“The true artist is the man who leaves pictures of his own time as they appear to him. ”
— Stephen Crane


Softimage’s Director of Visual Research Char Davies uses the power of Silicon Graphics workstations to take art to a new level. Instead of creating pictures, she immerses the whole being of the viewer in her vision of the world, a world of gentle interactions with nature. To do this, she conceived OSMOSE, a virtual space for exploring the interplay between exterior world and interior self. “The desire to reaffirm our place in the world, as sentient embodied beings in enveloping space, and to heal the estrangement between ourselves and nature is the germinal force behind OSMOSE,” Davies explains.

OSMOSE is an immersive interactive virtual environment using state-of-the-art digital technology — including stereoscopic 3D computer graphics, a head mounted display, real-time motion capture, and live stereoscopic video projection. Created by a team led by Char Davies at Softimage in Montreal, OSMOSE was produced by Microsoft Softimage, with graphics by Georges Mauro, virtual reality software by John Harrison, sound design and programming by Dorota Blaszczak, and music composition and programming by Rick Bidlack.

In the Land of OSMOSE

OSMOSE can be experienced in two ways: as an individual, or “immersant,” interacting with the virtual environment, or as a member of an audience vicariously witnessing the immersant’s journey through a video projection as it happens in real-time.

A dozen virtual worlds exist, all connected to one another in various ways, in a vertical or horizontal direction. An entrance world, called a Cartesian Grid, is used to orient the individual participant, while an exit world, Lifeworld, reorients the immersant at the end of the session. In between lie eight worlds based on archetypal elements of nature: Clearing, Tree, Leaf, Forest, Cloud, Subterranean Earth, Pond, and Abyss. Bracketing these worlds are two others: Text, above, containing lines of poetic and philosophical texts on nature and technology, and Code, below, containing 25,000 lines of the custom software used to create the work.

Tree, from Osmose, 1995
Digital still image captured during immersive performance of the virtual environment, Osmose

Most sessions last 20 minutes. But getting through all the worlds is not the point of the experience. You’re not racing the clock to earn points or find hidden treasure locked behind some door. What Davies wants you to find is your own hidden self, locked behind the doors of perception.

First, a bulky 12-pound display headgear and a chest harness with sensors to measure lung capacity and motion. Dangling cables connect you to the computer.

In the first world, a 3D Cartesian wireframe grid, you get a feeling for the virtual space. Lean forward and you move forward in the world of OSMOSE. Inhale and you rise, though your body remains standing in a dimly lit room. Suddenly, you feel like you’re flying, bodiless, free, or floating deep in the ocean.

Next, you enter a clearing. In the center of the clearing stands a leafless, skeletal tree. Bubbles of light flow upward through the tree. The tree, and everything else in the world of OSMOSE, is impressionistic, like entering a Monet. Images are vague, foggy, rendered in soft, muted colors, mostly browns and tans. And everything is transparent. You can pass through anything. You can go right through rocks. You can go inside a leaf and follow a stream of glowing molecules, like enchanted forest sprites, up the stem. Sound as well as sight in OSMOSE is 3-D interactive In the Forest, when you move closer to watch ants climbing a tree, the tree emits sounds. When you dive into the Pond, you see fish and you also feel the sound of fish moving by you.

If you inhale deeply, you float up into the Cloud world. Above the clouds, you encounter lines of poetry by Rilke and Dylan Thomas. If you sigh, you plummet down through the Subterranean Earth of rocks, streams, little shiny molecules. If you lean forward, you follow the stream to the Pond, where you discover an Abyss in the ocean. If you exhale again and dive along a wall, you encounter phosphorescent green lines of computer code, accompanied by quirky music. You emerge into the Lifeworld.

When OSMOSE was introduced to the public at the Museum of Modem Art in Montreal in August 1995, the show was packed for six weeks. Then it moved on to the Rico/Maresca Gallery in New York. To date, over 1,000 people have experienced OSMOSE, with an overwhelming response. As one immersant describes it: “OSMOSE exceeded all my expectations of a virtual experience. The virtual world is subjectively experienced as being as ‘real’ as the actual physical world. It is an artwork that is experienced, not viewed.”

The Technology

OSMOSE was in the works for two years. First Davies developed the concept, the content, and the visual aesthetic.

It took one year for the programming and three months for the sound. The 3D models and textures were built using Microsoft Softimage 3D. The program uses proprietary software developed by John Harrison, rather than Softimage Channels, to drive the 3-D interaction. It runs on a Silicon Graphics parallel processing Onyx workstation with eight CPUs. The image is projected in 3-D using polarizing filters.

Char Davies, Forest grid, from Osmose, 1995
Char Davies, Forest grid, from Osmose, 1995
Digital image captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live performance.

One technique Davies’ team developed for rendering environments in 3-D realtime was to use semi-transparent luminous particles instead of solid polygonal blocks. To program the visuals they use 10,000 polygons and 12,000 triangles. To create the Leaf world, for example, they scanned in 300 leaves, texture-mapped onto triangles. Then they recycle the triangles so the forest seems to be infinite. It’s played back in 3-D realtime using SGI Performer. Objects are texture-mapped to glow. One trick the team developed for redrawing objects at video speed of 30 frames per second was to redraw objects so that they’re always facing the viewer. This eliminates texturemapping the back of things.

To create the 3D interactive sound, the team got sounds from samplers. They sampled human voices, one male, one female. The sounds, like the images, are ambiguous.

Breath and Balance

Davies is not the first to use breathing as part of the technology But, as she explains, it’s not a matter of being first, it’s how you use it. “In OSMOSE, breathing is being used in a very specific way, not only for the navigational aspects but also to help people reconnect to the body which puts them in a certain state of mind. This in turn affects how they interact. OSMOSE is based on getting people into the state where they let go of the urge to be in control. Most interactive technology is about being in control. When you’re playing games, you’re being rewarded for your skill in being in control, your quick reflexes.”

In OSMOSE, you’re rewarded for gentleness, for letting go. The more calm and gentle you become, the richer and deeper the experience becomes. A friend of Davies says, “So much of work is about getting pleasure through adrenaline, whereas OSMOSE is about getting pleasure through ecstasy It’s about time.” Davies explains it in slightly different words: “OSMOSE promotes calmness, receptivity, serenity When you become serene enough, there’s a kind of euphoria. In OSMOSE, people feel a very quiet kind of euphoria.”


Davies doesn’t like to be called a computer artist. “I’m using the computer as a tool. It doesn’t define the art. The graphics was developing in my work as a painter 15 years ago. For example, an oil painting I did in 1981 was full of lights and flecks. The reason I got involved with computers is that the content that I wanted to express as an artist and the aesthetics that I developed to express that content are isomorphic. At one point, painting was no longer adequate as a medium for expressing what I wanted to say. I wanted to describe an enveloping space. How do you describe an enveloping space on a flat plane?”

That’s one of the reasons Davies went to Softimage. In 1985 she saw a computer animation that Daniel Langlois did, before he started Softimage, of little points of light. It was done through optical printing. Davies joined Softimage a year after Langlois founded the company, when he only had three people, because she wanted access to the technology “I got involved in helping to build Softimage, though I wasn’t a founder,” Davies quickly adds. “When the company got big enough I went back into visual research and started doing a whole series of still images with the software. Those images were very similar in content and aesthetics to OSMOSE but even though they were being done in 3-D space, they were still on a flat plane. I still wasn’t able to express my ideas, so that’s why I finally moved to this medium — which I prefer to call immersive virtual space rather than virtual reality — because only through that medium it might be possible to express that luminous enveloping space. I think that’s why there’s a maturity in OSMOSE, because I didn’t come to work with the technology for technology’s sake.”

Push the Tools

Davies feels she had a twofold mission with OSMOSE. “First, I wanted to express my artistic vision, which is what gives OSMOSE its authenticity and its power, because it has that artistic integrity in it. Second, my role in visual research was to push the tools, push the medium to be able to express serenity, because it’s not used very often in virtual reality I feel OSMOSE can set a new standard for virtual reality, that it can be something else than what people usually think it is. Rather than games, rather than all the useful didactic applications in medicine and education, it also has another potential that is much more philosophical. It can be used to help people strip away their worries and habits and get down to experiencing a place that is very profound in terms of being human, and just being.”

Davies admits that her research and the technology are still in the early stages of development.

As state-of-the-art technology, OSMOSE is impressive. But as art, the computer-generated graphic component still lags behind in its ability to produce a spectacular level of detail.

OSMOSE seems to be succeeding in its second purpose. For many, the experience is deeply personal, emotional, even spiritual.

Transcending boundaries. In the words of one immersant, “It’s the most evocative exploration of consciousness that I have experienced since I can’t remember when.”

Cartesian World View

Davis believes that “our whole culture is based on a Cartesian world view of separation: I and it, self and world, subject-object. My own desire to heal the schism between outer and inner is probably based on an epiphanic experience I had 20 years ago, in a field at dusk, when suddenly for an instant the boundaries of my mind expanded to merge with the horizon, creating a sense of union between self and world that I have longed for ever since.”

OSMOSE is Davies’ attempt to get around those cultural values and to show that in fact things are deeply connected, including the technology “Technology is full of those conventions,” Davies explains, “Cartesian space, linear perspective, hard-edge objects, photo-realism, all those things that express those Cartesian values. It’s a matter of circumventing and subverting those conventions of the technology, because form and content are isomorphic, they reflect each other I have to do that to be able to express those values. In some ways OSMOSE is a very political work. It’s attempting to show another way of being as opposed to our regular way of being based on these Cartesian values of I’m separate from this and I’m dominating and I’m going to be in control In that way it’s a very female space.”

It’s ironic that in the most manmade place, New York, and using the most man-made technology, virtual reality, you can experience inner space. “That’s where it’s most necessary,” Davis says. “That’s exactly why I’m doing it. This is the cutting-edge technology of our time. Therefore it speaks to people in a different way I feel the message in OSMOSE is very urgent because people have lost touch with that sense of themselves and that connection with the world, especially here, and I feel that to use that cutting-edge technology speaks to people who are more technological, they’re more receptive to it. This is where it belongs. In fact, we’re going to bring inner-city kids from Harlem Horizon who are all painters and put them in OSMOSE. There’s also a very well- known doctor who deals with autistic kids and she may come down. It’s another kind of healing through art.”

Some critics have focused on the apparent contradiction in OSMOSE. Reconnecting with nature by using a purely technological medium. Why not just take a quiet stroll through the woods?

But Davies is clear about her purpose. “OSMOSE does not seek to replace Nature. Immersion within it is not a replacement for walking in the woods. OSMOSE is a filtering of Nature through an artist’s vision, using technology to distill or amplify certain interpretive aspects, so that those who enter OSMOSE can see freshly, can become re-sensitized, and can remember what it’s like to feel wonder.”

Interactivity and Transformation

Now that OSMOSE is out in the world, what’s next? “OSMOSE is only the beginning,” Davies says. The team plans to continue their research for at least another year. “The next project will have certain similarities to OSMOSE because as an artist the imagery, the content that’s been present in my work for many years will remain constant,” Davies continues, “but there are a lot of different things we didn’t get to explore in OSMOSE that we’re going to explore in the next project. They have a lot to do with interactivity and transformation. The interface, what I call the interactive aesthetic of OSMOSE, is key to what we’re doing.

Breath and balance will continue to be the main form. By working with breath, it not only reaffirms the role of the body in OSMOSE, which tends to be denied, forgotten, or downplayed in all this technology, especially immersive technology, but it makes people more relaxed, helps get them into this other state. People are having an out-of-body experience, but one that is embodied at the same time because the breathing constantly grounds them in the body and returns them, very much like meditation. It’s also a lot like deep sea diving. In the next project we will probably start incorporating some other technology in terms of the interface, but the breathing and balance will remain core.”

Where does Davies see herself in two years or five years? “It’s impossible to know,” she muses. But she’s certain about one thing. “As an artist I’ll spend my life expressing a certain vision. I’m doomed or blessed to spend my life expressing that to other people and perhaps to transform them in some way, so that’s what I’ll keep doing. I don’t have a choice.”


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Put online: June 2017. Last verified: June 24th, 2017.