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As this year's Five College Postdoctoral scholar of Digital Humanities and Blended Learning, I challenged my Hampshire College class to produce virtual reality representations of ancient beliefs systems for the class Anthropologically Critiquing Reality. Influenced by the “Ontological Turn,” this class explores how ontological and metaphysical systems shape societies around the world. For a semester-long project, Hampshire college students learned to use VR tools while independently researching ancient Maya or Pompeiian metaphysical beliefs. More specifically, students were asked to represent and characterize how metaphysical beliefs and ontological assumptions are located in cultural landscapes by producing a short research paper and a virtual reality representation of an ancient belief that would be presented to the class.

While exploring ancient metaphysics and learning VR modeling tools, students were expected to:

  1. Critically explore their western ontological biases

  2. Characterize the main elements of the Maya or Pompeiian ontology using the lens of assemblage theory while integrating anthropologist Philippe Descola’s interpretations about ontological logic.

  3. Produce a virtual reality representation that would critically represent a Maya or Pomeppian ontological concept.

Metaphysics are the often overlooked assumptions regarding existence, reality, and being.

Why VR?

Creating the VR environment is an immersive learning experience that pushes the student to reflect on reality, their own being, and non-western beliefs. While learning about the construction of synthetic VR environments, students were required to reflecting on the western ontological principles that guided and shaped their actions. Each student was also required to present their VR representation to another student who would experience their virtual environment during the last week of class. When producing and presenting VR representations students were instructed to ask themselves a key question.

“How can I create a representation that can bring people closer to another ontological reality?”

Students presenting VR projects to each other in front of the classroom on a projector.

By deeply examining their beliefs, exploring those of others, while crafting an immersive learning experience for other students, the Anthropologically Critiquing Reality students at Hampshire were able to gain hands-on experience with cutting-edge VR tools, learn and articulate complex contemporary research issues and have critically memorable active learned experiences in a college classroom.

Below is an example project by Sylvia William’s that explores the concept of the Way, or co-spirit in ancient Maya culture. Using Google Tilt Brush VR, Sylvia produced a diagrammatic representation of the Maya notion of the co-spirit. Screenshots and animated versions are included below and a full VR version can be viewed on a computer or smartphone and in VR with an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive at the following link

Web Preview version (use mouse to move image)

The Way in Maya Ontology

Sylvia Williams Hampshire College

Figure 1 - Way Glyph

In ancient Mayan culture, interrelationships between species pervade the way

they conceptualize nature. All things including plants, rocks, landforms and celestial entities (e.g. the sun, the cosmos) possess the sacred essence known as k’uh. As K’uh describes “the most divine life force of existence” (Gomez), relationships between entities prevail as expressive links of collectiveness. Spirit companions or co-essences known as the way are connected to people through supernatural beings typically resembling an animal. Although they take the immaterial exteriority of animals or occasionally celestial phenomenon (e.g. comets, rain, rainbows), each way shares the same interiority as their respective human (Meskell and Joyce 89). They are born on the same day as the human entity and share parallel destinies. Internally similar and physically different, the way shares the consciousness of the human (Stuart 2).

Figure 2 - A representation of a snake way.

The ways in which the wayib are differentiated in painted pottery alludes to the dominant role animism plays in their ontology. While wayib are commonly marked as hybrid entities in depictions with human ornament, goggle eyes and animal features such as paws or a tail distinguishes the supernatural capacity of the being (Davies). Attention to individual way in painted scenes and texts indicates them as their own beings with ambitions and personality while being linked to human consciousness (Meskell & Joyce 89). While these two beings live separately, glyphs explicitly reveal their interconnectedness as they often resemble the conjunction of two beings into one (Fig 1). Very contrary to western ontology, the Maya saw the multitudes of beings as integral to a singular existence (Schnell).

Using Delanda’s assemblage terminology, Maya life is heavily shaped by the conceptual and physical territorialization of the way. As mentioned, paintings on pottery and hieroglyphs are coded evidence of this ontology. Further, wayib are coded by material extensions of the body. Bodily modifications such as god-eyes and animal limbs decode the impression that the human being is autonomous in the same way that adornment decodes the perception that an animal is not a way. This animistic ontology functions on a scale reaching all beings, as all things permeated k’uh, the sacred essence. Additional territorialization of the way takes place through textual practices of naming people, in particular, Maya rulers named after their way (Meskell and Joyce 90). The capacity of the co-essence’s connection with the human entity is so strong that when the way is injured or harmed, the human’s vitality is impacted similarly (Stuart 2).

Figure 3. The connection between the way and a human actor.

This ontology differs drastically from western ontology in the sense that the way surpasses our notion of taxonomy. Species boundaries influence our relationship with non-human animals and instill many degrees of separation between all living things. The disconnect between living entities is coded in the hierarchy of species placing humans as superior to all others. This belief can be traced back to the emergence of humans on the earth based on the notion that God instilled the right in us to till the earth as we please. We get by without an ontology like the way by limiting our perception on nature based on Aristotle’s early classifications of the other.

My representation of Maya ontology is inherently limited by western ontology and my own cultural relativism. I constructed my piece to represent the shared interiorities between the two entities and the characteristics recognized in a co-essence relationship. As I attempt to surpass the duelist ideology imprinted in my mind throughout my life, hindrances undoubtedly obstruct a more accurate representation of the Maya ontology. Because Mayan ontology sees equal significance in natural and the supernatural worlds across animate or inanimate beings, I can only attempt at fully exploring or understanding the way and all it encompasses.

Click Link below for downloadable syllabus:

Anthropologically Critiquing Reality: Virtual Realities and Actual Realities

Course Info:

Instructor: Jeffrey Vadala

jvadala at

Contact on Slackboard

Virtual office hours: by appointment

Non Virtual office hours: 2:45-4:00

Term Spring 2018

Meeting 1:00-2:200 Franklin Patterson Hall ELH

As our world is becoming more and more globalized, human societies are finding that their conceptions, assumptions, and approaches to the ultimate existence of reality can widely differ with profound consequences. Many of us are familiar with disputes over the nature and meaning of human life, and how these disputes can escalate into widespread social conflict, war, and community violence. Despite the wide variety of disagreements and conflicts that occur between human societies over these questions, within societies, people do not often question their basic assumptions and beliefs about the nature of reality. Since the early 1900s, Anthropologists have emphasized that people perceive and view realities in widely varying ways.

These questions have come to the foreground of Anthropology once again, with the work of theorists and anthropologists of the “ontological turn”, who have begun questioning the ways that people’s assumptions about reality(ies) shape how they feel, live in, and interpret their daily lives. With this “ontological turn,” anthropologists are increasingly exploring how realities can make critical interventions on one another---such as when anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro applied indigenous Amazonian models of personhood to critically explore individualistic and dualistic Euro-American models of identity. Increasingly, anthropology is turning to indigenous theories, non traditional philosophies, and “forgotten theories” of reality to more deeply understand how conceptions and beliefs about reality shape our experiences, memories, and values in profound ways.

With all this in mind, this class will explore how culturally different core assumptions regarding the nature of reality---that which philosophers call metaphysics---exist in societies, objects and artifacts. In anthropological terms, this course will introduce students to the concepts of metaphysics and ontology while demonstrating that critical understandings of metaphysical systems can lead to fuller and more critically informed anthropological knowledge production. Class work will involve online activities, video production, readings from anthropological and philosophical texts, and a virtual reality class project that will demonstrate the lessons learned in class in the digital domain.


  1. Anthropological Research on how people see the world as worldview

  2. Epistemology and Ontology

  3. Understanding past Archaeological and Anthropological Approaches to Reality: Nature versus Culture, Nature Versus Nurture, Body and Mind, Non Dualist and Process based Approaches

  4. Philosophical Approaches to Metaphysics: Deleuze, Kant, Whitehead, Plato and more

  5. The importance and difference between virtual and actual existence

  6. The production of informed and critical virtual reality anthropological objects

Learning Objectives

  1. From an anthropological viewpoint, students should be able critique taken for granted assumptions about the world, the cosmos and the nature of reality itself.

  2. Students should be able to describe how metaphysics impact western and non western societies.

  3. From a philosophical and anthropological viewpoint students should be able to question and critique western metaphysical notions of reality (e.g. nature versus culture, dualism, naturalism, mind/body, rationalism)

  4. Students will critically assess how conventional and naturalized assumptions about reality are built into the world, objects, habits, cultures and societies

  5. Students will measure and critically assess how they do or do input western metaphysical assumptions in a virtual reality simulation of their own making.

Combined, these goals will allow students to critique the viewpoints and assumptions regarding reality, and the social theories and media objects that are produced using conventional notions of western metaphysics. Consequently students will be better equipped to question taken for granted power structures, natural orders, and ideas of historical progress that create and protect massive gulfs of inequality to this day.

Evaluation Criteria

You will be evaluated on the basis of attendance, participation, writing assignments, and a final produce on assignment due dates. You should demonstrate through your participation, your writing, and your project that you have read and thought about the course readings. Your portfolio should demonstrate engagement with several of the class topics at the analytical and critical level. Any missed, late, or inadequate assignments or demos will be noted in your evaluation. If you fail to submit 2 or more assignments, or to miss 2 or more classes, and do not produce a final project then you should not expect to receive an evaluation.

Writing Assignments

Two writing assignments will be given. These are two-three page critical reflections on the readings that require you to produce and defend a thesis with class material.


This will require you produce a short 3-4 page research paper that describes a virtual reality representation of a metaphysical system that you will create. For this assignment, virtual reality software and hardware will be provided in a on campus lab. Students will need to sign up for time to use the VR Lab which will be available upon request of the instructor. The instructor will be provide assistant and technical expertise while using the lab.


Assigned PDF readings will be given periodically.

Books (Buy or Download)

DeLanda, Manuel. A new philosophy of society: Assemblage theory and social complexity. A&C Black, 2006.

Descola, Philippe. Beyond nature and culture. University of Chicago Press, 2013.


Successful completion of this course satisfies the Division I distribution requirement in Mind, Brain, and Information.

Class Communication

We will be using Slack for the majority of Class communications. This means group communications and presentations will occur on Slack. Instead of emailing, you will communicate with the instructor on Slack.


If you have a fever, please stay home, take good care of yourself, and contact me by email or phone. If your illness makes it impossible for you to meet the course deadlines then contact me and we will negotiate an accommodation. ADAPTATIONS AND ACCOMMODATIONS If you need course adaptations or accommodations because of a disability, or if you have a medical condition that may impact your performance or participation in this course, then please let me know. If you have approved accommodations then please go to Accessibility Services in CASA to pick up Letters of Accommodation to facilitate a proactive discussion about reasonable accommodations for this course. If you have documented disabilities but have not already already contacted Accessibility Services, the I encourage you to do so. Accessibility Services can be contacted via email:, via phone: 413-559-5498, or in person at CASA


All Hampshire College students and faculty, whether at Hampshire or at other institutions, are bound by the ethics of academic integrity. The entire description and college policy can be found in Non Satis Non Scire at under Academic Policies/Ethics of Scholarship. Plagiarism is the representation of someone else’s work as one’s own. Both deliberate and inadvertent misrepresentations of another’s work as your own are considered plagiarism and are serious breaches of academic honesty and integrity. All sources used or consulted in the process of writing papers, examinations, preparing oral presentations, course assignments, artistic productions, and so on, must be cited. Sources include material from books, journals or any other printed source, the work of other students, faculty, or staff, information from the Internet, software programs and other electronic material, designs and ideas. ... All cases of suspected plagiarism or academic dishonesty will be referred to the Dean of Advising who will review documentation and meet with student and faculty member. Individual faculty, in consultation with the Dean of Advising, will decide the most appropriate consequence in the context of the class. This can range from revising and resubmitting an assignment to failing the course. Beyond the consequence in the course, CASA considers first offenses as opportunities for education and official warning. Multiple or egregious offenses will have more serious consequences. Suspected instances of other breaches of the ethics of academic integrity, such as the falsification of data, will be treated with the same seriousness as plagiarism and will follow the same process


Week 1: 1/24 -Syllabus and What is reality

Week 2: 1/31 -Class: Basics of Metaphysics

Reading:Metaphysics of Modern Existence -Page 31 - page 65

Week 3: 2/7 -Assemblage Theory

Reading Delanda Chapter 1

Week 4: 2/14 - Assemblage Theory

Reading: Delanda Chapter 2-3

Week 5: 2/21 - Virtual and Actual Realities

Reading: Deleuze

Reading Delanda 2011

Week 6: 2/28 - Beyond Natural and Culture

Reading: Descola

Week 7: 3/7- Beyond Nature and Culture

Reading: Descola

Spring Break 3/14

Week 8: 3/21 - Beyond Nature and Culture

Reading: Descola

Week 9: 3/28 - Beyond Nature and Culture

Reading: Descola

Week 10: 4/4 - Maya Metaphysics and Perspectivism

Reading: Harrison-Buck

Reading DeCastro

Week 11: 4/11 - Study and Project Week

Week 12: 4/18 - Aztec Metaphysics

Reading: James Maffie

Week 13: 4/25

Whiteheadian and Latourian Metaphysics

Reading: Excerpts from - The Concept of Nature and We’ve Never Been Modern

Week 14: 5/2: Project Presentations

Although Google is wowing the world with its new AI driven technology, some of its recent announcements regarding virtual reality rendering technology are potentially just as revolutionary. With the announcement that HTC and Lenovo are developing all-in-one headsets based on Google’s Daydream platform, many were left wondering how these headsets would have the power to run graphically intensive 3d games, simulations and more. Google’s answer is a new software rendering approach which they have named Seurat after a French painter.

Google’s Seurat technology is being hailed as a way to take cinematic realism in CGI and crunch it down for mobile processors. In other words, it allows super-detailed and highly complex scenes that would not normally be able to run on mobile processors to be rendered or displayed on mobile VR headsets like upcoming HTC and Lenovo Daydream headsets that were announced at Google I/O this week. Google reps are calling the result of their new tech real-time visuals. This indicates that fully interactive simulations and gameplay experiences will also be possible with this technology.

To show the detail and high degrees of realism that is possible, Google is showcasing Seurat with help from ILMxLab using scenes from Rogue One. ILMxLab's creative director John Gaeta says "[Seurat] potentially opens the door to cinematic realism in VR." Their demonstration included the following processes.

ILMxLabs used high-quality assets which took an hour to render on a beefy PC. After running it through Seurat, the same scene only took 13 milliseconds to render using a mobile CPU. As I describe below, Seurat’s technology works by reducing asset size by taking snapshots which in turn help to produce lower resolution textures and lower polygon count models. Seurat can reduce textures by a factor of 300 and a polygon factor of 1000. This means the new assets are not as detailed but they still look amazing.

Seurat works differently than many other graphic technologies like normal mapping or polygon tessellation methods that are commonly used in gaming applications. Beginning with high quality or cinema grade 3d graphics, developers first have to set a bounded region of interaction in which all virtual reality perspectives or viewsheds will be rendered. At this point, it appears that developers must choose fairly small and constrained region. This may or may not be the case, it is hard to tell since Google is providing so few details at this point in time.

Anyways, after the developer chooses a region of interaction, the software then goes to work. Using automated algorithms, the software takes a series of snapshots of the high-quality objects or scenes. Every angle in which the viewer will be able to see is captured. The software then uses these snapshots to assemble a lightweight version of the original scene or object.

Google is saying that information about implementing Seurat is coming later this year. With that said, it probably means that we will not see any Seurat rendered games or virtual reality experiences released for quite some time. This means that HTC and Lenovo’s headsets will have to rely on conventional rendering techniques when released this fall. This is not so bad because these headsets will probably run off of the Snapdragon 835 processors which are plenty beefy and designed for virtual reality rendering.

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