The Trial

STEPPING through the gauzy curtains, Michael Syrovatka screams and lurches backwards. In the real world, he is on the first floor of the Goethe-Institut (GI) in Prague. In the virtual one created by his headset, he has just looked into a mirror to find he has turned into a giant insect. “I jumped when I saw myself,” Mr Syrovatka says, as other pupils from Prague’s Austrian Grammar School take turns in the installation. They had arrived sullenly, expecting a lecture. Soon they are chattering about how it feels to be Gregor Samsa.

“The opening of ‘The Metamorphosis’ is a nightmare,” says Mika Johnson, a lecturer at Prague Film School and a Franz Kafka fanatic. In Kafka’s story Gregor wakes to find himself transformed into a speechless bug. His family bangs on the door, pleading with him to respond; his boss berates him. To Mr Johnson and his team, Gregor’s anguish was ideal for virtual-reality (VR) adaptation. “It’s a perfect coincidence of technology and text,” says Berthold Franke, regional head of the GI, the German cultural association that funded the project. “You’re transformed by the headset, then you’re transformed again in the story.”

“VRwandlung”—the name plays on the story’s German title “Die Verwandlung”—is on view in Prague until the end of March. It both showcases a new way to enrich literature, and implicitly demonstrates what is irreducibly special about reading. Visitors find themselves in Gregor Samsa’s bedroom; looking down reveals a greyish carapace and six stick-like limbs. Walking around brings floppy antennae into view. A window reveals a drab street. A mirror reflects the predicament that he is—you are—in. The entreaties of mother, father, sister and boss meld with the patter of rain and an ever-faster heartbeat.

“Imagine the strain and stress he’s under,” Mr Johnson says. “I wanted to preserve all that in the hope of triggering real emotional responses.” That he appears to have done. Taking off the headset, Susanne Reif-Breitwieser, Mr Syrovatka’s German teacher, exhales sharply. “I’m glad I’m not an insect,” she says. “Those annoying antennae, that complete helplessness.”

If enthusiasts such as Mr Johnson have their way, literature may be in line for the virtual treatment, after VR-gaming and VR-pornography. “VRwandlung” reveals the technology’s potential, and its constraints. One is cost. Immersive VR-systems rely on expensive infrared grids to track users through sensors on their hands and feet, meaning spaces are small. Interaction with computer-generated effects is especially pricey. Then there is the problem of a book’s finitude: the inevitable ending contradicts the basic premise of VR, namely that the user can decide the outcome.

In other ways, of course, in its metaphors and ironies Kafka’s story is much richer and more provocative than an installation could match. Ms Reif-Breitwieser identifies one deficiency. Praising the project for making a classic enticing to her students, she quibbles with the depiction of the creature. Kafka famously used an indeterminate term, Ungeziefer, to describe Gregor’s new form (English translations such as “insect” or “vermin” do not convey its ambiguity). He implored his publisher not to illustrate the beast. “I felt immersed in it,” says Ms Reif-Breitwieser, “but I’m not sure it’s Kafka’s world.”

Still, other devotees are working on metamorphoses of their own. Along with his students, Joseph Nugent of Boston College is applying VR to James Joyce’s masterpiece “Ulysses”. “You can’t map a city with all its things and its people—the technology is not there and it would be way too expensive,” Mr Nugent acknowledges. “You have no chance to replicate the pace or complexity” of the novel. All the same, in the past two years his students have reconstructed five scenes, even if they are mere “slivers” of the book’s depths.

Aware of the obstacles, Mr Johnson set out to find a text that fits the parameters of the technology. It occurred to him that the opening of “The Metamorphosis” takes place in a small room and that, initially, interaction with other characters and objects is minimal. Gregor’s reactions are paramount, allowing the VR-user to slip into a largely passive role. To heighten the experience he eschewed a purely computer-generated set. Instead a scale model was built, photographed and “stitched together” into a virtual, 3D world—a homage, Mr Johnson says, to “classic Czech animation films”, which also gave the room and its surfaces “more texture”. “Let’s be clear,” he emphasises, “it’s an adaptation in VR, it’s not a reproduction of the text.”

For all that, “VRwandlung” captures the allure and risks of modernity in Kafkaesque style. Reiner Stach, a Kafka biographer who helped with the project, thinks the author “would have loved a new technology like this.” Kafka once fantasised about combining stereoscopic postcard-viewers with moving pictures to create 3D films. “But he would have immediately seen the dangers, too,” Mr Stach adds. What if VR became so immersive that people preferred it to reality? “He would have found that idea unheimlich.”