A Step Toward VR2: Osmose

One attempt to move away from VR1 toward VR2 can be found in the recent work of virtual artist Char Davies. Her VR system, known as Osmose, radical departure from the controlling and manipulative epistemology inherent in VR1 technology. Char Davies created Osmose for expressed purpose of exploring the depth of consciousness and "de-automatizing" our habitual perception. Osmose is a fully interactive and immersive world that presents metaphors of nature, designed in accordance with a visual aesthetic based on semi-transparency and ambiguity of spatial relationships. The gallery description of Osmose states:

"Osmose is an immersive virtual space exploring the interrelation between exterior Nature and interior Self. The work explores the potential of immersive virtual space a medium for visual/aural expression and kinesthetic experience of philosophical ideas. In biology, osmosis is a process involving passage from one side of a membrane to another. Osmosis as a metaphor means the transcendence of difference through mutual absorption, the dissolution of boundaries between inner and outer, the inter-mingling of self and world, the longing for the Other. Osmose as an artwork seeks to heal the rational Cartesian mind/body subject/object split which has shaped so many of our cultural values, especially towards nature."

(cited in Heim, 1998, p.162)

There are numerous immersive world-spaces within Osmose. Immersants first encounter a Cartesian Grid which serves as an orientation space. Next, immersants travel through various metaphorical worlds, such as the "Clearing," "Forest," "Tree," "Leaf," "Cloud," "Pond," Subterranean Earth," and "Abyss." In addition to these serene natural worlds, there are two additional world-spaces called the "Code" and the "Text." The Code actually contains visual representations of the software code used for Osmose. The Text includes quotations from artists and philosophers related to technology, space and the body.

What is quite unique about Osmose is the interface device for navigation. Rather than utilizing a data-glove or joystick, maneuvering through Osmose's immersive environment is controlled by the movement of breath and balance. The user wears a specially designed vest that is fitted with breathing and balance sensors. Vertical movement up-and-down is synchronized to the movement of the user's inhalation and exhalation. Horizontal movement is controlled through shifting the angle of the user's balance. Inspiration for this means of navigation and interface comes from Davies' experience of deep-sea diving, where the experience of floating is quite common. Davies explains her choice for using the breath as an interface:

"Whereas in conventional VR, the body is often reduced to little more than a probing hand and roving eye, immersion in Osmose depends on the body's most essential living act, that of breath—not only to navigate, but more importantly—to attain a particular state-of-being within the virtual world."
(Davies, 2000)

Davies noticed that when users were first immersed in Osmose, they tended to rely on their habitual modes of awareness, attempting to travel around and see as much as possible, in what appeared to be a "goal-oriented, action-based behavior" (Davies, 2000). However, after about ten minutes of immersion, users facial expressions and bodies seemed to relax, and instead of rushing through the experience and trying to grasp images, they slowed down and entered what seemed to be a more contemplative state. During the last phase of their immersion experience, users directed their attention more to the unusual sensations of floating and the uncanny perceptual ability of being able to see objects as semi-transparent (Davies, 2000).

Since 1995, over 7,500 people have been immersed in Osmose [approximately 25,000, as of November 2007]† and the experiences that they report are quite unusual. Through written responses and post-immersion interviews, a substantial number of participants have described their Osmose experience in highly emotional terms, reporting a profound sense of joy or euphoria, feelings of transcendence of time and space, ineffability, and a paradoxical sense of being both in and out of the body. Others reported losing track of time, a heightened awareness of their own Being, a deep sense of mind/body relaxation, and an overwhelming sense of loss, tears, when the experience was coming to a close. These unusual sensibilities are expressive of the evocative potential of a VR2 world. Char Davies attributes these responses of participants to the de-habituation of perception that tends to occur in Osmose. Moreover, the altered states of consciousness that immersants report having experienced can be understood as a "de-automatization" of perceptual sensibilities. According to Harvard psychologist Arthur Deikman (1990), those who practice meditation or other contemplative techniques experience enhanced feelings of clarity, concentration and attention. In many respects, the de-automatization of experience evoked by Osmose is similar to the de-automatization of experience that occurs in meditative absorption.

What accounts for the experience of de-automatization in Osmose? A key feature is the unique visual aesthetic that is based on the VR2 notion of transparency. Related to this is a profoundly different understanding and experience of space. Davies is fond of quoting from the philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1994), who in his book The Poetics of Space, wrote:

"By changing space, by leaving the space of one's usual sensibilities, one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating...For we do not change place, we change our nature."

Our normal conception of space is that of a vacant and empty container, set in contrast to solid objects or things with real or defining edges. Our habitual perception is based on fundamental dualities between subject/object, space/thing, figure/ground, inner/outer. However, in Osmose, rather than encountering a world of solid objects set over and against the one subject who perceives, these rigid dichotomies and distinctions break down. Osmose typifies a VR2 aesthetic; it uses transparent images, embellishing them with a shimmering luminosity or glow that dissolves habitual spatial distinctions. At a recent conference in San Francisco, I had the fortunate experience of hearing Char Davies present a videotaped simulation of Osmose. Even though I was more of spectator and not actually immersed in Osmose, I can attest to the fact that Davies' artistic vision as expressed in a VR world was truly remarkable. Osmose represents just the tip of the VR2 iceberg. The potential for creating evocative spaces that challenge the Western techno-scientific worldview and rampant consumerist mentality is unlimited.


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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.