Skip to main content

The Wabi-Sabi of Virtual Reality

What will be lost in the perfect and infinite world?

Tess Rubinstein

When I was teaching, there was a point in one of my lectures where I’d kind of drift off into wonder — as if I were just then really processing it, really understanding the implications of this little factoid — that YouTube was founded in 2005. “That means it’s, what? About a decade old? That ten years ago there was no YouTube?” My students’ reaction to this news depended largely on their age. For those in their 20s or 30s, it usually seemed to hit them as it originally hit me. How much has changed, and in so short a time!¹ Conversely, my students still in their teens grew nervous — affecting the quiet pose of a Sphinx that has forgotten the answer to its own riddle. And my older students, those in their 40s and above, would just silently squint as if the classroom had gone out of focus. Was the world really so different in 2004? Pre-YouTube, pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre-smartphone, pre-rideshare? Well, of course. But, how did we not notice it changing?

Maybe we changed, too.

“The medium is the message,” and the global “we” — which is itself a construct of social media — has started receiving these communiques in fast-forward. We are all now heroes and critics both; conquering everyday menaces and striding into a better future by loudly displaying our vision, including everything that we feel is wrong today. This is a great contrast to the “we” that we embodied in front of the prime-time, Friday line-up, where each of us was the cell of a much larger rhizome, one that we could feel membership in simply by convincing ourselves that the garbage dumped all over the screen was in fact a feast. Not to say there weren’t many smaller affinity groups, but television did not encourage expression in the way the internet does.² We were all part of the same Audience, where our collective self-conception was confirmed on the daily — we selected what we wanted to watch from what now seems a tiny menu; we tuned in each week to continue watching; and we could be confident in our awareness of the medium’s limitations to know that what we selected was the thing best suited to us.

This self-conception has changed with every new mass medium, all the way back to the Gutenberg press.³ Without the mass-production of books, what peasant would’ve had the audacity to suggest he be permitted to touch and read the holy scripture? Before the telegraph, even the most important messages took at least a week to arrive from one coast to the other, via Pony Express; how disjointed the nation, and national identity, would have felt by our current standards. Before the radio, music traveled slowly, if at all, and before the phonograph, countless songs, and even whole musical traditions, undoubtedly never made their way out of their local geography. And pre-film, who but soldiers, refugees, and people in the path of war’s destruction could have understood such horrors?

Not all of these new perspectives, awarenesses, and delineations have been intended or even desirable, and each change has brought new challenges. At this current moment in time, it’s safe to say that “we” feel overwhelmed. Fake news, hate speech, denialism of science, and aggressive tribalism are on the rise. Many people feel overwhelmed by the parade of misery on the internet, and the increased expectations of productivity, creativity, and knowledgeableness. And it’s also safe to say that we’re not going to have much time to catch our breath, because this sense of ourself is about to change again.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality companies are attracting a staggering amount of investment — an estimated $2.3 billion in 2016 alone — and I’ve been unable to find a recent public opinion by any technology leader to support an argument that some form of these technologies won’t someday play a huge role in the average American’s life. Ray Kurzweil predicts that by the 2030’s, we will have the ability to incorporate nanobots into our bodies that will allow us to enter at-will, virtual environments that are entirely convincing to our senses — sight, hearing, and touch, but even smell and taste.⁴ Kurzweil — the rare futurist who has been correct to within a few years for well over 90% of his predictions — also thinks that these environments will be a necessary survival mechanism for the plagues of boredom and meaninglessness that will descend as nanobots solve aging.

Of course, compared to these potentials of the technology, the questions VR designers are investigating today are almost embarrassingly fundamental. How can you give users a sense of movement without making them want to vomit? How do you convince someone that they’re holding something heavier than the controller? What should they see when they stick their heads through the virtual wall?

As a designer, it’s exciting to be working in a medium still so unformed as VR, where we’re still unsure about the new aesthetic techniques and sensibilities we may be able to grow through it. We may just find insight by looking at the very recent dawn of the internet. For instance, it’d be difficult to imagine the mash-up or, say, Vaporwave without it, and social media as an outgrowth of the internet has produced many now-everyday items of culture: the meme, the viral video, the “Which Disney Princess Are You?” quiz, the Tweetstorm, etc. What iterations will these take in the world of VR? What new wonders will become commonplace? What new challenges?

But I also wonder: in these new worlds we’re designing, worlds that can make the experience of every luxury, pleasure, terror, and discovery freely available, what parts of today’s world won’t translate into the new medium? And which of those will be felt as a loss if, or when, we leave them behind? These are large questions. I doubt anyone today could confidently answer them. But that doesn’t absolve us from being responsible for asking them in the first place.

I’ll propose a small case study, instead, with an ancient Japanese aesthetic as its focus. Wabi-sabi is a beauty which stems from imperfection, incompleteness, and degradation. One appreciates the asymmetry in the lines of the statue worn by rain, the part of the painting that was never finished after the imprisonment of the painter, the strip of the book’s cover torn away to reveal the soft sepia of its pages. It is a private, material aesthetic — its lessons not easily definable, and more suited to contemplation than argument — and it is a philosophy that provides humans with at least one tool to help them feel at peace in the clutches of time.

Rather than perceiving decay as tragic, or ugly, or problematic, wabi-sabi asks a viewer to first recognize the inherent beauty of this decay. Through this appreciation and study of breakage and unintentional change, subscribers to the aesthetic are able to perceive the decay we experience as a kind of quiet revelation. Similarly, melancholy and loneliness are not feelings to run from or fight back, but to welcome in, and thereby tame. Wabi-sabi may not be as universal as love, or purpose, or identity, but it is still something important to the many who adhere to its tenets. And as a way of seeing, this philosophy also provides perspectives on design that have yet to be exhausted in the many centuries it’s been studied.

Similar lessons can be learned from Chaung-tzu and the Tao Te Ching, or Ecclesiastes, or in the study of the Hindu concept of samsara — the unending cycle of birth and death. It’s similar, too, to what many people report finding through the use of psychedelic drugs, or various forms of meditation. I credit a couple of these things with making my own life a habitable one, thus I believe that wabi-sabi’s survival — and the survival of similar mindsets — in what I think will be the dominant medium of humanity for the foreseeable future is not an entirely academic question.

So, why might wabi-sabi have a limited lifespan in VR? In Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, designer Leonard Koren lists the “Material Qualities of Wabi-Sabi” as, “The suggestion of natural process; Irregular; Intimate; Unpretentious; Earthy; Murky; and Simple.” Qualities that just so happen to be diametrically opposed to the medium of VR in its current form. And with the exception of “simple,” aren’t concepts that factor much into our thinking around the future of VR design. To be fair, there are examples of each of these in existing VR experiences, but no experience I’ve found even attempts to inhabit a wabi-sabi aesthetic. When aspects of these qualities are included deliberately — for instance, the appearance of rust on a metal material — they are usually in service of creating “realism.” But most often, they are produced by mistake.

Earthiness as a smell and as a quality of things “rich in raw texture and rough tactile sensation” is a quality beyond the current limits of VR technology. As a concept, it’s even more difficult to fit into the new medium, as VR objects are made up of polygons, which are themselves produced by code, which is itself a way to get a computer to order electrical signals in the correct order. A far cry, I think, from pinching a small amount of soil between your fingers, raising it to your nose, and breathing in its ancient recipe. How will the depth and mystery of that be reproduced by hardware?

Simple virtual models — those that are easy for the computer to render — are, except in retro aesthetics, considered extremely undesirable. There is a simplicity in good design that is present in quality VR experiences, but in a wabi-sabi sense, the visual and auditory trends in VR continue to head in the opposite direction: more stimulus, more complexity, more detail.

Murky sights are currently live in the domain of the horror genre, but even so, the trend is toward higher and more precise fidelities. Irregular objects can add realism to a scene, but irregularity as a concept cannot be fully inhabited by a medium that depends on endless replication. Sure, the gun you’re wielding against the robot horde has a few dents in it, but somewhere in the country is at least one person battling the same horde with the same dented gun. Intimateobjects or scenes are often approached in VR porn. But in the wabi-sabi sense, described by Koren as “small, secluded, and private environments... [with] low ceilings, small windows, tiny entrances, and very subdued lighting,” intimate experiences have not found the same favor of designers as the sweeping, the epic, the interstellar.

Over time, it’s likely that these tastes will change, the technology will advance, and we will see examples of these aspects of wabi-sabi in virtual environments. But the aesthetic’s qualities of unpretentiousness and the suggestion of a natural process together create a catch-22 in VR. While we already have methods for suggesting a natural process — painting rust, wear, dirt, mold, etc. onto a model, or even coding an algorithm to apply these qualities in semi-random distributions onto the parts of a model that might exhibit them, were it a physical object — they are inherently deliberate and ornamental. Which is of course in opposition to wabi-wabi’s, “nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents, peeling, and other forms of attrition [being] testament to histories of use and misuse.”⁵ The level of decoration VR espouses is probably enough to disqualify its experiences from being considered true wabi-sabi, but there is a deeper pretension at work: that natural process can be sufficiently contained by the appearance of it. Rene Magritte’s painting “The Treachery of Images,” in which the picture of a pipe appears above a text disavowing it as a pipe — “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” or “This is not a pipe” — illustrates a similar confusion.

It’s still possible, though, that wabi-sabi will find true expression in VR. Perhaps when Artificial Intelligence advances far enough to be considered a life form, and begins expressing its native tongue in its natural environment. That is to say, when it’s no longer an artist representing one stage of a natural process, but a process natural to beings of that environment. It’s also possible that wabi-sabi, like so much of history, will end up existing only as reference. But I think it’s certain that if we don’t at least first take stock of the cultural traditions and perspectives that, like wabi-sabi, have survived for centuries, we easily run the risk of losing those forever.

As an aesthetic tool for coming to terms with mortality and the decay of age, wabi-sabi might prove quite valuable to us, after all. Especially if, as thought leaders and futurists predict, humans alive today can expect to experience lifespans dramatically longer than recorded history shows. We will need tools like it to help us learn to navigate lives of a very different shape and scope than any human has experienced before us. Death might seem less the guarantee of life, and our intimacy with death might atrophy as we more often (or even continuously) inhabit undying or augmented realities.

Others might argue that if the promises of VR come to pass, the loss of an aesthetic like wabi-sabi may be insignificant. But look at how friendship, politics, and self-expression have changed in the Age of Facebook. Business, sex, and neighborliness, too. How language has changed, how fear has, and probably even love. Whatever VR ends up being, these things will be no less affected. And if they, and the tools we use to shape them, are not considered seriously in the design decisions of today, the future will be the worse for it. Deliberate ignorance, history has shown, does not improve one’s quality of life for long, if at all.

  1. The Arab Spring! Occupy Wall Street! Rebecca Black’s “Friday”! Accidental celebrity and the virality of the mundane! etc.
  2. A good illustration of this is the form of fan-made music videos, in which footage from, say, an anime show is chopped up and synced to, usually, overly emotive nu-metal songs. This was not happening in 1991.
  3. See "E Unibus Pluram" by David Foster Wallace.
  4. Kurzweil’s thinking on these subjects is on great display in this Playboy interview, and a scorecard of his many predictions is available here.
  5. Koren again.