When virtual reality first began receiving serious attention about four or five years ago, I remember how excited I got about how this technology might be used as a new kind of "meditative" medium—a tool that somehow would allow people to explore new dimensions in space and time, to go deeper into themselves and to expand beyond themselves. A kind of cyber yoga that would give us experiences that ultimately would lead us to gain new insights into ourselves as individuals and as humans.

Now, I had no idea exactly how VR might do t his, but somehow, I was just very excited by the idea that it could.

In the intervening years, I've grown more skeptical about VR's ability to play that role. For the most part, entering a VR world is like entering a giant video game. Your goal in most VR worlds is to shoot something or race against something. Or the goal is simply to wander through a town or a building or a landscape and enjoy the scenery. It can be fun, but it's not exactly a growth experience.

The other day, though, I had the opportunity to try a different kind of VR world. It's called Osmose, and it was developed by a team of three people at SoftImage. The team was led by artist Char Davies, who also holds the title of director of visual research at SoftImage. It was she who developed the concept for Osmose.

Osmose basically consists of 12 different worlds, or environments, including an underwater world, a forest, a clearing in the woods, a cloud, an abyss, and floating text and code. This is an immersive experience, so you wear a head-mounted display. Unlike most VR worlds, though, you don't enter Osmose with any particular goal in mind. As Davies says, the goal is simply to "be" in the world—in the most profound sense of that term. You can try and actively explore the different worlds if you want, or you can just drift and relax and let your thoughts and emotions take you where they will.

There are other things that make Osmose different as well. For one, the imagery is different. It is ethereal and dream-like. The objects that populate the world have an ambiguous, almost surrealistic quality that contrasts sharply to the photorealistic, hard-edged look that most VR worlds strive for. In Osmose, everything has a translucent look and feel. The different environments within Osmose even tend to blend and overlap with one another, and when moving about, you can actually find yourself floating between worlds—not quite here and not quite there.

The way you move about in Osmose is also different. Instead of using a joystick or glove, a light vest configured with motion sensors lets you use breathing and balance to move about. Breathe in and you float up, breathe out and you drift down. Lean slightly forward and you move forward, lean back and you retreat.

Since the summer of 1995, the Osmose "experience" has been exhibited in two different museums, and according to Davies, many who've entered the world have found it to be an incredibly moving, emotional, even spiritual experience. Some have even wept.

For myself, the experience wasn't nearly that profound. To be honest, I struggled a bit with the interface, exaggerating my breathing patterns in order to move about. It was enjoyable and interesting and different, but not really relaxing. But that's me. Despite that, I was fascinated by the concept and could easily appreciate the potential of Osmose. It comes as close as anything I've tried to meeting my initial hopes for VR.

Osmose will never wind up in a theme park as a money-making adventure ride. As a piece of art, it was never intended for that anyway. But what Davies does hope is that Osmose will help "change the aesthetic" of virtual reality. That is, she hopes it can show others that VR worlds can be more than just joystick-driven, hyper-realistic, immersive video games. And on that score, Osmose succeeds quite well. (For more info on Osmose, visit www.immersence.com )

Stephen M. Porter

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.