As long as there has been technology, there has been a fear of what that technology might eventually bring. In terms of computers, there has been speculation they might one day think for themselves, without a human helping hand. Might there ever be a day when your hard drive declines to do as it is told, instead quoting its spiritual leader — the computer HAL from the film "2001: A Space Odyssey," who told his human master: "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."

Almost 30 years after that film came out, sentient computers remain merely a nice plot device for f/x films. But for creative people, another threat remains — are computer tools dehumanizing the creative process? It's a question that bothers old-hand computer gurus and novices alike.

"The computer in and of itself does not have the power to dehumanize," says Chris Landreth, a computer research animator at software developer Alias/Wavefront. However, Landreth does feel that because the computer has the capacity to endlessly perform the tedious tasks necessary to build images, it is often used as an artistic "crutch" by less than creative computer initiates. In other words, Landreth believes the results depend on who is using the computer. He admits new technologies have a tendency to encourage creativity by rote in some cases. Such use can, and often does, lead to mind-dulling results, Landreth feels.

'Artistic tool'

"We tend to ignore all the wondrous possibilities inherent in using the computer as an artistic tool," he says. "Like prepackaged food, our creative choices often look re-used, boring or aesthetically weak. "

Mark Dippe, director of the upcoming New Line pic, " Spawn," set for a '97 release, agrees. "Whether or not the computer is used in a creative way goes right back to the human being sitting in front of it. Metaphorically speaking, the computer is just a new kind of camera or animatronic puppet — a new backlot if you will, for which the human element is essential."

Dippe also points out that computers have the potential to open up and expand creative universes,, when used in a such a way as to allow the infinite potential of human imagination to be expressed. "Some of the creatures in 'Spawn' could only be created with digital technology," he says. "And that's how technology frees us. It allows us to imagine our wildest dreams. "

But does technology free all artists? What about actors whose performances can now be digitally recorded and applied to computer-generated characters and models through the process of motion capture? Is the impact of their art diminished by sifting it through layers of gadgetry?

Experts such as Dippe and Landreth don't think so. They are also quick to point out that without motion capture technology, there would be few opportunities for computer artists and performers to collaborate. Landreth, who used motion capture techniques to create character movement for his 1995 Academy Award-nominated short, "The End," says, "I couldn't have done the dancing myself. I'm not a choreographer and the dancers aren't animators. Motion capture allows me to collaborate across disciplines. And that sort of work would not have happened if I would have hand-drawn 'The End.' "

When it comes to the new medium of virtual reality, there are a host of issues that come along with the new technology, including what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. Like many other things in our society, the technology is already being used and studied for sexual and violent applications, for example.

SoftImage's new virtual reality project Osmose begins with the "player" donning a typical VR helmet and vest.

Celia Pearce, an expert who has been producing and consulting on interactive experiences since the early '80s, feels strongly that the computer has been ill-used in this area. 'Because of the challenges faced in developing and perfecting technology and its applications, we in the computer field can often overlook the human impact of what we are creating," she says. "We may inadvertently create technology which can be used for purposes that have a negative effect on people's lives. On the other hand, there is also the potential to harness the computer's power to address higher levels of human needs. "

Pearce and a small group of peers are working to create new genres for VR product that awakens, rather than dulls, the human spirit. For instance, Char Davies, the director of visual research at Microsoft's computer animation software firm, Softimage, is working on something she calls "total immersion virtual reality."

Davies is the creator of a virtual reality experience called Osmose. To use Osmose, "players" wear a typical VR helmet but no VR gloves, just an "interface vest" that recognizes breathing patterns. Once inside Osmose, players find that they can move between and through the experience's 12 worlds merely by breathing.

"If you breathe in you go up, if you breathe out you go down," Davies explains. "And to move side-to-side, you gently lean in one direction. It's a bit like scuba diving."

The gentle experience of floating through nature-based worlds that have a similarity to reality but are not reality-based can be emotionally rewarding, says Davies. For example, since everything is transparent in a virtual world, players can physically float through a leaf or a tree, creating responses people have never experienced before.

Davies has a theory that the VR immersion actually allows human beings to get more in touch with themselves by removing them from daily habits and worries of the busy work world. Thus, for Davies and many other cutting-edge artists, the computer has become a rescuer, rather than a jailer.

Osmose, TreeOsmose, Forest Grid
Osmose allows the player to move through 12 VR worlds, including this one. Players can move through this tree (left), as well as around it. Computer model (right) shows how, in the VR world of Osmose, one can pass through plants and leaves.

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Put online: June 2017. Last verified: June 25th, 2017.