Char Davies, Forest Grid, from Osmose (1995)
Osmose: Shadowscreen silhouette of immersant.

As our computers approach outrageous speeds — and Moore's Law keeps doubling their performance every 18 imonths — we're coming to understand that it isn't just prettily rendered synthetic images that make a good game. In fact, the images may have little to do with it.

Canadian artist [Char Davies has produced two interactive works, Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998), that use quarter-million-dollar supercomputers and fully encompassing sensory gear — the head-mounted display of virtual reality — to create the experience of another world, where time and space are distorted, and the mind is temporarily freed from the physical restrictions imposed by the body. But this kind of VR — the future we were promised a decade ago — is uncomfortable, neck-wrenching, vision-blurring, and ultimately unsatisfying. The idea that someday we'll be able to wire our brains directly into the computer and create whatever synthetic realms we might desire has enormous allure, and has captivated minds since William Gibson first wrote about it in his novel Neuromancer (1984).

'Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of the data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...'
Char Davies, Forest Grid, from Osmose (1995)
Char Davies, Forest Grid, from Osmose (1995)
Digital frame captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live performance.]

Right from its conception in the pages of Gibson's fiction, cyberspace was always meant to have a gamelike quality, a depth and beauty that would make the soul lust for a release from its corporeal imprisonment. Both Osmose and Ephémère deliver on this promise; many a visitor to these virtual worlds emerges wishing for a more complete unity with the imaginary. For the moment, however, our bodies require that we stand outside our virtual worlds, apart from them. To inhabit these worlds for more than half an hour is to risk permanent damage to one's health.

Mark Pesce is the co-inventor of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language, the author of four books and numerous articles, and was the founding chair of the University of Southern California's New media Program at the School of Cinema-Television.

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