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From Séances to Stereography: The Victorian Era Roots of Modern Virtual Reality
A new study by Professor John Pavlik and Ph.D. student Shravan Regret Iyer explores how cultural, social, religious, and scientific developments during the Victorian era helped shape modern Virtual Reality.
A new study by Professor John Pavlik and Ph.D. student Shravan Regret Iyer explores how cultural, social, religious, and scientific developments during the Victorian era helped shape modern Virtual Reality.

What can Victorian era (1820-1914) séances, postmortem photography, Spiritualism, spirit mediums, and African American entrepreneurship in stereography tell us about the development of modern Virtual Reality?

A great deal, according to Professor of Journalism and Media Studies John Pavlik and Ph.D. student Shravan Regret Iyer, who explored cultural, social, religious, and scientific developments during the Victorian Era and propose that the origins of VR can be directly traced to this period.

“The invention of post-mortem photography and post-mortem stereophotography . . .  were used to enable the living to create a powerful illusion of a continuing connection with the departed,  and this laid a conceptual foundation for the 21st-century invention of the ultimate illusion, virtual reality.”

Understanding how modern VR began in the 19th century is important, they argue, because it explains how experiential media in the 21st century came to be, and how “these 19th-century phenomena resonate in the 21st century by foreshadowing the meaning of VR experience as illusion.”

In addition, Pavlik said, while some of these technologies the Victorians developed “were used to create illusions to entertain or deceive the public, others employed the capacity, as 19th century ‘new’ media, to generate illusions that had a heretofore unprecedented ability to convey reality, and potentially fuel social change.”

These historical connections, Pavlik and Iyer said, also add to our understanding of the ways other modern-day communication media can also be traced back to the Victorian era, and “have proven vital in the creation of influential and widespread illusions.” These include the connection between modern movies (cinema) and the 19th-century invention of moving pictures and Victorian-era experiments in wireless telecommunications that led to the creation of both radio and television.

Pavlik and Iyer presented their findings in the paper “Of Media and Mediums: Illusion and the Roots of Virtual Reality in Victorian Era Science, Social Change and Spiritualism," at the 2021 New York State Communication Association Conference.

Pavilik said to conduct their research they “used a mixed-methods approach. In particular, we looked at historical records as they exist with regard to early precursors to virtual reality.  The Victorians invented stereo photography or stereography. Earlier research has shown the connection between stereography and VR.  We looked at archival collections of stereographs in the U.S. Library of Congress to help advance understanding of the content of stereography.  We also looked at a collection at the University of Michigan which housed intriguing stereography produced at an African-American photography studio in Saginaw, Michigan at the turn of the century.”  

Using a qualitative approach, Pavlik said they also examined “the rise of Spiritualism during the Victorian Era as it intersected with the invention of mediated illusion in the form of staged fake séances.  Victorian scientist Sir W. Crooks invented the cathode ray tube (CRT) and it played a key role in some of the most spectacular staged fake séances.  As it turns out, the first VR headset designed in 1962, which was based on the binocular vision utilized in the stereoscope, used a CRT.”  

Spiritualism, Pavlik and Iyer said, “rests on the belief that spirits of the deceased continue to exist and, under the right conditions, can communicate with living humans . . . A form essential to the 19th century age of Spiritualism was the human spirit medium. A medium in this sense is a human who ostensibly can communicate with the spirit of the dead. The nature of a communication medium continues to evolve in the 21st century with the rise of more experiential media forms.”

Some magicians and illusionists of the time used the public’s interest in postmortem photography and Spiritualism as an opportunity to make a profit, and as a result, Pavlik said, they “developed sophisticated, technologically-enabled methods of conducting stage séances, rather than religious or spiritual séances, and the various phenomena associated with mediumship, to ‘communicate’ with the spirits of the dead, and the conjuring of ghosts, levitation, and the like” which are also precursors of modern VR.

Their findings help explain how and why virtual reality developed as it did and the forces that have shaped its development. 

One of the findings that surprised them the most, Pavlik said, was that “the invention of post-mortem photography and post-mortem stereo photography (post-mortem as in of the deceased; parents would often stage these photos with the dead positioned alongside the living to make them look as they were still alive, and perhaps only sleeping, and in 3D the effect is compelling) were used to enable the living to create a powerful illusion of a continuing connection with the departed,  and this laid a conceptual foundation for the 21st-century invention of the ultimate illusion, virtual reality.”

Their research also revealed that an interest in postmortem photography persists today, and as a result, ethical issues surrounding the use of VR and illusion known as “postmortem privacy,” have begun to reemerge as a concern.

For example, “using AI, the MyHeritage company in 2021 launched a consumer service called Deep Nostalgia that allows anyone to re-animate any still photo, with a particular marketing focus on bringing pictures of deceased loved ones to life . . . as of this writing, there is nothing to prevent the application of this technology to the re-animation of photos, or stereophotos, of any deceased person...except personal ethics,” Pavlik and Iyer wrote.

Ultimately, Pavlik said, their findings help explain how and why virtual reality developed as it did and the forces that have shaped its development.  This historical context can help provide insight into why experiences in virtual reality are as powerful as they are.

More information about the Journalism and Media Studies Department is on the Rutgers School of Communication and Information website.   

 

 

 

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