Virtual reality flight simulators and architectural walk-through models appear to be based on the notion of reproducing reality or embodied presence. Theme parks and computer entertainment games however use virtual reality technologies to construct elaborate fantasy worlds. Human beings have continually tried to explore varying dimensions of consciousness through incantations, meditation, prayer, dream states, drugs and fantasies. Cultural forms such as film, literature, art and virtual reality could be considered as a means of producing virtual realities which allow the exploration of consciousness in particular ways. Each of these cultural forms operates slightly differently due to the potential and limitations of different media. The following discussion suggests that virtual reality is a specific cultural form which enables us to extend our human embodied condition by enhancing our capacities to think and act creatively.

1. Introduction


The discussion begins by providing a brief exploration of the discourses surrounding virtual reality. The first section makes a connection between the dualistic philosophy of mind versus body and virtual reality. The discussion will then move on to consider contemporary philosophical and scientific discourses such as evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. A contrasting argument to neuroscience will be offered through the examination of sensory motor and phenomenological discussions of perception and embodiment. Finally there will be a discussion of the ways in which virtual reality may be used as a creative medium. To limit the scope of the discussion I will refer to the work of one artist, Char Davies because her work particularly highlights the relationships between perception and embodiment. Of course there are many others who are working with virtual reality technologies in particular at the Centre for Advanced Inquiry into the Interactive Arts CaiiA at the University of Wales, The Banff Centre in Canada and at the Massachussets Institute of Technology (M.I.T.).


6. Signification, Representation, and Meaning


The artist Char Davies is using virtual reality to explore the relationships between perception and embodiment. Davies trained as a painter before becoming the Director of Research at Softimage Inc. She is now undertaking doctoral research at the Centre for Advanced Inquiry into the Interactive Arts CaiiA at the University of Wales. She makes it clear that she does not 'feel comfortable with the idea of using technology to leave the body behind' [21]. The graphic language she uses produces semi-transparent, figurative and abstract images. Although working with light rather than pigment, works such as Osmose and Ephémère evoke a painterly aesthetic. Davies also strives to produce works which challenge ingrained habits of seeing and interacting with the world. Her worked in underpinned theoretically by philosophers such as Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). She uses virtual reality to suggest the possibility of shifting our mental awareness by changing spaces. There is a tendency to take our being-in-the world for granted. To what degree do we notice our everyday surroundings? Our habits, beliefs and values all intersect the experience of seeing. Pausing and reflecting on these ingrained habits can enable us to see even our habitual surroundings in new ways.

Throughout history and in different cultures, people have associated certain spaces such as churches, temples, caves, mountains or particular landscapes with the sacred or spirituality. These spaces could provoke a sense of meditative reflection or peace for those who visit them. Char Davies uses virtual reality to evoke a sense of the sacred. She admits there may be tensions between her aims and cultural associations of technology as a means of power, control or even destruction. Her work also appears to be based on Eastern philosophy practices such as Taoism and meditation. Davies produced the art direction for a virtual environment called Osmose in collaboration with John Harrison, Georges Mauro, Rick Bidlack and Dorota Blaszczak. The work was produced using Softimage® 3D modeling, animation and development software and Silicon Graphics Onyx 2 Infinite Reality system. Osmose is a rich metaphorical work that highlights the relationships between technology, human beings and nature. The work was difficult to produce because each frame had to be carefully constructed with a refresh rate of 1/30th of a second. Osmose was exhibited at galleries in Montreal, New York, London and Monterrey. Reviews of Osmose have also appeared in Wired, Art in America, World Art and Metropolis.

The use of the user's breath is a key consideration in Osmose. Davies is a keen scuba diver and her diving experiences provided the inspiration to use virtual reality as a means of constructing immersive, imaginary spaces. A harness is used to provide a connection between user's and the virtual environment. Sensors track the movement of the spine as well as the contraction and expansion of the chest. Inhaling enables upward movements, exhaling produces downward movements and tilting provides horizontal movement. The user/viewer also wears a head mounted display which provides a 360 degree image of the virtual environment. There is a philosophical dimension to the use of the breath in Osmose. In Buddhist practices the breath is a means of overcoming the usual dualism of subject/object. Breathing connects the self and the outside world, transcending the boundaries of our individual bodies.

Osmose includes several virtual environments or worlds: a Cartesian grid, a forest, leaf, clearing, pond, abyss, subterranean Earth and cloud. There is also a text-based environment displaying the works of Martin Heidegger and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Entering Osmose, users/viewers first encounter the Cartesian grid, indicating the geometrical architecture of the virtual environment. They can then explore other worlds composed from both figurative and abstract forms. It seems that some sense of figuration is needed to help the user/viewer orientate themselves in the virtual world. The experience of exploring the virtual environment can be disorientating without some sense of horizontal and vertical relationships. Osmose does however convey some sense of fluidity between figure and ground. For instance, users/viewers are able to move through objects dissolving the barriers between the self and the world. The colours used in Osmose are luminescent, subtle rather than the bright tones usually associated with computer games. Sound is also used to compliment the images in Osmose. The sounds change in accordance with the position of the user/viewer and their movements in the virtual environment. Sound is not used as means of conveying realism rather it attempts to stimulate the imagination. Samples of both male and female voices are used to suggest rather than recreate human presence.

Ephémère continues the exploration of metaphorical relationships between nature and the human body. The environment provokes an awareness of the interconnectedness of the body, organs, blood vessels and bones with the Earth. Ephémère consists of three main environments the landscape, earth and body. These environments have a temporal dimension, as the user/viewer moves through the landscape the images change to evoke a sense of dawn, day, evening and sunset. Seasonal changes are also evoked as the figurative representations of the environment change from spring, summer, to autumn and winter. The temporal dimension of the environment is a reminder of the transient and precious qualities of all life. The environments in Ephémère also respond to the viewer/user in ways which highlight temporality and change. If viewers/ users stare for a long time at one particular image they may see seeds sprout or the emergence of flowers. Patient and contemplative viewing is rewarded. To summarise Davies' work shows an alternative to the frantic pace of most computer entertainment games, which are often based on a simple narrative of hunt, kill or die.

7. Conclusion

From a philosophical standpoint virtual reality technologies highlight the complex relations between embodiment and perception. For some virtual reality reflects the Western dualisms of mind versus body and subject versus object relations. The discussion has shown the ways in which virtual reality is founded upon mathematical principles, which are usually associated with logic and rationality. Nevertheless the technology can be used to explore other aspects of consciousness such as creativity and the imagination. I find Char Davies' work interesting because it shows that although virtual reality stems from a military and industrial social system it can be used as means of contemplation and reflection.

The transient aspects of Ephémère and the luminosity of the figure and ground relationships in Osmose seem to provoke a reconsideration of subject and object relations. Indeed recent developments in scientific theories such as quantum physics suggest that there is no clear distinction between the subject and object of investigation. Yet the changes taking place in scientific discourses were pre-empted by Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Tao which have been part of the cultural practices of different groups in Tibet, India and China for over two thousand years.

To conclude, it is necessary to state that whilst environments such as Ephémère and Osmose may provoke contemplation for some people, others may have quite different experiences. These environments are also transient to the extent that they are programmed to last for fifteen minutes. After that time the viewer/user must return to the everyday world around them. Davies has warned that she does not want her work to be considered as spiritual virtual reality because it could be used as a means of escapism. In the end, what I feel is important about her work is that it does act as catalyst for users/viewers which may allow them to pause and reflect upon their everyday experiences and relationships to perception and embodiment.


21. Davies, C. 'A Breath of Fresh Air' in The Guardian, Thursday November 21st, p. 17, 1996.

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Last verified: August 1st 2013.