Sony Walkman headphones and virtual reality are not just outstanding examples of personal technology. In Paul Roquet’s hands, they’re also a way to learn more about Japan, the United States, and global technology trends – and ourselves.
Roquet is an associate professor of MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, and his hometown analyzes how new consumer technologies are changing the way people interact with their environments. His focus in this effort was Japan, which early adopted many of the postwar trends in personal technology.
For example, in his 2016 book “Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self” (University of Minnesota Press), Roque examines how music, films, and other media have been popularized in Japan to create a soothing, individualistic atmosphere for people. This gives people a sense of control, even though their moods are now affected by the products they consume.
In his 2022 book, “The Immersive Enclosure: Virtual Reality in Japan” (Columbia University Press), Rocket explored the impact of virtual reality technologies on users, understanding these devices as tools for closing off the outside world and interacting with others in networked settings. Roque also detailed cross-cultural pathways for virtual reality, which emerged in the United States from military and aviation applications, but in Japan centered around forms of escape entertainment.
In Roquet’s words, his work focuses firmly on “the relationship between media technologies and environmental perception, and how this relationship plays out differently in different cultural contexts.”
“There is a lot to be gained by trying to think about the same questions in different parts of the world,” he adds.
These different cultures are linked, to be sure: in Japan, for example, the English musician Brian Eno has been a major influence in understanding surrounding media. The translation of VR technologies from the United States into Japan has occurred, in part, through technologists and innovators using MIT links. Meanwhile, Japan has presented the world with the Sony Walkman, its own audio cover.
As such, Rocquet’s work is innovative, bringing together cultural trends across different media and tracing them across the globe, through the history, present, and future of technology. For his research and teaching, Rocquet was awarded a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this year.
Exchange program pays off
Rocket grew up in California, where his family moved to several different cities when he was a child. As a high school student learning Japanese at Davis, he enrolled in an exchange with Japan, the California-Japan Scholars Program, which enabled him to see the country up close. This was Roque’s first time outside the United States, and the trip had a lasting impact.
Roque continued to study Japanese language and culture during his undergraduate studies at Pomona College. He received his BA in Asian and Media Studies in 2003. Roquet also indulged his growing passion for atmospheric media by hosting a college radio program featuring mostly experimental forms of ambient music. Roquet soon discovered, to his surprise, that his show was being exhibited – with unknown effects on customers – at a local car dealership.
Japanese film was still another source of Rocquet’s emerging intellectual interests, due to the differences he noted with mainstream American cinema.
“Storytelling often works very differently,” Rockett says. “I found myself drawn to films where there was less emphasis on plot, and more emphasis on atmosphere and space.”
After graduating from college, Rocket won a Thomas J. Watson Scholarship and immediately spent a year on an ambitious research project, researching the meaning of the local acoustic landscape for residents across the Asia Pacific region – including Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the Cook Islands – as well as Canada.
“It made me aware of how people’s relationship to the sound scene varies from place to place, and how history, politics, and culture shape the sensory environment,” Roque says.
He then earned his master’s degree in 2007 from UC Berkeley, and eventually his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 2012, with a focus on Japanese Studies and a specific focus in Film Studies. His thesis formed the basis of his book Ambient Media.
After three years as fellow Andrew W. The book, as well as a collection of articles on virtual reality and other forms of environmental media.
Prepare to explore
MIT was an excellent fit, says Rocket, given his diverse interests in the relationship between technology and culture.
“One of the things I love about MIT is having a real willingness to explore newly emerging ideas and practices, even if they are not in an established disciplinary context yet,” Rockett says. “MIT allows for this interdisciplinary conversation because you have this site that ties everything together.”
Roque has also taught a wide range of undergraduate classes, including Introductions to Japanese Media Studies and Culture; A course in Japanese and Korean cinema. Post about Japanese literature and cinema. And a course in digital media in Japan and Korea. This semester, he teaches a new course on Critical Methods for Immersive Media Studies.
Among the undergraduates at MIT, Roquet notes, “They have an amazing range of interests, and that means class discussions shift from year to year in really interesting ways.
Whatever piques their curiosity, they are always willing to dig deep.”
When it comes to his ongoing research, Rocket explores how the increasing use of immersive media is transforming society’s relationship to the current physical landscape.
“These kinds of questions are not asked nearly enough,” Rockett says. “There is a lot of focus on what virtual spaces offer to the consumer, but there are always environmental and social impacts that are created by introducing new layers of mediation between the person and the world around them. Not to mention the manufacture of headphones that often go out of fashion within a couple of years.”
Wherever his work takes place, Rocquet will continue to be engaged in a career-long project of exploring cultural and historical differences between countries in order to broaden our understanding of media and technology.
“I don’t want to argue that Japan is fundamentally different from the United States, these histories are very intertwined, and there are a lot of [between the countries]Roque says. “But also, when you pay close attention to local contexts, you can reveal fundamental differences in how media technologies are understood and used. These can teach us a lot and challenge our assumptions.”