V Rand Literature

Amplified Publishing Category

An (im)possible romance between VR and literature

by Agnieszka Przybyszewska

I have been an academic researcher for many years focused on the evolution of the concept of the book, literature and act of reading, especially in relation to immersive technologies. My fascination with the romance between (new) technologies and literature, between stories and their interfaces, defines me as a researcher, as an academic teacher (I teach creative writing in Poland) and as a reader. I became part of the Amplified Publishing pathfinder as an academic fellow thanks to a scholarship enabling me to research digital literature, funded by the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange, that led to me being Bath-based. I am at the stage of my research where I am asking myself questions not only about what VR literature is but also about what it means to me to be a part of the pathfinder and why I am so excited.

Being part of Amplified Publishing has given me a chance to conduct research focused on the possibilities of using VR technology as a literary platform and to do it in a constant dialogue with both artists and creative industries. I was curious about how literature adapts itself to VR. I have started to ask myself a series of useful questions, such as; is there anything that VR can offer literature, writers and readers? Is there a form that can really be called VR literature (and is AR literature part of that)? If so, where can we find and experience such works? Are they shown at literary festivals or accessed through libraries? Do you need to have your own VR headset to experience them? If so, will Oculus Quest or a simple cardboard headset and phone, which are much cheaper and easier to set-up because they don’t need to be linked to an expensive gaming computer, be good enough? And how can we successfully use VR technology to enhance and amplify the reading experience or, in other words, how can we create catchy VR literary experiences that readers will fall in love with?

Is there anything that VR can offer literature, writers and readers? Is there a form that can really be called VR literature (and is AR literature part of that)?

I started with the very ambitious, or perhaps rather arrogant, idea that I would characterise “all” the possibilities of VR for literature, including the broad spectrum of virtual reality (e.g. AR and XR) and also think about the potential of such technologies as tools to promote literature or organise literary events. My enthusiasm, perfectionism, academic background and love for VR as a kind of still “exotic” technology resulted in (too) many research questions, focused on four issues:

  • Defining the field (or answering the question of what VR-literature is/can be)

  • Defining the poetics of the field (or answering the question of how VR-literature works)

  • Defining the audiences (or answering the question of whom VR-literature addresses)

  • Defining the challenges (or answering the question of what are problems and perspectives of VR-literature)

I first wanted to define VR literature and put it in the “correct” context. My plan was to show it as part of the long tradition of literary experiences in multimodal writing, including even those from ancient times, e.g. ancient Greek technopaegnia (figure poems). I was enthusiastic about looking for particular genres or even works that could be translated into VR experiences, such as VR travel literature, for example. I also dreamed about presenting VR literary works created in the UK (e.g. Dreaming Methods productions) in a broader international context, such as alongside the work of Mez Breeze. I was ready to ask questions about places that could show and popularise VR literature and about using VR to promote literary works, such as being an alternative space for readers to meet authors.

So, what happened when I started my research?

First, and foremost, my dream of conducting close readings of many works, which earlier I had only heard/read about, or experienced only once, in a rush, has come true. I am wandering through the partially typographical landscapes of “The Water Cave” which brings back the experience of reading “Screen”; a work that is now almost 20 years old. I am reading Sebastian’s diary while sitting in the back seat of the virtual, but so realistic, Cadillac in “Queerskins: A Love Story” and I am trying to decide how deep I should go into studying VR versions of old literary (or e-literary) stories. I am recalling my experience of Mika Jonson’s “VRMetamorphosis”, discovering other examples of VR adaptations/remediations of literary works and thinking about using such a strategy as a kind of promotion for literature, such as in the case of Graham Sack’s 360 video promoting Lincoln in the Bardo”. I am questioning VR as a space for spoken poetry and performance and dancing with “VR Nightsss”, which makes me think more intensively about concrete poetry and its antecedents as a natural context for discussing literary VR experiences.

I am also, step by step, discovering the additional dimension of printed Polaxis’ diary in the hidden AR layer of Sutu’s comic “Modern Polaxis”; (a true, uncensored vision of a reality that is in the head of the protagonist. While experiencing “Where Is The Bird”, I am learning that the AR book form can be used to create more inclusive literary works. I am falling in love with discovering examples and possible contexts, exactly as I had been expecting.

But there is also the other, darker, side of my research experience. I am not only thinking about unclear classifications that provoke questions, such as is “Perpetual Nomads” a work of VR literature, a VR game or a kind of VR-sequel to a famous e-literary work? Or maybe it is just an example of playable literature. Last week, I spent several hours at the university campus trying to “read” selected (acclaimed and awarded!) examples of VR literature. I wasn’t alone. I asked for technical assistance from some amazing people who work in the VR field (including teaching it). And ... we failed. We failed because we had only one type of VR headset and some works needed different one(s). We failed because some experiences weren’t newly released or updated and it was hard to make them work correctly with the new software. “Annoying” was the watchword of that day. It was also annoying that some works weren’t as good or as literary (or even as readable) as I was told they would be.

The experience led me to many new thoughts.

Firstly, is what we call VR literature actually literature written for/with VR? Should we give this term to all relevant works in electronic literature databases? This question, surprisingly, is not only about the literariness of such experiences but also about the extent to which they use VR technology. Going further, is the so-called canon of VR literature really a canon? Are those works really so innovative? And, if they are, why doesn’t the whole world know that they exist?

And secondly, how many readers who might potentially be interested in experiencing a new literary adventure with VR have access to different kinds of VR headsets and to people ready to help them to set them up? If they had discovered that there was something called VR literature and found examples of it, how many of them would risk spending hours setting-up a headset to “read” for a moment, while being uncomfortably tethered when they could have spent their time cosy in an armchair with a cup of delicious tea, a murmuring cat and a good book? Isn't the price of a romance between VR and the art of words too high when bearing in mind the simple pleasure of reading?

I am excited to spend weeks reading (in) VR, chatting with artists and finding new problems and questions. But I also know that my enthusiasm and joy will be from time to time mixed with anger and powerlessness. However, I hope that my research will help to save potential VR literature readers from the inconveniences I have mentioned. It is important to make the user of any VR experience feel comfortable and unafraid of technology and not create technological barriers that can disrupt the whole experience. (For more on this topic check out the research report written by Catherine Allen from Limina Immersive). We should think about potential VR literature readers in the same way. We should find places where the romance between VR and literature can flourish. If there are examples of VR literature they should be promoted to readers (and not only VR enthusiasts), bearing in mind their potential technological fears and tools they have access to. The experience of collectives such as Immersive Promotion Design can be useful for that. Like every relationship in its first stages, the romance between VR and literature is very fragile. We need to be careful.

Day by day, I am becoming more sure that questions about potential audiences and the accessibility of (im)possible VR literature as well as questions about promoting VR literature are more urgent and important than those that were originally more interesting for me as an academic. I have always researched literature that is non-mainstream and rather uncanny in its form. I remember being asked to wear white gloves before I started reading some rare artists’ books at the Stanford University Library in 2016. However, those eccentric books were, paradoxically, more accessible, than the literary works I try to experience now. And one pair of (not expensive) gloves was good enough, and all I needed, to read all of them.