A History of Presence

The website for Facebook Reality Labs promises that augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will soon “become as universal and essential as smartphones and personal computers are today.” Facebook is investing billions of dollars to fulfill this prophecy. It acquired the VR headset company Oculus in 2014, and in 2019 it bought CTRL-Lab, a startup developing a neural interface that allows users to control a computer with their thoughts. As part of the push to “build the future of connection with AR and VR,” Facebook is trying to connect brains to computers, so that people can communicate with each other as directly as possible, sharing an experience itself rather than a photo or video. The “magic of presence,” as Facebook calls it, is feeling that you’re inside a represented world because the feedback loop between your body and that world is so short that any mediation seems to disappear.

Given Facebook’s mission “to bring the world closer together,” it makes sense that the company would describe AR and VR as technologies for social connection and experience sharing. Meanwhile, other corporations and cultural institutions are imagining futures in which the immersive potentials of these mediums transform the activities central to their own missions. Google Glass and Google Earth, for example, express Google’s approach to AR and VR, respectively, as a drive to make the physical world “searchable” through embodied interaction. Museums and art foundations are investing in AR and VR as the “next level” in the relationship between art and technology, as new mediums that promise, as photography once did, a more direct experience of the world through art.

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I want to look to the past instead of the future, to reject the notion that AR and VR are technologies moving toward some particular transformative change. The basic elements of these mediums existed long before computing, and do not necessarily improve through technological progress. In their expensive pursuits, companies like Facebook misrepresent the “magic of presence” as a technological achievement, when it is actually an aesthetic one that emerged as part of modern mass visual culture. While the interactivity of AR and VR is facilitated by computing, the small displays used for 3D headsets are like any other screens. Their imagery follows lens-based representational conventions that were codified in photography and cinema long before the advent of digital computation, and their methods for producing the effect of presence are rooted in nineteenth-century experiments with immersive spectatorship.

Stereograph shows a ghost scaring man and boy, a posed studio scene.

Melander & Bro., The Haunted Lane, 1889, photographic print on stereograph card.

To some extent, the “magic of presence” was already available in the camera obscura, a means of projecting images that has existed for more than two thousand years. When a camera obscura is a room a person can stand in—as the Latin meaning of “camera” suggests—a circular aperture in a wall brings the outside inside, casting a moving color image of the exterior on the opposite wall. This effect is as startling today as it was centuries ago, even more so, given how a spectator’s body, if positioned within the cone of projection between the aperture and the far wall, becomes an additional surface for the image. Any sense of being within a pictured scene is undermined, however, by the reversal of the image. The world pictured on the wall appears with its sky toward the floor and its ground toward the ceiling. As camera obscuras shrank from rooms to boxlike devices—precursors of the photographic camera—lenses and mirrors were used to correct that reversal. But this gain in verisimilitude diminished the potential for immersion, because it produced a discrete picture rather than an encompassing scene.

The magic lantern, invented in the 1600s, adapted the box-style camera obscura for a more versatile projection technique that would later form the basis for film projectors. By positioning a glass slide between a lens and a light source, magic lanterns could project images at scales large enough for public shows. For the phantasmagorias that became popular in Europe in the 1790s, a skilled magic lantern operator, or several, projected images around a darkened space. The ingenious use of cranks, sliding plates, and dual lenses produced effects of movement, suggesting floating ghouls and dancing skeletons. This ghostly subject matter suited the limitations of this format. It proved difficult to construct more complex or realistic immersive spectacles with lantern slides. Phantasmagorias found enthusiastic audiences, especially in the United States, into the 1800s, though their popularity was eclipsed in that century by the painted panorama. These were erected in European cities as walk-in architecture: large, linked canvases surrounding a central viewing platform. The panorama was organized around the audience’s perspective, its continuous surface mapped to the gaze of a spectator who physically turned and moved to take it all in.

The emergence of photography in the mid-nineteenth century did not displace the panorama so much as absorb and support its existing logic. Photographs began to be arranged in series meant to express spatial and temporal continuity, to meet the expectation for expanded views cultivated by panoramas. Special cameras were invented to capture panoramic photographs, using either a swiveling head that allowed both the lens and the photosensitive surface behind it to rotate together, or a swinging lens that moved while the rest of the camera remained fixed. Panoramic cameras were invented for the earliest photographic formats, including the daguerreotype, and have been continually reintroduced, up through the “pano” feature of contemporary smartphone cameras.

An antique handheld device for viewing 3D images consists of viewing googles, a handle, and a perch for a pair of steregraphs

Antique stereoscope.

An antique device for projecting images, opened to show a light bulb, slides, and accordionlike folds

Magic lantern.

A 1980s stereoscope, consisting of viewing googles with a slot for inserting slides on a cardboard disk that can be rotating by pressing a lever on the side

1980s stereoscope.

Although photography quickly found its own panoramic formats, it was more difficult to adapt photographic imagery to the painted panorama’s wraparound dimensions. It was theoretically possible, using a magic lantern, to project photographic images within a circular enclosure. Efforts to project photographic panoramas failed, however, because the seams between image segments were too apparent. The very qualities of optical accuracy that are now associated with photographic verisimilitude actually worked against the panorama’s construction of visual continuity. Painted panoramas deployed strategies of distortion to disguise the piecemeal nature of their construction. Even if a panoramic photograph had actually been captured as a single image by a special camera, the multiple lenses required for projecting it would parse it into discrete segments.

Auguste and Louis Lumière, some of the earliest inventors of cinema, developed a remarkable attempt to resolve this quandary and merge photographic realism with panoramic immersion. Not long after they screened their first films in a Paris café in 1895, they began preparing their entry for the 1900 Paris Exposition. They invented devices to capture and project a wraparound photographic image twenty feet tall and sixty-six feet in diameter.1 They called this spectacle the Photorama. The Periphote, as they called their panoramic camera, could rotate 360 degrees to record one continuous negative measuring three by twenty-five inches. This image was then projected using a device that shared its name with the spectacle itself, the Photorama. This projector would rotate twelve apertures at 180 rpm around a static, cylindrical strip of film that contained a single panoramic photograph.

The Photorama almost reversed the technique that the Lumières had developed for their cinematograph, one of the first motion-picture technologies. Both a camera and projector, the cinematograph combined the basic structure of a magic lantern with the celluloid roll film that the Kodak company had invented for their inexpensive box cameras. The cinematograph wound a reel of film behind a rhythmically shuttered lens. Each frame of the film strip was quickly exposed, either to record, by imprinting light passing in through the lens, or to project, by filtering light passing out through the lens from a source behind the image.

In the cinematograph, then, a strip of film rotated to move multiple discrete images past one shutter and static lens. In the Photorama, on the other hand, the strip of film was a single photograph that remained static while multiple lenses and shutters moved. Cinematic projection produces a sense of seeing things move over time, within a coherent frame. But the Photorama’s technique of projection prioritized spatial continuity, prompting viewers to perceive a wraparound still image, one that avoided the visible seams introduced by other kinds of projectors or even the linked canvases of painted panoramas.

The Photorama was successful enough at the 1900 Paris Exposition that it was installed on the rue de Clichy in Paris in 1902, as a permanent entertainment. It closed in 1903, however, because of its excessive cost, and only one known copy of its unusual projector remains. Even by 1900, it was evident that the cinematograph, rather than the Photorama, marked the direction in which visual culture was turning—toward moving images. Several spectacles at the Paris Exposition adapted the painted panorama from the form of a wraparound enclosure to a scrolling form of scenery, pointing to cinema’s future dominance of visual culture. One such spectacle, the Trans-Siberian Railway Panorama, won a gold medal from Exposition judges.

The Trans-Siberian Railway Panorama was commissioned by the Wagons-Lits train car company and painted by Marcel Jambon and Alexandre Bailly. It depicted a train ride from Moscow to Beijing, using nine rolls of painted canvas whose length totaled more than half a mile.2 Spectators could sit in one of three actual train cars and watch out the window as scenery unfurled between concealed cylindrical spools. To create a sense that the train car was actually passing through a landscape, multiple layers of scenery moved past the spectator at different distances and speeds. Closest to the train car, actual rocks and sand representing the ground swept past on a fast-moving belt. Further away, moving a bit more slowly, a short painted canvas presented low bushes and vegetation. Beyond this, two larger painted canvases depicted features of the landscape. The largest was over twenty-five feet tall, and moved at a rate one-sixtieth the speed of the closest belt. As they gazed out the window, passengers could “feel” the car moving through the visceral effects of motion parallax.


An image of an exhibit at the 1900 Paris Expo, where moving canvases installed alongside a track simulated a ride on the Trans-Siberian railroad

Trans-Siberian Railway Panorama at the 1900 Paris Exposition

The Trans-Siberian Railway Panorama demonstrates how the formats of painted panoramas shifted over the second half of the nineteenth century. But it also drew on photographic formats that developed during the same period. Moving panoramas often depicted a journey—along a wagon trail, a river, or a train line. At the same time, photographs arranged as a series were also a popular way to collect multiple views into a virtual form of travel. Series of photographs depicting railroads were especially prevalent in the United States as transcontinental lines were constructed after the Civil War. Major railroad companies commissioned professional photographers to document progress along the line, creating images that could be used to promote the sale of railroad bonds. Series of numbered photographs following a railroad line were sometimes published as plates in expensive, bound books intended for individual investors.

Railway photographs were also commonly viewed through a stereoscope, a device that presents each of a spectator’s eyes with a different image of the same subject, shifted to suggest the slightly different angles from which each eye sees. This prompts the spectator to perceptually coordinate the two images into an impression of visual depth. Viewers triangulate their own implied position within the pictured scene. The stereoscope was invented almost concurrently with photography and became popular after attracting attention at the Great Exhibition of London in 1851. The stereoscope does not require photographs and was initially demonstrated with drawn images. But inexpensive photographic printing methods helped inaugurate a craze for the devices in the second half of the nineteenth century.

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Like the wraparound panorama, a stereoscope offered an immersive form of visual entertainment that seemed to embed spectators within a representation that filled or even exceeded the limits of their gaze. While panoramas were largely public spectacles, stereographs were collected and viewed primarily at home. They were purchased from shops, through catalogues, and even from door-to-door salesmen. The images ranged widely in subject matter but were promoted predominantly as a form of visual knowledge—a way, for example, to see Niagara Falls or take a virtual tour of Egypt. By swapping stereographs in sequence in the stereoscope, a spectator could imagine taking such a journey. Railway sets deliberately encouraged that idea. They often included descriptions of the scenery on the back of the stereographs written from the perspective of someone standing in the pictured setting.

AR and VR incorporate aesthetic strategies of immersion that range from the camera obscura through the panorama, as well as photographic and cinematic technologies. That is not to say they constitute the culmination or summation of these earlier efforts. Instead, each iteration of immersive media has constructed the magic of presence differently. The stereoscope offers a dimensional view, albeit from only one position. The scrolling panorama might create a sense of motion more powerfully than cinema’s moving image, but with a much lower degree of optical realism. The Photorama offered a photorealistic scene, but audiences didn’t find it as compelling as the carefully coordinated visual theater of the painted panorama. Standing in a museum, strapped into a VR headset, maybe also wrapped in a vest or gripping a controller, viewers find both new affordances and new limitations, along with familiar elements of older technologies.

A VR installation where white chalk drawings cover all surfaces of a black room

View of Laurie Anderson’s The Chalkroom, 2017, at MASS MoCA.

Like AR, the camera obscura and the magic lantern mixed actual and projected worlds. The lenses in VR headsets are based on the principles of the nineteenth-century stereoscope. And just as a spectator needed to manually insert stereographs, or turn a crank to rotate through pre-loaded ones, changes of imagery in VR are triggered by gestures, whether mapped to movements in the virtual world or actual interactions with the device, like a click of a button on a handheld controller. To the stereoscopic effect of depth, AR and VR add the panoramic conceit of a wraparound view, a representation that appears to continue in any direction the user may turn. To the static immersion of the panorama, however, AR and VR add the sense of a dynamic scene. This effect of a living picture could be felt in a phantasmagoria as well, as ghosts seemed to flutter into and out of view, or inside a camera obscura, as clouds floated across a blue sky.

A history of immersive media aesthetics makes plain that the concept of immersion is not fixed. Aesthetic and technological changes continually alter ideas about how the magic of presence should look and feel. These shifts do not exemplify progress so much as they communicate a desire for whatever an “unmediated” experience of presence is assumed and imagined to be. Facebook’s concept of presence appears in the slippage between the different kinds of “connection” it is pursuing: why would connecting humans to computers help people connect with one another? By pursuing the immersive potentials of AR and VR in terms of neural interfaces, computer vision, biometric tracking, and other methods of coupling human and machine, Facebook Reality Labs projects suggest that we might get past the virtual, to reality itself, if we could hack embodiment as a primary kind of interface. While this research may yield intriguing forms of immersion in the near future, it furthers the disconnection that social media already fosters, by formulating presence and human connection in terms of the platforms onto which they are actively and profitably grafted.


1 Many sources have confused which device is which and have given inaccurate descriptions of their function. I am relying on an illustrated pamphlet authored by the Lumières and published by A. Storck in Lyon, France, in 1902, as well as the illustrated article “Le photorama, projections panoramiques de MM. A. et L. Lumière” from La Nature, vol. 30, 1er semestre, Feb. 22, 1902, pp. 171–74.

2 As Erkki Huhtamo explains in Illusions in Motion (MIT Press, 2013), most scholarly accounts have mistaken this panorama for a different, moving panorama painted by Pavel Pyasetsky that was also shown at the 1900 Exposition and also depicted the Trans-Siberian Railway. Pyasetsky’s panorama scrolled by hand cranking, and was less than two feet tall—a format often called a “parlor panorama.” The larger panorama that I discuss is described and illustrated in “Les panoramas de l’exposition” in La Nature 28, 1er semestre, no. 1407, May 17, 1900, p. 402.

This article appears in the January/February 2021 issue, pp. 56–63.

Source: artnews.com

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