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What is Virtual Reality in reality?

Daniel Miller24 February 2021

The problem with any discussion of Virtual Reality is precisely that it is so hard to take the discussion back to reality, by which I mean to return it to a sober scholarly discussion of what it is, rather than slipping into speculative opinions about what we would like to imagine it will be and then fooling ourselves into thinking that has already become the case. That is one of the reasons I made the film that you can watch here. In truth, I don’t think Virtual Reality is at all important with respect to the ethnography of everyday life. For myself, I decided that lockdown was the appropriate time to buy a device that had also come down in price. My main use involves an app called Wander which is effectively a 3D version of Google Street View.  My most memorable use of this was journeying around various places in Botswana in order to help one of my PhD students decide on a potential fieldsite.

But what I find very appealing is the fact that the idea for doing this came directly from my ethnography in Ireland, where I was greatly impressed by the gentleman you will now meet in this short film. The point was that his usage was not based on some hype, or vision of the future. Rather, it confirmed something I have been observing now for decades. In general, most new technologies are initially used to compensate for things we already wanted to do but were previously unable to accomplish. That has been the case for almost every iteration of the internet. Liam knew that, at his age, there are places he will probably never get to visit as a tourist and other places he would never have been able to visit anyway.

That led to his very real use of Virtual Reality: