Sunk in their pneumatic stalls, Lenina and the Savage sniffed and listened. . . . "Take hold of the metal knobs on the arm of your chair," whistled Lenina, "otherwise you won't get any of the feely effects."
—ALDOUS HUXLEY, BRAVE NEW WORLD, 1932 [1]
Can VR replace RL? Only if theater can replace actual life. Only the bumpkin rushes to the stage to rescue the maiden from the villain, but the late twentieth century is apparently filled with willing bumpkins! Like theater, VR developments contain devices that enhance the VR experience and distract from RL contexts."
—DON IHDE [2]
Tree Pond, from Osmose (1995)
FIGURE 2.1 Char Davies, Osmose (1995), virtual reality environment. (Courtesy of the artist.)
[Digital frame captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live performace of immersive virtual environment Osmose (1995).]

Theater has always been a virtual reality where actors imaginatively conspire with audiences to conjure a belief (otherwise known, after Coleridge, as a "suspension of disbelief") that a bare stage is in fact the courtyard of an ancient Theban palace, or the 1692 witch-trial courtroom in Salem. Pioneering Virtual Reality (VR) theater designer Mark Reaney describes theater as "the original virtual reality machine" where audiences can visit "imaginary worlds which are interactive and immersive,"[3] and VR artist and critic Diane Gromala argues that VR's historical precedents can be traced through "the fantastical worlds elicited through mimetic simulations of ritual, dioramas, art, literature and theater . . . the evocation and perception of a shareable but other worldly place in which humans extend and project their agency."[4]

Oliver Grau's Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion (2003) presents a detailed genealogy of the origins of VR, exploring the histories of immersive panoramas and illusionary spaces back to antiquity, effectively turning the whole of art history into a media history. For Grau, the computer is simply the latest tool permitting the artist to investigate the manipulation of the image and its relationship to reality:

In many quarters, virtual reality is viewed as a totally new phenomenon. However, a central argument of this book is that the idea of installing an observer in a hermetically closed-off image space of illusion did not make its first appearance with the technical invention of computer-aided virtual realities. On the contrary, virtual reality forms part of the core of the relationship of humans to images. . . . The idea goes back at least as far as the classical world, and it now reappears in the immersion strategies of present-day virtual art. [5]

VR is an industrial computer graphics format simulating navigable three-dimensional environments and requiring considerable computing horsepower. Although the term has been used increasingly loosely in popular culture to refer to anything digital including even email, stricter definitions stress its highly specialized and particular nature which places it firmly out of reach of most computer applications and simulations. In 1995, Ken Pimentel and Kevin Teixeira called it "the first 21st century tool" whose primary defining characteristic is immersion: "inclusion, being surrounded by an environment. VR places the participant inside information."[6] Others highlight the responsive navigable elements using first-person cinematic point of view, which Daniel Sandin considers to be "the first redefinition of perspective since the Renaissance."[7] R. U. Sirius sees VR as creating an entirely new type of space, an extension of the imagination, articulating it in terms of a "re-virginizing . . . the creation of virgin space."[8] Howard Rheingold, one of its most enthusiastic early advocates and author of one of the first major books on the subject in 1991,[9] usefully summarizes VR's ontology in terms of three interdependent aspects: "One is immersion, being surrounded by a three dimensional world; another one is the ability to walk around in that world, choose your own point of view; and the third axis is manipulation, being able to reach in and manipulate it."[10] He goes on to describe VR as an ultimately theatrical medium, yet recognizes the challenge inherent in transforming a solo and subjective first-person experience into one that approaches Aristotelian understandings of theater. Nevertheless, central tenets of Aristotle's dramatic notions such as mimesis and empathy are intrinsic to VR, and, he suggests, "I think that properly done, a virtual reality experience will have a greater sense of mimesis and of participation in the events."[11]

Critics and academics have added some degree of confusion to the territory by applying the term VR to performances that do not in fact use classic VR technologies—where, for example, environments are fully navigable or use three-dimensional computer graphics. George Coates's digital theater settings, for example, were linked to VR by a number of critics during the early 1990s, although Coates himself was clear and categorical about the distinction between his work and immersive industrial VR applications, in 1995 calling his performances "virtual virtual reality ... a way of evoking the sense of awe that immersing yourself in virtual reality produces. . . . Someday we'll be handing out VR goggles instead of 3D glasses."[12]

As we will see, the steps toward advanced VR theater and performance have been limited to date, although those relatively few practitioners involved in the field have been neither tentative nor unambitious in their approaches.

A History of VR

Major developments in VR took place in the 1980s, although its origins go back to Ivan Sutherland's 1965 paper "The Ultimate Display" and his development over the next three years of the first Head-Mounted Display (HMD) with student Bob Sproull for the Bell Helicopter Company, using ARPA military funding. Sutherland created the first computer-aided HMD in 1968, with internal sensors that tracked the user's head movements, an event Oliver Grau has subsequently called "the first step on the way to a media utopia."[13] The helmet design incorporated two miniature monitors placed directly in front of the eyes to create binocular 3D vision, and although certain features including the minivideo monitors have changed and been updated over the decades, the basic design remains the same today.[14]

Although most commonly associated with HMD devices that the user wears to eliminate peripheral vision of the real world, VR technologies and applications use a variety of interfaces including projection desks; flat, curved, or semispherical screens; and specialized computer monitors. Its industrial applications include military and flight simulations, medical training programs, engineering prototype designs, and navigable architectural and town planning environments. As Bolter and Gromala point out, "simulators are almost the only commercially successful applications of virtual reality."[15]

The most famous VR industrial pioneer (as well as one of its most noted aesthetic visionaries), Jaron Lanier, founded VPL Research in 1983, created the first commercial dataglove in 1984, and established "a networked virtual world system in 1989."[16] Given his hippie-like, New Age look (complete with dreadlocks) and radical artistic philosophy, Lanier appeared at that time an unlikely scientific boffin and was so distinctly "cool" that he became the first white man to be named "Black Artist of the Month" by Ebony magazine.[17] He was also responsible for coining the term "Virtual Reality" to distinguish between wholly immersive digital worlds and traditional computer simulations. VR necessitates absolute inclusion within a 360-degree digital environment, the user metaphorically stepping inside the computer:

Virtual reality is all about illusion. It's about computer graphics in the theater of the mind. It's about the use of technology to convince yourself you're in another reality. . . . Virtual Reality is where the computer disappears and you become the ghost in the machine. . . . The computer retreats behind the scenes and becomes invisible.[18]

At the University of North Carolina, Frederick Brooks developed advanced VR systems which allowed a sense of touch. His Grope-III project, completed in 1986, used motorized handgrips and magnets that controlled remote robotic arms. This Argonne Remote Manipulator (ARM) exerted tactile pressures or resistant magnetic forces against the operator's hands in response to the user's attempts to touch and manipulate the virtual materials viewed.[19] Around the same time, Lanier and Thomas Zimmerman developed wired gloves that enabled virtual objects to be grasped and moved around, thus enabling the user's body itself to become part of the virtual world. Though all normal vision is lost wearing a HMD, the dataglove allows the user to hold up her gloved hand in front of her face and see a digital representation through the HMD that moves in perfect synchronization with her own.[20] Pimentel and Teixeira have noted how "seeing the representation of your hand suddenly changes the perspective. You now have a perceptual anchor in the virtual world. You're actually inside the computer because you can see your hand in there"[21] (figure 15.1).

In 1991, Daniel Sandin and Thomas DiFanti developed the CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment), which takes its name from Plato's famous metaphor for humanity's sense of reality, whereby the other people and things we see are in fact behind us. We sit in a cave, wrote Plato, staring blankly at its dark interior wall rather than out at the light, watching a dance of shadows: the images of others cast by firelight onto the cave wall.

Figure 15.1 A dataglove helps locate the userxxinside'' the world of Toni Dove and Michael Mackenzie's dreamlike VR experience Archeology of the Mother Tongue (1993).

The VR CAVE uses immersive projections onto three walls and the floor of a (typically) small space, which dispenses with the need for HMDs (although stereoscopic glasses are worn). Users commonly operate a mouse "wand" to manipulate the environment, and a "head tracker" detects the users changing spatial position and angle of point of view, prompting the software to display realistically changing perspectives.[22] Largely due to cost, relatively few art or performance projects have taken advantage of the rich potentials the environment affords, with notable exceptions including the colored aquatic architecture of Margaret Watsons Liquid Meditation (1997); Maurice Benayoun and Jean-Baptiste Barrire's war-torn VR wasteland World Skin (1997); and ConFIGURING the CAVE (1996, Jeffrey Shaw, Agnes Hegedüs, Bernd Linterman) where users transform imagery and sound within the CAVE by manipulating their life-size, puppet-like avatar.[23]

The theatrical and performative possibilities of VR took a quantum leap when Laniers VPL Research company created a full body version of the dataglove—the DataSuit. This allows multiple users to don suits and headsets and see, talk, move, and interact with one another within a shared synthetic environment. Users can even change their physical form in the virtual world, choosing from a menu of options. One VPL demonstration had two people represented as lobsters, the networked computing systems visually reinterpreting the users' movements into those of the giant crustaceans, a friendly wave of the hand appearing as threatening swipes of an enormous front claw.[24] In Virtual Reality (1991), Howard Rheingold rightly predicted that adapted DataSuits would soon allow for fully sensory and tactile effects, with wearers able to transmit and receive "telecaresses," including simulated sex, which he termed "teledildonics."[25]

In the early 1990s, only a small number of artists experimented with VR. These included Kazuhiko Hachiya, whose Inter Discommunication Machine (1993) was a VR experience for two people where each user's HMD "projects one player's sight and sound perception of a virtual playground into the other one's display, thus confusing the borders between 'you' and 'me.' "[26] As Christiane Paul points out, it has close conceptual parallels with the "Sim-Stim" apparatus in William Gibson's Neuromancer, which enables users to experience other people's bodies and perceptions.[27] This notion became a recurring theme in VR performance experiments over the next ten years, particularly following the groundbreaking projects developed at the Banff Center in Canada between 1992 and 1994.

The Art and Virtual Environments Project, 1992-94

We got this very fancy fellowship . . . and we have produced what is now considered the first virtual reality works that were ever done. They just came out in a book. . . . Every artist that contributed to the work has contributed both in writing and in visual imagery. [28]

So wrote the first man to have reputedly "danced in cyberspace," the Israeli/American choreographer Yacov Sharir. The book referred to, Immersed in Technology (1996), contains eleven essays on the implications of cyberspace and ten theoretical/technical statements by practitioners then working with virtual environments, all arising from the Art and Virtual Environments Project at the Banff Centre from 1992 to 1994. It was a landmark project in exploring the artistic and performance potentials for VR, and Sharirs dance in cyberspace was considered by fellow digital performers at that time to be an artistic equivalent to the first moon landing—a small step for a man and a giant leap for (artistic) mankind. The space-age analogy seems appropriate for Sharirs collaboration with visual artist Diane Gromala, Dancing with the Virtual Dervish: Virtual Bodies (1994). The performer is described as a cybernaut, the (mental and technological) distance traveled appears great, and the environment is alien if not exactly hostile.

In all, nine experimental projects were supported by the scheme including Perry Hoberman's Barcode Hotel, Ron Kuivila's Virtual Reality on 5 Dollars a Day, Marcos Novak's Virtual Worlds (an architectural piece that grew out of the Dervish Project), and Toni Dove and Michael Mackenzie's Archeology of the Mother Tongue, a piece featuring some breathtakingly beautiful digital imagery (figure 15.2). The project director Douglas MacLeod notes, "We really had no idea what we were doing. This is a very liberating, if exhausting, method of production. It was like staging nine different operas in two years while at the same time trying to invent the idea of opera."[29] The project was indeed a unique development in the performing arts so early in the 1990s, and VR was such a novel technology at that stage that various options were still under active discussion (VRML and VRML2 standards, for example, were only agreed after the Banff projects). Gromala has paid tribute to "unprecedented funding" that enabled four computer scientists and six art technicians to work with the artists over two years to achieve a "landmark artwork . . . [that] was one of the very first in VR."[30]

Placeholder

Chronologically, Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland's much-celebrated Placeholder was the first work to be completed for the project, premiering in 1993. Driven by eleven computers (from a Silicon Graphics Reality Engine to an Apple Powerbook) and over 25,000 lines of code, it opened up the potential for virtual flight (through the character of a crow), although conceptually it was grounded very much in the earth and its gravitational pull. Rather than a futuristic journey into the far (metaphorical) reaches of outer space, Placeholder returned to nature, to the ancient and primeval, and to drama's distant roots in ritual and the sacred. In her PhD thesis, later published as Computers as Theatre (1991), Laurel conceived VR as a spiritual space, a place functioning like Dionysian festivals and primitive tribal rituals. She theorized VR as a distinctly new space, but ultimately one of return: a place to "reinvent the sacred spaces where we collaborate with reality in order to transform it and ourselves,"[31] and she attempted to put theory into practice with Placeholder.

Figure 15.2 "The Coroner's Dream" sequence from Toni Dove and M ichael Mackenzie's exquisitely designed Archeology of the Mother Tongue (1993).

Two participants each enter their own, green-matted "magic circle" (Janet Murray has noted its correspondence with the "fairy ring," a traditional space of enchantment),[32] ten feet in diameter and ringed by rocks. A technician fits them each with an HMD and attaches sensors to their bodies, which enables their full body movements to be tracked and interpreted within the VR environment, rather than through the simple head or hand movements of most VR experiences. The ritual pattern is begun with participants "being reborn in a different body, and acquiring enhanced powers of perception that deepen the bond of the subject to the natural world." [33] Participants adopt the character, ways of movement, point of view, and even voice (their own being synthetically manipulated)[34] of one of four animated spirit creatures: Crow, Snake, Spider, or Fish. As they encounter other creatures and move close to them to hear their stories, they can metamorphose to exchange "embodiments" and become them, in what Marie-Laure Ryan describes as "a forceful allegory of the immersive power of narrative."[35]

Participants are guided through the virtual landscapes by the disembodied voice of the Goddess, a live performer (normally played by Laurel) who watches the users' actions and speaks to them via a microphone, offering navigational advice and secrets about the virtual world. "Only spirit creatures live in these places. You must join with them. Spirals move the spirit creatures through the world. The places here are marked with many voices," she says during one performance. The Goddess also coaches and encourages the participants' animal-like movements, which propel them through the virtual space: participants playing Crow, for example, can flap their arms in order to fly (at least from their visual point of view), and are rewarded with the Goddess's warm and reassuring praise: "Nice flight, Crow!" The landscapes they move through are modeled on three locations near Banff: a cave with a natural hot spring; a waterfall in Johnston Canyon; and an area of spirelike earth formations called hoodoos.

The background VR spaces are, in comparison to today's standards, relatively crude: the graphically rendered interior of a cave lacks detail, while an exterior wooded mountain landscape is constructed in VRML-style, from segmented and composited video images, which lend them a blurred and pixelated quality, and a 2D photographic perspective (despite their 3D navigability). But the signs, markings, and spirit characters that inhabit and float through the spaces are intriguing and arresting graphical icons. Their "petroglyph" designs derive from ancient iconography inscribed on the landscape around Banff since Paleolithic times, and from Aboriginal and primitive art.

The two participants talk to and interact with the virtual spirit characters, and although physically remote in their two magic circles can also meet and communicate with each other; they can also touch and move virtual objects with the aid of gripper data-gloves. Each creature (as well as features of the landscape imbued with their own spirits), can talk and tell their story, and thus "interactivity occurs on the macro level as freedom to explore, while narrativity is found on the micro level as embedded stories."[36] As Marie-Laure Ryan points out, Placeholders narrative structure owes more to epic theater than to the Aristotelian dramatic structures Laurel advocates in Computers as Theatre: "its architecture is more indebted to a poetics of space than to a poetics of plot."[37]

The user's character roles and the other nature spirits found within the VR environments were initially developed in workshop improvisations with actors from Precipice Theatre Society. A videotape of these improvisations shows the performers adopting different animal movements and characteristics while working outdoors in the specific locations the VR landscapes are derived from. One male actor scrambles about on all fours around another performer, who stands with her hands in the air. "I weave my alphabet in the Hoodoos, I tell the tales of the giants," he barks up at her. "The story is an ancient one, of the Hoodoos, who are frozen statues by day, and awake by night and by heat. All travellers who pass by in their way—hacked!"

In Placeholder, as the participants encounter the virtual spirits and speak to them to access their stories, they also leave their own "marks" within the space: their words are recorded and stored in rocklike graphical images, which later participants can access and rearrange by touching. Thus, like the petroglyphs, graffiti, and trail signs in the actual landscapes that inspired the piece, "the virtual landscape accumulated definition through messages and story lines that participants left along the way."[38]

Laurel and Strickland have emphasized the importance of placement and spatialization of sound to the experience. The Goddess's voice, for example, is spatially positioned above the participant's head (yet still inside the landscape), and the artists stress that they "wanted people to feel they were being drawn through space and time by sounds coming from the world ahead." Marshall Soules notes how the spatialized auditory signals and perspectives are employed like nonvisual trails to orient participants, and he describes the considerable impact they have on the user's body. He highlights the role of sound in achieving a developed sense of user immersion and suggests that this works in accordance with Artaud's ideas for "a theatre of spectacle which subverts the conscious mind by impinging directly on the flesh."[39]

Placeholder has been discussed extensively by academics,[40] and Katherine Hayes provides a particularly interesting perspective. She observes that despite its celebrity, Placeholder was experienced by very few people during its short life at Banff, and Laurel and Strickland's video of the making of the project "is as much or more the work of art as the VR production itself."[41] She muses on the levels of simulation at play between the original VR simulation (of the real-life landscapes) and the video that in turn then simulates the VR. She argues that at both levels, Walter Benjamin's sense of the aura of originality is almost completely dissipated, and in the precession of simulacra, the lesson to be learned is:

When matter and information begin to copulate, more is destabilized than contemporary constructions of the body. . . . Just as it is no longer sufficient to think of the body as flesh or code alone, so it is no longer sufficient to accept distinctions that rely on putting artists in one category and technicians in another, or originals in a gallery and copies in Walmart. It is not only the human body that is undergoing a sea-change. Also in the throes of mutation is the body of art.[42]

Marina Grzinic has also leaned on a perspective from Benjamin (though not in relation to either Placeholder or "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction") to provide a fascinating argument in relation to VR's ultimate dissipation of aura. In "A Small History of Photography" (1931), Benjamin proposed that the longer the exposure time of the photograph, the more a sense of presence, time, expression, and aura is woven into the image. As photographic technologies developed (lenses, film sensitivities, and so on) and shorter exposure times were enabled, there was a negative qualitative shift in the sense of time, space, and aura evident within the photograph. Grizinic extends the argument to suggest that the near-instantaneous processing times of computers has similarly led to an eradication of a sense of time and aura within digital images, and that VR represents the most unauratic of all digital forms:

We are witnessing an ever more exact and complete aesthetic sterilization of the image. In virtual reality, the physicality of the connection of the image with reality-time is lost. Blurs and other imperfections in the image, which were evident in times passage in the real world, are wholly absent from the idealized imagery of virtual reality. . . . The image undergoes a process of complete sterilization.[43]

Osmose

But visual aura, of the lack of it, was not the key issue for Char Davies when she created the most talked-about experience in the (short) history of VR art, Osmose (1994-95). Her concerns were spatial and corporeal, oriented towards a transformation of immersive virtual space into "a spatio-temporal arena in which mental constructs of the world can be given three-dimensional form and be kinaesthetically explored through full-body immersion and interaction."[44]

The revolutionary aspect of Osmose is its advanced sense of fully embodied immersion through the use of a (then) sophisticated datasuit, in contrast to most VR experiences, which utilize only HMDs and thus tend to emphasize the Cartesian mind-body split, since the user's experience and navigation corresponds only to their head movements. Osmose s interface covers and "reads" more of the body (but contrary to many commentaries, not the full body, only from the waist up) and its monitoring of the user's breathing, the essential element of bodily life, is particularly important to the sense of a fully embodied, "living" immersive experience (figure 15.3). Its nature imagery and theme further enhance the sense of an organic, natural experience.

A single user, which Davies calls the immersant, is fitted with a HMD and a motion-capture vest equipped with breathing and balance sensors, and stands in a small private chamber facing a larger audience space. Her breathing and movement affect the projected stereoscopic imagery, as she undertakes a journey through forests, clearings, ponds, sky, and subterranean earth. In the other space, spectators watch two luminous screens; one relays the immersant's VR point of view, the other shows her shadow-silhouette (figure 15.4). Davies conceives the placement of the real-time shadow image of the immersant alongside her point-of-view projection as both poeticizing the relationship between her body and the artwork and drawing attention to the crucial role of the body as the "ground and medium" for the experience.[45] The experience begins with a projected three-dimensional grid, which helps to orient the immersant, providing clear spatial coordinates that can be seen to alter in direct relation to breath and body movement. Mark Jones describes the beginning of his experience:

I don my HMD and the assistant wires my chest and back with interface devices. Osmose is activated and I am transported to a 3-D wireframe grid. "Practice," they say, "get used to the space and the interface." I look all around me and the grid extends to infinity in all directions. I inhale and gradually begin to rise; if I lean forward I move forward. Lean back and I move backwards. I'm flying, I am an enigma, I have no physical form, yet I am whole. I am an "immersant."[46]

Figure 15.3 An "immersant" wearing stereoscopic head-mounted display and breathing/balance interface vest for a performance of Char Davies's Osmose (1995).

The wire frame gives way to sumptuous and extraordinary navigable graphic landscapes, structured in a vertical model. Deep breath inhalation and upward body movement ascends the immersant through forest floor to tree trunk, to leaved boughs and up into clouds, while slow exhalations and low movements plunge one down into a pond, through subterranean earth, and to an abyss. At either end of the vertical spectrum (and the experience) stands the wire grid, and pieces of text by Davies reflecting on the relationship between nature and technology (above), and the computer code used to generate the Osmose worlds (below). Specific forms within the landscape spaces (clouds, trees, roots, rocks, water) are dramatically hyperreal and dreamlike. A magnificent giant tree appears like a translucent ghost, its multiple limbs and branches like white ice or sharpened glass, cutting into the surrounding blue-black sky sprinkled with showers of snowlike stars. The subaquatic and subterranean spaces are vast, rippling layers of quasi-organic visual forms and colors. The soundscapes are similarly multilayered, beautiful and haunting— like Placeholder, the audio is also spatialized, responding to the users location, direction, and speed of movement.

Figure 15.4 Installation view from 2003 of Osmose at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image, Melbourne, showing the audience's dual view of the shadow of the "immersant" and the changing virtual environment she journeys through.

Davies is categorical in pronouncing VR as a decidedly new and unprecedented artistic form:

The medium of immersive virtual space is not merely a conceptual space but, paradoxically, a physical space in the sense of being extended, three-dimensional and enveloping. As such it is an entirely new kind of space that is without precedent. I think of immersive visual space as a spatiotemporal arena, wherein mental models or abstract constructs of the world can be given virtual embodiment in three dimensions and then kinaesthetically, synaesthetically explored through full-body immersion and interaction. No other space allows this, no other medium of human expression. [47]

The piece's title, a derivation of "osmosis," suggests how Osmose aims to absorb the immersant into the artwork, and to pass them from one space into another, just as biological osmosis involves a passage from one side of a membrane to another. Davies's objective is to resensitize the user, to reconnect the links between body, mind, and world: "to heal the Cartesian split between mind/body, subject/object ... in a dream-like way, shifting the immersant's mode of experience away from the everyday bias of eyesight to one that resonates deeper within the physical body."[48] Her success in doing so (or at least in creating a ground-breaking artwork) is evidenced by a veritable mass of critical eulogies; Oliver Grau goes as far as to suggest that Osmose "has received more attention in the international discussion of media art than perhaps any other contemporary work."[49]

What is most striking about the two most famous (by some considerable margin) early VR artworks, Osmose and Placeholder, is that they both use Virtual Reality to place the user in spaces which represent and accord with natural reality, with nature. Though neither installation attempts photorealism, both derive their environments directly from actual landscapes and natural objects (trees, rocks, and so on). Although the experiences are quite different from a "real" pastoral journey, in a significant sense the two works draw the user back to nature, effacing alternative or fantasy virtual realities in favour of conventional, known ones. Both use VR to present new perspectives on the natural world (for example, the spirit incarnations in Placeholder and the grid and code structures of Osmose), but their extremely high-tech systems are ultimately used to conjure worlds that are, at least at face value, distinctly no-tech. Indeed, the worlds are not even representations of contemporary natural environments, they are of primeval ones: the search for the VR future in performance art has begun with the search for the ancient and primordial. There are no human beings in these two, apparently pre-Neanderthal worlds—just creatures and spirits (Placeholder), primordial bogs, ponds, and abysses (Osmose).

It is tempting to make great play of the significant irony underlining this high-tech > no-tech paradigm, but that would miss the point. For the artists, the strategy is not ironic at all, since high technology is conceived as a potent new means of return: of (re)discovering the true nature of things, and of contacting or representing one's inner spirit. Nature (that is to say, unspoiled pastoral spaces outside urban confines) is a common theme and audiovisual backdrop in digital performance since it classically represents a place for spiritual enrichment, a locus to be at one and to rediscover timelessness without the nagging incursions of modern life. It is for this reason, we believe, that so many digital artworks and performances hark back, with no little passion, to nature, as we have already seen in relation to robot performance. Davies's later VR work Ephémère (1998) is similarly grounded firmly within the archetypal nature metaphor, and is spatially structured into three, all-natural parts: "Landscape, subterranean Earth, and interior Body. The body, of flesh and bone, functions as the substratum beneath the fecund earth and the blooming and witherings of the land."[50]

Dancing with the Virtual Dervish: Virtual Bodies

The interior of the human body is Sharir and Gromala's natural setting for Dancing with the Virtual Dervish: Virtual Bodies (1994), which is programmed in continuous motion and undulates as if breathing, like a living body; like both Placeholder and Osmose, there is an anti-Cartesian concern to excite an embodied experience (figure 15.5). Sharir (in formal performance demonstrations where his VR view is projected on large screens around him) and user/participants (who can explore the VR world by donning the HMD themselves) navigate and dance through the VR body's three-dimensional interior, moving within and through a giant ribcage of what is:

Literally and figuratively a body of enormous scale, the resultant virtual environment is an incomplete torso comprised of a skeletal spine, pelvis and ribs, along with the viscera of a heart, kidney and liver. . . . These organs can be "entered" to reveal otherworldly chambers. The virtual body thus becomes an immersive, nonlinear book, a text to be read, an architecture to be inhabited.

Within the body stands another primary component, another body, video grabs of a dancer transcribed onto a plane. The dancer exists both as representations within the virtual environment and as a performer in the physical performance space, connected to the virtual environment through the umbilicus of the head-mounted display.[51]

Figure 15.5 Yacov Sharir navigates through the interior of a VR human body in Dancing with the Virtual Dervish (1994, with Diane Gromala).

Following its premiere at the Fourth International Conference on Cyberspace at the Banff Center for the Arts in May 1994, several further performances and exhibitions followed, including the first Virtual Reality Software and Technology Conference held at the University of Singapore in August 1994, where it was the only arts project represented. In the days following the first experiments Sharir wrote expressively of the novel experience that had seemed like an "otherworldly" or "out of body" incident:

Even though you are grounded in a physical space, you are immersed in cyberspace, and you live now two lives; one in the physical space and one that you are immersed in, which is cyberspace via your goggles. Disconnected from the physical world: entering the cyber world that is designed on the computer. Surfing in cyber world where the surf speed is 60 to 70 miles an hour. . . . But surfing that fast, you get nauseous, sick in your stomach, and you haven't moved physically. ... So you have this duality of not knowing how to behave in cyberspace and you have now a new life where you have to retrain yourself how to behave in cyberspace, as opposed to in the physical space. . . . It's a new set of behavior that has to be learned and studied and practiced.[52]

This challenge to learn and study physical behavior within VR space would later be taken up and explored in an intriguing way by Gromala in her Meditation Chamber (with Larry Hodges, Chris Shaw, Fleming Seay, 2000) which employs a voiceover to take the user through progressive relaxation exercises. Biofeedback devices register the user's physical tensions and releases, and displays equivalent computer-generated 3D graphic representations of the body parts through the user's HMD. The installation underlines meditation's long tradition of enabling "subjects to reimagine their relationship to their bodies in order to achieve a state of relaxation that is simultaneously and indissolubly psychological and physical."[53]

Sharir's experience at the time of Dancing with the Virtual Dervish seems to have been something of a conversion: as a practicing choreographer it was as if he had discovered and entered an entirely new dimension, a new environment for performance. Like Char Davies, Sharir conceptualized VR as an entirely new type of space. This was to raise the computer above being seen as a mere tool, a helpful or recalcitrant device, to being, conceptually, a means whereby practitioners and audiences could traverse to new locations and horizons:

We still look at computers and video cameras as tools to do things with. I think I like to look at it as a world, a space. That once you participate in it, you find for yourself new ways to behave in it. Instead of thinking this is a computer, I like to think this as a theater space, as a performance space. A performance space is a representation of a whole world of imagery. So it's not like this computer, like this tool, like you have a hammer and a nail, and I need to use this hammer to put the nail in the wall. . . . The concept of using this as a world, as a space where images can take place and come to life, that's, to me, a larger conceptual framework.[54]

But not everybody was immediately convinced that this was going to be a new space where performance could easily exist or benefit. Johannes Birringer, for example, wrote of the event,

While her [Gromala's] conceptual relocation of her body as a virtual stage is truly astounding, what is more difficult to understand is Sharir's relationship to it and his assumptions about choreographing his movements and video images in response to his distressed, dis-orientated body experience. Is his internal experience translated into conscious movement choices or do we see him react to a state of disconnection from himself?[55]

Sharir was well aware of such questions and problems, and his own description of the event ends with seven questions to be pondered, the first being "is the nature of dance altered by this potential?"[56] His subsequent work suggests that he is still engaged in that mission, undertaking exploration of a larger conceptual framework by various means but not always following the most obvious route: for example, he has undertaken enhancements of the initial developments by working collaboratively with computer scientist programmers, by utilizing motion capture and computer animation leading to live performance with virtual entities, by developing cybersuit-activated performances, and, most recently, by translating the real-time movement of crowds in a public space into virtual dance.

[...]

VR Scenography in Real Time: ieVR

In the early 1990s, American theater designer and academic Mark Reaney was using early VR software as his drawing board tool before building his sets in metal and wood. One day in 1993, he thought it would be useful to project the VR images onto the stage cyclorama to get a larger-scale impression of the design he was working on. He set up a projector, and on seeing the result, he decided not to go back to the analog technologies of wood and steel, but to rely almost entirely on VR.[64] With modest budgets and resources, Reaney and his colleagues at the Institute for the Exploration of Virtual Realities (ieVR) at the University of Kansas have since pioneered a series of theater productions combining live actors with VR environments.

ieVR use VR technology as their prime scenographic medium in order to achieve a sense of immersion, which Reaney believes is a central concept shared both by theater and VR. Echoing Brenda Laurels ideas, he also sees reciprocity between theater and computer technologies, suggesting that industrial VR developers could adopt theatrical ideas and metaphors: "theatrical practices may prove to be worthy of emulation in designing virtual environments."[65] In "Virtual Reality and the Theatre: Immersion in Virtual Worlds" (1999), he discusses the nature of immersion and how it applies to VR and theater. He argues that in commercial applications where technology is used to mimic actual objects and environments such as machinery or buildings, a perceptual and biochemical sense of immersion may take place, but after a short time the virtual environments become less immersive since they lose the interest and engagement of the user. Reaney's work in VR set design attempts to negate this problem, by not simply immersing, but also engaging the visual and imaginative attention of the theater spectator.

ieVR's interpretation of Elmer Rices classic expressionist play The Adding Machine (1995) became the first full-length theater performance to use VR. Rices play was first produced in 1923, and traces the journey of Mr. Zero in his search for happiness in a mechanized and dehumanized society. The company notes the irony that the dark specter of computers foretold in Rice's play are here used "not as a dehumanizing force, but as an artistic medium ... to simultaneously illuminate Rice's story even while it embraced another, more sympathetic, view of technology." [66] The actors performed in front of a rear projection screen displaying stereo-optically polarized VR imagery created using Virtus WalkThrough Pro software, which the audience viewed through 3D polarized glasses. As in all ieVR productions, movement and navigation through the VR backgrounds was rendered in real time, operated live by an offstage technician known as a VED (Virtual Environment Driver). The VED uses a mouse or joystick to move through the simulated spaces or to change the backgrounds in relation to the movements of the onstage actors or developing dramatic action. Two further projection screens displaying 3D still images were placed at a 45-degree angle at either side of the main screen to enhance the sense of immersion. The virtual scenery was sometimes used as an impressionistic or expressionistic representation of the location the characters were in, and at others it reflected psychological elements, particularly the inner thoughts and fears of the protagonist, Mr. Zero: "Fanciful and frightening environments were created in order to illustrate the mindset of the main character. As he becomes disorientated, walls shift and furniture floats off the floor. ... In prison, the bars of his cell appear immense, the window miniscule. But in his daydreams, he and the audience are whisked away to a blissful beach."[67]

ieVR stress that VR is used "not merely as spectacle for its own sake, but as a new and exciting scenographic medium in the service of a script; virtual reality becomes another component of the collaborative theatre art."[68] David-Michael Allen concurs with the analysis, suggesting that through the use of VR computer graphics and real-time television techniques "the production explored the mental state of Mr Zero more successfully than traditional production techniques,"[69] citing one scene as a particularly effective example. Zero stands onstage and is fired after twenty-five years of work (to be replaced by the adding machine of the title) by his Boss, who plays the scene offstage in a green-screen space, with his live video image projected on the main screen behind Zero. Using chromakey video-mixing techniques, the green background is filtered out and replaced by computer-generated office scenery to form a composite image of the Boss in his office. As Zero reacts to the news, the camera zooms in on the Boss, his laughing face growing larger and larger above Zero, emphasizing the protagonist's impotence and diminishing status. Allen also notes the power of a romantic sequence where Zero and Daisy fall in love and dance in front of a VR projection of a vast expanse of flowers: "As the dance continued, the field of flowers receded and fell away as the dancers appeared to take flight, travelling through blue skies and star-filled heavens."[70]

In 1997, audiences donned half-silvered Head-Mounted Displays[71] for ieVR's production of Arthur Kopit's Wings (written in 1977), enabling them to see a superimposition of both the VR computer-generated graphics projected into the headsets, and the live actors performing onstage. Reaney describes the quality of immersion as "very pronounced" and the VR design as being conceived to enable the audience to share the sense of distress and mental anguish suffered by the central character, Emily, following a stroke:

Shattered images of the people and places that surround her pass by before her and our eyes. Sights and sounds born from her memories float just out of our reach. This proved to be a powerful source of engagement. In a traditional staging, the audience can empathise with Emily by seeing her distress and helplessness. In a VR staging we experience the stroke with her.[72]

It is interesting to note that one of the most powerful and beautiful VR images in Wings was also one of the simplest to create graphically: a snowstorm that surrounds Emily. While a similar effect could have been produced using a theatre snow machine, the ghostly, ethereal superimposition of virtual snow on the corporeal body of the actor conjures an image that is more poetic, poignant, and ambiguous (is the snow a scenic representation of Emily's "real" environment, or her state of mind?)

HMDs were also worn by spectators for ieVR's adaptation of Samuel Beckett's Play (1996 [written in 1963]), which projected into the headsets prerecorded 3D video of the play's three characters cocooned in their urns. Reversing traditional stagings whereby the actors are live and the spotlight that interrogates them is a technological device, director Lance Gharavi took the "role" of the spotlight, and controller of the technology. The technician VED thus became the central character, appearing as the only live performer on stage and acting as a master of ceremonies who activates and manipulates the virtual characters. This interesting experiment explores, in Gharavi's words, ideas around "presence," "absence," and "apparent presence" that he identifies as fundamental themes in Beckett's later plays. He also suggests that "because it relies heavily on electronically mediated images, this presence/absence continuum also plays a pivotal role in the performance text of almost all forms of cybertheatre."[73]

[...]

The Future of VR Performance

Now we're at the threshold of the next revolution in user-computer interaction: a technology that will take the user through the screen into the world "inside" the computer—a world in which the user can interact with three-dimensional objects whose fidelity will grow as computing power increases and display technology increases. This virtual world can be whatever the designer makes it.


—JOHN WALKER [79]

Despite the enthusiasm of John Walker, and the heady predictions of other VR prophets of the early 1990s such as Lanier, Rheingold, and Pimentel and Teixeira, artistic VR applications have so far failed to fully realize the visionary expectations. Writing in 2003, Chris-tiane Paul notes how "full immersion into a simulated world that allows users to interact with every aspect of it is still more of a dream than a reality." She points out that the art world is currently far behind the VR experiences which use force-feedback devices in theme parks, which is currently where the most advanced experiments are taking place.[80] Scott deLahunta reflects that while dance has been at the forefront of experimentation with interactive technologies, performances have mostly been presented in conventional proscenium spaces, and the potentials of VR for dance have been largely unexplored. He notes that even the most radical choreographers have become somewhat entrapped by a fixed sense of performance space and time, and a separation between dancer and spectator, whether in live or "dance for camera" contexts, and he suggests that dance's engagement with VR is now long overdue.[81]

Bolter and Gromala suggest that "although VR has proven useful for specialized applications, we are not any closer today {2003} than we were in 1990 to a general, 3D, immersive interface." They see "ubiquitous computing," defined by Mark Weiser as "when almost every object either contains a computer or can have a tab attached to it,"[82] as the future direction of digital technologies. Rather than VR's search to eliminate the interface and become a converged, transparent window into pure experience, it is the opaque scattering of multiple computational devices throughout the environment that presents the most compelling model for future human-computer interaction: "Digital designs intersect with our physical world; they cannot escape into pure cyberspace."[83]

Two major issues impede the development of VR-based performance experiences: cost and time. The time part of the equation relates not only to the programming and design of thousands of polygons defining the 3D spaces and objects, but also to the time it takes for each individual user to be fitted with the VR equipment and to operate in the virtual environment. Most HMD-based VR experiences are for one or two individuals (although others may watch them and the projections they see from the sidelines, as in Osmose), and throughput problems have therefore been a major issue inhibiting widespread development of HMD immersive experiences, including in the commercial sector and in theme parks. Classic VR experiences are highly individual and improvisational, and require sufficient time for users to orient themselves and explore. As Brenda Laurel, Rachel Strickland and Rob Tow put it: "A hard-driving plot with distinct beginning, middle and end is a great way to control how long an experience takes, but 'classic' VR is inimical to this type of authoritarian control—it works best when people can move about and do things in virtual environments in a relatively unconstrained way."[84]

These writers contrast the passivity of mass entertainment forms with the activity and interactivity of VR, where both perceptual and emotional experience depends on the user's action and the environment's responses: "In VR, one is not done unto, but doing."[85] Like Michael Benedickt, who once hailed VR as a space where "we will become again 'as children' but this time with the power of summoning worlds at will,"[86] they conceive VR as more a form of play than entertainment, and observe that through their Placeholder project they learned that in VR adults play and use their imaginations like children. Equally, they write, "the environment proceeds to record our presence and actions and the marks that we place there—this is a reciprocal affair."[87] They see the future of VR not in installations and public venues, but in VR sites and even virtual theme parks on the Net, enabling much wider audience access.

There have already been some impressive achievements in VR performance, although these are few in number, and interest in using the technology is not widespread. Perhaps, like 3D movies—with which VR shares some distinct similarities—the VR art form will simply not catch on, and will remain an oddity, a novelty. But the potentials of VR application to performance are so enticing that we predict they will be fully embraced and significantly developed in the future for both commercial and avant-garde performance forms. Indeed, it is possible that in the twenty-first century, VR may become as important and revolutionary an artform as cinema was to the twentieth century. With that in mind, we will leave the last, defiantly upbeat words on Virtual Reality to the man who coined the phrase, and has been one of VR's principle industrial originators and popular advocates. Jaron Lanier's breathless vision of VR's future is quintessentially theatrical, and psychologically and sociologically radical:

It'll become a sort of community utility in which dreams are shared and ideas cocreated. . . . You go into your house and you look around, and everything's normal except that there's some new furniture added, but only when you put on these special glasses. . . . One of the items of furniture is a big set of shelves with fish bowls, and if you look in these bowls there aren't fish, instead there are little people running around . . . and a few of them have really weird things going on inside, like bizarre parties where people are changing into giant snakes, and what you do is put your hand into one of the bowls, put your head into it, and all of a sudden it starts getting really big, until you're inside it and become one of those people. ... I think something very special is going to happen, which I call postsymbolic communication. This is an idea of a new type or stratum of communication where people are skilled at, and used to, cocreating shared worlds spontaneously, improvising the content of the objective world. Without limit, on an ongoing improvised basis . . . like a conscious shared dreaming. [88]

Notes

1. Huxley, Brave New World, 134, quoted in Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, 18—19.
back to document text

2. Ihde, Bodies in Technology, 12.
back to document text

3.Reaney, "Virtual Scenography: The Actor, Audience, Computer Interface," 28.
back to document text

4. Gromala, "Pain and Subjectivity in Virtual Reality," 223.
back to document text

5. Grau, Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion, 4—5.
back to document text

6. Pimentel and Teixeira, Virtual Reality: Through the New Looking Glass, 8.
back to document text

7. Sandin, "Digital Illusion, Virtual Reality, and Cinema," 14.
back to document text

8. R. U. Sirius, "R. U. Sirius interviewed by Lynn Hershman Leeson," 55.
back to document text

9. Rheingold, Virtual Reality.
back to document text

10.Rheingold, "Rheingold's Reality," 34.
back to document text

11.Ibid.
back to document text

12.Coates quoted in Pimentel and Teixeira, Virtual Reality, 5.
back to document text

13.Grau, Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion, 163.
back to document text

14.Daniel Sandin also highlights the work of D. L. Vickers, who created a different HMD prototype in 1970, which incorporated the major elements of modern VR systems. See Sandin, "Digital Illusion, Virtual Reality, and Cinema," 3.
back to document text

15.Bolter and Gromala, Windows and Mirrors, 126.
back to document text

16.Paul, Digital Art, 125.
back to document text

17.See Lanier, "The Prodigy," 164.
back to document text

18.Pimentel and Teixeira, Virtual Reality, 7.
back to document text

19.Ibid., 58.
back to document text

20.Ibid., 65-67.
back to document text

21.Ibid., 67.
back to document text

22.See deLahunta, "Virtual Reality and Performance," 106.
back to document text

23.See Paul, Digital Art, 129.
back to document text

24.Pimentel and Teixeira, Virtual Reality, 75.
back to document text

25.Rheingold, Virtual Reality.
back to document text

26.Paul, Digital Art, 173.
back to document text

27.Ibid.
back to document text

28.Sharir, "The Tools."
back to document text

29.Moser and MacLeod (eds.), Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments, x.
back to document text

30.Funding was received from the National Department of Communication, Canada, and the Banff Center for the Arts. See "Gromala" at <http://www.lcc.gatech.edU/~gromala/art.htm# virtual >.
back to document text

31.Laurel, Computers as Theatre, 197.
back to document text

32.Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, 60.
back to document text

33.Ryan, Narrative as Virtual Reality, 323.
back to document text

34.The voice filters used when participants "embody" the different characters make "Crow sound raucous and masculine, spider wise and feminine, whereas snake and fish are gender-neutral." Hayles, "Embodied Virtuality: Or How to Put Bodies Back in the Picture," 17.
back to document text

35. Ryan, Narrative as Virtual Reality, 324.
back to document text

36. Ibid., 324.
back to document text

37. Ibid., 323.
back to document text

38.Laurel and Strickland, "Placeholder," 298.
back to document text

39.Soules, "Animating the Language Machine: Computers and Performance."
back to document text

40.See, for example Ryan, Narrative as Virtual Reality, 322-331; Hayles, "Embodied Virtuality," 15-21; Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, 60; Soules, "Animating the Language Machine: Computers and Performance." Laurel, Strickland, and Tows own article about the project, "Placeholder: Landscape and Narrative in Virtual Environments," provides the most detailed technical and conceptual account.
back to document text

41. Hayles, "Embodied Virtuality," 19-21.
back to document text

42. Ibid., 21.
back to document text

43.Grzinic, "Exposure Time, the Aura, and Telerobotics," 216-217.
back to document text

44. Davies, "Osmose: Notes on Being in Immersive Virtual Space," 65.
back to document text

45. Ibid., 66.
back to document text

46.Jones, "Char Davies: VR Through Osmosis."
back to document text

47.Davies, "Osmose," 69
back to document text

48. Ibid., 67.
back to document text

49.Grau, Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion, 193.
back to document text

50.Davies quoted in Wilson, Information Arts, 702.
back to document text

51. Gromala and Sharir, "Dancing with the Virtual Dervish: Virtual Bodies," 282—283.
back to document text

52.Sharir, "The Tools."
back to document text

53.Bolter and Gromala, Windows and Mirrors, 126.
back to document text

54. Sharir, "Influence of Technology."
back to document text

55. Birringer, Media and Performance, 124—125.
back to document text

56.Gromala and Sharir, "Dancing with the Virtual Dervish," 284—285.
back to document text

[...]

64. Reaney described the chain of events during an interview with Steve Dixon for the Digital Performance Archive at the University of Kansas, USA, on 28 October 1999.
back to document text

65.Reaney, "Virtual Reality and the Theatre: Immersion in Virtual Worlds," 183-
back to document text

66. ieVR, "The Adding Machine: A Virtual Reality Project."
back to document text

67. Reaney, "Virtual Reality and the Theatre," 185.
back to document text

68.ieVR, "The Adding Machine."
back to document text

69. Allen, "The Nature of Spectatorial Distance in VR Theatre," 243.
back to document text

70.Ibid., 244.
back to document text

71.The HMDs were "I-glasses" by the Virtual 1-0 Company.
back to document text

72. Reaney, "Virtual Reality and the Theatre," 185—186.
back to document text

73. Gharavi, "i.e. VR: Experiments in New Media and Performance," 260.
back to document text

74. Reaney, "Press Release for 'Machinal.'"
back to document text

75.Cage, "Actors Joined by Computer Imagery in U. of Kansas Production," 18.
back to document text

76.Taken from a voiceover commentary used in videotape documentation of Brainscore supplied by the artists to the Digital Performance Archive.
back to document text

77.Kac, "Darker Than Night."
back to document text

78.Ibid.
back to document text

79.Walker, quoted in Pimentel and Teixeira, Virtual Reality, 78.
back to document text

80.Paul, Digital Art, 125.
back to document text

81.deLahunta, "Virtual Reality and Performance," 111—112.
back to document text

82.Weiser, "The Computer for the 21st Century," 104.
back to document text

83.Bolter and Gromala, Windows and Mirrors, 107.
back to document text

84.Laurel, Strickland, and Tow, "Placeholder: Landscape and Narrative in Virtual Environments," 181.
back to document text

85.Ibid., 182.
back to document text

86.Benedickt quoted in Ryan, "Cyberspace, Virtuality, and the Text," 15.
back to document text

87.Laurel, Strickland, and Tow, "Placeholder," 183.
back to document text

88.Lanier, "Jaron Lanier—Interviewed by Lynn Hershman Leeson," 46-49.
back to document text

This article may include minor changes from the original publication in order to improve legibility and layout consistency within the Immersence Website. † Significant changes from the original text have been indicated in red square brackets.

Last verified: August 1st 2013.