The title of this article refers to the immersive virtual reality artwork Osmose, created by the Canadian artist Char Davies and her team at SoftImage. The article will begin with a brief history of Western philosophy in relation to conventional virtual reality (VR) and computer graphics in general. It will discuss how VR's reliance on the thinking of Descartes is restrictive and philosophically retrogressive, and how Davies challenges these conventions. It will discuss the goals of Osmose and the methods Davies used in achieving these goals. The article will relate the philosophical thinking behind the creation of Osmose with the Deep Ecology movement, and conventional VR with shallow ecology which is the dominant Western cultural view. The final part of the paper will look at some of the paradoxes of Osmose. Osmosis: Any process by which something is acquired by absorption. Osmose is the French translation of the word Osmosis.  Osmose is the title of the Virtual Reality art work that is the subject of this article.

Virtual reality is not something normally associated with environmental awareness—in fact it would be more commonly associated with military activity, such as training fighter pilots, or the games industry, or the Hollywood hype which has surrounded VR since its emergence in the late 80s. This hype reflects a belief that one day, through virtual reality, we will be able to live in a world where we as humans have total control over the environment, where we no longer need the physical body.

In the seventeenth century, Descartes posited a strict separation between the realm of human consciousness and the natural world. This way of thinking has been widely accepted in the western world, and has helped shape our cultural values. Descartes devised a co-ordinate system, a grid created by the x, y, and z axes. This grid is the foundation for most of today's computer graphics. It produces a cold linear environment, quite the opposite to the world of Osmose.

In Simon Penny's essay, 'Virtual Reality as the Completion of the Enlightenment Project', the author attempts to place VR within, and as a product of the philosophical project of the Enlightenment. Central to this critique is the proposition that while VR is technically advanced it is philosophically retrogressive. VR strives for realism in the same way as painters in the early Enlightenment period—it does not challenge the contemporary Western cultural view. VR reasserts a mind/body split that is essentially 'patriarchal and a paradigm of viewing that is phallic, colonizing, and panoptic' (Penny, 1994, p.237 )

Descartes' thinking set the scientific and technological revolution in motion. In his famous dream of 1619 he was advised that he should find the unity of the sciences in purely rational terms. His aim was to lay the foundations for a new approach to the sciences, based on clear and distinct mathematical ideas. He aimed to provide a comprehensive scientific account of the universe based on mechanical principles and mathematical laws, but he argued that the human capacity for thought and language could not be explained in this way. He reasoned that since it is possible to doubt the existence of the body, but not his own existence as a conscious, thinking being, it must follow that the soul is entirely distinct from the body and could exist without it.

Using algebra and a coordinate system, Descartes developed an abstract geometry that enabled the description of three-dimensional perspective on a two-dimensional plain. This is known now as Cartesian space, and comprises two parts: the motion of three infinite axes intersecting each other at ninety-degree angles, and the division of these axes into continuously discrete quantities. With Descartes' geometry there was no need for tools, or even reference to the real world. Descartes' method defined abstract objects in an imaginary world of a selected coordinate space, and gave equations to calculate points of intersection, perspective, and depth algebraically. The advantages of this system over earlier ones, are that it deals with abstract constructions and requires no reference to the physical world. This abstract method for representing objects and their relationships to the three-dimensional world forms the foundations for graphics imaging on computers. But this grid (and polygonal construction within the grid) radically limits the possibility of constructing organic, amorphous forms. It privileges crystalline, coherent, independent forms.

Recently there has been some criticism of the computer-graphic establishment for its endorsement of a 'gendered' Cartesian space. Computer-graphic production as seen in commercial cinema, video games, theme-park rides and military simulations, is allegedly dominated by a Western male psyche and worldview (Penny, 1994, p. 231). Osmose involves a shift away from VR's usual Cartesian space. It is composed of several different elements: a tree standing in the middle of a clearing, a forest, water on a lower level, the computer code in another lower level and the text (poetry, philosophical texts, etc.) on the upper level. All those elements are not separated in different rooms as is usual in VR but belong to the same global structure that you travel through.

In the text world Davies quotes some of her favourite philosophers and poets. Passages from Heidegger, Rilke, Huxley, Joseph Campbell, and Gaston Bachelard explore issues of nature, the body, and technology itself; Interspersed with these texts are some of Davies' own writings about Osmose. This world is above all the other worlds.

The lowest level within the world of Osmose is the code world. Recognizing that Osmose is essentially software, Davies literally placed its programming at the bottom of the virtual universe. According to Davies, these two worlds act as symbols of concrete reality bracketing the world within. They remind the immersant and the viewers that Osmose is a highly crafted construction, a product of both great technological sophistication and intensive conceptualization (Davies, 1995).

The main driving force behind the creation of Osmose was 'a desire to heal the Cartesian split between mind and body, subject and object', which according to Davies 'has shaped our cultural values' (Davies, 1995, p 1) The work was inspired by a profound deep-sea diving experience in the Bahamas, where Davies got an unforgettable taste of virtual space. Through Osmose, Davies is trying to give the immersant the kind of profound experience she had underwater, an embodied experience of space, one that begins to dissolve the habitual boundaries we maintain between inside and out, between self and world.

Davies in her essay 'Being in Immersive Virtual Space', writes about the spaces that we, as humans, have access to throughout our lives, most people being limited to life as experienced on the surface of the earth (Davies, 1995, p 4) This is reflected in the design of conventional VR, as most designers rely on everyday experiences of terrestrial space to define the appearance of their virtual worlds. These worlds end up being filled with hard-edged objects, horizontal floors and walls. The interface methods are also based on things we experience every day, such as walking or driving. These approaches to 'immersive' virtual space limit its potential, and uphold the conventions of a western world view. Osmose is a different kind of space. Ambiguity and transparency are the dominant aesthetic. Osmose does not try to 're-present' a world that already exists in another place, it is a space that exists only within the programming of the computer.

Conventional VR projects reduce the human subject to an isolated and disembodied being maneuvering in empty space. Cyberspace is the epitome of Cartesian desire, for it enables us to create worlds where we have total control. The long term effect of this, according to Davies, may be to seduce us away from our bodies and ultimately nature. In conventional VR the body is a void. VR arms the eye, it gives the eye a hand of its own, propelled by the gaze itself The entire body is propelled by scopic desire. We are taught to regard our bodies as an instrument, as apparel.

Our culture customizes its bodies as it customizes its cars. The body is a representation only, an external appearance, and may be adjusted to suit the taste of the owner. The absolute malleability of the virtual body is different from this only in degree.

VR replaces the body with two partial bodies, the corporeal body, and an incomplete electronic 'body image'. On a bodily level, the conventional VR experience is of dislocation and disassociation. This is precisely what Char Davies is challenging with Osmose. In Osmose there is no reference to the body, there is no representation of the body—this leads one to look within one's self, for one's own body image. The 'meat' body, when one is experiencing conventional VR, becomes only a machine to press the appropriate buttons or to re-aim the viewpoint, driven by a desiring, controlling mind. The body does not feel, it does not register the virtual world. Only the eyes, privileged as the most accurate of the senses since the Renaissance, register the virtual world.

Michael Heim, writing about virtual reality, referred to a 'leaving the body at the door of the virtual world', but what body is being left at that door? Karen A. Franck suggests that it is the 'fleshed' body. The body that needs to eat and sleep, the one that is frail, can become diseased, and will die. She believes that this desire to transcend the flesh body is a masculinist dream (Franck, 1995, p 22). Davies challenges this masculinist reaIity by not leaving the body outside, but by bringing the body 'in' to that virtual world, and making it a part of the piece itself; creating a natural interaction between the participant and the virtual world. It is the user's body that controls his or her journey through Osmose. In most virtual environments, motion is controlled by a joystick or other manual device that gives the user a kind of godlike control. The work avoids the 'masculinist' preoccupation with tropes of penetrating or mastering space, reducing our chaotic experience of reality to a more manageable, over-simplified model, i.e., mastering the world on our terms rather that experiencing it as it is.

VR is a safe environment to explore the mind-body experience, liberating us from the everyday impulse to prioritize the mental over the physical. Osmose has a unique interface that was developed specifically for the piece. It reflects the 'physical properties of the interactions, the functions to be performed, and the balance of power and control' (Gigliotti, 1995, p. 293). The interactive aesthetic or user interface of Osmose was designed to be body-centered, based on the intuitive, instinctual processes of breathing and balance. The methods of navigation, which were largely inspired by scuba diving, are based on physiological movements. You bend forward, backward, left and right for the horizontal axis and you exhale and inhale for the vertical one. This method of navigation is intended to re-affirm the role of the living physical body in immersive virtual space as subjective experiential ground. As in meditation, the practice of following one's breath and being centered in balance opens up a profound way of relating to the world' (Davies, 1995, p. 3).

Osmose offers a new, more physical approach to the relationship between the perceiving body and the spaces of information. The interface does not bracket out the bodily processes from the means of accessing information, as do most current interface technologies such as the World Wide Web, where pointing and clicking 'phallic' tools is the only means for interactivity. In Osmose, the sense of balance and breathing constitute an interactive surface that, while moving the body in the immersive space, simultaneously alter the physiological condition and state of the body. Deep breath does not only move the' immersant' in relation to the stereoscopic 3D space but it also brings more oxygen to the body and affects its physical and chemical balance.

In the immersive environment of Osmose the border between the interface as a symbolized surface and the surface of the physiological body begins to blur. 'Deep ecology begins with unity rather than dualism which has been the dominant theme of Western philosophy' (Fox, 1984, p. 196). The central idea of deep ecology is that we as humans are part of the earth, rather than apart and separate from it. This idea is in contrast to the dominant individualism of our culture, where seeing ourselves as separate from our world makes it easier not to be bothered by what is happening in it.

Deep ecology refers to a deep, fundamental questioning of views and attitudes towards nature, particularly those held by Western societies. Deep ecology is in sharp contrast with the dominant worldview of technocratic industrial societies which regards humans as isolated and fundamentally separate from the rest of nature, as superior to, and in charge of the rest of creation.

For thousands of years, Western culture has become increasingly obsessed with the idea of the dominance of humans over non human nature, masculine over feminine, wealthy and powerful over the poor, with the dominance of the West over non Western cultures. This is reflected in the design of conventional virtual reality, where it is possible to create worlds where the user or immersant has a kind of god like control. Deep ecological consciousness allows us to see through these dangerous illusions. It is an attempt to break down the rigid distinctions between humanity and the environment.

Warlock Fox gives a brief but concise overview of the differences between shallow and deep ecology. In shallow ecology figure/ground boundaries are sharply drawn such that humans are perceived as the important figures against a ground that only assumes significance in so far as it has use value for humans. This figure/ground boundary could be used as a metaphor when talking about Osmose, for in Osmose there is no defined ground and there are no defined boundaries. This purposeful leaving out of a ground serves simply to place the immersant in an environment, rather than dominant over it.

Deep ecology rejects the human-in-environment image in favour of the 'relational, total field image' (Fox, 1984, p. 194). This total field image looks at all organisms as being just a part of the on-going cycle of the planet. This way of viewing nature dissolves the notion of humans as separate from their environment. Deep ecology strives not to regard mankind as the centre of existence, by viewing humans as just one constituency among others in the biotic community, just one particular strand in the web of life.

It has been argued that it is misguided sentimentality to suppose that we can simply transplant the values and beliefs from other cultures to our own (Grey, 1986). Osmose I feel does not simply transplant philosophical ideas from one culture to another, it brings those ideas to us in a new medium, through a profound visual experience.

It has been argued that Osmose ignores the fact that the computer technology that it uses to heal the human/nature split is the same technology that trains fighter pilots to blow it up. Perhaps Davies is simply showing that this technology can be used in less harmful ways than military training. It is a point that Davies has not addressed in any of her writings about Osmose.

It seems that the goal of conventional VR is reached when we cannot distinguish between the computer image and the real thing. According to some, the only thing that VR has achieved is the reduction of space to numbers. VR reflects a longing to transcend the limitations of our physical surroundings, Davies believes that the long term effect of this may be to seduce us away from our bodies and ultimately from nature.

The names of the worlds in Osmose are based on Heidegger's writings. But what would he have thought of VR? Richard Coyne argues that Heidegger would have had little time for a technology that tries to simulate reality by building up an experience from geometrical co-ordinates or barraging the viewer with sense data (Coyne, 1994, p.68). He argues that Heidegger would have seen the idea of constructing reality ( or its resemblance) through data as untenable. It would be as if to say 'nature' is constructed, so let us re-construct it in a computer. This is one of the paradoxes of Osmose. It is not supposed to 're-present' nature, it is supposed to provoke a feeling of nature, and a feeling of being in the world. But according to Heidegger our primordial understanding of being in the world is one of undifferentiated involvement. The idea of VR is the opposite—everything in the field of view is presented to the senses. 'VR is a literal enactment of Cartesian ontology,according to Coyne, cocooning a person as an isolated subject within a field of sensations and claiming that everything is there, presented to the subject' (Coyne, 1994, pp.68).

Everything that Heidegger suggests about our being indicates that we are not constituted like sense data receptors. Laurie McRobert, on the other hand, argues that Heidegger would have seen Osmose as a bringing forth of truth. She sees creating a digital work of art that represents nature, when 'real' nature is still all around us, as being a 'curious endeavour'. That perhaps Davies is privy to a premonition of the future, as though she has already resigned herself and knows that nature as we know it today will ultimately be lost, and that one day all that we will have left is what computer artists, like herself will make for us (McRobert, 1996, p.4).

In Western culture we are already being prepared for the 'condition' of VR, through the spaces that we live in. If we are teaching ourselves now that we can experience the countryside through the window of a car that is travelling at sixty miles per hour, then it is only natural that in the future, we will teach ourselves we can experience nature through VR.

Is there a danger that Davies made the piece too well? By this I mean could people resign themselves to the fact that nature will be lost, and accept VR as the next best thing? It is a possibility, but the feeling of 'being' in a 'natural' environment and the feeling of 'being' in a virtual environment are very different things. I see VR following the male-gendered, mission-orientated aesthetic for some time. But I feel Osmose is the first good 'virtual' stab at what VR can be, a meditative, contemplative space, where one can learn to appreciate what we still have in our tactile world.


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Last verified: August 1st 2013.