Chapter 2: Digital Technologies as a Medium

Virtual reality and augmented reality

Like the word 'cyberspace', the term 'virtual reality' (VR) is now commonly used for any space created by or accessible through computers, ranging from the 3D world of a game to the Internet as an alternate 'virtual' reality constructed by a vast networked communication space. The original meaning of VR, however, referred to a reality that fully immersed its users in a threedimensional world generated by a computer and allowed them an interaction with the virtual objects that comprise that world. The term was coined by Jaron Lanier, whose company VPL Research, founded in 1983, was the first to commercially introduce immersive virtual reality products. Among these products were a glove device for interaction with virtual worlds (1984), head-mounted displays that enabled users to enter 3D worlds (1987), and a networked virtual world system (1989). VR is the most radical form of insertion of a user into a virtual environment (or vice versa), since it puts the screen right in front of the viewer's eyes through a headset or glasses, immersing the user in an artificial world and eliminating or augmenting the physical one. Full immersion into a simulated world that allows users to interact with every aspect of it is still more of a dream than a reality, although the technology has made considerable advances. Entertainment parks with elaborate gaming scenarios that make use of force-feedback devices—which translate phenomena and actions in the virtual world into a physical sensation for the user—are among the most advanced experiments in this direction. On one level, this form of virtual reality constitutes apsychology ofdisincarnation. since it ultimately promises the possibility of leaving the obsolete body behind, and inhabiting the datascape as a cyborg. From this point of view, virtual reality is the manifestation and continuation of a flight from the body that has its origins in the fifteenth-century invention of linear perspective vision. However, the concept of disembodiment radically denies the physicality of our bodies and the reality of our interaction with computers, which still very much is a physical process that in many ways forces us to conform to the set-up of a machine (e.g., wear a headset).

Charlotte Davies, Tree Pond, from Osmose, 1995Charlotte Davies, Forest Grid, from Osmose, 1995
109. Charlotte Davies, Osmose, 1995
[Digital images captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live immersive journey/performance.] †

Issues of embodiment vs. disembodiment and the perception of space obviously play a central role in the artistic explorations of virtual reality. Only a few virtual-reality environments that completely immerse a viewer into an alternate world have been developed within an art context, and Canadian artist Charlotte Davies's (b. 1954) Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998) are classics of the genre. In Osmose, 'immersants' enter a virtual world by means of a head-mounted display and a motion-tracking vest that monitors the wearers breathing and balance. The world first presents itself as a three-dimensional grid that introduces coordinates for orientation. The breathing and body balance of the system's users transport them into a forest and other natural environments.

One of the extremely effective strategies Davies employs is to avoid representational realism in the creation of her worlds: although the environments are partly representational, they also have an element of translucency and use textures that suggest a constant flow of particles. Painterly in its sensibility, Osmose creates a myopic vision of a dream world. Apart from natural surroundings, the VR environment of Osmose also includes a layer of 'Code' and 'Text', which illustrate, respectively, the software on which the work is based and quotes from the artist's own writings and texts on technology, nature, and body. The more abstract meta-layers frame the natural environments in the context of a dataspace.

Charlotte Davies, Summer Landscape, from Ephémère, 1998Char Davies, Seeds, from Ephémère, 1998
110. Charlotte Davies, Ephémère, 1998
[Digital images captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live immersive journey/performance.] †

Like Osmose, this work is based on natural worlds, but it uses a vertical structure to distinguish between three main levels (landscape, earth, and interior body). It features body organs and blood vessels as organic worlds, and a temporal layer is introduced through the change of seasons and different life-cycles.

's inclusion of an 'interior body' realm blurs the boundaries between the subject and its surroundings, seemingly turning the body inside out (or collapsing it onto itself) and allowing immersants to enter it. Davies's projects radically challenge traditional notions of embodiment and the body's connection with its physical environment by immersing viewers in a virtual world driven by their own body and breathing.

The predominantly software-based level of immersion and embodiment developed in Davies's work is still unusual among the VR environments developed in an art context. Most artistic VR projects make use of physical structures in order to create the immersive effect of their virtual worlds.


The investigations of these projects and of immersive virtual reality in digital art may still be in their beginning stages—where the state of the technology lags behind the concepts being explored—but they point to a probably not so far future where virtual reality may become a second nature that profoundly challenges the basis of our concepts of perception and the dualism of 'flesh' and 'spirit'.

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.