Virtual Reality, Digital Rhetoric, and Immersive Composition

Digital Rhetoric

Screen capture of my Oculus avatar

Douglas Eyman’s Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice,  provides a useful definition and framework of digital rhetoric to demonstrate how platforms (social media or other), technologies, interfaces, digital communities, and digital texts act and are enacted rhetorically in theory, method, and practice. Eyman provides a few case studies to demonstrate rhetoricality of interface design, websites, and digital communities. However, he attempts to remain global (that is to say, considering what digital rhetoric is comprised of and how it challenges traditional rhetorical theory) when weaving together the voices of scholars of digital rhetoric so as to allow room for new theories to emerge. Hence, Digital Rhetoric is helpful when considering how virtual reality objects enact/act rhetorically – perhaps expanding the aperture of the lens a bit further. 

Eyman’s text resonates with the voices of a multitude of scholars in the fields of rhetoric, digital rhetoric, computer science, futurism, and post humanism (to name a few). Of course, this is meant to reinforce the concept that digital rhetoric is interdisciplinary by nature, linking computer science, graphic design, philosophy, sociology, and other technical and artistic fields with theory and productions of rhetoric. Web texts and digital artifacts necessarily require layers of comprehension and shifts in lens that account for human and nonhuman rhetorical agents alike (93). This praxis is one I closely emulate in my own research,  as is evident in my previous entries, and certainly necessary when studying dynamic technologies like VR and augmented reality (AR). As Bosworth and Sarah (2019) note, one must necessarily know how hardware and software work to form integrated narratives (which Manovick defines as “the combining of artistic forms and technology into a hybrid work”) (Eyman, 2015, 54).

VR environments are (as discussed in my last entry) engineered for user immersion and interaction. Immersion and interact, Eyman notes, quoting Manovick, are vital components to new media, which is the form/theory that VR environments/experiences seem to reside (Eyman, 52-55). The “early buy in” culture of VR technology  is saturated with prosumer habits, as people modify VR HMDs, programs, games, and simulations and circulate them through social media interest groups and application platforms (Beat Saber’s modding community is a prime example). Participants of VR outrage culture influence and inform VR developers/creators, which may imply a strong emphasis on improving user centric design emerging from the VR medium (meaning the VR must necessarily be user centric, ergo, consumer feedback and criticism is an invaluable resource). What all of this evidence of communication, circulation, remix, deliberation, and networking indicates is that the VR rhetorical ecosystem is abundant and hyperactive (I have only provide a small glimpse of the spectrum of that ecosystem). 

Notes on Crafting Stories for Virtual Reality and Immersive Compositions

Screen capture of my Oculus Avatar

Chris Milk famously stated that VR is an “empathy machine” (2015). While I agree that VR can often create a sense of empathy, I would not suggest that all VR environments/experiences do. However, two fundamental components of empathy are communication and interconnection, which many VR developers/creators strive to achieve. In the text Crafting Stories for Virtual Reality, Bosworth and Sarah (2019) discuss virtual reality narratives in terms of technological affordances and constraints and how affordances affect user experience (particularly, when attempting to induce empathy as many of the developers/directors/journalists interviewed in Sarah and Bosworth’s text attempt to do). They use interviews with VR developers/creators and VR experiences to exemplify stylistic choices VR directors/developers/creators make to simulate specific positionalities and sensations of presence in the VR narrative. Additionally, Section II of the text is subdivided by genres of VR experience that are inextricably linked to the aforementioned uses of immersive encoding (i.e. affordances and constraints of hardware and software). These genres are detailed below: 

Immersive Narratives and News 

  • typically a genre associated with 360 degree videography and documentary. The director controls the movement of the narrative
  • Example: CARNE y ARENA

Walk-Around Virtual Reality 

  • typically a genre associated with six degrees of freedom in movement that allow you to move around and explore virtual environments 
  • Example: Bear 71 and Vader Immortal 

Immersive Interactives 

  • typically a genre associated with VR experiences with high levels of immersion and interactivity, which moves the narrative forward 
  • Example: Where Thoughts Go and Unceded Territories

Mixed-Media Packages 

  • a genre defined by remixing photos, video, audio, augmented reality (AR), etc. in virtual environments
  • Example: Traveling While Black 

Augmented reality and Mixed Reality 

  • A genre associated with adding “digital elements to a live view, i.e. reality/meatspace
  • Example: Magic Leap

Immersive Audio 

  • Not so much a genre as a layer of immersion neglected in some VR experiences, however, some exclusively audio-oriented VR experiences do exist 
  • Example: Bose AR

These generic terms are not necessarily common nomenclature among VR enthusiasts and developers. Rather, it seems that many VR experiences resist generic boundaries and move fluidly among the genres Bosworth and Sarah define. However, Bosworth and Sarah seem to focus exclusively on VR journalism and documentary in their text (as is evidenced in their selection of objects in their case studies). This is the sort of work Chris Milk sees as potentially rendering VR HMDs into “empathy machines.” Ultimately, what Bosworth and Sarah’s text offers digital rhetoricians studying VR are mutually intelligible terms that scholars can use to describe stylistic choices in VR compositions and how these choices affect audiences/users. I developed a XMind Map that incorporates block quotes from Bosworth and Sarah’s text to contextualize these generic definitions a bit more (you can download the document by clicking the button below).

Audience Awareness and User Centricism in VR Design

“pixelation effect” Taken from here

Bosworth and Sarah indicate one of the most difficult aspects of composing for VR is the range of freedom users have when immersed in VR environments. Regardless of what stylistic choices VR creators/developers/directors make, users always have the ability to adjust their gaze in virtual environments, fixating on any element they chose. If users stare too long at a virtual object, they begin to recognize patterns of pixelation, experience the uncanny effect, and become less immersed in the environment. This is a constraint that VR developers/creators/directors must account for. Developers/creators/directors must consider how they will (1) prevent the user from experiencing pixelation (that will remove them from a sense of immersion in the text); (2) use visual/audio effects to move the user through the narrative of the VR experience without restricting freedom of exploration. Thus, VR developers/creators/directors must not only understand their audience, but also understand how space, place, ambiance, audio, light, and visual effects act/enact in a communicative sense.

In my next entry, I’ll address the phenomenology and communication of virtual reality, expanding on some ideas I’ve touched on here. Additionally, I’ve begun constructing a mind map that demonstrates the interconnections of VR and digital rhetoric. The mind map is a work in progress in its infancy, but provides a visual overview of the rhetoric of VR (within digital rhetoric scholarship). You can access the map in its current state in the link download link below.

Beta Mind Map of the Rhetoric of VR:

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