Category Archives: Virtual & Augmented Reality

Boldly Go: An Essay on Technology and Reflection

When I close my eyes, and picture what reflection looks like, I imagine time and quiet solitude, much as Ellen Rose (2013) describes in her book on reflection. I picture myself sitting by a window on a summer afternoon, gazing outside.

I would not last long beside my window. I would move into my garden, to listen to the wind and birds, smell the lavender, feel the cool grass, and the warmth of my cat against my shin. Under the shade of the ‘Hobbiton’ tree in our backyard – like the tree under which Bilbo Baggins’ long-expected party takes place[1] – I might recall how it was this tree that sold us on this house seven years ago, after seeing the bald lots of so many new-build homes. Listening to the nearby seed-cleaning mill, I might think about how much farmland surrounding my town has been lost to residential development, whether the seed-cleaning mill will soon be displaced, and what all of this means for food production and timber consumption. I might recall the clear-cutting I’ve observed driving through Swan Hills, Alberta. Is that timber used in Canada, or is it exported? Is it the same in New Zealand, where the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies were filmed? In these adaptations of Tolkien’s work, director Peter Jackson infused a critique of New Zealand’s deforestation (Jackson, Osborne, & Walsh, 2003). What do we lose in exchange for (perceived) progress? I might wonder if the Hobbiton tree had to be CGI’d[2] into the LOTR movies. I have my tree, in my backyard, and it’s the real thing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photos preserve my tree, along with the context of each moment. Would a virtual reality (VR) rendering better preserve, or change, these for me? What if I created/programmed the VR myself?

In contrast to Rose’s (2013) description of sight separating observer from what’s observed and thereby creating a space wherein reflection may occur, my reflective experiences are typically immersive. All four of my senses are catalysts for reflection, opening pathways to meander and explore. For me, reflection would be diminished without the sense of hearing, in particular, complementing the sense of sight.

In an EDDE 801 forum post, I shared my idea of “hyper-symbolism”, imagining how 3D/4D[3] VR could change the role of symbols in human-object-knowledge relationships. Rose (2013) describes how advances in spoken and written language translated knowledge into abstract symbols, enabling people to imagine, reflect and communicate, disconnected from concrete experience (p. 47). With advances in VR technology, I speculate knowledge is being repositioned to reside within high-fidelity proxies of objects, still abstracted, but providing richer data to inform experience and reflection. Would a VR garden provide more paths for me to explore, versus the garden imagined in my mind? Would the enriched data experienced in a VR garden foster an extended and semantically deeper reflection?

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Why do kids love a good scare?

I had the opportunity to meet WETA’s Richard Taylor at the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo last weekend. My five-year-old daughter adored him from the first moment. While no one else at the Expo was able to figure it out, he immediately got that she was dressed as Alice in Wonderland. We heard about Richard’s lovely children (his daughter, Amelia, is six-years-old, and a little bit taller than my daughter), and how much he enjoys bringing them to the WETA Workshop and seeing their reactions to the wondrous worlds and creatures he creates. When school classes come for  tours of the WETA Workshop, Richard described how he wears a giant rabbit costume and jumps out at the kids…. And how this sends some of them running to the other side of the room! But, he says, most get such a thrill out of it…. (and , it seems, Richard does, too!)


Well, WETA has come up with the most amazing technological advances to thrill us all, contributing a new richness and immensity to the lexicon of modern mythology. Stories that resonate with adults and children because they convey critical messages and knowledge about how to negotiate our lives in contemporary society. While watching The Hobbit, my daughter sat curled up in her IMAX seat, hugging my arm and laughing every time something on-screen scared her. What message did she take away from the movie?  I asked her. “There’s bad guys out there, Mom, and bad things happen. But that’s ok. If we try hard to be good, things can get better.  We have to try, even when we’re scared. And we can get help from our friends.”

Having studied anthropology, I’ve observed that, pan-culturally, kids love a good scare. Scary stories, scary movies, being scared by a giant rabbit jumping out at them. In the past (and in some places today), scary stories served as a means to transmit messages about how to stay safe. Little Red Riding Hood does a good job of demonstrating how leaving the village and going into the forest alone comes with the risk of running into a wolf,  for instance; a good rule of thumb for mid-second-millennium European society. Similarly, Kallaalit (Indigenous Greenlandic) children love stories of Kalaaq, wherein footsteps in the snow going away from (and not returning to) the village  transmit messages about the dangers of traveling alone in the harsh Greenland climate.

But why do children seem to universally love a good scare from time to time?  The stress that comes along with it increases adrenaline… This helps focus children’s attention to what is happening in the moment… Perhaps it is that these moments represent pseudo-experiences of risk, without any real threat, and therefore fear can give way to enjoyment… while at the same time children learn lessons that for thousands and thousands of years children learned by experiencing real risks in daily life (presumably without enjoyment).

Technology (such as that used and developed by WETA) has enhanced the “realness” of these pseudo-risks, expanding the overall experiences through sensory input, and thereby enhancing the associated learning. However, enjoyment still remains a product because the enhanced experiences do not replicate true threat/risk.