5. Space and Consciousness


Char Davies[5] has developed virtual spaces that incorporate many of the principles and ideas of perception identified by Gibson as well as self-awareness and image schemas described in the consciousness literature. She created Osmose and Ephémère as bodily experiential works (Davies, 2004). They are described as a "mode of access to an ephemeral yet embodied experience" of self in place. Participants wear a head-mounted display and walk through a virtual environment, where real-time motion tracking is based on breathing and balance.

"As a means of subverting the conventional VR aesthetic of hard-edged-objects-in-empty-space," Davies used semi-transparency and translucency visuals, where one can see through more than 20 layers simultaneously. Both content and form are important. For example, Klee (1973) describes content as the impetus for form, but it is form that is process-oriented as in genesis, growth, and essence. Davies states that her intent was to create an all-enveloping flux and flow. Here, "the usual perceptual cues by which we objectify the world — simply disappear, dissolved into an ambiguous enveloping spatiality of soft, semi-transparent, intermingling volumes of varying hues and luminosities." According to Davies, this creates a perceptual state where one becomes acutely aware of one's own embodied presence inhabiting space. This is akin to the heightened self-awareness that, as Hunt (2004a) suggests, becomes visible when more abstract properties of nature become embodied in synesthetic metaphor.

Davies also designed her virtual spaces to counter the medium's bias toward control. To navigate within Osmose and Ephémère, the individual breathes in to rise, out to fall, and alters one's center of balance to change direction. Making the immersive experience dependent on the intuitive visceral processes of breath and balance deliberately countered conventional ways of navigating and interacting in virtual space. Davies argues that relying on hand-based devices such as joysticks, pointers, or data gloves, tends to "reinforce an instrumental, dominating stance toward the world." This is an important design issue because Hunt and Almaas both have linked instrumental set to the more personal, representational sense of presence rather than the expressive, presentational presence of consciousness. Davies also points out that the experience of breathing in to rise and out to fall facilitates a convincing sensation of "floating," and the sensation of floating tends to evoke euphoric feelings of disembodiment and immateriality, which "we intentionally amplify through our enabling the participant to see through and virtually float through everything around them." As Davies notes,"the effect for the immersant is of floating within a world which is neither wholly representational (i.e., recognizable) nor wholly abstract, but hovering in between."

For Davies, Osmose is a space for exploring the perceptual interplay between self and world, that is, a place for facilitating awareness of one's own self as consciousness embodied in enveloping space. The first virtual space encountered in Osmose is a three-dimensional orientation space. With the immersant's first breaths, this grid gives way to a clearing in a forest which gives access to a dozen "world-spaces." These spaces were based primarily on metaphorical aspects of nature, including: Clearing, Forest, Tree, Leaf, Cloud, Pond, Subterranean Earth, and Abyss. "Immersants" use their own breath and balance to journey within these worlds or hover in ambiguous areas in between.

Ephémère is also grounded in "nature" as metaphor and uses recurring archetypal elements of root, rock, and stream, but it is extended to include body organs, blood vessels, and bones. Unlike Osmose, Ephémère has three hierarchical levels: landscape, earth, and interior body. The ever-changing river is the only constancy and provides a nonlinear means of navigation through the three realms, in addition to that of the immersant's breath and balance. When the immersant "surrenders to the pull of its flow, it metamorphosizes [sic] from river to underground stream or artery/vein and vice versa."

Davies (2004) reports that between 1995 and 2001, more than 20,000 people have been individually immersed in the virtual environments Osmose and Ephémère, and many people experience a heightened awareness of self-presence, describing their experience in euphoric terms or as the sensation of consciousness occupying space. Individual differences in openness-to-experience remind us that presence—openness is a dimension not a point. High absorbers, because they prefer stimulus conditions that encourage focus on internal events (see Roche & McConkey, 1990; Tellegen & Atkinson, 1974), may readily embrace media that are open or ambiguous.

Hunt (1995) has argued that image schemas are synesthetic metaphors derived from abstract properties of nature (p.175). It is not enough for them to be manifested in movement, but rather they need to become spatial metaphors by means of cross-modal translations and transformations. Cross-modal emergents may be easier to achieve with moving audiovisual images, especially those with open horizons and geometric shapes. However, we will need to develop many mediated environments representing differing points on the continuum. Popular media are designed to elicit the director-intended message from a wide audience, and those who initially are uncomfortable in mediated situations without a strong instrumental set may begin with more structured media before trying more open experiences. As technological advances continue and media creators seek innovative ways of expressing felt meaning, especially spatially embodied environments, we may soon be able to identify the contents and formals best able to encourage the development of consciousness in people with differing skills, abilities, and preferences for media engagement.


5. Char Davies' Osmose premiered at the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montreal in 1995, and Ephémère premiered at the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa) in 1998. Davies website (includes articles) is at (http://[www.]immersence.com).
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Last verified: August 1st 2013.