Immersive Fantasy: "Osmose"

Char Davies describes the immersive virtual space "Osmose" (first exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal, September 1995) as a spatio-temporal arena, wherein mental models or abstract constructs of the world can be given virtual embodiment and then kinesthetically (i.e., via motor perception) and synesthetically (i.e., via a mixture of visual, auditory, and motor perception) explored through full-body immersion and interaction. That means that visitors are "immersed" in symbols that we can experience corporally and possibly emotionally from inside. While most of the virtual environments I have experienced use the metaphor of flying to move the visitor through virtual and symbolic space, Davies uses the metaphor of deep-sea diving in which we move between worlds organized largely in terms of up and down. We also hear sounds derived from sampling a single male and female voice. As we float through the dozen virtual world-spaces in the piece, we have as much access to the interior of transparent objects as to their exterior surface. The visitor uses a head-mounted display with tiny monitors over the eyes to virtually enter inside the piece; the tracking device is a "motion capture vest with a balance sensor," which is to say, the way to move up is to expand the chest with deep breathing; to go down, one contracts the chest circumference by breathing out. Davies herself and many visitors to the piece have had profound experiences related to the worlds themselves and the use of breath and balance to explore them.

I, however, experienced several of the worlds in the piece as an occasion for panic. Like many asthmatics, being underwater makes me deeply and instantly afraid. Evidently, even when the water is symbolic, I experience it viscerally as water and as everything smothering that water means to me (see also Rutledge). Consider also that I have a math phobia and that one of the worlds in the piece consisted of machine language which scrolled upward faster than I could escape it by breathing in more and more. As I got more and more panicky, the programmer John Harrison revealed that the way out of machine language world was to surrender and sink into it. Despite my own reaction, I could understand the intention of the piece, to "encourage the immersant to effectively 'let go" in a meditative experience that reconnects the body and the world. The piece also underlines that we can and do experience symbols viscerally and emotionally and that these symbols do not have just one meaning, but many potential and experientially determined ones.

If empathy (or "feeling as") is the capacity to visualize and experience the world from the position of the other, to walk in another's shoes, so to speak, then the distinguishing characteristic of a virtual environment—that you as a visitor experience an artificial world from inside can function quite literally as an invitation to empathize, to see a world from another position and with other eyes.

The nature of the virtual environment as a symbolic field or externalized imagination suggests why action within it is neither free nor lacking in emotional and social consequences. Nor is one so very or completely disembodied in a fully immersive virtual world as is commonly believed: awash in what amounts to a meaning system, at minimum one retains a felt body which is mapped quite differently than the seen body—as Catherine Richards's video "Spectral Bodies" demonstrates. The spectral body in the virtual realm is kinesthetically linked as well to the felt body. That is why a virtual persona can be violated and why there is a relation between cyberdeath and psychic annihilation (see Dibbell 36-42 and Rheingold 32-37). Thus, the liminal and virtual realm in the machine is far from immune from moral issues or the ultimate questions of life and death. And, finally, although a virtual environment is an invention and a simulation that is prepared in advance, we (and even its designers) cannot fully anticipate what it means to experience that realm until we are "inside."

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Last verified: August 1st 2013.