Since the beginning of civilization, humans cover their faces. Across cultures, masks and goggles, hats and habits, veils and hoods all have varied roles to play, both functional and ritual: disguise; protection; decoration; comfort; and concealment. They can be both practical garments and symbols of devotion – sometimes both simultaneously. More often than not, face coverings embody a duality of disguise and display, hiding one thing from the world while projecting another.
In many cases, face coverings represent thresholds and transitions between two states: actor to god on stage, child to monster at Halloween, bride to bride in church, citizen to criminal during the bank robbery. Masks are therefore a kind of liminal object, emblems of the in-between. In the age of Covid, as we put on our masks to go out and greet the world, they serve to highlight the nature of our relationships with those around us. Although they hide much of our faces, they nonetheless make visible statements about our awareness of the consequences of individual behaviors on the well-being of the collective.
Now, as virtual reality technology advances, we are approaching a critical moment. Our physical and digital experiences are converging to the point where we must now consider our real needs while inhabiting the digital. As access to the Metaverse expands and becomes more immersive, the more we have to consider our physical location, our senses, and our ergonomics at the times we travel there.
“The rise of digital worlds is beyond doubt”
As we access the digital world through visual (screen) and sound (audio) devices, we are always aware of our physical presence in space. As we move to augmented reality and virtual reality, the contact between what we experience audiovisually and the rest of our senses begins to break. The more we bodily immerse ourselves in the virtual world, the less we invest in expressing our physical selves in the real world.
The rise of digital worlds is beyond doubt. Inevitably, virtual reality will almost certainly become more public, more social, and more collective as its potential applications become clearer. Besides the home, the metaverse in all its forms will appear in work, learning, leisure and sports environments.
So far, the focus has rightly been on user experience in the virtual world. However, what we experience behind our VR glasses has a clear impact on our physical state. We’ve all seen the comical visions of people swaying, unsteady and insecure as they teeter off the edge of a cliff or slide down a virtual ski slope. At present, this type of display can be considered innocent pleasure, but as the use of virtual reality becomes more widespread, there is a risk that the self-awareness of the real world will interfere with our will to us. fully engage in the sensory reality of the metaverse. The perception of how other people witness your own physical VR response on the outside can deter use and thus limit the freedom the virtual world can provide.
The physical and emotional impact of VR technology has been ignored
There are many solutions for the best distribution of technological material in physical space, but very rarely do we consider the physical and emotional impact of wearable technology, especially when we enter the world of virtual reality. To date, neither technology nor design has given much thought to this area, but it seems clear that there is a need for products that help VR users become more fully immersed in the virtual, while keeping control of how they express themselves in the physical.
From fitness watches to smart jewelry, wearable technology has exploded in recent years. The distinct and often opposing cultures of fashion and technology have converged with results that are often fascinating, but rarely truly transformative in terms of how we experience the world. Virtual reality offers a new – and potentially more impactful – arena for these two areas to collide.
“Bulky and destabilizing”
Bulky and often unsettling, most of today’s helmet designs are derived from military use and express a masculine, almost prosthetic language that reflects the product’s technological heritage – which stimulates some users’ clumsiness. Surely there is room for a more polished and engaging design language that can engage, reassure and even expand VR audiences? Not simply in terms of aesthetics, but incorporating an experiential understanding of the physical and emotional impacts of entering a virtual world.
“Exploring the semiotics of masks and veils”
At Pearson Lloyd, we explored this intriguing new threshold design space, using the semiotics of masks and veils as an entry point. One speculative product that emerges from this line of inquiry is the VR Veil. Conceived as a way to create a greater sense of modesty for the user and thus enhance their engagement in the virtual experience, the language of the product derives directly from the language of the veil and its ritual use in defining states of change. The VR Veil uses this concept to define the transition between the real and virtual world – like closing a door when entering an empty room.
As soon as we place VR glasses on our faces, we withdraw from real life. Designed to give users privacy, disguise, and protection from onlookers when blinded by a VR headset, the veil shields the face with fabric, creating physical division and a sense of personal space. The Veil VR therefore allows us to express ourselves in the purest form possible, without the feeling of being watched, or judged, for actions and expressions intended for another reality.
As a concept, it is the very beginning of an answer to a question that we as designers must ask ourselves: “What is the physical answer to inhabiting it in a digital world?” It is not intended to be the final answer, and cannot be, given that the nature and location of the intersection between the physical and virtual worlds will undoubtedly shift beyond our ability to predict. However, we believe it is an important first step in a new path of design exploration – a path that is both born of cutting-edge technology and rooted in a shared cultural heritage that dates back to the dawn of humanity.
Banner image: copyright The Jocelyn Herbert Collection for the National Theater Archive