Sacred VR

Posted on 20 February 2017

RTP 180 February 2014 (36:40)

It’s January 21st 2013 and President Obama is being sworn in for his second term as President of the United States. Standing with his wife and children, before congress, and the rest of the world, he places his hand on two books. These aren’t just any books. They’re not dictionaries, or contemporary novels, their not even copies of our constitutional laws. No they’re books that our society has labeled “sacred” And through an act of ritual Obama places his hand on these sacred objects to symbolically say to the world that he takes this job with the greatest respect.

This concept of sacredness is part of what I want to talk about tonight. Sacred spaces, objects, and rituals change our poster. Sacredness alters our behavior. We hold on to it. We fight for it. And its this concept of sacredness that we find something so dear to the human experience, I’m almost hesitant to challenge it’s interpretation in the digital.

Sacred Objects- Sacred Spaces - Sacred Rituals. These are the components that make any sacred experience- and its with this schema in mind I ask can their be any sacredness in VR?

Perhaps we can find answers in the way we establish value?

The value of a scared object comes from its story. How was it made? When was it made? What purpose was it made for? Often sacred objects have a history, a story to tell. But can the same be said about our digitally formed artifacts?

During my time at MIT, I spent a few semesters working on photogrammetry modeling techniques to accurately archive historical objects. Once processed these objects can be placed in virtual environments to experience in a 1:1 scale. But throughout this process I had to ask myself, “Does this model still hold the story of its origin?” If this were deemed sacred- would it still hold its sacredness?

If sacredness is to exist in VR, then perhaps we might look to how we establish meaning. Abraham Lincoln once owned one of the Bibles Obama used for his inauguration, the other was owned by Marin Luther King Jr. The sacredness of these objects then were amplified by not only the text of the book, but also by who owned these sacred objects and who used them. Now that text can take on digital form- will they be able to hold any history of those that used it? Is it about the text or the imagery of the “book” that makes it sacred?

This brings up great questions of the semiotics of sacred objects and spaces. While Icons are the physical resemblance of what it stands for - the “symbol” is a sign of conventional abstraction. What then is a VR environment? Icon? Index? or Symbol?

Perhaps Sacredness in VR can come from Rituals? Social VR environments are slowly on the rise, and it’s only a matter of time before we begin to see them used for ritualistic activities. Sacred ritual activities are often communal, but can also be seen as individual, private moments, such as reciting prayers, or reading a Bible story. Something I’ve been looking at with the development of StoryDive. As we question how a Bible story could be experienced with the assistance of VR storytelling. But in this translation, have we kept the sacredness of the ritual of scripture reading?

Let's look to sacredness and the establishment of a feeling of connectedness. Sacredness is often situated with a person’s feeling of connectedness to deity, the past, or even the dead. The human touch then becomes part of the symbolic gesture we use to establish this connected feeling. If VR environments are to utilize Photos of means to establish connectedness in a sacred way we might need to look back at our physical precedent (as in the Holocaust Museum) and less like the cookie cutter environments of "Pop UP VR" galleries. This becomes a classic discourse of spatial design.

And connecting with the dead? I’ll just leave this here without any commentary.

This all culminates to how we establish memory for sacredness in VR. Can a Virtual Experience have sacred value? The departure from photos and sculptures to reenacted VR experiences is something I now question for the sake of sacredness. I had the privilege to work with a few other scholars on a reenactment of MLK giving his famous “Fill Up the Jails Speech” in Durham NC. With the church no longer in existence, no audio recording, and just a few photos and transcript of his address, we took to digital recreation to give audiences the experience of this moment in time.

In the project’s defense “sacredness” was never an explicit aim of the project. But for a moment like this- I now revisit the project and look for its presence. I’ve come to the conclusion that VR Reenactments (VRRs) are not in themselves sacred… not because they lack authenticity, but because they lack abstraction.
These are my thoughts.

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