Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998) are immersive and interactive virtual-reality environments.[1] These works are known for their embodying interface, painterly aesthetic, and themes of nature. They are the most recent fruits of an artistic project that I have been engaged in for almost twenty years and that has encompassed painting, film, and three-dimensional computer graphics and animation.

The impulse behind this project has been to communicate an intensified experience of being embodied in the space-time of the living world. Osmose and Ephémère are my attempts to distill and amplify the sensations and emotions of being conscious, embodied, and mortal—that is, how it feels to be alive here now among all this, immersed in the vast, multichanneled flow of life through space and time. In these works, I seek to remind people of their biological, spiritual, and psychological connections to the natural (rather than human-made) environment and of the regenerative source and mythological ground of those connections.

For nearly a decade, I attempted to communicate this sensibility through the medium of painting. The practice of painting and its mode of apprehending the world has significantly informed my entire approach to VR. Evidence of the themes of Osmose and Ephémère can be found in my work as early as 1975, and their visual aesthetic appears as early as 1981, when I turned my attention as a painter to investigating my own extremely myopic eyesight. In doing so, I was initiated into an alternative experience of space whereby "objects" had apparently disappeared and where all semblance of solidity, surface, edges, and distinctions between things, including figure and ground—all the usual perceptual cues by which we objectify the world—had dissolved. In their stead was a sense of space without sharply defined, separate objects in empty space and with an ambiguous intermingling of varying voluminous luminosities and hues. Within this spatiality, there is no split between the observer and the observed. The withdrawal of the sense of sight—of the visual acuity that dominates the human relationship with the world and is tied to the Cartesian paradigm—allows another way of sensing to come forward, one in which the body feels space very much like that of a body immersed in the sea.[2] This alternative mode of perceptual spatiality has profoundly influenced my work.

In the mid-1980s, I exhibited a series of paintings called Espaces Interlacés (Interlaced Space). This body of work attempted to communicate a subjective experience of the intermingling of interior self and external world, of body and nature. To this end, I developed painting techniques based on the application of layers of oil pigment alternating with the dissolving and sanding away of certain areas, using the resulting semi-transparent and semi-abstract/semi-representational effect to create spatial and conceptual ambiguity. In this work, I also sought to reconstruct the sensation of being encircled by horizon, of being sensuously, spatially enveloped. The two-dimensionality of the painterly picture plane, however, ultimately posed an insurmountable limitation to the achievement of this goal.

Consequently, I abandoned the medium of painting for that of 3D computer graphics—a medium that offered the possibility of creating in virtual three-dimensional space on the other side of the picture plane.

In late 1987, I became a founding director of a start-up computer graphic software company, Softimage, becoming its first director of visual research. Learning to use the young software by co-writing its first manual, I eventually resumed my own work in the form of three-dimensional computer graphic images composed and rendered as stills. Between 1990 and 1993, I produced a series of 3D stills titled The Interior Body, dealing with metaphorical correspondences between body and earth, the same themes that were present in the earlier paintings and that reoccur in Osmose and Ephémère. As an artist who had already developed a particular visual aesthetic style, I instinctively and immediately bypassed the usual 3D computer graphic techniques. These images were created by making 3D cg models and placing them in three-dimensional space, as if constructing props and arranging them along with lights on a virtual theater set. Rather than creating solid-surfaced objects, however, and separating them in empty Cartesian space, I worked with transparency (as I had while painting) and textured shadow-casting to create spatial ambiguity, merging objects and space, figure and ground. These three-dimensional constructions were composed much like a painting, from a fixed point of view with great consideration given to the framing. The resulting compositions were rendered and output to film as transparencies and exhibited as large-scale light boxes. (Along the way, I also collaborated on the 3D computer-animated film West of Eden produced at Softimage.) While these images were created in virtual 3D working space, they were output through photographic media as two-dimensional Duratrans stills, thus defeating my original intent. And so, seeking a more effective means with which to communicate a subjective sense of enveloping spatiality, I began to work with immersive VR, or what I prefer to call immersive virtual space.

In my experience of constructing virtual environments, the medium of immersive VR offers a unique means of expressing this particular sensibility. This is primarily because of the medium's enveloping spatiality, a spatiality that seemingly allows viewers to enter it, and because of its kinesthetic and interactive properties. As a means of distilling and amplifying the sensations and emotions of being conscious, embodied, and mortal, of heightening sensations "of the body as the site of consciousness occupying space,"[3] immersive VR is far more effective than any other artistic medium I have used. Just as the invention of film—through the technology and craft of photography—extended the stillness of painting into the flow of time, the technology associated with immersive VR extends beyond the two-dimensionality of painting and film into enveloping "circumferal" space. In virtual space, the artist designer can construct three-dimensional, animated, conceptual models of the world, manifesting them within a virtual spatio-temporal arena where they can be kinesthetically explored by others through real-time interaction and full-body immersion. The viewer thus becomes a participant within the artist's world. This is particularly so when approached through an embodying (rather than disembodying) user interface such as that of Osmose and Ephémère. In works such as these, perceptual boundaries between inside and out may be experienced as permeable because the virtual and immaterial are confused with the bodily felt, experienced as strangely real. This is the paradox of immersive VR and its singular power.

The origins of the technology associated with virtual reality lie in the military and Western scientific-industrial complex: VR is not neutral but by default carries Cartesian values.[4] It should not be surprising, then, if most of the metaphors—spatial, visual, interactive—used in conventional VR design reinforce what Henri Lefebvre called "the reign of King Logos."[5] In this context, virtual reality can be read as a "literal enactment of Cartesian ontology,"[6] the product of the collective consciousness of Western culture issuing from "a techno-utopian ideology ripe with subconscious perceptions and prejudices in which liberation is sought from the body [and earth] by dissolving into the machine."[7] When constructed by artist designers who are aware of the technology's debt to King Logos and who deliberately choose to circumvent its conventions, this medium can effectively be used to convey alternative worldviews, acting as a countering philosophical tool. In Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Painting and Poetry, Marshall McLuhan wrote that the role of artists was to create "counter-environments" to open the doors of perception by correcting the unconscious bias of a given culture. He went on to say that in an age of accelerated change, the need to perceive the environment becomes ever more urgent.[8] Similarly, Lefebvre, in his seminal book The Production of Space, called for the production of anti-environments and "counter-space" in the face of the homogenizing absolute space of Western metaphysics.[9] Since these words were written, the paradoxical medium of VR, with all its implications, has emerged.

In my work, I have attempted to push VR beyond its conventions to present a different interpretation of being in the world. In terms of content and sensibility, Osmose and Ephémère are a far cry from the adrenaline-pumping techno fantasies common in VR. Osmose and Ephémère shun conventional hand-based modes of user interaction, which tend to reduce the body to that of disembodied eye and probing hand, in favor of an embodying interface that tracks breath and shifting balance, grounding the immersive experience in the participant's own body. Osmose and Ephémère avoid the hard-edged mimetic realism toward which most VR aspires, instead relying on semi-abstract semi-transparent figuration to create an ambiguous, evocative painterly aesthetic that actively engages the participant's imagination in the work.

Osmose and Ephémère were constructed with a team at Softimage Inc. in Montreal from 1994 to 1995 and 1996 to 1998, respectively. The graphics and animations were created by Georges Mauro using Softimage's 3D animation software; these were adapted to real-time VR through custom programming by John Harrison. Rick Bidlack composed and programmed the sound, and Dorota Blaszczak designed and programmed the sonic architecture. Osmose was produced by Softimage. Ephémère was coproduced by Softimage and my company Immersence Inc. Both works originally ran on a Silicon Graphics Infinite Reality parallel-processing computer [but now have been successfully ported onto a PC. They also rely on use of a stereoscopic (and stereo sound) head-mounted display]†. We designed a user interface that motion-tracks the participant's breath and balance (breathing in to ascend, out to descend, leaning to change direction). The use of conventional hand-based interaction was deliberately avoided. The sound uses a PC (or a Mac in the case of Osmose), a Kurzweil sound synthesizer and processor, and an Acoustetron for localizing the sounds in real time in three-dimensional space.

The central experience is that of the immersed participant—the "immersant." During public exhibitions, this rather intimate experience takes place in the company of an attendant in a small private chamber facing a larger audience space of relative darkness with two luminous screens. This public space is filled with sound, as it is generated in real time by the immersant's behavior in the virtual space. One of the screens is a stereoscopic video projection of the three-dimensional world as it is experienced by the immersant, enabling museum visitors to vicariously witness each immersive journey as it takes place in real time. The other bears the projected shadow of the immersant's silhouette as he or she moves and gestures in response to the work. The use of this shadow silhouette alongside with the real-time video projection serves to poeticize the relationship between the immersant body and the work, drawing attention to the body's role as ground and medium for the experience.

To experience Osmose or Ephémère, the participant dons a stereoscopic helmet through which the computer-generated 3D graphics and 3D sound are displayed in real time according to their breathing in and out and to their shifting center of balance, both of which are tracked by sensors mounted on a vest. There are no gloves, and there is no phallic joystick.

Spatial structure of Osmose

Figure 22.1:
Char Davies, Tree Pond.
Real-time frame capture from Osmose, 1995.

The first virtual realm encountered by the immersant in Osmose is a three-dimensional Cartesian grid that functions as an orientation space and makes reference to the technology's origins. With the immersant's first breaths, the grid gives way to a clearing. In the center of the clearing is a tree, into whose leaves it is possible to enter. Surrounding the clearing is a forest, which when entered is never-ending in all directions including up or down, except by following a stream or by becoming still and waiting for time to pass. In the clearing there is also a pond into which one can sink (by breathing out) and then descend deeper into an oceanic abyss in which a symbolic life-world appears through which one can return to the clearing with its pond, stream, and tree. It is also possible (by breathing in) to ascend into white cloud—or, by breathing out again, to descend into subterranean earth, passing roots and rocks and underground streams. Two other realms—above and below, of text on nature, technology, and the body and of software code—function as the conceptual substratum and superstratum parenthesizing the work. The sounds within Osmose were sampled from a male and female voice uttering phonetics and digitally processed to create a range of effects and localized in three-dimensional space. Sound is generated on the fly, in real time, responding, like the visuals, to changes in the immersant's head position, spatial location, direction, and speed. Using breath and balance, immersants are able to float or hover through all the virtual realms and in the overlapping areas between. After fifteen minutes of immersion in Osmose (during public installations), the life-world reappears and then irretrievably recedes, bringing the session to an end.[10]

Spatial Structure of Osmose.

Spatio-temporal structure of Ephémère

Figure 22.2:
Char Davies, Seeds.
Real-time frame capture from

In Ephémère, the iconographic repertoire is extended beyond the trees and rocks and streams of Osmose to include body organs, blood vessels, and bones, suggesting a symbolic correspondence between the chthonic presences of the interior body and the subterranean earth. While Osmose consisted of nearly a dozen realms situated around a central clearing, Ephémère is structured spatially into three levels—landscape, earth, and interior body. The body functions as the metaphoric substratum under the fecund earth and the lush bloomings and witherings of the land. Unlike Osmose, Ephémère is also structured temporally. Even as the immersant roams among all three realms, no realm remains the same. The landscape changes continually, passing through cycles of dawn, day, evening, and night, from the pale of winter through spring and summer to the climatic decay of autumn. While participants may spend an entire session in one realm, it is more likely that they will pass constantly between them, immersed in transformation. Throughout the work, the various rocks, roots, seeds, and so on come into being, linger, and pass away. Their appearings depend on the immersant's vertical level, proximity, slowness of movement, and steadiness and duration of gaze.

All the transformations and interactions in Ephémère are aural as well as visual. While the visual elements pass through varying phases visibility and nonvisibility, light and darkness—and in the case of the landscape, progress from the more literal to the abstract—the sound is also in a state of flux. Localized in three dimensions and fully interactive as in Osmose, sound oscillates between melodic form and mimetic effect in a state some where between structure and chaos, adapting moment by moment to the spatio-temporal context of the immersant within the work. Ephémère is more interactive than Osmose: when gazed on, its landscape rocks transform into other landscapes; seeds activate when gazed on for an extended length of time, rewarding patient observation with germination, inviting entry into the luminous interior space of their bloom. The only constancy is the ever-changing river: when the immersant surrenders to its gravitational flow, it metamorphoses from river to underground stream or artery/vein and vice versa, summoning in the corresponding visual and aural elements of each realm. Deep within the earth, rocks transform into pulsing body organs, eggs appear, and aging organs give way to bone. Depending on the immersant's behavior within the work, there are several endings, of falling leaves, of ashes, and of dust.

Spatial and temporal structure of Ephémère.

The visuals in these works are soft, luminous, and translucent, consisting of semi-transparent textured 3D forms and flowing particles: the 3D forms have been designed to be neither wholly representational (that is, recognizable) nor wholly abstract but to hover in between, creating perceptual ambiguity. By animating these forms and by enabling the participant not only to see through them but to float through them as well, it is possible—because of their varying degrees of transparency—to create spatially ambiguous figure and ground relationships. The resulting constant variability of the perceptual field causes semiotic and sensory fluctuations, or what I call "perceptual buzz," in which multiple poetic associations may be evoked—for a single literal meaning closes the work, whereas ambiguity invites further imaginative play. In my work, ambiguity is key to softening, lessening, the distinctions between things. This strategy, developed through years of painting, serves to offset the cultural bias of dualism, of maintaining rigid boundaries between subject-object, I-it, which finds expression in the aesthetic of "hard-edged objects in empty space" so common in three-dimensional computer graphics (an aesthetic clearly embodied in the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park).

The interactive methodology of Osmose and Ephémère does not rely on conventional hand-based VR interface methods such as joystick, wand, trackball, or glove—which tend to support a disembodied, distanced, and controlling stance toward the world. Instead, we developed an interface that is body-centered and that relies on the intuitive, instinctual, visceral processes of breathing and balance. Through breath, the immersant is able to rise and fall in space with ease and precision. By subtly altering the body's center of balance, the immersant is able to change direction. This reliance of breath and balance is intended to reaffirm the role of the living physical body in immersive virtual space, as subjective experiential ground. It is also intended to act as a channel of communion rather than as a tool of control. As in meditation, the practice of following one's breath and being centered in balance opens up a profound way of relating to the world.[11] This strategy has been informed by my own experiences of scuba diving and has many implications for the work as a whole, both on an instrumental level and in terms of metaphor. The experience of immersion in the deep sea, via scuba diving, has significantly shaped my conceptual approach to VR. While diving, the hands are rarely used because touching often means doing or receiving harm; the vertical axis of movement is more important than the horizontal, and one's buoyancy is dependent on skillful use of breath and balance to rise or fall or turn. Most of all, one feels the exquisite sensation of floating instead of being gravity-bound, of being sensuously immersed in the big blue. Here, space is not perceived as empty or passive but sensually embraces, envelops the whole body, inviting reverie and surrender of the self in rapture of the deep.

Since 1995, nearly twenty thousand people [approximately 35,000 people, as of November 2007]† have been individually immersed in Osmose and in Ephémère. The responses of many participants initially caught us by surprise, in terms of their emotionality, including euphoria and tears of loss. Not only do the works' reliance on breath and balance facilitate relaxation, but they also tend to facilitate a mental state in which logical, rational, goal-oriented behavior is abandoned for perceptual free-fall. In comparing participant responses with psychological research into traditionally induced altered states of consciousness such as meditation, it appears that full-body immersion in an unusual virtual environment (that is, one that does not seek to reproduce literal appearances and habitual behavior in the real world) can facilitate shifts in mental awareness.[12] In this state, it appears that perceptual "dehabituation" allows perceived boundaries between interior and exterior, mind and body, self and world, to become permeable. These parallels have been explored in a previous paper.[13]

The intertwinings of the imaginative and the physical, the immaterial and the material, lie at the heart of Osmose and Ephémère. These works have been nourished by my experience of an actual space, a place partly cultivated, partly wild, on the slope of a mountain in southern Quebec. Though this land is not pristine by any means—having been cleared by settlers in the eighteenth century, mined for copper, logged for furniture, grazed by cattle, farmed for apples, its meadows rooted with European "aliens," and its nonhuman predators, cougars, wolves, and bears, hunted out long ago—the elements of Ephémère and Osmose have their source here. This land's trees and roots and rocks, its ponds and mountain streams, its bloomings and witherings through time, have become numinous, as present in my imagination as in actuality. As I ramble among their physical manifestations throughout the seasons and flowing light, they in turn appear in my work like apparitions in a haunting reciprocity between the virtual and the real.

On this land, however, fewer birds arrive each spring; the frogs and toads have fewer young; and the maple trees are dying of acid rain from smelters in the American Midwest. This land is but a microcosm: worldwide, wild places of the earth are being dramatically altered due to a litany of human attitudes and actions.[14] Meanwhile, public attention is being directed to the virgin, untrampled territory of cyberspace. And what of virtual reality? Can virtual representations of nature return our attention to the nonhuman living world—conversely increasing our appreciation of the complexities of the natural environment? Or will virtual environments proliferate at the inverse rate of the disappearance of the real—as some sort of psychic compensation? Perhaps the very act of creating virtual environments such as Osmose and Ephémère point out the danger that soon computer-generated simulations may be all we have left.[15]

When I first began writing about Ephémère—before its completion—it was springtime, and apple blossoms were drifting gently on their boughs. As I write these words now, the apples have already ripened, been harvested, and fallen and rotted, and the withering leaves of Canadian autumn are trickling through the October sky. I write on a laptop electronically connected to the human world, and yet I am alone with an encircling horizon of woods and fields surrounding me. Voices from digital recordings of the seventeenth-century compositions of Pergolesi ring out, interlaced with the rustlings of wind, the flowings of water over mountain stone, and the occasional sound of a hunter's rifle shot. As much as I try to focus, the land keeps calling me—away from keyboard and mouse pad, virtual reality, and the abstraction of words—out into the sensations of nature, winds on my skin, scents of decaying vegetation, and the presences of its inhabitants going about the business of their lives. Waking up the other morning, I looked out the cabin window and thought I was inside the autumnal flux of Ephémère—the external internalized and re-externalized as art.

As I reread these words, I sit at the roots of a solitary maple tree among its crumpled ochre leaves, in the gathering violet light and tranquillity of dusk broken only by the sound of the international flight path of trans-atlantic jets—watching for the deer to venture from the safe shadows of the woods into the soft evening meadows of the orchard. I wait for the deer and all the other creatures who pass through here, strands of multichanneled life, life as a river with infinite rivulets pouring through time. These are the living presences who are so absent in the human-made virtual environments of Osmose and Ephémère.


For more information on Osmose and Ephémère, including an extensive bibliography, go to http://www.immersence.com

1. By immersion or immersive virtual space, I mean immersion in a 360-degree spherically enveloping virtual environment, in my opinion possible at the present time only through use of head-mounted displays (HMDs) with wide fields of view. While less cumbersome techniques are under development, current alternatives such as wrap-around screens or domes (now known as spatially immersive displays) are not as effective in achieving a sense of envelopment. Neither are the cubed-shaped display rooms known as CAVES. My comments in this chapter refer to full-body immersion through use of HMDs.
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2. This experience bears resemblance to Maurice Merleau-Ponty's description of night in The Phenomenology of Perception (1945) (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1995), 283:

When, for example, the world of clear and articulate objects is abolished, our perceptual being, cut off from its world, evolves a spatiality without things. This is what happens in the night. Night is not an object before me; it enwraps me and infiltrates through my senses, stifling my recollections, and almost destroying my personal identity. I am no longer withdrawn into my perceptual outlook from which I watch the outlines of objects moving by at a distance …. it is pure depth without foreground or background, without surfaces, and without any distance separating it from me.
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3. Yasmin Kharim, private correspondence, 1995.
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4. Numerous writers have pointed out technology's tendency toward reinforcement of the Western worldview, including Katherine Hayles, "The Seductions of Cyberspace," in Verena Andermatt Conley, ed., Rethinking Technologies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), and Katherine Hayles, "Narratives of Artificial Life," in George Robertson et al., eds., Future Natural: Nature, Science, Culture (New York: Routledge, 1996). Also see Margaret Morse, "Landscape and Narrative in Virtual Environments," in Mary Anne Moser and Douglas MacLeod, eds., Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996). My experience in the late 1980s of building a software company into the world's leading developer of 3D computer animation software led me to understand the potency of this technology in reinforcing traditional Western scientific values.
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5. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 407.
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6. Richard Coyne, "Heidegger and Virtual Reality: The Implications of Heidegger's Thinking for Computer Representations," Leonardo, Vol. 27, no. 1 (1994): 68.
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7. Ziauddin Sardar, "alt.civilizations.faq: Cyberspace as the Darker Side of the West," in Z. Sardar and J. Ravetz, eds., Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway (London: Pluto Press, 1996), 34.
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8. Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 241, 252. The words quoted here originally were addressed to the creators of psychedelic light shows.
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9. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 407.
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10. For more information on Osmose, see Char Davies, "Osmose: Notes on Being in Immersive Virtual Space," Digital Creativity, 9, no. 2 (1998), first published in Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Arts Conference Proceedings, Montreal: ISEA95 (Montreal: University of Montreal, 1995).
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11. Drew Leder, The Absent Body (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 178:
Breath is a potent tool of overcoming dualism. Physiologically, respiration stands at the very threshold of the ecstatic and visceral, the voluntary and the involuntary… inside and outside, self and Other are relativized, porous, each time one takes a breath. The air is constantly transgressing boundaries, sustaining life through interconnection. One may have spent years studying the mystics on the unreality of dualism and have this remain an abstract idea. But in following breath, one begins to embody this truth.

And David Michael Levin, The Body's Recollection of Being: Phenomenological Psychology and the Destruction of Nihilism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), 274:

Balance is a question of centering. When we are properly centered, our experience of Being is in equilibrium. Being well-centered, we can encounter other beings in a more open, receptive way. Finding our center is a necessary step in the development of our ontological capacity to open ourselves to the larger measure of being and to encounter other beings with a presence that is deeply responsive. Coming home to our true center of being, we can begin to relax our egological defenses, and begin to experience things outside the subject/object polarization. Being well-centered in Being is therefore at the very root of Gelassenheit, that "way of being" in virtue of which according to Heidegger, we are going to be most favored with a deeper experience of beings, and the presencing of Being as such.
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12. Arthur Deikman, De-automatization and Mystical Experience in Altered States of Consciousness (New York: Harper Collins, 1990).
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13. Char Davies, "Changing Space: VR as an Arena of Being," in John Beckman, ed., The Virtual Dimension: Architecture, Representation, and Crash Culture (Boston: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), and in abbreviated form, in R. Ascott, ed., Consciousness Reframed: Art and Consciousness in the Post-biological Era. Proceedings of the First International CAiiA Research Conference (Newport: University of Wales College, 1997).
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14. In October 1998, newspaper headlines announced that PCBs and other persistent toxic chemicals—from as far away as South America—have been found in extremely high concentrations in the uppermost altitudes of the Rocky Mountains, imagined until now to be untouched by man. Globe and Mail (Toronto), 17 October 1998.
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15. Laurie McRobert, "Immersive Art and the Essence of Technology," in Explorations: Journal for Adventurous Thought (Fall 1996).
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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.