An immersive virtual universe exploring the symbolic relationship between nature and "self".

The full equipment for this virtual environment involves, for the "immersant", a stereoscopic visualisation helmet with three-dimensional sound, a jacket fitted with sensors to capture the movements of breathing, and for the rest of the public a stereo video projection, the whole controlled by a multi-processor graphic computer (Silicon Graphics), micro-computers and samplers. Osmose was presented in 1995 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal, at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York, and from November 1996 to February 1997 at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle-on-Tyne, in Great Britain.


Osmose invites the spectator to an initiation into a poetic universe. The "immersant" (a neologism created by the author) has to wear a stereoscopic viewing helmet with incorporated spatialised sound, and a jacket fitted with sensors which will detect the movements of the body and breathing. The sonic environment interacts with the visitor's spatial positioning, their movements and the speed of them. Both its limpid aesthetic and its floating mode of navigation mean that Osmose strongly evokes the submarine world - which Char Davies has explored for several years. Thus, vertical movements are governed by deep breaths, in for up, out for down. The horizontal movements react to the movements of the body: leaning forward, backward, left, right. With a 360░ view, the visitor can traverse twelve symbolic territories which are intermingled or follow each other: the clearing, the forest, the tree, the leaf, the cloud, the lake, the earth, the underground world, the abyss, the code, the text and "Lifeworld".

The colours are subtle shades of brown, green and sepia. The images vary from figurative to abstract according to the worlds. The clearing, for example, a restful central area, includes a river, source of sparkling lights one can follow for a fleeting moment, and a stylised tree which one can penetrate to discover the world among the leaves. The lake plunges the visitor into dense green water, uniformly "opaque". At the two extremities of these worlds, like parentheses, the universe of text includes writings on technology, the body and nature, along with quotations from Rilke, Bachelard, Heiddeger and others, while the code universe includes part of the lines constituting the application itself.


"But this is something we can never know at a given moment, whether reality is a dream, or whether the dream is reality"
Milan Kundera.

For Char Davies, one of the most interesting aspects of virtual reality is its capacity to explore the inner world, the subjective experience of "being in the world". With Osmose, the author attempts to abolish the Cartesian duality between the body and the mind. Rather than joysticks and trackballs, she preferred a "natural" interface, breathing and the movements of the body. The exploration of this universe is deliberately solitary, as opposed to the "networking" notion often involved in new technologies.


Char Davies I would first like to say that I am not really interested in technology, but l think that the space made accessible by new technologies is unprecedented in terms of the facility to experiment with ways of what I call "being in a world". I want to examine "existence", in the philosophical sense of the word, in the same terms used by Bachelard when he said: when one changes space, when one enters a space which is changing cyclically, one doesn't change space, one changes. I don't think in terms of interactivity, my attention is above all focused on the "capacities" of the space. The sensibility of this work, in terms of aestheticism, in terms of non-linear narrative, stems above all from my sensibilities and experience as a painter.

Audience: I amsurprised when you say that you want to plunge people into their true "selves", because as an artist, in fact you plunge people into your true "self". And when you talk about plunging into one's true self, it is a spiritual experience. it is a concept which is very "new age", very American, and mixing Blachelard into all that seems to me rather dubious.

C.D.: Well, that's your opinion. This work is very subjective, so when people experience it, there is a mirror effect, reflecting who they are. I base my comments on my experience watching people use the installation, and on hundreds of letters, e-mail messages, discussions, etc. And on the basis of these comments and this experience, it seems that it creates a context in which people can experience themselves, in a very philosophical sense. What is the difference with someone walking through a wood? Why use all this technology? Well - when you walk through a wood, you still see the world around you as being constituted of solids and separate elements, and you still walk on the earth, obeying the laws of gravity. So you are really within your usual perception. That is where the fundamental difference lies between this work, and the simple fact of going for a walk. ln the same way, one could say why not just take a drug, or a hallucinogen? I would say that the difference with an experience such as Osmose is the fact that the perception of the environment passes through another, very personal vision, that of an artist. ln this case, I agree, it is effectively filtered through the individual vision of the artist, because it is an artistic work, and I feel that the advantage of this type of medium of expression is precisely that it works in that way.

Audience: Have you been able to analyse the various psychological and behavioural reactions of the people who have undergone this "immersion"?

C.D.: There hasn't been any systematic analysis, but I have been able to make some observations. When people are in it, they forget the passage of time. When they come to the lab, they stay in there as long as they want - which in general is about 40 minutes. But when you ask them to come out, they think they have been in there 5 or 10 minutes. And when they come out, they seem physically and mentally very relaxed, they even find it difficult to talk rationally for 5 or 10 minutes, they are so relaxed. About a dozen people have told me that they cried afterwards, because of the feeling of having suddenly lost something, when it stopped. And about a dozen people have told me that they no longer have any fear of death after this experience. If I had to make an interpretation of that, I would say that there is a phenomenon of disembodiinent, at the same time as that of embodiment.

Audience: A few years ago, I had the opportunity to beinvolved in the production of a virtual reality work by the American artist Matt Mulican, Five into one, and talking to him, I discovered that he has started his career as a plastician in California with a certain number of experiences involving drugs (mescal and LSD), and he felt his interest and involvement in work on virtual reality to be an extension of these youthful experiments. Do you accept the idea hat virtual worlds are artificial paradises, with as background the use of drugs which is often associated with them, or with the reference to religion through meditation? What do you think on the ethical, philosophical or political levels, about the effects these worlds can have, the social used to which they will be put in the future?

C.D.: I have never truly meditated, so I can't talk about that experience. As for drugs, I have tried them, but quite a few years ago, to the extent that I no longer have any very clear recollection of it. So I think you can't talk about that as an influence. No, one thing which really did have an influence on this work was that I lived in the country and spent a lot of time walking in the midst of nature, and while I walked, I always tried to feel enveloped by what was around me. That was why I quit painting to move into this new medium, because one can feel totally enveloped by the space. It is not so much the interactivity which interests me as the perceptual interaction between the people who evolve in this world, who are disembodied in this ephemeral virtual space.

Audience: What does this project cost? Was there any sponsorship, and is it expected to be profitable?

C.D.: The cost of the project was entirely covered by Softimage, and no profits are expected. The project is entirely in line with the spirit of the company, which has always been interested in the relationship between the new technologies and creativity. And then it is also true that I participaterd in creating the company in the hope of one day gaining access to these technologies. When the company became profitable, I was able to distance myself a bit from the business aspects and get back to my personal work. It is therefore also very tied to my own relationship with Softimage.

Audience: There is a dual aspect to the installation: firstly, the immersion of the person who is inside Osmose, and then the people who watch from outside. Why did you design it that way?

C.D.: It was deliberately conceived as a solitary work. And we wanted people to be able to experience it for at least 15 minutes, rather than 2 or 3 minutes, which means that in one day only 30 people can experience a true immersion. Therefore it was important to enable a larger number of people to witness the experience. And then, some people do not want to be immersed, but prefer to watch the result on a video screen, while still seeing the person who is immersed, because in that way they can make the connection between the movements of the person and what they see on the screen.

Audience: Does the visitor "exist" in the world you create, or arethey justa spectator? Are there objects on which one can act?

C.D.: I have always emphasised the idea of perceptual relativity between the person who has the experience and the rest of the world, rather than interactivity dependent upon something. Except for the sound, because the sounds change according to whether you look upwards or downwards. What was equally important for me was that the people should not use their hands, unlike in most interactive installations. In diving, you learn that if you touch the things around you, there are two possible effects: you could kill the thing, or it can harm you. So you are taught a way of "relating" which is different from "acting".

Technical details
Author: Char Davies
Graphics: Georges Mauro
Development: John Harrison
Musical Concept: Rick Bidlack
Sonic Desiqn: Dorota Blazczak
Production: Softimage

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Last verified: December 13th 2013.