Many decades ago, astrophysicists realized that certain problems could only be solved in higher dimensions than the four—the fourth being time—that humans can perceive. Today, super-string theory, an outgrowth of quantum mechanics, solves its equations in ten-dimensional spacetime.
It turns out that the arts aren’t as far behind the sciences as we might have thought.
While of course virtual reality is enabled by emerging science and technology, those who build environments, develop scenarios for VR apps, and write narratives for augmented reality, augmented virtuality, and virtual reality properties are properly deemed artists.
And what these creative pioneers are doing—and teaching the rest of us to do—is to think in not just five but six dimensions. We may not all be astrophysicists, but merely by putting on a VR headset we are empowered to change not just what we perceive but how we perceive.
In short, virtual reality gives humanity ready access to the fifth and sixth dimensions.
A good explanation of the fifth and sixth dimensions can be found here, but the short version is this: to perceive the fifth dimension is to see all possible futures originating from the present moment; to perceive the sixth dimension is to see all possible versions of a given A-to-B sequence—for instance, every series of fortunate or unfortunate events that could have followed from your birth and would precede your death.
Scientists have for years been using higher dimensions like these to explore the mysteries of physics. One might have thought that, in the meantime, we artists would be exploring these dimensions as well to better map the mysteries of the human mind, but thus far that hasn’t happened. While the popularization of the internet in the 1990s created many new possibilities, in themselves these only gave us the tools to—through multimedia, transmedia, and hypermedia—more robustly explore the four dimensions we already perceive.
The emergence of VR tech is in an inflection point in human history not just because it in effect augments our dimensional perception by 50%, but also because it enables each nation’s creative infrastructure to become equal in status to its analytical infrastructure. A worldwide creative renaissance is certain to accompany the technological one that we already know virtual reality brings with it. This means that in the coming years, the critical theories that undergird contemporary art practice in the United States will cease to be academic to most Americans. Instead of thinking of critical theory as an exercise in abstraction, it will become something a great many of us experience, enjoy, and sometimes struggle with in real time. The reason for this is that VR is a technology that conspicuously performs its foundational principles with every use.
Whereas the postmodernism of the Age of Television encouraged those interested in its cultural paradigms to use ornate “deconstructions” to understand the small screen’s theoretical bases, the post-postmodernism known as “metamodernism” that underwrites all virtual reality projects is best understood experientially.
In other words, it takes only donning an HMD to understand how and why virtual reality offers a revolution in critical theory and artistic production as well as technology. What in the past took years of undergraduate and graduate study in “post-structuralism” is now self-evident in the way a VR user’s perceptions are altered. The dominant cultural paradigm of the digital age, metamodernism, is indeed performed in real time by nearly all of our most popular cultural practices—everything from literary and musical remixing to videogame “modding,” from comic-book retconning to transmedia fan fiction, from meme culture to virtual reality projects—rather than being an after-the-fact gloss of works of art few understood or consumed in the first place. (For more on metamodernism, see here.)
So how, exactly, does virtual reality add two dimensions to the four we can currently perceive?
Like much that is metamodern, it is, in the end, not quite as complicated as it seems.
The moment one begins interacting with an augmented reality, augmented virtuality, or virtual reality environment, one’s four-dimensional spacetime splits—if not in a way astrophysicists would acknowledge, certainly at the level of perception and emotion that we commonly associate with experiencing an artwork. With a headset on, you can perceive the very same room you’re already in, simply with additions that do not exist in the four-dimensional space (what we blithely call “reality”) you continue to inhabit. So you might be sitting on your sofa wearing a headset that’s projecting into your line of sight a faithful, real-time recording of your actual surroundings, only to slowly add elements to your view that represent merely possible futures. A newspaper you’d carefully placed on a table before you might blow away; a window to your left might suddenly be struck by a baseball hit by a ten year-old neighbor; the television channel you were watching might go dark when, in fact, with your headset off, you’d see that none of this had actually happened at all. Yet the combination of an audiovisual VR experience and a haptic feedback system could easily convince your mind—without much difficulty—that you can now perceive and experience two or more possible futures at once.
Six-dimensional spacetime isn’t, in the context of VR technology, that much more difficult to perceive. Say you’re wearing a headset which, again, is showing you exactly the room you’re already sitting in, but now allows you to change, with the push of a button, the color of the walls, the placement of furniture, and even, when you look down at yourself in virtual space, your own weight, the degree to which your skin is tanned, even your number of birth-marks. What your headset is doing is allowing you to surf through all the possible timelines that could have resulted from your conception. You could have gotten fatter or skinnier than you now are, or look like an entirely different combination of your mother and father, or, less grandly, have simply decided to paint the walls of your living room a different color than you actually did.
Of course, these are just the most basic examples of a broader premise. VR’s ability to give a user command of the fifth and sixth dimensions is by no means just a parlor trick.
Testing out possible futures in the fifth dimension allows you to make better decisions in the present. Perhaps your mother-in-law is visiting and finds a particular painting you’ve hung on the wall distasteful; in VR, you can try out various placements for the painting in a matter of seconds to see how visible it is from different parts of the room, and even, assuming the proper programming is available, assess for each spot you hang the painting the percentage of all sightlines in the room from which it can be seen. Or let’s say that a friend is shortly going to be coming to live with you following a suicide attempt; VR can use an online data archive, coupled with a basic room-alteration application, to help you determine which color schemes and furniture layouts are most likely to be aesthetically and emotionally pleasing to a clinically depressed houseguest. In doing this, you’d in fact be cycling through distinct four-dimensional spaces—something one can only do in the fifth dimension—even faster than a creature born inside the fifth dimension ever could, and with much less exertion.
Now imagine a young man or woman who is themselves suffering from depression, and wishes to imagine the thousand different ways they could have chosen to live their life differently—not for the purpose of torturing themselves, but to better understand the elements of their present situation that might be making them unhappy, as well as the possibilities for the future they’ve not yet contemplated. Using large-scale data archives relating to Myers-Briggs personality testing, a VR application might be able to give you an immersive, multimedia experience of all the different lives someone with your personality type would have been likely to lead. Sure, we can already take a personality text and have it tell us that we would have been more suited to architecture than poetry, but what sort of insights are opened up when that knowledge comes to us not as words on a page but the instantaneous experience of being transported to an architect’s office? What happens when we can, in our new “office,” interact with clients and co-workers and review schematics for new buildings? Seeing the different five-dimensional timelines that could have resulted from our birth—something one can only do in the sixth dimension—allows us to better contextualize our past, present, and future.
Again, these are just a few rudimentary examples of how VR/AR empowers those who access it to process information in the fifth and sixth dimensions. The truly history-altering applications of the technology will be those that, for instance, allow astronauts preparing to colonize Mars to begin building and experiencing a vibrant, sustainable culture on the Red Planet before they ever leave terra firma. Doctors will know in advance—and will be able to develop a muscle memory of—all of the ways an upcoming and particularly complex surgery could go wrong. City planners will observe, “first-hand” and “on the ground,” myriad traffic congestion scenarios ten years in the future before they ever approve a new stoplight or highway exit.
Of course, the reality of virtual reality—no pun intended—is that the ways in which it helps us process personal information are in the first instance shaped by others. Artists the likes of which human civilization has never seen before have now charged themselves with figuring out how to help us better perceive four-dimensional phenomena using five- and six-dimensional reasoning. In doing so, they expand not just our experiential palette but our emotional and intellectual one, too.
In essence, VR artists are using 5D and 6D artworks to help us solve an equation that, as we’ve all found to our great disappointment, can’t readily be solved in four dimensions.
That equation, of course, is us—both as individuals and as members of communities now beset with seemingly intractable obstacles.
With virtual reality we can better envisage our lives, our perceptions, how we form relationships and the reasons we destroy them. We can see from previously impossible angles how and why we are loved or hated, and how we process challenging stimuli or super-sized online data-dumps.
So even as scientists continue crunching numbers in higher dimensions to bring the mysterious workings of the stars closer to our view, artists now have the technological capability to bring closer to our view all of humanity’s—and each individual’s—mysterious inner map. In light of this, can there be any doubt that in just a few years we’ll once again see the same nobility of purpose and capacity for influence in the arts that we now, with confidence, see in the sciences?