In the new virtual reality installation, Fight, artist Memo Akten plays with the optical phenomenon known as binocular rivalry, in which human visual perception battles over different images presented to the left and right eyes. The installation appeared at Sónar Festival's virtual reality exhibition, Realities+D, where viewers sat in a chair, donned a VR headset, and quickly found themselves in an immense black and white, grid-like room. After being lifted to a great height, distinct colors, patterns, and depths are presented to each eye, which forces them to battle to see which will reign supreme.
Akten tells Creators that Fight grew out of a paper that explores how the brain constantly makes predictions about the kind of signals it expects from the senses, based on its knowledge of the external world and the motor signals sent to the body.
Akten went down a rabbit hole of research on binocular rivalry. "The exact mechanism that drives rivalry is not of great importance in my project," says Akten, "I'm more inspired by the higher level effects. It varies for everybody; [and] it makes you question what you are seeing."
Each eye has a blind spot where the optic nerve leaves the eye, but the brain effectively fills the gap. Many online blind spot visualizers demonstrate this. Another type of binocular rivalry stimuli appears when a person focuses on a distant object—a wall, tree, or person, etc.—that stands between one of the eyes and the target objects. The brain is forced to hide or clean up the artifacts that would reveal the rivalry.
Using this phenomenon, Akten wanted to create an experience that felt alien to people. He also wanted to make people aware of the rivalry by making the stimuli so up front that the brain can't clean up the artifacts as it normally does.
"I wanted people to just think about the act of seeing itself, and not be distracted by any superfluous detail in the images," Akten explains. "So I opted for very simple, abstract, unnatural images. When presented with rivalry between such images, the brain just doesn't know how to deal with it, and the peculiarity of the experience is elevated to conscious awareness [and] you're left just thinking about the visual phenomena itself."
Each person sees something a bit different inside the VR headset. The way the human brain constructs visual perception is complicated, and not necessarily a one-to-one representation of what is out there. It's based on who the viewer is, which is itself a complex stew of personal ingredients.
Fight is a metaphor for how people aren't able to truly understand the world through the eyes of someone they might radically oppose on political or emotional levels. Akten wants to promote empathy, though not exactly through VR as the empathy engine, but by hacking humanity's visual glitches. "It feels like we're seeing more and more social and political polarization around so many issues, resulting in increasing amounts of hate from all sides," says Akten. "And this VR piece was a reaction to all of this."
Click here to see more of Memo Akten's work.