The most advanced form of interactivity is hypermedia: virtual reality

Although sophisticated VR simulation technology was developed by the military during the Cold War, it was directed solely at the concept of a sedentary operator following the movement of a vehicle through a 3-D virtual world. Myron Kreuger, one of the artists who pioneered VR, commented that it is artists who have pushed farthest in the imaginary uses of the medium.

Virtual reality gloves, circa 1994
Figure 5.44.
Virtual reality gloves, circa 1994.
The sense that virtual reality was of fundamental importance came from artists who communicated it immediately to the public through their work. In addition, many aspects of virtual reality including full body participation, the idea of a shared telecommunications space, multi-sensory feedback, third-person participation, unencumbered approaches and the data glove all came from the art, not from the technical community.
Virtual reality headset, circa 1994
Figure 5.45. Virtual reality headset, circa 1994.
These wired virtual reality sensor accoutrements contain the sensors which make visible to the viewer changes triggered by the body's movements within a specifically wired environment. (NASA)

Most artists attracted to work with virtual reality [37] as a medium want to create imaginative interactive environments where they can control all the objects or all the spatial coordinates and sound in order to achieve an aesthetic effect. Powerful computers are used to generate visual experience and to track body movements through the use of prosthetic devices such as data gloves, head-mounted displays and body-suits which encase the body in fiber-optic cabling. Fully immersed in a completely controlled artificial environment, the visual, aural, and tactile capabilities of the body become totally absorbed in following three-dimensional representations which are continuously modeled and tracked through computer monitoring of the body's every movement. Participants experience environments which seem to be located in three-dimensional real space. The effect is that of a technological invasion of the body's senses and a relocation of what can be seen and experienced to the realm of a synthetic private world severed from other potential observers. Jeffrey Shaw, artist-director of the Center for Media Arts (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, describes it:

Now with the mechanisms of the new digital technologies, the artwork can become itself a simulation of reality, an immaterial "cyberspace" which we can literally enter. Here the viewer is no longer consumer in a mausoleum of objects, rather he/she is traveler and discoverer in a latent space of audio visual information. In this temporal dimension the interactive artwork is each time restructured and re-created by the activity of the viewers.

A small band of artists [38] in Europe and North America have challenged the potential of virtual reality by exploring it as an imaginary space. Some project their "virtual Images" in space; some employ headgear connected to sensing devices which control the flow and placement of images within the space. There are no guidelines for these new kinds of work - no vocabulary, no blueprints - because the medium, not in existence until recently, has been approached by relatively few artists to create new works. It is a wide-open medium without boundaries. There is little critical writing about its use.

Char Davies, Seeds, from Ephémère, 1998
Char Davies, Seeds, from Ephémère, 1998
Digital image captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live immersive journey/performance.

Working with a team of engineers in the late 1980s to design the software program SoftImage, Canadian artist Char Davies began to imagine an interactive virtual experience for viewers where they could incorporate the intimate emotional territory of the body into an encounter with a virtual world. In her landscape paintings, Davies was interested in exploring the specific ways people encounter nature where the physical self rather than the conscious mind is in control. She began to build an immersive virtual space with this principle in mind, along with a sense of the floating poetics of space she wished to encompass in the work. In Ephémère, 1998 (Plate 3), the viewer participant is swathed in special wired suiting with wide-view headmount, data gloves [† erratum - there are no gloves] and special sensors that enable a participant to navigate as a reflection of their own breath and body balance. This system is different from the conventional hand-oriented methods such as joystick, wand, track ball, or glove - which, according to Davies, tend to support a distanced and disembodied stance toward the world. In Osmose, she comments, participants experience an "intense feeling of realness and feelings of freedom coupled with emotional levels including euphoria or loss at the conclusion of the session." In addition, after becoming accustomed to the the work's breath and balance interface, and the experience of seeing and floating through things, most participants "relinquish desire for active doing' in favor of contemplative 'being' '." [39]

The many realms Davies creates in her virtual reality works are rich in abstract texture, color, and light effects which seem to facilitate awareness of one's own consciousness. The experience of being enveloped in the space she creates is akin to being inside a painting, that is moving with the direction of one's breathing. The work becomes a space for exploring the perceptual interplay between the self and the world. Davies comments: "the experience of seeing and floating through things, along with the work's reliance on breath (the interface) and balance, as well as solitary immersion, causes many participants to relinquish desire for active 'doing' in favor of comtemplative 'being'… I have come to believe that full-body immersion in an 'unusual' virtual environment can potentially lead to shifts in mental awareness. That this may be possible has many implications, some promising, some disturbing."

(Char Davies)


37. Support for the groundwork development of virtual reality technology originally grew out of a complex of military needs (flight simulators, computer animation, robotic image recognition, ray tracing, texture mapping, motion control), and the video games entertainment industry
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38. I am indebted to Myron Kreuger for this note.
Computer-controlled responsive environments date back to the 1969 work by Dan Sandin and Myron Kreuger at the University of Wisconsin around the same time that the PULSA group at Yale led by Patrick Clancy created large-scale outdoor environments. Aaron Marcus created an interactive symbolic computer graphic environment in the early 1970s. Through a grant from NEA, Dan Sandin, Tom Defanti, and Gary Sayers at the University of Illinois invented the data glove. Mike McGreevey was involved in the original development of the head-mounted display used at NASA. Early development involved the work of many artists, especially musicians Jaron Lanier and Tom Zimmerman.
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39. Char Davies, "Changing Space: Virtual Reality as an Arena for Embodied Being" in Randall Packer and Ken Jordan, eds, Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality (New York: Norton, 2002).
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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.