Using VR technology, shortsighted Canadian artist Char Davies has extrapolated her blurred vision of the world into a dreamlike experience for viewers. Nicola Godwin dips in

An acute case of myopia gave rise to the farsighted and creative application of virtual reality technology currently on show at the Barbican Centre, London, as part of the Serious Games exhibition. Osmose (French for osmosis) is a long-term project created by Canadian artist Char Davies, software developer John Harrison, and computer animator Georges Mauro, sound engineer Dorota Blazsczak, and composer Rick Bidlack. Osmose was produced by SoftImage in Montreal.

Osmose, Forest Grid © Char DaviesChar Davies, Tree Pond, from Osmose, 1995 © Char Davies

Distinctive technique blurs distinctions

To create the distinctive visual style of Osmose (one of subdued colour and transparency), Char Davies employed various computer graphics techniques generated in a software programme developed by Softimage, and running on Silicon Graphics supercomputers.

First, transparent texture maps (the outer “skins” that are fitted to three-dimensional models), serve to soften the hard edges of objects. And in keeping with Davies’ preference for perceptual ambiguity, transparency is also employed to blur the distinctions between figure and ground so that, for example, distant objects can be made to look as if they’re passing in front of foreground objects.

Second, the various worlds within Osmose are filled with simple particle systems (literally, graphic particles governed by common “physical” las) that are illuminated with soft light and follow animated paths.

According to Davies: “We used these two techniques to create almost all the worlds in Osmose, which include a central clearing with a tree, a forest, the interior of a leaf, a subterranean orld, a pond, an ocean and a cloud.

[Char Davies, Forest Grid (left) and Tree Pond (right), from Osmose, 1995]
Digital image captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live performance.] †

(images courtesy of Char Davies)

Davies, who has progressed through paint, film and three-dimensional computer graphics, insists that Osmose is not an exercise in VR, but rather in immersive environments. “I don’t like the term virtual reality, it’s a buzz word,” she says. “I would prefer to say Osmose is an immersive, virtual environment because that better explains the experience.”

The work employs themes that Davies says go back 20 years. “These themes keep reappearing in my art,” she observes. “Some of the paintings I did in 1974 share the same elements as Osmose, stones for instance, streams, dreams, earth, veins, lungs, the womb and light.”

Given that VR offers the potential for the complete immersion of the viewer, it seems the ideal medium to represent these elemental motifs, as well as draw together Davies’ proficiencies in imaging and sound. But it was Davies’ shortsightedness that gave rise to the installation’s characteristic visual style “I am extremely myopic,” she explains. “Not correcting my vision gave me a different way of seeing. I don’t deal with hard, separate objects, but with what can best be described as globules of light. I became interested in constructing light in a three-dimensional space that envelopes you.”

Davies was first introduced to computer-based imaging in 1983. “I thought it could give me what I was looking for—a space that was enveloping instead of a two-dimensional, painterly space.” The look of Osmose is markedly different from the bulk of three-dimensional computer imagery, which characteristically employs highly rendered, solid objects. “Over the years,” comments Davies, “I have developed a visual aesthetic of transparency and perceptual ambiguity.”

She has never received formal training in computer graphics, and is the first to admit that she’s no techie, a fact, she feels that has greatly influenced her style. “John Harrison is the technologist, he did the programming,’’ she explains. “I’d say: ‘Can we do this?’, and John would tell me it wasn’t possible, but I’d insist. We were never held back conceptually by the limits of technology.”

For the viewer — or immersant — Osmose is potentially an unusual and moving experience. “Not everyone finds it interesting,” admits Davies, “but most people forget time. The experience lasts 15 minutes, but is typically reported as feeling much shorter”. Other accounts testify to a seemingly paradoxical experience of both embodiment and disembodiment, which Davies attributes to the navigational technique used.

“All sorts of emotions come up,” observes Davies. “About a dozen people, three-quarters of whom were men, experienced such a sense of loss that it caused them to cry.” The effect Osmose characteristically has on its viewers is so pronounced, it has bolstered Davies’ hopes for the future of the immersive space. She says: “This could be a philosophical or existential arena for experiencing different ways of being.”

• Nicola Godwin is the editor of CGI magazine.

Osmose, Immersant with Head Mounted Display and Breathing/Balance VestChar Davies, Subterranean Earth, from Osmose, 1995 © Char Davies

The choice of navigational medium is key to the Osmose experience. Says Davies: “We wanted to facilitate an experience of being, rather than doing. We wanted immersants to relax and contemplate the virtual world, rather than rush around grabbing and destroying things.”
Inspired by dreams and Davies's experience of scuba diving, the team hit upon the idea of directing movement through breathing and balance rather than via a joystick or glove.

Sensors, attached to the immersant’s body, are used to measure the tilt of the spine and the expansion and contraction of the chest. Thus immersants move through virtual space horizontally in the direction of their tilt, and vertically up and down, by filling or emptying their lungs.
“Immersants feel both disembodied and embodied all at the same time, because they are floating but they can hear and feel their own breathing,” says Davies.

To experience Osmose, the immersant is placed in a relatively isolated chamber and equipped with a traditional VR head-mounted display. “We decided to go with the helmet approach,” says Davies. “Some people think it’s old hat, but as yet there’s no better way to experience immersive virtual worlds.”

[Immersant Photo (left). Subterranean Earth (right), from Osmose, 1995: A
digital image captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live performance.] †

(images courtesy of Char Davies)


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Last verified: Jun 17th, 2017