Comparative Literature

VR Workshop Conducted by Prof. Jeffrey Neidermaier Brings Japanese Heian Period to Present Day

Much like today, the elite society of Japan's Heian era (794–1185 CE) was saturated with dimly glowing screens. In their case, the screens were standing folding screens (byōbu) sumptuously decorated with painted illustrations and calligraphed poetry.

These screens served many functions: they delimited architectural space; they created psychic illusions of privacy, intimacy, escape, and grandeur; and they served as a site of encounter with fantasy. Writers of the time describe how engrossing these screens could be and how they could afford windows into other worlds (aranu yo). While some poets meditated on the artificiality of screen vision, others mused that they glimpsed a virtually real land of immortals who were not frozen in stasis but rather moving at a speed that was imperceptibly slow to our mortal eyes. Since today our digital screens are even more ubiquitous and animated, it is difficult for us to appreciate the engrossing allure of screens for premodern Japanese viewers without some kind of technological supplement. Hence, our class's turn to virtual reality technology. By being immersed in the Japanese screens within a virtually generated world thanks to the efforts of the Brown Multimedia Labs, we were able to inhabit several panoramic arrangements of traditional folding screens and to experience the uncanny effect of hearing a musician play her koto (a Japanese transverse zither) out of view behind the partitions.