Can We Become Bats in Virtual Reality?

Author: X. Y. Huang
English Translation: Shin Chang

I Became a Tree in VR

In Tree (2017)¹, released by the MIT media lab, the spectator enters virtual reality and becomes a rainforest tree. With arms as branches and body as the trunk, we experience the tree’s growth as we slowly rise upon the earth, looking down upon the vast landscape at the end.² According to the creative team, they have created a “tactile experience”³ — vibration, heat, fan and body haptics are all precisely controlled to allow the spectator to experience these tactile sensations. Unlike in movie theaters where one sits and gazes at the screen faraway on which the story plays out, virtual reality provides an immersive storytelling experience “where the spectator no longer watches but is transformed into a new identity.”⁴

This kind of first-person perspective, by which human beings turn into plants and animals of nature, is an essential quality of VR which is unrivaled by other artistic mediums and has become one of the a key development trends of current VR narrative. Marshmallow Laser Feast’s In the Eyes of the Animal (2015),⁵ a project that is part of the Abandon Normal Devices Festival)in the Grizedale Forest in England, is a precise example of such first-person human-animal transformation. In this work, the spectator transforms into frogs, mosquitoes, dragonflies and owls in the forest wearing headgear and backpack. The team referred to scientific studies to construct visual effects, for instance, how some animals see colors more saturated than we do, and how mosquitoes can sense the level of carbon dioxide in the air. Optically, they also incorporated close-ups of animals captured with a photogrammetry rig and CT scans by the Natural History Museum.⁶

The most distinctive part of In the Eyes of the Animal is that it includes two different versions. The website version lets the spectator explore the scene 360 degrees freely on the computer, whereas the other one offers a virtual reality experience which lets us enter the forest directly as we hear sounds sampled beforehand by the team in the forest. The spectator can therefore compare the differences between his experience of the forest from a human point of view, and the forest perceived through the animal’s sensory organs. As people take off their headgear, many felt like they’ve just woken up from a dream, with the world becoming strange and different. Sound samples of the exact location are integrated into the VR work, so that the virtual is merged effortlessly with the everyday world.

Becoming-Animal: From a Philosophy of Mind Perspective

In an interview with Wired UK, Barney Steel, co-founder of Marshmallow Laser Feast, stated that, it is possible to generate empathy by immersing someone in the sights and sounds of animals, using VR technology to simulate the ways that other species sense the world.⁷Can humans really empathize with animals? Or is it just our own projection or fantasy? Before we discuss this issue, we can first think about whether we perceive color and temperature in the world the same way as other species.

Scientists study and observe animals as best as they can to acquire sensory data, for example, by converting the feeling of warmth into an objective temperature. They have also discovered how bats use ultrasound to sense their environment and how squids change their body color to communicate with others. However, could these scientific data and physical explanations really stand for the subjective point of view of bats? In 1974, American philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous article named What is it Like to Be a Bat? In this piece, he explained that, even if we could acquire all the scientific data on the physical states that bats consciously experience, we still couldn’t “experience” how a bat really feels. If we could know the mathematical data of ultrasound, it means that such information are not completely subjective. There’s still no way for us to really perceive it and enter the bat’s subjective consciousness. Furthermore, psychological experiences cannot be “reduced” to physical phenomenon,⁸the same way that we cannot say that when I feel the sun’s warmth, I am just experiencing 32°C temperature. In other words, every living creature has its own unique subjective perspective and consciousness, and such subjectivity cannot be replaced by scientific data. For Nagel, it is therefore impossible for us to know, imagine or use objective terms of science to describe what it is like to be a bat.

Imagine there is a VR device that employs all known scientific evidence to create a “Be-a-Bat” VR for the user. It contains every known bat-related physical data. Once inside, we are able to really see the world upside down, while visual effects are triggered each time ultrasound is detected. Could we, by such means, really experience what it is like to be a bat?

In fact, VR can only, at best, increase our understanding of these physical data. As Nagel argued, there’s a gap between physical and psychological states that does not correspond with each other. Since psychological experience cannot be reduced to physical phenomenon, the device cannot fulfill its objective and make us become bats.

From another point of view, the main question is that, when ultrasound passes through, what kind of reference should we device for it, suppose we really could create reference points corresponding to a bat’s body structure? Because these data must still be perceived by our human eyes and body which are different from what bats have, we still cannot, in the strictest sense, subjectively experience the their actual feelings once we enter virtual reality. Which is to say, according to strict philosophical criteria on epistemic justification and discussions on the mind-body problem, it is only a projection and not real empathy when human becomes another living creatures.

Becoming-Animal: From an Aesthetic Perspective

Aside from considering the problem from the subjective/objective and psychological/physical aspects, whether or not humans can turn into bats also depends on whether animals actually have consciousness. In Nagel’s argument above, we in fact assume that bats have some sort of subjective experience (its feelings, emotions, perception, etc.). The problem is just that we don’t know what it is.⁹

In ethics and critical ecology, there are two contending lines of thought. One believes that animals don’t in fact possess consciousness, only human beings do. This has always been the more popular one which critics contend is an anthropocentric way of thinking. Faced with environmental disasters and mankind’s exploitation of animals, when “posthumanism” began to emerge, scholars influenced by it began to seek new relations between humans and animals. They hope that metaphysical symmetry and ethical equality can dictate the human-animal relationship,¹⁰ so that the world can continue to develop in a sustainable and balanced manner.

In posthuman thought, it is not a central concern whether animals have consciousness, but rather, how is it possible to transcend the binary opposition between nature and society, human and nonhuman, and to know whether scientific data and facts that we know can really uncover an authentic reality? Posthuman scholars who favor social constructivism believes that we cannot find an objective reality independent of society using the scientific method. As scientific discoveries all involve social-related processes and dynamic connections, we can thus assume they’d argue that, while the actual content of a bat’s subjective consciousness remains a mystery, scientific data converted by scientists from their physical activities and perception are part of the social construct and does not represent the whole actual condition.¹¹

It is under these assumptions that Bruno Latour presented a scenario he called “Parliament of Things,” in which humans and nonhumans such as rocks, mountains, trees are all included in the assembly, where each is an agent who can negotiate its relationship with others. This idea sounds like an utopia from a crazy artist. How can rocks hold meetings with us? Latour’s goal is to portrait a network beyond the binary opposition between nature and society. Since there is no objective reality beyond society, we should instead focus on ways to create sophisticated relationships between society and nature, or rather, to describe this interwoven composite. Through such assemblies, we would discover previously unimagined relationships and reconstruct the interweaving ties between nature and society, human and nonhuman.

The assertion that nonhumans have agency still has many unrefined points and could be read as pure speculation or fantasy. For instance, how could we prove that our understanding of nonhumans are not an anthropocentric description or projection? The definition of nonhuman agency is also very perplexing. Maybe we would never become Nagel’s bat or the human-animal composite in Latour’s theory.

For this, I would like to seek a new angle to approach Latour’s theory: If objective reality does not exist, what is wrong then with imagination? By this, I would argue that it’s better to call Latour an artist instead of a philosopher. In his theory, practice precedes abstraction, as value presupposition precedes logical inference. It is better to understand Latour from an artistic perspective. By setting sustainability as goal, he suggests that we humans should develop a new way of thinking. As such reasoning already transcends the boundaries of our thoughts, we are in need of new narratives and more imagination, which makes this view more similar to artistic creation. For Latour, if we could devise a “Parliament of Things VR,” we would no longer just become animals or plants under these circumstances, but indeed nonhuman-human or human-nonhuman composites.¹²

[1] Milica Zec and Winslow Porter Collaborating with film directors, Xin Liu and Yedan Qian (Umeå Institute of Design) from the Fluid Interfaces Group.

[2] MIT media lab official website: https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/tree/overview/

[3] MIT media lab official website: https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/tree/overview/ “Collaborating with director Milica Zec and Winslow Porter, we designed and constructed the entire tactile experience throughout the film. With precisely controlled physical elements including vibration, heat, fan and body haptics, the team created a fully immersive virtual reality storytelling to, where the audience no longer watches but is transformed into a new identity, a giant tree in the peruvian rainforest.”

[4] MIT media lab official website: https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/tree/overview/ “Collaborating with director Milica Zec and Winslow Porter, we designed and constructed the entire tactile experience throughout the film. With precisely controlled physical elements including vibration, heat, fan and body haptics, the team created a fully immersive virtual reality storytelling to, where the audience no longer watches but is transformed into a new identity, a giant tree in the peruvian rainforest.”

[5] Production Team Credit: Commissioned by Abandon Normal Devices and Forestry Commission England’s Forest Art Works. Produced by Abandon Normal Devices and Marshmallow Laser Feast. Supported using public funding by Arts Council England and Forestry Commission England. Equipment Support by Nvidia and Sub Pac.

[6] https://www.wired.co.uk/article/virtual-reality-grizedale-forest “The artwork also includes close-ups of animals captured with a photogrammetry rig and CT scans by the Natural History Museum.”

[7] https://www.wired.co.uk/article/virtual-reality-grizedale-forest “We’ve always had a hunger for hacking people’s senses by combining art and technology,” said “Using VR to immerse someone in the sights and sounds of animals creates empathy by simulating the way that others sense the world.”

[8] For a definition of reduction, see the latest version of the entry “Scientific Reduction,” which may be cited via the earliest archive in which this version appears: van Riel, Raphael and Van Gulick, Robert, “Scientific Reduction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/scientific-reduction/>.

[9] See: Allen, Colin and Trestman, Michael, “Animal Consciousness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/consciousness-animal/>. “For many authors, Nagel’s formulation of phenomenal consciousness as “what it’s like” serves as a reference point for what’s at stake in the debate on animal consciousness — in investigating whether a group of animals are conscious, the crucial question is whether there is ‘something it is like’ to be those animals, i.e. whether there is a subjective experience of life or being for them, a proprietary perspective that individuals have on their own perceptual, cognitive and emotive processes.

[10] More on this concept, see: flat ontology or object-oriented ontology and STS’ discussion on symmetry.

[11] In fact, post-human scholars do not use the word “social constructivism,” as they wish to go beyond the binary opposition between nature and society. For instance, Latour once wrote an article named “Constructivism”, stressing the importance of removing the word “social”. The word is retained here for better understanding. This point also illustrates how we, in fact, lack words to describe relationships beyond binary opposition, when the two concepts have stood in opposition of each other for so long.

[12] This is a variation of Latour’s “composite person-gun (or gun-person)” used to describe VR animal/plant metamorphosis.

The Visual Art Critic Project is sponsored by National Culture and Arts Foundation, Taiwan, Winsing Arts Foundation and Mrs. Su Mei-Chi.

Freelance artist and researcher based in Taiwan/ the Netherlands. For work inquiries, please contact at cloudartcritics@gmail.com FB:Floating Clouds

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