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Cover of Shadow Plays by Massimo Riva
Shadow Plays
Virtual Realities in an Analog World
Massimo Riva


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ISBN: 9781503629875

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Shadow Plays explores popular forms of entertainment used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to transport viewers to a new world, foreshadowing present-day virtual, augmented, and extended reality experiences (VR, AR, and XR). Typically studied as part of the prehistory of cinema or the archaeology of media, analog technologies such as the mondo nuovo or cosmorama, the magic lantern, the moving panorama, and the stereoscope evoked shadow copies of our world long before the advent of digital technologies and exercised a powerful pull on minds and imaginations.

Through six case histories and eight interactive simulations, Massimo Riva explores themes of virtual travel, social surveillance, and utopian imagination, shedding light on illustrious or, in some instances, forgotten figures and inventions from Italy's past. Arguing for the continuity of experience and imagination, Riva adopts the term virtual realism, an experience marked by the virtualization of the real and the realization of the virtual. At a time when the gap between simulations and "real" experiences is getting ever smaller, a cultural-historical exploration of the prehistory of virtual reality can help us better understand the present in light of the past while exploring the past using the tools forged in the present.

About the author

Massimo Riva is Professor of Italian Studies at Brown University.

"Delivering an imaginative, unexpected, and well-researched approach to Italian art history, Shadow Plays expands the language by which to imagine the arts today and resonates across disciplines with finesse and playfulness."

—Roderick Coover, Temple University

"One of the most original and provocative projects I have ever read. The case histories presented explore the social and economic impact of early optical devices, an often forgotten and yet fundamental aspect of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture."

—Massimo Ciavolella, University of California, Los Angeles