Ghost Bodies

Virtual reality has a cultural connection to the supernatural; if the virtual is immaterial, then the supernatural might thus be virtual. Ghosts and specters are tangible insofar as they move from an immaterial origin to reside in physical space. The crux of gothic drama is the paranormal’s visibility or tangibility in our space. While there, do they collide with objects? Do they trigger events?

An illustration from “The Castle of Otranto,” the first gothic novel.

Whether ghosts are hunted or conjured, they must be made visible. John Henry Pepper developed a method for the theatrical projection of images in 1862 (though the effect was described by Giamabattista della Porta in 1584). The Pepper’s Ghost technique involves reflecting an image onto an angled pane of glass to create the illusion of ghostly presence. Like the stereoscope, this technology is reemerging in contemporary media culture. The Pepper’s Ghost of Tupac appeared before a large crowd in 2012 and performed with Snoop Dogg. Tupac, of course, was recorded and animated. He could not actually interact via sound or touch.

An illustration of the Pepper’s Ghost technique for theatrical projection.


Pepper’s Ghost ‘hologram’ of Tupac performing with Snoop Dogg at Coachella in 2012.

A ghost is a trace, both conceptually and technically. A thermal camera can sense the past presence of a body through heat residue and display this temperature onscreen. The display augments our perceived reality. Whether the heat signatures are otherworldly is beside the point. Pokémon GO is an other world that we can display on our phone, overlaid onto the physical world (or rather, our phone camera’s sense of the world, which we assume for our own). Apple’s release of the iPhone X and iOS 11 promise further proliferation of augmented reality. The angled screen of Pepper’s Ghost is no longer needed; the smartphone screen will do. And we don’t need to be convinced our ghosts are real to interact with them.

A thermal camera & Pokémon GO

The mylar screen holding Tupac and the phone screen holding Pokémon are at once barriers to touching digital objects and their only physical instantiation. To reach beyond the screen, we need digital bodies ourselves. Enter Facebook Spaces, that allow you to “be yourself in VR.” Somehow we have become our own Pokémon. But what do our avatar bodies add to virtual social media? What do we do with them – do we sit or stand? Should we curl up and wait until we are let out again?

Facebook Spaces

And if virtual bodies add questionable value to social interaction, can they accomplish another hallmark aim of VR, namely producing empathy?

Mark Zuckerberg touring damage from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico via Facebook Spaces on October 9th, 2017.

Spaces allow users to move beyond a wall and exist in spherical photos. For example, we can view disaster areas at our leisure. A platform known for separating users into bubbles seems unable to manufacture empathy with photospheres.

Again, a new line of inquiry is needed. A new prototype for intimacy with virtual bodies.