Why recreate places in virtual reality?

There are many factors to consider when asking why we would recreate places in virtual reality. Let us first ask what a place even is before delving into the recreation and virtual reality aspects of the question.

What is place?

A place is a space that is occupied for a period of time, which then resonates and is recalled within the conscious mind. Note I did not specify a timeframe, or whether it was a physical space, but that it was experienced and remembered. There is a spatiality to this memory. Our minds map the physical spaces we experience. But this mapping is not just the things that make up the space, it is the on-goings in that space and our role in this. For example, you might have been in a art gallery observing an oil painting of a landscape, in the company of a friend who is also looking at the painting. They remark on the detail that the artist has incorporated in the dappled light flowing through the trees onto the meadow below. This resonates with you and you recall an experience you had earlier in the year during summer when you had experienced the warmth of the sun in a tree strewn meadow. In this instance you might be assigning place to both the joint experience in the art gallery with your friend, and the experience of having been in the physical meadow. One experience of place triggered a memory of another.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality is the 'suspension of disbelief', a moment where you are so immersed in a scene it psychologically distances you from where you actually are. This is a measure of attention. For example, returning to the earlier anecdote, if you happened to be experiencing a landscape as a picture in an art gallery, you might find yourself imagining yourself in the environment within the picture. It is, however, static and your attention is easily broken by a friend chatting to you, plus the distraction of several other exhibits in your peripheral vision. Humans have a measured field of view (FOV) and this is something catered to in modern virtual reality head mounted displays (HMD's). When wearing such a device your view is dominated by the screen in front of your eyes, removing the distraction of anything else and increasing your attention on whatever might be displayed in the HMD. This experience can replicate the agency associated with the experience of looking around you in the physical world. The degrees of movement capable in the HMD's align, to varying extents, with your natural head movements.

Why recreate places?

You will recall our friend in the art gallery associating the painting with a similar experience they had in the tree lined meadow. On reflection, they enjoyed this experience. They were in good company on holiday, the weather was excellent, and the landscape was different to what they had at home. This was an undoubtedly positive experience, and they gained a solid memory of that space having been there several times on the trip, and since reminisced about it. There is a phycological benefit to this process. The technological ability to recreate this space virtually exists, but the accuracy is dependent on the reference material available. A virtual rendition would benefit both the individual and the others on that trip, as it was a joint experience. Let us also consider the ongoing condition of that space, the meadow in the tree lined field. Could returning to it physically be an option? Maybe. It may be a different season. The trip may be prohibitively expensive. The meadow might have been impacted drastically by climate change or other human effect. It may no longer be a positive reflection of the memory of the place.

Why virtual reality places?

There are, of course, more prominent locations that could be created in virtual reality and for broader appeal. Recreating a virtual space is not a speedy process. It is like a work of art and requires attention to detail. The technology is also becoming more affordable and is being both experienced and mastered by an expanding audience.

There are a whole host of less fortunate individuals who have no means of accessing real world locations and therefore virtual reality provides a realistic alternative. Let us not forget the elephant in the room, the Covid-19 pandemic. We do not always have the permission or grounds to safely access the public realm, and places we are well accustomed and attached to through our normal lives become distant. As we debate what the 'new norm' is, the benefits of virtual reality only become more obvious.

So, in conclusion, virtual reality can be seen as a solution to recreating places that have been impacted in ways beyond our control. It can entertain and sustain your attention to great effect. It is not the extinction of real experiences but an extension to it.


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