear what they were thinking. And so it's been this feedback loop of doing experiences and talking to people and also coming to these conferences and seeing how they're sort of talking about the same things. But the problem is that you have these sort of silos of people that have been very biased into The film world is very into narrative, and the gaming world is very much into interactive agency, and the neuroscience world is very much into measuring objectively what's happening in the mind. And if you look at the body, that's where the VR and the haptics and the motion platforms are coming in. And I think that...
[00:27:22.471] Rebecca Rouse: I think those silos are breaking down. I mean, you know, there's some people in the academy who are still very invested in like the kind of disciplinary and departmental model, but I'm optimistic. And I mean, I'm not one of them. And, and I, I see those barriers breaking down more and more. And at this conference, like that panel we saw on, I don't know if you saw the panel on neuroscience and VR, it was incredibly interdisciplinary and everybody on the panel really spoke in such a generous and gracious way in terms of you could see how they valued that interdisciplinarity. collaboration. And I said, you know, like, like I said, I think because it is still, to some degree, a media of attraction or late emerging medium, interdisciplinarity still is a fact of VR. And so I also wonder if VR can help push the Academy more towards interdisciplinarity, like you were talking about looking back to the Renaissance and looking at models of education then is fascinating in terms of how do we categorize and structure and understand knowledge and ways of understanding the world and looking back to before the university department structure, before the disciplines got divided in the way they did. I think it would be very exciting to come around to that way of seeing the world again and I think it's maybe closer than it had been for a while.
[00:28:43.393] Kent Bye: I think it's happening. I mean, that's what I see with VR is VR's goal is to replicate human experience. Then you can think about all the different people who are involved in cultivating and creating different aspects of human experience. And it's basically like just about everything, you know, could have some insight to talk about the process of experiential design within a VR experience. And that's kind of what I'm finding is that I can talk to just about anybody and start to really figure out what they have to contribute and what insights they have to give because it's essentially semantic differences amongst all these different backgrounds. And so I do see that that's already starting to happen in that still there's, I think VR is kind of pushing us towards the body and towards the emotions in a way that has not necessarily been reflected in our culture. And I think one of the really important points that you made was what happened to film once it started to get institutionalized with the economy that we have.
[00:29:38.155] Rebecca Rouse: I'm really interested in those periods of time in new media before they figure out how to make money on it. Because there's a really rich kind of experimentation happening there and they don't have, those practitioners didn't have, they don't have as much compelling external force from economic models to make design decisions basically. Like before they figured out how to monetize radio and have commercials. Well the radio schedule looked pretty different. What did it look like? oh my gosh, I'd have to pull it up. But there weren't breaks like that, you know, there were different. It wasn't the traditional radio format. Same with television. I mean, when they were first broadcasting mechanical television in the late 20s, it was this very bespoke thing from a lab. And if you were a radio hobbyist who had the know-how and the inclination to build your own mechanical television receiver, you could receive the broadcasts if you were in touch with the lab and you knew when they would be broadcast. But I'm really interested in that time before the media becomes truly commercial. I mean, not that becoming commercial is bad. I want to be clear that's not like my position or anything. I'm just very interested in the work that happens before then. And I do think it was interesting like an early film that some of the really creative early film practitioners just weren't interested once things became commercial like Edwin Porter, you know, The Great Train Robbery. He was from 1903 and he was working in Edison Studio and then on his own and he created the first like 3D film ever. But in his obituary in the New York Times, there was like stuff from an interview with him and he basically said, you know, once film took off, it just wasn't fun anymore. And then same with George Millier's, like after he had been part of that motion picture patents conglomerate with these high production quotas and everything that Edison enforced, it just wasn't fun anymore and he got out of it. So there's something a little bit sad there maybe too, but it's not, you know, just a good or bad, black or white kind of situation. I mean, I think it's great. A medium will commercialize and some practitioners will persist in that medium and some will go on to the next media of attraction.
[00:31:48.516] Kent Bye: Yeah, I kind of see that the web, one of the trends I'm seeing in the VR community, talking about open standards, for example, one thing that Neil Trevitt said is that for every open standard, there's a proprietary competitor. So you have the proprietary vertically integrated, like whole from top to bottom system. You can think of Apple, for example, is a good example of that. And then something that's more open source and distributed is trying to create enough technology to rise all of the boats and that people can build applications on top of that. But it may not be as well integrated as in a whole entire experience and cohesive across different applications. So you have like something like Android, which is trying to do a little bit more of that approach of doing more like an open source and have wider penetration. So I see that also going to happen in VR in the sense that there's going to be completely vertically integrated solutions. Oculus is like that to some extent. And perhaps, you know, when Apple comes out with some augmented reality, but then we're going to have the web and web VR, and there's going to be a lot more open experimentation and perhaps less driven by the money and the economy, but more of the sharing of the open source and seeing what all could be created in that platform. So I sort of see whether or not it's a closed walled garden and what kind of like content could be made there, kind of like the early days of the web, there is AOL and CompuServe versus what innovation happens on the web that has these interconnections between these different sites such that you You can have an experience, but it might be more discoverable and easier to load quicker, but maybe have a little bit more of that kind of exciting media of attraction type of experimentation.
[00:33:22.240] Rebecca Rouse: Yeah, a couple things. So those film scholars who originated the concept of cinema of attraction, Tom Gunning is one of them, and he has said that cinema of attraction kind of lives on a little bit in the avant-garde, so once the medium becomes established. But then the other thing I was going to say was I was just chatting with another professor at RPI, Ken Simons, who's in economics. And he looks at history of innovation in industries. And he was kind of talking about this, which you were just alluding to. So like in the beginning, it's easy for a ton of small producers to get in. But then once somebody, you know, like Apple begins to emerge as sort of a corporate powerhouse, suddenly they have the funds. to vertically integrate. They have the funds to solve the really difficult R&D problems and there's sort of this swoop in terms of difficulty so they make it much more difficult for the smaller companies to get in. You see a sharp decline like once a couple of those big producers emerge with the money to do that really tough R&D then you see a huge decline in terms of the like smaller independence and so forth. You know, he was saying you can kind of see this across lots of different industries, I guess. It's a function of capitalism, but that's interesting to think about too for VR, I think.
[00:34:39.033] Kent Bye: Yeah. And one question that I have for you because you're looking at the cinema of attraction, but cinema seems to be kind of building on the shoulders of photography and the camera technologies to some extent, I'd imagine, taking the image and making it into a moving image. Have you looked at the early days of photography and what that was doing to the culture? Because that seemed like that would be something that was kind of like a completely new capability to be able to capture reality in that way.
[00:35:03.037] Rebecca Rouse: So I'm dying to do that. I think that looks absolutely fascinating. And so I'm in Troy, New York. And so not far is Rochester, where the Kodak archive is. And I'm really hoping I can go out there and take a look at that too. So I would like to very much. Yeah.
[00:35:20.406] Kent Bye: And have you also looked at anything sort of like comparing the written word versus sort of the visual image? Because I'm curious to see if there's strands of the written versus the visual dominant culture at any given time.
[00:35:33.363] Rebecca Rouse: I haven't done a lot of research on that myself, but there are certainly other people who do. I mean, media theorists and communication theorists, people like W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Images Want? His book is, you know, fantastic. If that's something that you're curious about, I'd be happy to share some scholars who you might like.
[00:35:52.138] Kent Bye: Yeah. HOFFMAN OK. And for you, what are some of the biggest open questions that are really kind of driving your research forward?
[00:35:59.677] Rebecca Rouse: The thing I'm really interested in right now and why I feel really grateful I got to come here and do a tutorial is trying to make a connection between this media history research and design practice today. So I think it's clear that we can look to the past early practitioners and become inspired and be interested, but what can we draw out from their work that could literally, productively, generatively inform our design decision making today? So that's the nut I'm interested in cracking right now.
[00:36:29.991] Kent Bye: Great. And, uh, and finally, what do you see is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:36:37.337] Rebecca Rouse: Oh my gosh. I have to think about that for a second. I don't know. I guess I see it as a part of this continuum of human invention and expression. So I don't sort of see it as something discreetly different that would... I mean, there's a lot of rhetoric about like, with each new medium, there's a lot of rhetoric about now more than ever before. Now we subsume all the previous media. So I guess I see it more like a continuation or an extension and less like having a singular, discreetly new potential, but it's further continuing our grand experiment as human beings in terms of how we represent and experience experience.
[00:37:24.570] Kent Bye: Awesome, well thank you so much.
[00:37:26.191] Rebecca Rouse: Oh, thank you. This is really fun. I hope we can continue the conversation.
[00:37:31.405] Kent Bye: Sure. Awesome. Thank you. So that was Reckham Rouse. She's an assistant professor of media and communication at the Rinsselaer Polytechnic Institute. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, just the cinema attractions period and all the different characteristics of that does sound very similar to the evolution of virtual reality. And some of the primary characteristics of this period that Rebecca was talking about is that it's unassimilated, so you can't just walk up to a VR experience and kind of know how to experience it at a trade show or a conference. You usually have someone who's there kind of minding the technology in some way. It's not completely self-service. And as virtual reality grows and evolves, eventually people will just know what to do and how to experience a VR experience. I think a lot of people have already bought VR headsets. You kind of have to do that already when you are entering into a new VR experience. But when you're showing it to people who've never done VR, you kind of have to explain it to them and maybe describe that they need to move their head around. Otherwise, they'll just kind of look straightforward if they're looking at a 360 video. Also, some of the other characteristics is that there's not a lot of formalized training or theories around VR and not a formalized means of criticism or codified way of working. And so people who are making VR kind of have to figure it out. And as people are watching it as an audience, there's not a lot of audience expectations. Again, they have to kind of learn how to watch these different experiences. And that there's some sort of call out for user participation in some way, especially in VR where you can turn your head around at a minimum. That's any 360 video or any type of experience. And then once you start to have the ability to locomote and engage and participate in the experience, then there's just a much more interactive dynamic that's happening within VR. So to me it was really interesting to hear about this period of the cinema of attractions and how a lot of those early pioneers and innovators that were working in this field kind of got bored once it got really standardized. And Edison came in in 1908 and came up with a lot of the rules to what is going to actually make money. And I think what Rebecca is saying is that there's other influences in the evolution of the medium that go beyond just the medium itself. It's not like the medium is just going to naturally emerge in terms of natural affordances that there's a certain amount of the culture and the economy of that time of what's going to drive things that are profitable. So you do see this sentiment of attractions get split off into that avant-garde and I guess I see that right now is that there's these different art installations that is outside the normal economic structures but also on the web I think that once WebVR comes out we're gonna see a lot more of that avant-garde as well as the cinema attractions type of experiences that are not trying to sell their experience but just trying to get it out there to have people experience it and It was just super fascinating to hear the different scholars out there I just wrote down a lot of the different names and books that you can find them in the show notes here Oliver Grau talking about virtual art from illusion to immersion as well as the Steve Auterman's panorama, the history of a mass medium, and that if you trace the evolution of these different communications mediums, there's just a continual progression of making things more and more immersive. And that the concept of remediation is just that every previous medium is going to kind of remediate and incorporate the characteristics of the previous mediums. And in talking to Rebecca, you know, she was taking the position of, you know, how different really is virtual reality from other mediums. And I think that when you look at the whole body of the scholarship and look at the evolution of communications mediums that, you know, she has a really good point in terms of, you know, we say that it's the Wild West, but yet, you know, there's a lot to be learned, I think, from other communications mediums and what their unique affordances are. But I do think that the body is being integrated into VR in a new way. And I think that's something that I want to talk to the different researchers when it comes to the unconscious. I think that virtual reality technologies tricks our unconscious sensory motor contingencies in a way that goes beyond what other mediums really are able to do. There's a certain degree to which, you know, you're tricked and fooled at a certain level within your perceptual system, kind of like at a limbic brain level where you have visceral reactions that go beyond what other mediums have been able to do. There's something about the 2D abstraction that your brain kind of knows that it's a distance and that it's not necessarily real. But I guess you could argue that when you go into haunted houses or other sort of immersive theater type of experiences that you can have a similar type of embodied immersion. So while virtual reality is doing a lot of new things with the technology, there's a history there of many other different types of media that are out there. And I just really appreciated Rebecca's ability to be able to point out all the different, you know, leading scholars of these different fields to be able to have people within the VR community be able to dive into a little bit more of the history and evolution of these different media. And finally, I think it's just a really interesting argument and point that Rebecca is making is that like, hey, maybe we shouldn't be wishing so much for institutionalization, because, you know, we're kind of a little too early for that. For one thing, I think I think there's just a lot of experimentation and that anybody that tries to come out and say, These are the rules, like I think Oculus' best practice guide. A lot of those best practices that came out have since been shown that, okay, actually a lot of these rules that were being put forth are kind of malleable in a way, or they found workarounds, or they're not so fixed as we think that they are. But I think some of the desire for that institutionalization is to have more established distribution channels for people to actually make stuff and to make money off of it. And the lack of that institutionalization actually in some ways is holding the entire VR industry back because There's not a lot of incentive for people to jump into an industry and start creating different experiences when you kind of have to invent the distribution platforms and how you're going to actually get it out into people's hands as well as to have them pay you the money and make it just more viable. For video games, that's not so much a problem, but for cinema and other sort of more experimental dimensions of virtual reality where there isn't an already built-in audience that is wanting this type of interactive, immersive content. If you're entering into a completely new field, for example, then your target audience may not have even had a VR experience yet. And I think that's the part where the desire towards that institutionalization is moving towards. In terms of just the rules and the boundaries and the whole economic and cultural structures around being able to support VR as a viable industry is still in its very early nascent stages. And I think it's very similar to what Rebecca is identifying as the cinema of attractions time period when film and cinema was still evolving as a medium and people were doing a lot of really wild experimentation. So Rebecca says that standardization is going to eventually happen and that we should just really value the stage that we're in right now with the evolution of virtual and augmented reality. So, that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then there's a couple things you can do. Just, first of all, spread the word. Tell your friends about either this specific episode or the podcast in general. And consider becoming a member to the Patreon. 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