What is Virtual Reality? Technically, it’s a headset-compatible system that uses images and sounds to make the user feel like they’re in a completely different place. But in terms of the content and essence of virtual reality, it may depend on where you are.
In the United States, for example, virtual reality (VR) has its deep roots as a form of military training technology. It later took on a “techno-utopian” air when it began to attract more attention in the 1980s and 1990s, as MIT professor Paul Roquet observes in a new book on the subject. But in Japan, VR has leaned heavily towards “isekai” or “other world” fantasies, including scenarios where the VR user enters a portal to another world and must find their way back.
“Part of my goal in bringing out these different meanings of virtual reality is that it can mean different things in different parts of the world and it changes a lot over time,” says Roquet, associate professor of virtual reality studies. the media and Japan. studies in the Comparative Media Studies/Writing program at MIT.
As such, virtual reality provides a useful case study in the interactions of society and technology, and how innovations can evolve in relation to the cultures that adopt them. Roquet details these differences in the new book, “The Immersive Enclosure: Virtual reality in Japan,” published this week by Columbia University Press.
As Roquet notes in the book, virtual reality has a long line of precursor innovations, dating at least to early 20th century military flight simulators. A 1960s stereoscopic arcade machine, the Sensorama, is considered the first commercial VR device. Later in the decade, Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist with a Ph.D. from MIT, developed a cutting-edge computerized head-mounted display.
By the 1980s in the United States, however, virtual reality, often linked to technologist Jaron Lanier, had taken a different direction, being presented as a liberating tool, “purer than what was before”, as Roquet puts it. He adds: “It goes back to the Platonic ideal of the world which can be separated from everyday materiality. And in the popular imagination, virtual reality becomes that space where you can fix things like sexism, racism, discrimination, and inequality. There are a lot of promises made in the American context.
In Japan, however, virtual reality has a different trajectory. Partly because Japan’s post-war constitution banned most military activities, virtual reality developed further in connection with popular forms of entertainment such as manga, cartoons, and video games. Roquet believes his Japanese tech lineage also includes the Sony Walkman, which created a private space for media consumption.
“It’s going in different directions,” says Roquet. “The technology is moving away from the kind of military and industrial uses promised in the United States”
As Roquet details in the book, various Japanese phrases for virtual reality reflect this. One term, “bacharu riariti,” reflects the more idealistic notion that virtual space could functionally replace real space; another, “kaso genjitsu”, situates virtual reality more as an entertainment where “the feeling counts as much as the technology itself”.
Actual VR entertainment content may vary, from multiplayer fighting games to other types of fantasy world activities. As Roquet examines in the book, Japanese virtual reality also has a distinct gender profile: a survey in Japan showed that 87% of social virtual reality users were male, but 88% of them played women. female lead characters, and not necessarily in storylines that empower women. Men are thus “everywhere in control but untraceable”, writes Roquet, while “secretly re-inscribing gender norms”.
A potential application quite different from virtual reality is telecommuting. As Roquet also details, considerable research has been applied to the idea of using virtual reality to control robots for use in many settings, from healthcare to industrial tasks. It’s something Japanese technologists share with, say, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, whose company has become America’s leading backer of virtual reality.
“It’s not so much that there’s an absolute gulf [between the U.S. and Japan], said Pug; instead, he notes, the focus is on “what virtual reality is.”
What escape can’t escape
Other scholars have praised “The Immersive Enclosure”. Yuriko Furuhata, an associate professor at McGill University, called the book “a refreshing new take on virtual reality as a consumer technology.” James J. Hodge, an associate professor at Northwestern University, called the book “must-read for media studies scholars and general readers fascinated by the flawed revolutionary potential of virtual reality.”
Ultimately, as Roquet concludes at the end of the book, virtual reality still faces key political, business, and social issues. One of them, he writes, is “how do we envision a VR future governed by more than a small set of business owners and the same old geopolitical struggles.” Another, as the book notes, is “what it means for a multimedia interface to exercise control over someone’s spatial awareness.”
In either case, this means understanding virtual reality – and technology more broadly – as it is shaped by society. Virtual reality can often present itself as a form of escapism, but there is no escape from the circumstances in which it was developed and refined.
“You can create a space that’s outside of the social world, but it ends up being heavily shaped by whoever is doing the creating,” says Roquet.