The most complete combination of detectional and active interfacing is provided by immersive programs. Char Davies'  Osmose of 1995 (Figure 6.5 and Plate 15) is a key early example of this. [17] In the artist's words, Osmose is 

an immersive interactive virtual-reality environment installation with 3D computer graphics and interactive 3D sound, a head-mounted display and real-time motion tracking based on breathing and balance. Osmose is a space for exploring the perceptual interplay between self and world, i.e., a place for facilitating awareness of one's own self as consciousness embodied in enveloping space.[18]
Figure 6.5 Char Davies, Immersant performing in the immersive virtual environment Osmose, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, 2003.

The immersion process begins with wearing a stereoscopic head-mounted display and motion-tracking vest. This allows full-body immersion in a 360 degree spherical, enveloping space. The space is navigated through breathing and balance. By breathing in, the immersant floats upward, and, by breathing out, falls downwards (a method inspired by scuba diving techniques). Altering the body's center of balance enables the immersant to change direction. 

A first – orientating – level of virtual space is provided by a three-dimensional Cartesian Grid. The immersant's breathing leads the grid to transform into a forest clearing. There are twelve virtual world-spaces available in Osmose, mainly centered on metaphorically significant aspects of nature. These include Clearing, Forest, Tree, Leaf, Cloud, Pond, Subterranean Earth, and Abyss. By using their own breathing and balance, immersants are able to move anywhere within these virtual worlds as well as linger in the ambiguous zones between them. 

Osmose contrasts keenly with the kind of digital hard-edged effects that we have discussed in previous chapters. In the artist's words,

the visual aesthetic of Osmose is semi-representational/semi-abstract and translucent, consisting of semi-transparent textures and flowing particles. Figure/ground relationships are spatially ambiguous, and transitions between worlds are subtle and slow. This mode of representation serves to ‘evoke’ rather than illustrate. ... The sounds within Osmose are spatially multi-dimensional and have been designed to respond to changes in the immersant's location, direction and speed: the source of their complexity is a sampling of a male and female voice.[19]

The immersant's initial experience involves a perceptual reorientation – usually achieved within ten minutes – wherein the normal human urge for control and action is substituted by a sense of free-falling. Spatial envelopment rather than directionality becomes the main basis of perceptual orientation and, correlated with this, floating becomes the dominant idiom of movement. These environmental experiences are contextualized by a Code ‘substratum’ and Text ‘superstatum’ which act as ‘conceptual parentheses’ around the virtual worlds. The former consists of material that includes much of the software used in creating the immersive effects, and the latter of quotations from the artist and selected texts on environmental philosophy and on the body and spatial perception.The immersion experience can be completed in fifteen minutes. 

Whilst its focus is obviously on the immersant, Osmose is also showable as a public installation. This centers on real-time transmission of audio-visual imagery generated by the immersant's activity – and projected through stereoscopic video and audio. This allows an audience (wearing polarizing glasses) to witness the development of each immersive journey. Indeed, a translucent screen (as large as that used for the video projection) also allows the immersant to be seen by the audience in silhouette form. 

Davies’ goal in creating Osmose is to take the immersant on a profound journey of introspection. However, the installation version ensures that the aesthetics of the work as an achievement of both conception and imagination is also made publically manifest. As is the case with all great artworks it offers new ways of engaging with perceptual reality, on the basis of insights concerning the poetics of embodiment. However, Davies’ is also mindful of the work's broader significance. She notes that

the after-effect of immersion in Osmose can be quite profound. Immersants often feel as if they have rediscovered an aspect of themselves, of being alive in the world, which they had forgotten, an experience which many find surprising, and some very emotional. ... Immersive virtual space, when stripped of its conventions, can provide an intriguing spatio-temporal context in which to explore the self's subjective experience of ‘being-in-the-world’ – as embodied consciousness in an enveloping space where boundaries between inner/outer, and mind/ body dissolve.[20]

The last points here are, perhaps, a little over-stated. Gareth Evans has argued that

The capacity to think of oneself as located in space, and tracing a continuous path through it, is necessarily involved in the capacity to conceive the phenomena one encounters as independent of one's perception of them – to conceive the world as something one ‘comes across’. It follows that the capacity for at least some primitive self-ascriptions – self-ascriptions of position, orientation, and change of position and orientation and hence the conception of oneself as one object amongst others, occupying one place amongst others, are interdependent with thought about the objective world itself.[21]

On these terms, the recognition of objects and the origins of self-consciousness are reciprocally correlated. One can only become aware of oneself by reference to the enduring character of objects we engage with. But reciprocally these objects only disclose their objecthood through awareness of them as re-encounterable or as transient, in terms of our movements amongst them. Their re-encounterability, of course, is based on such things as constancy of shape, size, mass, number, position, i.e. what are traditionally called ‘primary qualities.’ 

Now the immersant's experience in Osmose is only a transitory one. Its possibility is dependent on the ‘real world’ correlation of the unity of objects and of subjective experience that Evans describes. However, what Osmose invites is a more probing investigation of what the limits of that correlation might be. For example, the human mode of embodiment has breathing and posture as conditions of being able to perform its motor and locomotional activities. However, for the immersant these become more than conditions. They become organs of movement. This means that as well as receiving audio-visual stimuli that are more insubstantial and diffuse than those of everyday life, the immersant's cognitive negotiation of them is altered. It is as though he or she becomes a different form of life. The primacy of breathing and posture suggests the phenomenology of a form of embodiment that might exist under different gravitational conditions than those on earth. Indeed, the transformations at issue here are correlated with perceptual transformations of the object. In this respect, for example, the semi-transparency of Osmose's forms turn the hard-edged ‘objectness’ of things into more ambiguous figure/ground relations, and spatial positionings. 

This might not dissolve the boundaries between inner/outer and mind/body in the way Davies’ suggests, but it would certainly change the relationships involved in these dualities. Could there be a possible world of the Osmose sort which was still consistent with Evan's criteria of the correlated unity of subject and object of experience? This is the main philosophical achievement of Osmose. It invites new investigation of how the dualities might be embodied under alternative physical conditions. Osmose is also significant in one final and, perhaps, prophetic respect. Clearly, if art refines and clarifies truths about our sensible experience of the world, and embodies the artist's personal ways of understanding these, then immersant interaction has the most extraordinary future potential. As should have become clear from earlier descriptions, works like Osmose involve aesthetic and philosophical experiences. They have a scope that goes far beyond most idioms of visual art. 

When Osmose was first created from 1994-1995, its technological basis was cumbersome and expensive. Now it can be experienced through consumer-grade technology for less than $5000. Indeed, as the relevant technology is made even smaller and more efficient, then works such as Osmose may become may become more widely accessible in their full immersive form – rather than as something accessed audio-visually on a PC or smart phone or whatever. This might turn out to be the single most important development in the history of digital art – taking it to an entirely new experiential as well as technological level.



17. See the artist's website, www.immersence.com.
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18. Quoted from ibid.
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19. Ibid.
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20. Ibid.
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21. Gareth Evans, Varieties of Reference, 1982, p. 70.
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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: Feb 25th, 2024.