Real Virtual IKEA

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Our project overlays, cross-pollinates, and mutually implicates embodied experiences in IKEA’s VR Kitchen by embedding previous documentation of IKEA virtuality into subsequent VR experiences. Dancers move around in the VR Kitchen while wearing motion capture suits and their motions are then embedded as moving figures they can dance alongside. Objects from IKEA model kitchens are scanned into 123D image capture and floated into VR space. Video work re-envisions the IKEA kitchen into new VR experiences that may be downloaded and experienced from a website by audiences from around the world. Our notion of ‘dancing’ within the VR Kitchen explores how— just as VR challenges the nature of reality— dancing in VR challenges the nature of dance.

Initial research was conducted Summer 2016 at Portland Immersive Media Group’s Xhurch. Portland, Oregon, USA. Members of the team include DaVideotape, Gabriel Lukeris, and Matthew D. Gantt. 

https://vimeo.com/user59135893

Objective

One not need put on a pair of VR goggles to step inside the virtual reality of IKEA. The company’s stores—those vast mammoths filled with mock spaces of fully IKEAed domestic living—stand as a testament to the fact that IKEA has been invested in the selling power of virtuality for decades. It is with this sense of the virtual as already expanded beyond the realms of ‘Virtual Reality’ that we have developed a project which investigates the IKEA VR Kitchen made available to the public in 2016. Initially, we decided to produce a dance specifically for the VR Kitchen. But our project has expanded because the experience of dancing within the VR Kitchen makes it clear that— just as VR challenges the nature of reality— dancing in VR challenges the nature of dance.

Cognitive Dissonance

Our initial experiments have shown us that one of the most fascinating aspects of current VR technology is the inherent cognitive dissonance between the virtual experience and the remaining sensations of unaffected biological reality.  Although VR aims to supplant biological reality, the senses of touch, smell, balance, temperature, momentum, barometric pressure, humidity, etc., are still available to the immersed individual.  While the point of a virtual experience is often to be more fantastic than mundane reality, interacting with the residuals of biological reality remain the most intense and disorienting aspect of VR.  Walking into a table that isn’t visible to the virtual self is both shocking and deeply uncanny.

On a sensorial level, one becomes two bodies while engaged in VR. This expands the number of dances possible. Options include, (1) The body movement reflexively described by the movement of the visual field of the dancer within VR (2) The movement of visuality itself that emerges when a dancer moves in real-space while responding to the visual stimulus she experiences within VR (3) The dance that can occur between the VR-immersed dancer and a partner, (4) The dance of the biological body in real space. These are but a few examples—but each participates in foregrounding a fracturing of perspective and bodily experience. Our project makes use of that fact in every way possible.

The Occupancy and Desterilization of VR

VR has so far been primarily used as a marketing tool and an environment for gaming. It is therefore compelling that Ikea’s virtual reality kitchen lacks the fantastic.  There is nothing inherently exhilarating about a VR kitchen.  The limited scope of what you can and can’t do make it inherently less interactive than any real experience. It is further strange commercially.  What is the function?  What is the target audience?  Who in their right mind would purchase a kitchen based on a virtual experience?

Journalist Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight wrote that IKEA had come to dominate the author’s “internal aesthetic compass. What isn’t Ikea becomes Ikea, and what is Ikea becomes everything.” This sense of a furniture company dominating aesthetics is in itself a form of virtual reality, or a contrived control of the view of the world.  We suspect this explains’ IKEA’s investment in virtual reality: as an attempt to control or dominate the virtual aesthetic. But how?

Mounting research into virtual reality has delved into its powers to alter individuals not through facts, but through affective experience. Stanford engages actively in experiments on VR and empathy, for example, showing that individuals who cut down trees inside VR—thus participating in deforestation as a form of play— are more likely to come out with a greater sense of obligation to protecting forests. Green Peace has started using VR as a public engagement tool. Participants nod their heads to swim around like Orcas, and gaze through a hole into the confining cages of another Orca suffering at Seaworld while another whale explains the terrors experienced therein. Such examples seem to emphasize a possible connection between affect and personal experience. More than this—they put faith in a profound translatability of embodied action. If nodding one’s head up and down is enough to involve the body in triggering empathetic experience, it becomes profoundly important to consider the implications of the biological body and the translatability of movement to the development of VR. Perhaps the question posed to VR shouldn’t be how it can more accurately reproduce/replicate embodied experience as it already exists, but how much our own senses of embodiment might be reproduced/re-conceived through engagement with VR.

Conclusion

Through our project, we bring these questions to the fore in a time when social engagement is progressively ‘post-factual.’ The echo chambers of internet social media bounce information off a thousand de-centered sources, needing no base in facts to recapitulate. Within this system, facts are like tables to VR—an uncanny interference that momentarily disrupts the seamlessness of affective experience. Our project is dedicated to discovering new means to foreground the interventions of physicality upon the expanded field of virtuality.