Viewmaster, My New Old Virtual Reality

It just so happens that I was roaming an antique store this week. And I bought a Viewmaster. It cost 20$, and it came with 25 slides. I couldn’t pass it up.


It also just so happens that I was reading Bolter and Grusin’s classic text “Remediation” this week. In the first two chapters, they dutifully tried to distinguish between hypermediacy and immediacy, stating that “hypermediacy leads us to becomes aware of the medium” whereas immediacy offers (or attempts to offer) an “immediate or authentic experience” (19). What the Viewmaster taught me about this discussion was just how “immediacy depends on hypermediacy” (6) and just how hypermediated even the most immediate experiences can so easily become. In short, the Viewmaster reveals the distinction between hypermediacy and immediacy to be, at best, a fragile one.

First, let’s talk about the Viewmaster. This is how it works: You pick it up. You hold it against your face. You look inside. Suddenly, you will see an image. Actually, you will be seeing two images, one for each eye. Since each eye will see the same image from a slightly different point of view, a 3-dimensional illusion will be created. And then you will feel happy because you will be experiencing one of the first mechanical face-mounted virtual reality systems ever created. You will feel and look like these people…

Viewmasters are basically stereoscopes. You can read more about stereoscopes here: According to Bolter and Grusin, stereoscopes are “characterized by multiple images, moving images, or sometimes moving observers.” What’s interesting about them is that they “incorporated transparent immediacy within hypermediacy” (37). In other words, the person using a stereoscope or a Viewmaster becomes quite conscious of the medium; however, the goal is to achieve immediacy. And it often does achieve a sense of the immediate, because like some virtual reality systems of the 1990s, it totally engulfs your field of vision. Further, the image has a “real-life” 3-D appearance. (It’s so cool!) Like perspective painting or VR that establishes a space with depth, it “tricks” you and makes you feel like you’re really there. Using my Viewmaster, I often travel to the Hawaiian Islands. I feel like I’m really there. It’s fantastic.


Now here’s what I’ve learned: a medium can achieve both immediacy and hypermediacy at the same time, or at almost the same time. Further, an object can call attention to itself when experienced at one time from one point of view and achieve invisibility when experienced at a different time from a different point of view. In short, hypermediacy and immediacy are fluid, and the hypermediated or immediate experience is something that we have to construct for ourselves. Immediacy has to be something that we are convinced of, and hypermediacy has to be something that we are steered toward. The means of convincing or steering changes over time. Thus, a medium that seems at one time invisible, may at another time call attention to itself. The film The Great Train Robbery, from 1903, quickly makes the point. When audiences first saw the cowboy point his gun at the camera, they screamed. That horrifying scream spoke to the film’s immediacy. Yet, nobody would scream if they watched the film today. Audiences of today would be too distracted; they would notice the film itself, the grainy surface, the over-the-top piano accompaniment that sounds so obviously divided from the film track. You can watch the famous “threatening gun shot scene” here:


If we can so easily jump back and forth between immediacy and hypermediacy, then how valuable is the distinction? Let’s consider the Viewmaster again. At any point, I might realize that I am holding this device up to my face. And I will eventually, usually within a second or two, be distracted by the medium itself. Then, I could go back to staring at the image again and be captivated. It will take some concentration, but I can forget about the medium. Of course, sadly, I’ll eventually realize that I’m not actually in Hawaii at a Hula BBQ. So making the distinction between hypermediacy and immediacy is not very useful for me in this case. But even if artificial or transitory, upholding the distinction might serve a purpose; namely, the distinction can give us terms for thinking about how our attention mechanism sways between noticing and not noticing that we are being persuaded by a medium. Further, the terms can help remind us that immediacy is fragile and that, in the presence of a hypermediacy consciousness, immediacy will always disperse. It will always collapse under the weight of hypermediacy.

Perhaps, the only immediate experiences are mediated through our bodies. The body is the ultimate and unbeatable medium for immediacy. However, this is not to say that new technologies cannot and will not combine with the body to create entirely “new” (never before experienced) experiences right inside of the body; and this is not to say that certain technologies do not already convince the body to see or feel immediate sensations. I am only arguing here that we have not yet found a media that can make immediacy last. And I mean really last.

But heck, immediacy doesn’t always matter anymore, does it? It was Erkki Huhtamo (1995) who pointed out, “There is no need to make it transparent any longer, simply because it is not felt to be in contradiction to the ‘authenticity’ of experience (from pg 42 of “Remediation” taken from pg 171 of Huhtamo’s “Encapsulated Bodies in Motion”). His point is well taken. Many people today can watch an important event (say, Obama’s Inauguration) through their digital cameras and be fully aware of the medium yet feel entirely in-the-moment. The problem is, hypermediacy only offers an “authentic” experience with certain technologies. And unfortunately, my Viewmaster isn’t one of them.

Oh well. I don’t need the Viewmaster to give me an “authentic” Hawaiian experience. In fact, I don’t need it to achieve immediacy either. I only need it to spark my imagination. And that’s pretty good. In fact, maybe the goal of new technologies shouldn’t be immediacy, at least not all the time. For that matter, maybe the goal shouldn’t be hypermediacy either. Maybe sometimes the goal should simply be the imagination, at whatever cost; immediate or hypermediate, sometimes we just need to be encouraged to dream.

For me, the Viewmaster finds that shifting, liquid middle ground between hypermediacy and immediacy–in the end, it’s not noticing the medium nor is it invisibility that matters the most. It’s whether I am led to extend my mind and imagine.


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