Virtual Realism: The Art of Virtual Reality



Cover – Virtual Realism
Virtual Realism
By Michael Heim
Oxford: Oxford University Press (1998)
excerpt from pp. 162-167, 171



A screen saver aglow on a monitor with a pretty nature motif will not get us outdoors. Blue skies and fleecy clouds may be restful and calming on a computer monitor when you are installing a Microsoft Windows operating system, but a company logo can hardly reconnect us to nature. Not even a live performance of Debussy’s La Mer or oceanic symphonies by Sibelius can pull that off.

One extraordinary VR experiment reaches out to nature in the recent art work Osmose by Char Davies, who directs visual research at Montreal’s SoftImage, a 3-D animation software company owned by Microsoft. After years of creating artistically stunning computer graphics, Char Davies decided to turn computers back to nature. She has thought long and hard about nature and cyberspace, and Osmose is an ongoing VR work that expresses her thoughts as well as those of her team: Georges Mauro in graphics, John Harrison in VR software, Rick Bidlack in music, and Dorota Blaszczak in design and sound processing. Osmose was first exhibited in Fall, 1995 in Montreal and New York City galleries, and it has been widely reviewed.

The gallery description of Osmose states:

Osmose is an immersive virtual space exploring the interrelation between exterior Nature and interior Self. The work explores the potential of immersive virtual space as a medium for visual/aural expression and kinaesthetic experience of philosophical ideas. In biology, osmosis is a process involving passage from one side of a membrane to another. Osmosis as a metaphor means the transcendence of difference through mutual absorption, the dissolution of boundaries between inner and outer, the inter-mingling of self and world, the longing for the Other. Osmose as an art work seeks to heal the rational Cartesian mind/body subject/object split which has shaped so many of our cultural values, especially towards nature.

The hardware for Osmose uses a head-mounted display, but, in an important way, eliminates the data glove commonly used in conjunction with the HMD. Instead of navigating by pointing a finger or grasping objects with the hand, the immersed participant directs movement through a vest fitted with breathing and balance sensors. By inhaling, the immersant floats up, and by exhaling the immersant sinks down, all the while body orientation—forward/backward and left/right—controls the direction. As we shall see, Osmose models VR on scuba diving. Char Davies abandoned the dataglove with clear intent. As I suggested in The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (1993):

Some date the advent of VR to the moment when the dataglove appeared on the computer screen. At that moment, the user became visible as an active, involved force in the digital world. This implies that VR tilts toward manipulation, even toward aggressive, first-person attitudes. The VR artist will need strategies for inducing a more receptive atmosphere, so that the user can be open in all directions, receiving signals from and having empathy for other beings. The user must be able to be touched, emotionally moved, by non-first-person entities in the virtual world. [1]

Precisely for these reasons, Char Davies avoids the computer gaming setup that typically makes virtual reality a hard-edged medium for shoot’em-up games. By controlling movement through breath and balance, the immersant slips out of the role of an isolated ego/eye that confronts, controls, and then dominates the entities of the world. With breath as a navigation tool, the immersant deepens the awareness of internal states, so that Osmose brings most participants to a state of meditation in about ten minutes. The drive to control things is gradually displaced by an awareness of simply being with things. Instead of moving toward objects to score them, the immersant swims with things in a state that merges proprioception with the things in the virtual world.

Conventional computer graphics consist of solid, textured, polygon blocks arrayed in empty space and rendered according to the Renaissance perspective that tapers the scene to fit the ego/eye (Cartesian ego). The isolated ego/eye has no alternative but to face off and oppose the hard-edged objects that present themselves before the eyes like targets. Instead of these solid polygon-based blocks, Davies introduces soft-edged, semi-transparent luminous particles (doubly appropriate for Microsoft’s SoftImage). Not only the soft substances but the general types of these diaphanous entities melts the ego’s sense of opposition. The entities in Osmose consist of a forest; a clearing; a pond; a leaf; some text and literature seen through a fog; and a world made of giant lines of green code. The soothing interaction with trees, clouds, water, and plants dissolves the boundary between inner sensations and outer environment. Nature, as reconstituted by Davies, recalls the peace and healing that we feel when visiting natural areas. The osmosis itself blurs the fluid lines between subject and object, self and world, between what I see before me and what I feel about what I see. One description of the experience runs:

First I find myself in a 3-D Cartesian wireframe grid. I inhale and gradually begin to rise: if I lean forward I move forward, lean back, and I move backwards. I’m flying. I have no physical form, yet I am whole. Gradually, a thick fog begins to rise over the grid, leaves appear through the fog, and the grid is gone. Everywhere I look there are more leaves. I move through them, in them, around them. I fly over them, yet more appear above me. Am I lost? No. I am surrounded by a thick forest of leaves of all shapes and colors. It is dusk one minute, night the next. I float as if I am swimming deep in the ocean, yet I know I am in the air.

There, on the edge, a clearing in the distance. I exhale and begin to descend into the clearing. Bend my knees and I fly faster. Finally, I am out of the dense forest and into a cozy clearing. Some leaves lie on the pound, a pond, a stream, and huge oak tree generously giving its shade. I drink it in. I cruise around this area. I want to touch the tree but because I have no physical form, I cannot. I glide up through the leaves of the tree and surround myself with their damp, exquisite beauty. There, look at that leaf. I’m going to go right through it. Inside a leaf, look at this. I’m sliding along the inside of a leaf. [2]

Although a head-mounted display seals the immersant in Osmose, an audience can vicariously witness the journey from within the larger installation space. The installation space remains relatively dark while two openings allow light to stream into the space: one light is a horizontal stereoscopic video projection showing the journey as the immersant perceives it; another light on a vertical screen projects the shadow of the immersant’s silhouette sans cables and tracking devices. The same resonant, evocative sounds heard by the immersant—usually a re-mixed and synthesized male or female voice—fill the installation space. The view for the audience is not unlike watching a scuba diver swimming in an indoor tank—though the analogy should not diminish the poetic strangeness of the installation.

In fact, Osmose draws inspiration from Char Davies’s own scuba diving. This virtual world floats the human being in a comforting fluid space not unlike undersea exploration. The scuba diver also dons encumbering gear to enter immersive space, and Osmose has no gravity, nor does the immersant need to remain vertical. The diver also moves through liquid space by affecting bodily buoyancy through subtle breath control. In both diving and Osmose, the horizontal spatial plane gains over the vertical gravitational plane. With lowered resistance, a harmony arises between the swimmer and what is met in the sea of experience. It is no accident that the French word Osmose (in English “osmosis”) connotes hydrotherapy, Jacuzzi’s, and health spas. The goal of total relaxation comes out in Davies’s statement: “Osmose is a space where people who are stressed out from urban living can become re-sensitized to their own being. For me, this has important ecological implications.” [3] The art work aims at creating a suspended, dream-like state of mind to encourage the immersant to let go, lose the urge for rational control, and allow the boundaries between inner mind and outer body to dissolve.
The softening of hard space for the sake of an affect-laden environment was described by the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, cited frequently by Davies: “The space of intimacy and the space of the world blend through their ‘immensity’. When human solitude deepens, then the two immensities touch and become identical.” [4] This paradox makes a virtue out of the falcon-hood solitude of the head-mounted display. Excluding outside stimuli leads the solitary participant to experience a harmony prepared by the artist. The immersant’s deepening solitude, like the lone undersea diver, opens a new relationship to the virtual environment. The harmony of the virtual environment arises from art and technology, not from any imitation of the actual outdoors. Osmosis occurs when the line softens between inner and outer sensory awareness.

Bachelard, like most postmodern philosophers, sought to undermine the walls of detached subjectivity. Since Edmund Husserl, the founder of the phenomenological movement, many twentieth-century thinkers have sought to break the bubble of ego-defined experience. Many thinkers even believe that the most basic of all questions revolves around the possible existence of “other minds.” Ironically, most begin, like Husserl, with a study of Descartes’ Meditations, where the cogito sum teaches them to doubt everything outside themselves. Even where the softened, amorphous ego learns to relax this initial suspicion, what it finds outside remains at best “the Other.” The effort to purify subjectivity brought Husserl, at the end of his life, to study the “life world,” but his idealist premise insured that the Lebenswelt would always remain an object of study rather than a place for pragmatic activity. Not surprisingly, the notion of psychic frameworks, as developed in Electric Language (1987), came out of studies in phenomenology.
Char Davies makes clear that Osmose is an art work neither a representation of nature, nor a realistic surrogate:

Osmose is not a replacement for walking in the woods. It is rather a filtering of Nature through an artist’s vision, using technology to distill or amplify certain interpretive aspects, so that those who enter it can see freshly, can become re-sensitized, and can remember what it’s like to feel wonder. [5]

Osmose is an art work that says as much about technology, and the potential of technology, as it says about nature. It provides only a little support for the eco-psychologists who claim that we must regain contact with the outdoors in order to retrain our sensory life, that aggression and civil violence relate to the fact that urban dwellers have literally lost touch with the healing experiences that come from spending a few hours a day in a natural environment. Osmose provides an ambivalent commentary on the fact that we are caught in the technological net while at the same time we sense that our healing lies elsewhere. The effect of Osmose is to make VR technology knock on our doors to remind us what lies outside. Like the tea ceremony, the art work can tune us for the real performance, but we do not want to stare at the finger and miss the moon to which it is pointing.

Osmose makes profound contributions to cyberspace. At a time when VRML and 3-D graphics are about to enrich the global visual language, Osmose extends the range of design and sets higher standards for VR. Unlike VRML, however, Osmose is not about communication but about self-transformation and about design that challenges communication technology to get outside itself. For virtual realists, Osmose means fresh air.

1. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, p. 127.

2. Excerpts from a personal account by Mark J. Jones in CyberStage, (Fall 1995), p. 24.
3. Jones, from an interview with the artist.

4. “C’est par leur ‘immensité’ que les deux espaces : l’espace de l’intimite et l’espace du monde deviennent consonants. euand s’approfondit la grande solitude de l’homme, les deux immensités se touchent, se confondent” Gaston Bachelard, La Poétique de l’espace, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, (1974), p 184.
5. Char Davies, “Osmose: Notes on ‘Being’ in Immersive Virtual Space, … , October 1995.