Virtual reality (VR) is a constant phenomenon in art history that can be traced back to antiquity. It can involve an area of ritual action, a private, artificial paradise, or a public sphere with politically suggestive power—in short, it encompasses a visual history that is characterized by totality. The concept of transposing viewers into an enclosed, illusionary visual space has been revived and expanded in the VR art of the current age. The more intimately an interface nestles into viewers' senses, the more intense their immersion will be. Such an interface weakens the viewers' sense of psychological distance and puts the relationship between art and consciousness into question.


The most remarkable first glimpses of this illusionistic genre are the immersive VR installation Osmose by Char Davies and the interactive installation A-Volve by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau.

Osmose (Fig. 4) represents a visually powerful real-time simulation of a dozen nature and text spaces [29]. Immersed participants control their navigation through the data space with a chest-hugging rubber [leather]† vest that contains sensory devices sensitive to the body's breathing—a natural interface. Just as in diving, as one's lungs fill, one rises. Concentrated, even breathing results in a feeling of balanced motion.

As weightless and solitary as a diver, the observer glides through opaque fog banks, abysmal oceanic depths, glinting dew, translucent swarms of insects, and the thickets of dark woods. The HMD provides a soft and fluent transition between the worlds as if they are seen through a soft-focus lens, with phosphorescent light-points glimmering in the dark. In the symbolic center, isolated on a clearing, stands a leafless tree, transparent and permeable, shining like a crystal. The tree, which can be traced as a symbol of life through art history is now also virtual. Osmose is a mineral-hard yet fluidly intangible sphere, a non-Cartesian space. Although it is a technically illusionary picture, Osmose suggests an optically poetic atmosphere. Nevertheless the artist does not aim at replacing nature: if her vegetable representations do not appear abstract, neither do they attempt digital realism.

The result of this finely tuned and physically intimate interface is a strong feeling of bodily presence, causing a corresponding emotional mood. Many participants speak of experiencing a contemplative sense of tranquility and security. Such descriptions testify to a central effect of virtual reality: that suggestive presence in a total picture causes a mental—and, in Osmose, a specifically meditative—immersion.

The Enlivening Effect: Evolution

The suggestive effect of presence in Osmose can be intensified by what C. Heeter calls social presence: when agents in the virtual space act like individuals [30]. The higher the degree of correspondence between perceived actions and probable phenomena, the more likely it is that what is seen (as in the panorama) will be taken for real. VR research pursues this aim in every detail.


29. C. Davies and J. Harrison, "Osmose: Towards Broadening the Aesthetics of Virtual Reality," ACM Computer Graphics 30, No. 4, 25-28 (1996); F. Dyson, "Charged Havens," in World Art 3 (1996) pp. 42-47; M. Morse, Virtualities: Television, Media Art and Cyberculture (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), pp. 208-209; O. Grau, "Vom Zen des Tauchens," Die Zeit (19 June 1997) p. 62.
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30. C. Heeter, "Being There: The Subjective Experience of Presence," Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 1 No. 2, 264ff. (1992); P. Maes et al., "The ALIVE System: Full Body Interaction with Autonomous Agents," Proceedings of the Computer Animation '95 Conference (Genoa, Italy: IEEE-Press, 1995).
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Oliver Grau is researcher in the project "Art History and Media Theorie(s) of Virtual Reality" at the Humboldt University in Berlin, supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

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Last verified: August 1st 2013.