What Is It Like to Be A (VR) Bat?

The research based art work ‘What is it like to be a virtual bat?’ is the second in a series of multispecies, sensory ethnographies around the ecosystems of Lantau Island, Hong Kong, and is an attempt to acknowledge the limitations of human sensory capacities and how technology can be used to ‘mediate’ these constraints and embody more-than-human experiences. ‘What is it like to be a virtual bat?’ takes a similar approach in using technology to communicate the ‘more-than-human’ experience of the non-human inhabitants of Lantau by focusing on the native lesser short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus brachyotis) while also incorporating philosophical and anthropological perspectives. The starting point is philosopher Thomas Nagel’s seminal 1973 essay ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ which introduced the problem of qualia or the ‘hard-problems of consciousness’ to philosophy. It asks whether the mind is reducible to an emergent faculty of the brain and human physiology or if an aspect of the ‘raw feels’ of consciousness, the subjective quality of experience, is irreducible to the material structures of the brain. In Nagel’s essay, he conducts a thought experiment by asking the question of whether it is possible to ever understand what it is like to be a bat. If the answer is yes, then it would suggest that consciousness is not mysterious and perfectly replicable which opens the possibility for artificial intelligence. Conversely, if the subjective experience of a bat cannot be ever fully understood by a human, since the subject cannot ever embody the cumulation of life and bodily experiences of being a bat, then it means that consciousness is essentially a phenomenon closed off from human understanding. At a more fundamental level, Nagel’s essay addresses the long standing mind-body problem in philosophy; the dualist and physicalist position which proposes that the brain creates the mind and is impossible without it versus the idealist perspective which suggests that all material matter is created by the mind itself and cannot exist without the perceiving subject. It is a question about the nature of reality, and whether we construct it through our consciousness or we are ourselves the mere illusory products of a material universe. 

Ng and Bisenieks’s approach to this question is empirical and draws from the latest research in the field of VR, which has recently focused on the possibility of animal embodiment and the sensations of presence this induce, as strategies for creating greater empathy between humans and animals. Working with drones, virtual reality and 3D scanning and photogrammetry, it attempts to simulate the sensorimotor contingencies of what it is like to be a bat in order to ask the question of whether, in simulating the physical properties of being a bat, we can get close to the subjective qualitative experience of being one. At the same time, the project attempts to engage with a neglected aspect within animal embodiment using VR, which has a bearing on Nagel’s approach to the question of qualia, which is the transitory, liminal states between human and animal and how important these are to the possibility of understanding the experience of non-human ontologies. Drawing on ethnographic and anthropological research on shamanism and the mediatory roles which ritual takes in guiding the transition from human to animal perspectives, the work will complement the VR bat simulation with a sound sculpture which creates a ritual sonic environment through hypnotic narration and field recordings drawn from research on the biological, cultural and historical lives of the bat in Lantau Island and cantonese culture in Hong Kong.

The work will take the form of a year long process of field work on the short nosed bat in Lantau and research and prototype development for the VR bat system. Intermittent ‘field reports’ will be updated on the project page of the ‘Are You For Real?’ website.

The work will finally culminate with online and ‘real’ world presentations; a VR version of the work be presented as a 360 video online, which can be downloaded and experienced on a head mounted display. The physical version of the piece will be presented in two parts, the first is a sound sculpture presented through a spatial array of speakers in a sound-proofed room, which is presented as a liminal space for transition into being a bat. The second is the digital simulation of being a bat, presented in a CAVE virtual reality system, which projection maps a 3D environment onto the walls of a room to create an immersive, sensory experience for the audience.


October-December 2021


This first phase of the project will involve the production of a essay which engages with the various interlocking disciplinary approaches to the question of consciousness and reality which Zheng Mahler’s work seeks to examine. The first section will involve a detailed discussion of Thomas Nagel’s essay and the critical responses to his proposition–that the subjective experience of consciousness is fundamentally unknowable–focusing on responses from philosopher of the mind Daniel Dennet in his seminal text ‘Consciousness Explained’ and neurophilosopher Kathleen Atkin’s acerbic and critical response to Nagel’s essay, ‘What is it like to be boring and myopic?’ That piece takes an empirical approach to Nagel’s question, and delves into the physiology and neurophysiology of the bats echolocation system and the way this information is processed. Atkin’s argues that the question itself is poorly formed in that a scientific analysis of the way the bat ‘experiences’ the world reveals that there is no experience at all, only a closed loop between sensory input and direct motor action and that there is no ‘point-of-view’ to speak of, only physiological responses. What is of interest to us in Atkin’s approach is that it sidesteps the question of qualia, it uses a scientific framework to investigate the problem by detailing the current understanding of bats echolocation and how it is processed neurologically. While her response is ultimately unsatisfying, it does provide an alternative methodological perspective from which to consider Nagel’s question: technology. 


The use of virtual and augmented reality as instruments for scientific experimentation has blossomed in the fields of psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience in the past five years since the commercial release of affordable VR and AR systems like HTC Vive and Microsoft Hololens. Most of the studies conducted using these immersive technologies are predicated on the cognitive illusion of ‘virtual presence’ which they are capable of triggering. Simply put, presence is the ability for an immersive system to induce physical sensations in the body despite the immateriality of that virtual experience–one can feel presence in a virtual body in VR and suffer from vertigo standing on the edge of a tall building even though one cognitively knows that the experience is entirely virtual. There is a small emerging field in VR that focuses on ‘animal embodiment’, pioneered by researchers like Max Rheiner with the Birdly Project and in the field of computer science by the Andrey Krekhov and his team at the University of Duisburg, these experiments have focused on altering anthropocentrism in VR gaming as well as increasing senses of empathy between humans and animals.  These studies essentially put the user into the body of an animal and subjects them to the usual scientific measures of ‘presence’ in studies conducted using VR, mostly focusing on autonomic responses in the sympathetic nervous system such as galvanic skin response, blood pressure and heart rate changes. In some ways, this can be understood as ‘virtual qualia’, which offers a novel methodology for simulating what it is like to be a bat while applying the framework of animal embodiment to a philosophical question. Essentially, these systems are capable of generating the ‘feeling’ of being someone, somewhere or something, which offers the practical possibility to test Nagel’s proposition using scientific methods. 


This section of the essay will finally focus on the anthropological approach to the question of becoming animal, considering the transition between human and animal states as important as the altered state of being an animal itself. It willl draw from ethnographic literature looking at shamanic practices which are used to guide the process of embodying animal being. Examples will be taken from the seminal work of archeologist J. David Lewis-Williams on San Rock Art and early images of humans taking on animal forms, the work of anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro on shamans becoming jaguars amongst Amerindian Amazonian cultures, alongside the rich scholarship on tiger rituals in Tungus-Manchu culture across eurasian shamanistic practices. 


January-March 2022

This phase of the project will involve field research on Lantau Island, in and around the village of Mui Wo to identify the varieties of bad species which live in the area. Several methods of identification will be borrowed from systems used by bat workers to conduct surveys of bat populations, with the data collected using these field techniques becoming the basis for visual and sound based art works to be published on the ‘Are You For Real?’ website.  


Roosting and feeding areas for the bats will be located using visual identification techniques, with Hong Kong bats known to inhabit caves, drain pipes and the palm fronds of the Chinese Fan-Palm and banana leaves. The bats species known to inhabit Lantau Island include the Short-nosed Fruit Bat (Cynopterus sphinx), Himalayan Roundleaf Bat (Hipposideros armiger), Pomona Roundleaf Bat (Hipposideros pomona), Greater Bent Winged Bat (Miniopterus magnater), Intermediate and Large Horseshoe Bats (Miniopterus magnater).


The active acoustic identification of bat species inhabiting a demarcated area in Mui Wo will be conducted using an ultrasonic microphone connected to a real-time spectrogram which will make recordings of bats feeding in specific areas. The spectrogram recordings will be compared with spectrograms of the bats calls made in other geographical locations to help with identification while the the recordings will also use heterodyne techniques to pitch shift the calls into to human audible ranges. These recordings and the accompanying spectrograms will be presented on the website as field documentation. 


Using a modified camera in which the dichroic filter used for filtering out infrared light has been removed and replaced with colour filters for absorbing visible spectrums, video documentation of the bats in the landscape will be created, and turned into heat mapped thermal videos in order to see the flight paths and behavior of the bats. 


Photos of the various environments in Lantau which the bats inhabit will be taken using analogue cameras and infrared film. These photos will capture the strange, unearthly reflected infrared light from the moon on the tropical landscapes which the bats inhabit and also be documented on the ‘Are You For Real?’ website and become a part of the exhibition. 


April-June 2022

A study of the echolocation systems of the bats will be conducted through a literature review of bat physiology and neurology focusing on the ways in which the ultrasonic CM and FM calls of the bats are reflected off prey and features in the landscape, and the way those return signals directly influence the motor behavior of the bats flight. This in turn will form the basis for the development of a drone system which incorporates a version of the bats echolocation system built using microcontrollers and ultrasonic sensors alongside mounted infrared cameras. Drone recordings will be made using these cameras and sensors collecting data as the basis for the VR systems which simulate the experience of being a bat. These drone flight videos using the electronic echolocation system will be documented on the website. 


July-September 2022

This final phase of the project will involve incorporating all of the material generated during our field research and data collection as the basis for a VR simulation of the qualia of being a bat on Lantau Island. Elements of bat physiology and biology which will be simulated including  its echolocation system so that users can trigger ultrasonic ‘screams’ which will bounce off objects and reveal features of the landscape in close proximity. Coupled with this will be a 3D generated version of the Lantau environment rendered only in the low visible light available to bats visual system and the ultraviolet blue and infrared frequencies which they perceive in the dark. The environmental sounds of the landscape will be recorded using ultrasonic microphones and using cymatics will be represented as pulsating waveforms bouncing off objects. Finally, the ability for virtual flight will be added to the system to allow audiences to experience the landscape on Lantau from the perspective of a bat. A version of the VR system will be downloadable as a Unity game from the ‘Are You For Real?’ website. 

Authors: Royce Ng, Daisy Bisenieks