Puppets, Animation and VR

After what has felt like a long wait, VR technologies are gaining momentum. Witness the critical acclaim for the recently launched Oculus Quest. With the global market for VR/AR expected to jump from $16.8 billion in 2019 to $160 billion by 2022 (Statistica), understanding the impacts of these immersive technologies is becoming ever more important.

This post explores the nature of reality, the new forms of interactions and the communities forming in these virtuals spaces. It suggests that puppetry provides a good way to understand the nature of VR experiences.

One of the most dramatic potentials of VR is how it alters our perception of our embodiment and reality. When putting on a VR headset you become immersed in a virtual world that can be explored from the first-person perspective of an avatar. These virtual worlds are not always isolated worlds and can be inhabited by others using VR. This is Social VR, of which vTime, a platform that drops you into different themed rooms to chat with others, is a good example.

Avatars and puppets

In Social VR users are embodied as avatars and they give life to the figures through head movement, sight and voice.

There are, however, many forms of virtual embodiment that can be seen in these worlds. For example, you can find multiple people controlling different parts of the same avatar through a headset and controllers. Users can also have multiple avatars.

The idea of animation can be used to understand how avatars are involved in mediating selves across the virtual and actual gap. This differs from theories such as performance where “one body can only inhabit one role at a time” as Teri Silvio puts it. Animation provides a more suggestive lens through which to approach virtual embodiment.

Animation draws on theories of puppetry, a form of theatre stretching back to the 5th century BC, which describes how puppets are brought to life through the movements of their puppeteers, and the power relations that manipulating a puppet represents. 

The multiple forms of embodiment found in virtual worlds are also reflected in puppetry around the globe. In Japan, there is a form of puppetry called bunraku where a single puppet is controlled by a group of puppeteers. The main puppeteer (omozukai) controls the right hand of the puppet with the other members controlling different parts of the puppet. By contrast, in the wayang kulit form of puppetry of Java and Lombok, the puppeteer (dalang) controls multiple figures at once.

Liminal embodiment

When using VR the body is split in two, leaving part of the body in the actual world and part in the virtual world. Here, the physical body remains in the actual world, with sight and sound given greater emphasis in the virtual world. Avatars are liminal, betwixt and between the actual and the virtual, where the user is both present and absent from a virtual space.

The idea of animation helps us see the ontological fluidity that embodying an avatar entails, where a user is simultaneously both self and other, human and non-human, puppet and puppeteer.

Agency is distributed between the figure and the creator. This is much like how the anthropologist Alfred Gell described sacred objects, like Marquesan artworks, being imbued with their own agency through human qualities and through their relationship with people.

Society in virtual worlds

When all beings in a virtual world are liminal, what kind of social interactions and spaces does this produce? Arguably, it is not just the actual-virtual beings that are liminal. Virtual environments are liminal too: existing as a place between places. Here, the ambiguous reality gives rise to uncertain social structures but also creates opportunities for new customs to prevail, such as communicating through proximity.

Designers must recognise these opportunities when developing such enchanting places and be aware of the limits of virtual embodiment such as challenges related to proprioception. They also need to recognise the reality and possible constraints that multiple forms of animation, such as single avatars with multiple users, may impose. As we look to the future, understanding how virtual worlds are experienced will be vital in comprehending one’s selfhood and the communities that emerge in such places. The millennia old art form of puppeteering is a good place to start.

// Will Buckley