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Virtual Reality, Somatic Cognition, Homuncular Flexibility and Object-Centered Sociality and Learning

VirtualReality Jaron Lanier recently wrote about virtual reality and its potential application to learning, utilizing some evocative terms and offering an educational scenario that reminds me of a seminal 1997 paper that described how a Nobel prize-winning biologist fused with her objects of study. The Saturday Wall Street Journal article gave me a keener appreciation for the potential applications of virtual reality (VR) - immersive computer-generated environments that model real or imaginary worlds - and for the pervasiveness of object-centered sociality, a concept I first encountered via Jyri Engestrom.

Crane-sm6 Lanier's article is about new frontiers for avatars - "movable representations of ourselves in cyberspace" - and how they can be used to manifest somatic cognition - the mapping of human body motion "into a theater or thought and strategy not usually available to us" in which one's hands (or presumably, other body parts) can solve complicated puzzles more quickly than one's head (or conscious mind). The examples he gives of somatic cognition outside the realm of virtual reality include professional musicians, athletes, surgeons and pilots, and I found myself thinking of a documentary I saw years ago on heavy machinery, and the way that a crane operator who was interviewed described the bewildering array of levers as virtual extensions of his arms and hands.

After describing a software bug in an early VR system that gave his humanoid avatar a gigantic hand, Lanier generalizes homuncular flexibility as a more general principle: "people can learn to inhabit other bodies not just with oddly shaped limbs [gigantic hands], or limbs attached in unfamiliar places, but even bodies with different numbers of limbs [lobster avatars]". Dean Eckles generalizes this notion even further - in a 2009 blog post reviewing a 2006 article by Lanier on homonucular flexibility (which offers more details about the lobster) - to distal attribution: our propensity for attributing sensory perceptions to internal or external - or proximal or more distant - sources.

However, it is Lanier's reference to an experiment with elementary school children being turned into the things they were studying that I found most interesting [although I have not been able to track down the reference]:

Some [students] were turned into molecules, dancing and squirming to dock with other molecules. In this case the molecule serves the role of the piano, and instead of harmony puzzles, you are learning chemistry. Somatic cognition offers an overwhelming emotional appeal for education, because it leverages vanity. You become the thing you are studying. Your sensory motor loop is modified to incorporate the logic of a science, and you develop body intuition about that logic.

This idea of fusing or becoming one with the object of study is one of the two primary manifestations of object-centered sociality articulated in Karin Knorr Cetina's seminal paper, "Sociality with Objects: Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies", [Theory, Culture & Society, 1997, Vol. 14(4):1-30]. As I noted in an earlier post on place-centered sociality, the other manifestation of object-centered sociality - sociality (interactions and relationships) through objects, such as online photos, videos or even blog posts - is better known, at least among many of those who study online social media (and mediation). But Lanier's article evokes the manifestation of sociality with objects themselves, reminding me of what I earlier wrote about Knorr Cetina's articulation of how this can promote deeper investigation and learning:

[Knorr Cetina] looks specifically at knowledge objects, and how they are increasingly produced by specialists and experts rather than through a broader form of participatory interpretation. She argues that experts' relationships with knowledge objects can be best characterized by a the notion of lack and a corresponding structure of wanting [emphasis hers] because these objects "seem to have the capacity to unfold indefinitely": new results that add to objects of knowledge have the side effect of opening up new questions. This perpetual unfolding gives rise to "a libidinal dimension or dimension of knowledge activities" - an "arousal" and "deep emotional investment" - by the person studying the knowledge object. As an example, she describes the way that biologist Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of genetic transposition, would totally immerse herself in her study of plant chromosomes, identifying with the chromosomes and imagining how they might see the world - evoking an image (for me) of object-centered empathy more than sociality.

Kinect The prospect of empowering future Nobel laureates with virtual reality technology to engage with and virtually embody objects of knowledge at an early age is very exciting. Lanier mentions the Kinect camera for Xbox 360 made by Microsoft (his employer), which will likely put virtual reality technology in the hands (or homes) of millions of people in the near future.

The primary emphasis of Kinect marketing is on fun and games, but based on Lanier's article, and Knorr Cetina's insights into object-centered learning, Kinect might also provide a platform for a new approach to education. In an ideal world, of course, fun and learning would not be such distinct concepts ... perhaps this new technology will help promote a new dimension of convergence in the not-too-distant future.

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