One of Davies' most powerful works is called "Osmose."  Osmose is an immersive virtual-reality piece of the scale, nature, and realism that the public once expected from VR pioneers like Jaron Lanier. It runs on a $280,000 graphics supercomputer that directs its full fury at a lone user wearing a head-mounted display.

Mark [Pesce]† considers Osmose to be the first instance of VR as art. In it, visitors explore a majestic, translucent representation of a forest clearing.  Osmose is not a linear story with beginnings and closure, nor is it a game with opponents and points. It is rather a piece to explore intuitively and languidly. With neither joystick nor keypad, Osmose has a user interface built around balance and breath. Breathe in, rise up; breathe out, sink down. Lean back, drift backward; lean left, drift left ward. Davies says that Osmose borrows its navigational metaphor from Scuba diving, the one realm in which people truly operate in three dimensions. Its content, she says, is "affected by a painterly sensibility" that she developed during her years as an artist. In describing Osmose, Mark echoes Davies' words about painterliness. But at times he accidentally describes her as a sculptor, perhaps because she has so mastered the sensuality of space that he sees at the heart of 3-D design. Of Osmose, Mark has said that it "could only have been designed by a woman," because it is about being and intuiting, rather than battling and overcoming.

Perhaps he is right. But let's face it—some of us are guys. If you're one of these, you too might feel yourself connecting to that guy zeitgeist even as the straps of Osmose's breath monitor tighten on your chest and its machine-head slides onto your shoulders. As the adjustments are made, your right hand might —just might— clutch involuntarily for a gun. And if it does —admit it— you're gonna want grenades in that forest. You're gonna want M-16s. You're gonna want rabid bears, trees you can blast at, and trees that'll blast you back. And you're gonna want to beat those trees. And then you're gonna want to claw your way to Level Five and get blown to kingdom come yourself. And when it's all over, you'll want a score. You'll want a high score. You'll want the highest damn score on the board, so you can call up Mark Pesce and let him know that you kicked his ass at Osmose.

And this will last for a good eight seconds. But after growing accustomed to Osmose's interface, almost any visitor will start feeling weightless, and soon, wholly of the environment. All notions of Bonus Rounds will fade (don't worry, guys—this will pass) as Osmose itself kicks in. Osmose's center is a tree in a clearing. All is translucent and most is still. Everywhere pulse bright corpuscles of light. They surge through the translucent earth to the tree's roots, then pulse through them and upward through its trunk and beyond. The light flows into the forest. There are rivers, roots, and ponds to explore, and leaves as well. And everywhere shine the bright corpuscles of the forest's life while a set of seductive, ambient sounds echo and shift with a visitor's proximity. Breath in, rise slowly through the forest's roof, and enter a place of light and verse. Scrolling lines of poetry in French and English float about the visitor in this cloudy realm. Exhale, sink past the roots through the forest's floor, and enter the substrata. This is the 20 thousand lines of C-code that programmer John Harrison wrote for this world; they surround the visitor here. Somewhere is the code that connects to the breath monitor. Find it, and watch the values surge from 0 to 255 as Osmose attunes itself to its visitor's life. Everything in Osmose is displayed with full stereoscopic depth. Its illusions are made complete by the sophistication of its head tracking gear. Turn to the right, and the displayed images shift just as they would if you were really in that clearing, under that pond, on that leaf.

Sure, sure, sure; try doing that on your Pentium 90. Clearly, Osmose is not consumer electronics. But inevitably, the horsepower it harnesses will be. Greg Estes is the director of marketing in the Silicon Graphics division that designs the Onyx, the computer system that Osmose runs on. He estimates that Davies' Onyx would have listed for roughly $280,000 when new. But it is not new. Indeed, the configuration she owns has not even been available since June of 1995, when it was superseded by faster gear. A year later, Estes estimated that the same amount of money could buy a system which ran roughly 10 times faster than hers. A year after that, it would buy a lot more.

And as Davies' budget buys more and more, the performance she acquired in 1995 inevitably sells for less and less. To get a rough sense for how quickly this process is moving, consider the Nintendo 64, Nintendo's third-generation TV set-top gaming platform. The Nintendo 64 first shipped in the United States in September of 1996. Its real-time 3 D graphics capabilities were designed by Silicon Graphics engineers. In very rough terms, Estes estimates that the 3-D graphics performance found in it would have resided at the top of the Silicon Graphics product line as recently as 1990 (although the top SGI systems of that day of course had many features that Nintendo machines lack).

Does this mean that technology which listed at the Osmose price point just six years ago is available at Wal-Mart today? Not exactly. Estes points out that "graphics performance is a very complex characteristic which can't possibly be measured with a single metric. In many meaningful ways, 1990's high-end systems outperform the Nintendo 64 significantly. In some others, the Nintendo 64 is actually more capable. But in terms of those performance traits which are most pertinent to navigating, not creating 3-D worlds [which is what the Osmose end user experience involves], the high-end system performance of 1990 is largely present in the Nintendo 64." And with those caveats, could we expect to see playback performance of the sort that powers Osmose at a consumer price-point in 2002 ? "With those caveats," Estes answers, "absolutely. SGI's strategic mandate is to migrate the levels of digital realism found at our top end into consumer hands. We've been doing that for years. And we're not slowing down. So I definitely expect that Osmose-like realism will be accessible to consumers within a few years."

Osmose is not written in VRML. But there is no reason why experiences as powerful as the one it offers cannot be, after the language has matured further and PCs have caught up with 1995's Onyxes. And when that inevitable day comes, environments as rich as Osmose's can become available in the home, and can be shared over the network. Avatars and their environs could then become dizzyingly realistic. Whether the network protocol of that day is called VRML, AVRML, or Fred is almost irrelevant. And whether the day actually comes in 2002 or 2006 is likewise irrelevant. What is relevant is that the long-term significance of 3-D graphics over the Web is indicated by pieces like Osmose, not the Lego Land animations of yesterday's VRML 1.0. And that significance will become manifest not only within our lifetimes, but within a single-digit span of years. When it does, ever heightening processor speeds and network ubiquity could truly turn VR into tomorrow's telephone, just as Jaron Lanier once predicted.

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.