At recent symposium Bodily Undoing I ran two hour-long workshops entitled My Body is Always the Rover:
Humans have always used imaginings, tools, and technologies to extend a sense of self and experience beyond the limitations or boundaries of what is perceived as the body. In our contemporary, globalised world, these extended spaces which lie beyond the body are frequently mediated by technologies; writing from her anthropologic engagement with the Mars Exploration Project, Janet Vertisi describes rock abrasion tool operators and rover drivers’ abilities to “sense” the surface of Mars, remotely imagining their bodies as the Rover and “adopting the robot’s sensitivities and mobilities” (Seeing Like a Rover, 2014: 171).
Technologies such as VR (virtual reality) have the capacity to take a user’s ‘sense of self’, with and without the body, or parts of the body, into different simulated environments. After experiencing themselves as a virtual body and/or within a virtual environment; people often recount their experiences as something they have taken part actively in, rather than as something observed outside of themselves; they take on the attributes of the virtual body they inhabit as their own and the virtual environment as something which exists in place of the physical. In these environments; it is possible for the user to disengage with their physical body or ‘being’, in favour of engaging as or ‘living’ as another body or even with no body. This causes users to move in disembodied ways, and to become less sensitive to the actual/physical environment if the ‘interaction’ is purely visually-led.
VR headsets work by overlaying or perhaps even replacing the visual sense of the physical world around someone with an alternative visual virtual version of ‘reality’. The taking away of vision can make users feel more alert, sensitive to any movement or touch around them in the physical space (that is not ‘mapped’ in the visual space), and sometimes more vulnerable or self-conscious. Sudden or fluid motion in the visual virtual space can result in feelings of motion sickness due to the dis-connect between what is taken in by the eyes and what is felt in the body: A perceptual gap emerges between what is seen and what is felt. Most VR simulations do not involve any or much movement of the body for this very reason; the user very often seated with the offer of doing simple (and visually ‘mapped’) hand gestures and head motions.
The workshops that I offered at BU were designed to enable participants to move through a series of different approaches to sensing the ‘layered’ physical and virtual environments through touch, sound and vision. Participants were invited to notice how these different approaches changed their perception of self, each other, and the physical environment.