6. Virtual Environments

Each age finds its own technique.
Jackson Pollack
A display connected to a digital computer gives us a chance to gain familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world. It is a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland.

Dr. Ivan Sutherland

There are now advanced forms of visualization technology that can convince a viewer that he or she is immersed in an alternative environment, experiencing an event that does not physically exist in the so-called real world. This technology, which is generally referred to as virtual reality (VR), allows the viewer to enter a digitally constructed environment, look around, move throughout the space and interact with the surroundings. A viewer, for instance, can visit places that simulate the natural world, traverse abstract geometric landscapes or interact with exotic creatures in surrealistic locations. These experiences are completely illusory, in effect, the theatre of the mind.

As futuristic as VR may seem, it is not entirely new – nor is it merely some kind of entertaining novelty. Rather, it is a contemporary manifestation of an enduring innate urge to create art works that are immersive and polysensory. An interest in environmental aesthetic experiences can be traced through nearly all epochs of art history. Recent examples of this age-old tendency range from the Wagnerian concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk and Sergei Eisenstein's theories of multisensory 3D movies, to the intermedia art performances and expanded cinema of the 1960s and 70s. The impulse to develop more complex illusionistic effects continued through the latter part of the twentieth century with a variety of presentation methods including wide-screen cinema, holography and stereoscopic IMAX-movies. All of the new technological display systems had essentially the same aim: to immerse the onlooker deeper and deeper into the image. As forms of artistic visualization they represented an ongoing search for a richer illusion, using the most advanced methods available in order to more fully address the human sensorium.

With the invention of the head-mounted display (HMD) by computer scientist Ivan Sutherland in the mid-1960s, a radically new perceptual dimension was introduced to the ongoing development of visualization technology. For the first time in history a viewer could become totally immersed in a dynamic virtual image. By constructing a device that contained small viewing screens (one placed in front of each eye for the stereoscopic effect), Sutherland made it possible for a user to enter the space of the computer and to visually examine images and objects or a quantitatively different level. The virtual world created by the computer and viewed via a HMD had the sensation of real depth; furthermore it was not bound by a rectangle like a painting, photograph or film, but rather appeared in any direction the viewer chose to look. Sutherland's viewing system, albeit a laboratory model, was fully immersive virtual reality: only the stereoscopic computer image was visible to the user.

As other scientists and research centers (most notable NASA) began investigating Sutherland's concept, his viewing equipment went through a series of permutations and improvements. In 1984 Jaron Lanier (who coined the term virtual reality) teamed with Thomas Zimmerman to create a re-engineered version of VR that allowed users to communicate with the computer through a data glove The data glove, when used by the viewer in conjunction with a head-mounted display, served as a general-purpose interaction device that allowed the user to actually control certain features of the virtual environment. As VR viewing systems improved through research and development and the concept expanded to include interactivity, virtual environments could be used to compose like other artistic media, opening up entirely new continents of ideas and possibilities.

In a development parallel to the invention and refinement of HMD display systems, other forms of VR viewing were being investigated that employed different technological approaches to bringing the audience inside a computer image animation.


Other artists who discuss their VR works in this chapter include Char Davies, Rebecca Allen and Michael Scroggins. Formerly a painter, Char Davies started working with 3D digital media in the late 1980s when she sought out time-based and spatial imaging techniques as an alternative to creating still images on a flat surface. Initially, a representational artist, Davies began in the early 1980s to paint in a more atmospheric style, layering images that were transparent, luminous and devoid of discreet shapes and resolute borders. She felt a need to alter her approach, to explore the expressive possibilities of pure light and to produce an expanded and poetic spatial experience. It was a creative impulse that could not be fully realized on the two-dimensional surface of a canvas and soon led to the investigation of new digital imaging methods that were emerging at that time.

Setting aside her career as a painter Davies joined Montreal's Softimage, a fledgling start-up software company in its first year of operation. Within a short period of time she became a founding director of the company, a fast growing enterprise that produced the first software capable of creating 3D digital graphics without intense programming. As Softimage expanded, Davies stepped into a new role at the company that allowed her to once again focus on the development of her artwork. As vice-president of visual research she was able to explore new forms of image-making – not crafted with paint and canvas, but rather with software – creating a body of personal works drawn from her earlier artistic experiences with light and form. During a four-year period Davies designed a series of award-winning light boxes, back lighted digital images that were translucent, organic and abstract, yet which had an implied relationship to the natural environment. Still not satisfied with the limitations of static two-dimensional imagery, but armed with a new digital palette, Davies set her sights on the then-emerging field of immersive real-time computer graphics, more commonly known as virtual reality.

In the eight years following the founding of Softimage computers had grown exponentially more powerful, providing Davies with the resources to further explore her vision of light and space. During the mid to late 1990s Davies, with Softimage's financial and technical support, produced two virtual environments, Osmose and Ephémère. Both works are fully immersive and draw upon the natural world for their imagery and inspiration. To enter these virtual environments a viewer dons a head-mounted display that enables him or her to experience 3D motion graphics and spatial sound, all generated in real-time by an SGI supercomputer.

Every person's journey through these virtual worlds is different depending on their location and behavior within the work. To interact with the environment a specially designed vest/interface is worn that tracks a viewer's breath and balance. Breathing in causes the viewer to rise; exhaling causes the viewer to slowly fall and by leaning to one side or another it is possible to change direction. Thus, a viewer can move freely in three-dimensional space, visually and aurally enveloped in an unreal world. In both of Davies hyperanimated works most of the environment is naturalistic, consisting of features such as trees, ponds, forest clearings and subterranean passages. However, in these virtual realms everything is semi-transparent and immaterial, allowing a viewer to glide ghost-like through forms and objects. The experience is dreamy and psychically innovating, capable of evoking a wide range of ideas and feelings.

In effect, Osmose and Ephemére are mythic landscapes, private manifestations of the ephemeral nature of being in the world.

Although Davies' work is unique and aesthetically different from the previously discussed immersive landscape pieces of Dan Sandin, both artists subvert the usual 3D graphic approach to computer imagery and use digital technology to bring viewers closer to the beauty and wonder of the natural environment. Without their influence, the realm of computer graphics would look less natural, incapable of expressing the richness associated with physical organic reality.


Char Davies

Formally a painter and filmmaker, Char Davies began working with digital media in the late 1980s. Her 3D computer-generated still images, collectively known as The Interior Body Series, took the form of light boxes, beautiful translucent images that immediately received international recognition for their extraordinary graphics and advanced use of software. In the mid-1990s, seeking to further expand her expressive capabilities through digital technology, Davies abandoned the two-dimensional picture plane of her luminous still images and began to explore the multi-dimensional realm of virtual reality.

In her interactive VR works, Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998), Davies avoids the standard practices of virtual reality and pursues an alternative approach, an avenue of spatial imaging that not only complements her own personal sense of vision, but also suggests new possibilities for the evolution of the medium. Her VR works, for example, are not addressed through the ordinary hand-based mode of user-interaction, but rather embody an interface that tracks breath and shifting balance, grounding the immersive experience in the participant's own body. Moreover, her works circumvent the solid hard-edged realism toward which most VR works aspire and instead rely on semi-abstract, semi-transparent imagery to create ambiguous but evocative effects which actively engages the participant's imagination. Her poetic and enveloping environments, which are derived from the natural world and its underlying processes, seek to explore the more contemplative and reflective potential of virtual reality.

Born in Toronto, Canada in 1954, Davies studied fine arts at Bennington College, Vermont, and received a visual arts degree at the University of Victoria in British Columbia in 1978. For the next ten years she worked as a painter and as an independent director for the National Film Board of Canada. In 1987 Davies joined Softimage, a Canadian based software company, to work in the areas of 3D computer graphics and animation. She left Softimage in 1997 and formed Immersence Inc. as a vehicle for pursuing her artistic research in the field of virtual reality.

Her immersive environments, Osmose and Ephémère have been exhibited in Montreal, New York, London and Monterrey, Mexico among other cities. In addition to her artistic activities, Davies has published numerous papers about her work and lectured widely at museums, cultural institutions and conferences including The Doors of Perception in Amsterdam, Siggraph and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Interview with Char Davies

Q: You were educated in the arts and began your career as a painter. Would you discuss your transition from painting to computer graphics and specifically what attracted you to this new medium?

Char Davies: My research in computer graphics and VR is rooted in the years I worked as a painter. During that time I produced a body of work that was concerned with the intermingling of the interior self and the exterior world, the conjoining of body and nature. To visually achieve this synthesis, I developed an approach to painting in which multiple levels of luminous semitransparent forms were employed to create varying degree of perceptual ambiguity. These paintings were dense and complex works, composed of semi-abstract imagery related to landscape.

I abandoned painting in 1987 because of the inherent limitations of the two-dimensional picture plane. As my ideas about form and content developed, I felt the need to explore new and more expansive ways of imaging. Consequently, I eventually began investigating three-dimensional computer-based techniques that were capable of communicating a multisensory experience involving spatial envelopment and the passage of time. Painting, nevertheless, was a very important stage in my development as an artist and provided the conceptual basis for my later work with digital media.

Char Davies, Stream, 1991
Char Davies, Stream, 1991. From The Interior Body Series.
During the early 1990s Char Davies made a series of still computer-generated images, which were produced by creating 3D models in virtual space and then moving the computer's virtual camera to capture the desired framing. Each of these images was displayed as a large transparency in the form of a light box.
© Immersence.

During my formative years as a painter, I concentrated on mastering classical drawing and painting techniques. I wanted to learn the rules of representation before I broke them. Gradually I became more and more interested in light rather than form, to the point where I was making paintings of glass jars set on mirrors. In these studies, form became transparent and all that remained were reflections and refractions of light in space. During this phase of my work, I was influenced by the extreme myopic condition of my own eyesight, a condition that transforms all hard edges and the surfaces of things, dissolving objects into soft, semi-transparent, ambiguous, volumes of varying hue and luminosity.

In 1985 I made a painting that was very important to me relative to my work with immersive environments. This painting dealt with landscape, yet all reference to form was absent, leaving only light in flux in three-dimensional space. I continued to explore this direction and began producing paintings that were about the sensation of being in the landscape, not in terms of its surface appearances, but in terms of being encircled by a horizon, immersed in flowing light and enveloped by nature's processes. I was concerned with manifesting a type of spatiality in which there is a porous boundary between the observer and the observed, between the interior self and the exterior world. This mode of perceptual spatiality, one in which the body feels the envelopment of space much like that of a body immersed in the sea, has become an integral part of my work.

The limitations of painting's two-dimensional picture plane for representing light in flux and three-dimensional space became increasingly apparent to me, as did the medium's limited capacity for suggesting envelopment within that space. I began looking for a more effective means of visualization. Around 1982, I saw a very early example of 3D computer graphics, an animated film called Vol de Réve. It consisted of a character throwing ping-pong balls into a pond. The imagery was made with vector graphics, phosphorescent green lines against an empty black space. When I saw this piece, I intuitively knew that the technique of 3D computer graphics might well prove to be the medium I was seeking. What attracted me were not the graphics, but the three-dimensionality of the space, specifically the working space.

The desire to work in such a space led me on a bit of a detour in terms of my work as an artist, namely that of building the 3D software company, Softimage. I became a founding director in early 1988. As the company grew and our programming team developed 3D software tools, I began making experimental still images. Unfortunately, no traces of these earliest CG (computer graphics) works remain because there was no renderer in the infant software at that time and, therefore, no way to save images. The first rendered image I produced, a stylized atmospheric work entitled Leaf, won an Ars Electronica Award in 1990. This image was a still frame of a three-dimensional scene in which very simple voluminous forms were mapped with semitransparent textures to create implied complexity due to the casting of light and shadow within the scene. One of the textures, as I recall, was from a scanned medical photo of arteries in the human brain.

Leaf was followed by an image entitled Blooming (Vessel), which was intended to evoke the veiny interior of a flower in the process of blooming as well as a sense of body flesh. These two works led to Root (1991), an image that alluded to both a root in subterranean soil and to an umbilical cord in the womb. Other works that were part of what I termed The Interior Body Series included Drowning (Rapture) and Yearning, a still image that received an Ars Electronica Distinction in 1993. All of these images dealt with the metaphor of co-equivalence between the subjective interior body and elements found in nature. They were produced by working with extremely simple 3D forms and very complex 3D lighting effects, However, while each image was captured from a 3D virtual scene, the end result, in terms of output medium, remained two-dimensional. These pieces were exhibited as large-scale transparencies in the form of light boxes and were experienced by the viewing public as flat 2D static images. Once again, I felt the medium I was using was incapable of conveying what I wanted to communicate.

By early 1993, I began to consider VR as a potentially more capable medium. What interested me about VR, at the time, was not its interactive capacity, but rather its enveloping spatial quality that allowed viewers, hitherto kept outside of the imagery, to become participants, virtually crossing over to the other side of the 2D picture plane into an enveloping 3D space. After spending six months conceptualizing such a VR project, I put together a team and we proceeded to construct Osmose.

An installation view of Osmose (1995), an interactive virtual environment by Char Davies.
This VR work utilizes stereoscopic 3D computer animation and spatial sound, which is activated in real-time. The participant wears a stereoscopic head-mounted display and a "motion capture" vest with a breathing and balance sensor to enter the environment. Sound is also affected by bodily movement. Multiple viewers can see the environment through stereo glasses, but only one person (the immersant) can have the total VR experience.
© Immersence.

Q: How would you describe Osmose (1995) in terms of its equipment, software and physical layout?

CD: To experience Osmose, the participant or immersant, dons a stereoscopic helmet (head-mounted display) through which the computer-generated 3D graphics and 3D sound are experienced in real-time. The immersant interacts with the graphics and sound by controlling his or her rate of breathing and center of balance. These physical actions and responses are tracked by sensors mounted on a vest worn by the immersant, and then transmitted to customized software that resides in a computer. There's no data glove, joystick or other conventional device involved. The vest is the only physical interface used in the process.

During public exhibitions the immersant, wearing a head-mounted display and the specially designed vest, is placed in a small private chamber. The chamber faces onto a large darkened audience space that has two projection screens. This public space is filled with sound that is generated in real-time by the immersant's behavior in the virtual space. One of the screens displays a stereoscopic video projection of the 3D world being experienced by the immersant. This projection enables the audience to vicariously witness each phase of the virtual journey as it takes place in real-time. The other screen displays the projected shadow of the immersent's silhouette as he or she moves and gestures in response to the work. The use of this shadow-silhouette, alongside the real-time video projection, serves to poeticize the relationship between the immersant's body and the work, drawing attention to the body's role as a medium for the interactive experience.

Q: What does the word Osmose mean?

CD: Osmose is a French term for osmosis and it refers to a biological process involving passage from one side of a membrane to another. Osmosis can also be thought of as a metaphor for achieving transcendence through the dissolution of boundaries between the inner and the outer: in other words, the inter-mingling of self and world. It was in this sense that I conceived and developed the form and content of Osmose. As an artwork it was motivated by a desire to heal the Cartesian split between mind and body, subject and object, that has shaped our cultural values and contributed to our estrangement from life. In effect, then, Osmose is designed to increase ones sensitivity and to create a heightened awareness of ones own existence by deautomatizing habitual perceptions.

Clearing with tree and pond, from Osmose, 1995.
A real-time frame capture from Char Davies' VR installation Osmose (1995). In this immersive work, the participant experiences the symbolic realms of twelve different universes: forest, clearing, stream, leaf, pond, earth, etc.
Based on a real-time body centered experience, the piece strives to dissolve the boundaries between self and nature.
© Immersence.

Q: How is the virtual space within Osmose structured?

CD: There are twelve virtual world-spaces within Osmose. Most of these, with the exception of an introductory Cartesian Grid, are based on symbolic elements in nature that have been developed over 25 years in my work. Among the world-spaces are Forest, Leaf, Clearing, Pond, Abyss, Tree, Earth and Cloud. Two other world-spaces include Code, which contains lines of the custom software used to create the work, and Text, which contains excerpts of relevant philosophical and poetic texts about nature, the body and technology. Code and Text function as conceptual substratum and superstratum and bracket the work. All of these world-spaces connect to one another in various ways. There is also a space called Lifeworld that appears at the end when it is time to bring an immersive session to a close.

Q: Would you discuss the production process used to plan and build Osmose, and your second VR piece Ephémère (1998)?

For example, do you have some sort of system for storyboarding or diagramming your VR works and their interactive features, or do you basically improvise as the work develops?

Cartesian grid and forest, a real-time frame capture from
Char Davies' VR installation Osmose (1995).
© Immersence.

CD: While assembling the team for Osmose in the Spring of 1994, I wrote a mission statement for the company (Softimage, Inc.) stating that the objective of my research was to explore the expressive capabilities of VR and thereby demonstrate that it was capable of producing serious works of art. As such, Osmose was conceived as an alternative to mainstream VR that, at the time, consisted primarily of shoot 'em up games and architectural flythroughs. Six months prior to hiring my production team, I began writing a twenty plus page document in which I outlined many of the goals of the project in terms of content, interactivity and aesthetics. As yet, I have declined to publish this particular paper because some of the ideas in it are yet to be realized and will go into a third or even fourth work. This "white paper", which outlined my plan in detail, acted as our touchstone for developing the project.

The core team for both Osmose and Ephémère consisted of John Harrison, who did all the custom programming and Georges Mauro, who built the models, added the textures and worked out the animations using the Softimage software. Both John and Georges were familiar with my previous work and aesthetic through my earlier drawings and paintings, and in particular The Interior Body Series. In addition Georges and I had previously worked together on the CG-animated film, West of Eden in the late 1980s at Softimage. During that time Georges had an opportunity to become familiar with my visual approach and sensibility. I was fortunate to have a team that trusted me and respected my vision as an artist. It was a relationship that contributed immensely to the creative process.

Generally, I tend to use an improvised approach to my work, rather than executing and implementing a pre-planned concept or storyboard. In other words, I feel my way along, proceeding intuitively and responding to the work itself as it's created. In a way, it was the same method I used when painting, though developed much further. I filled many notebooks with ideas, lists, charts, schematics and rough sketches, and this was my way of keeping track of the project and working out various possibilities as we progressed. Sometimes I'd show these notes and drawings to the team, but usually I wouldn't. Decisions about how we would proceed were based on my intuitive response to the material we were creating at the time. This approach to the work allows for a great deal of exploration, but on the other hand it is far more time consuming than a straightforward production based on storyboards and pre-planned strategies. However, the advantage of using an improvised method is that the work always remains fresh and alive during the creative process.

Q: At what point during the conceptual process do you begin making decisions about sound design?

CD: Ideally, I would like to bring in a sound team and begin sound research as early as possible. In the case of Osmose, however, the team involved with the sound component of the piece joined us in the final three months of the project. Dorota Blaszczch came from Poland to work as the sound engineer, placing all the sounds in three-dimensional space and working with the sounds' interactivity. "Sound engineer", however, is an inadequate term to describe her role. "Sonic architect" is perhaps a more appropriate title because of the sounds' complex spatial configuration. Musician Rick Bidlack joined us as composer. Rick and Dorota were also involved in the sound design of Ephémère. The production of sound, like the imagery, was very improvised and process-oriented.

Seeds, a real-time frame capture from Ephémère (1998), a VR installation by Char Davies.
Like Osmose, Ephémère is based on natural worlds but it employs a different spatial concept, a vertical structure consisting of three distinct levels: landscape, subterranean earth and interior body. It also introduces new interactive features and an expanded temporal layer consisting of various life cycles as well as daily and seasonal changes,
© Immersence.
Subterranean world with rocks, root systems and a stream, a real-time frame capture from Char Davies' VR installation Osmose (1995).
Like Osmose, Ephémère is based on natural worlds but it employs a different spatial concept, a vertical structure consisting of three distinct levels: landscape, subterranean earth and interior body. It also introduces new interactive features and an expanded temporal layer consisting of various life cycles as well as daily and seasonal changes,
© Immersence.

Q: How does your most recent VR work, Ephémère, differ from Osmose?

CD: In Ephémère, the iconography extends beyond the trees, water and other elements of the exterior natural world found in Osmose, to include body organs, blood vessels and bones, for example. These elements are intended to suggest a symbolic correspondence between the interior body and the subterranean earth, which was developed in my earlier work. While Osmose, on the one hand, consists of a dozen world-spaces, Ephémère, on the other, is structured spatially into three levels: landscape, subterranean earth and interior body.

Unlike Osmose, Ephémère also has an ever-changing temporal structure. As the immersant roams among all three realms, no realm is static or remains the same. The environment at each level changes continuously, passing through cycles of dawn, day, evening and night, from the pale of winter through spring, summer, and then onto the climactic decay of autumn. While the participant may spend an entire session in one realm, it is more likely that he or she will pass among the various levels, immersed in an ongoing transformation of visual elements and sound. Subterranean rocks, roots, seeds and other natural elements, for example, come into being, linger and pass away. Their appearance depends on the immersant's gaze, as well as their rate of motion and location within the environment.

All the transformations and interactions in Ephémère are aural as well as visual. While the visual elements pass through varying phases of visibility and non-visibility, the sound is also in a continuous state of flux. Located in enveloping 3D space and fully interactive, the audio oscillates between melodic and mimetic effects[3] in a state somewhere between structure and chaos, adapting moment by moment to the spatiotemporal activity of the immersant.

Ephémère is also more interactive and transformative than Osmose. For example, seeds in the earth can be activated when gazed upon for an extended length of time, rewarding the immersant's patient observation with germination. Ephémère's river, which has a gravitational pull, may morph into an underground stream, an artery or a vein once the immersant is within its flow. Rocks, deep within the earth may transform into pulsating body organs, eggs can appear and aging appendages can give way to bone. As these elements evolve and change, they are accompanied by corresponding aural transformations. Depending on the immersant's behavior while navigating within the work; there can be several possible endings.

The visuals in Osmose and Ephémère are soft, luminous and translucent, consisting of semi-transparent 3D forms. These 3D forms have been designed neither to be totally representational, nor completely abstract, but to hover somewhere in between. By animating these forms, and by enabling the participant not only to see through them, but to float through them bodily as well, it is possible to create spatially ambiguous effects and relationships. These sensory fluctuations are capable of contributing to a variable perceptual field in which multiple poetic associations may be evoked. A single literal meaning has a tendency to close a work and limit the experience, whereas ambiguity invites further imaginative play and interpretation. In my work ambiguity is key to de-habituating perception and dissolving boundaries.

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


Q: How do you define virtual reality?

CD: I prefer to use the words "immersive virtual space", to describe the medium with which I work. I sometimes shorten this to VR. I prefer not to use the words "virtual reality" because these days it's a term that's overused in the press and can mean almost anything.

When I use the phrase "immersive virtual space", I am referring to a 360-degree spherically-enveloping virtual environment that, in my opinion, is possible at the present time only through the use of stereoscopic HMDs (head-mounted displays) with a wide field of view. While alternative VR techniques such as CAVE technology and wrap-around screens are less cumbersome, they are not as effective in achieving a sense of envelopment.

I consider the medium of immersive virtual space as a spatiotemporal arena wherein mental models or abstract constructs of the world can be given virtual embodiment in three dimensions, then kinesthetically explored through full-body immersion and interaction. This medium, unlike all the others I have worked withover the past 25 years — painting, photography, documentary filmmaking, traditional animation techniques, 3D computer graphics — enables me to more effectively explore and communicate the themes and aesthetic sensibility central to my artistic work.

Q: While immersed in the imagery of Osmose and Ephémère, the participant controls his or her location and movement with an unusual type of interface. Would you describe the interface used in these two pieces and how it enhances the immersive experience?

CD: In both Osmose and Ephémère the immersant wears a vest, a specially designed body-centered interface that relies on the instinctual and visceral processes of breathing and balance. Through breath, the immersant is able to rise and fall in space with ease and precision. By subtly altering the body's center of balance, the immersant is able to change direction. This reliance on breath and balance is intended to re-affirm the role of the living physical body in an immersive virtual space. It is also intended to act as a channel of communication rather than as a tool of control, like a conventional mouse or data glove, for example.

As in meditation, the practice of following one's breath and being centered or balanced, opens up a profound way of relating to the world. This interactive strategy was informed by my own experiences with scuba diving, an immersive activity that both physically and in terms of metaphor has significantly shaped my conceptual approach to VR. When one scuba dives, the vertical axis of movement is more important than the horizontal axis, and one's buoyancy is dependent on a skillful use of breath and balance to rise or fall or turn. Most of all, one feels the exquisite sensation of floating instead of being gravity-bound, of being sensually immersed deep within the sea. Here, space is not perceived as empty or passive, but rather sensually embraces and envelops the whole body, inviting reverie and the surrender of self.

The impulse behind my VR works, then, has been to communicate the experience of being embodied in the time—space of the living world. My intention is to remind people of their connection to the natural environment, not only biologically, but also spiritually, psychologically and aesthetically.

Q: How do participants react to Osmose and Ephémère, and specifically what kinds of thoughts and feelings are evoked as a result of the immersive experience?

CD: Among the responses we have gathered through written comments, correspondence and video interviews, a substantial number of participants reported reactions that are eerily similar to experiences attained through rigorous age-old meditation techniques. For example, participants have reported feelings of being somewhere else, in other "places", and that during the immersive experience their sense of time was altered. A fifteen-minute session was nearly always experienced as five minutes, a thirty-minute session as ten minutes. They also frequently mentioned a heightened awareness of their own sense of being, accompanied by deep relaxation, intense emotional feelings, including euphoria, and a paradoxical sense of being in and out of their physical bodies. Many participants felt an overwhelming sense of loss when the session was ending and immediately afterwards were unable to organize their thoughts logically and speak rationally about what they had experienced.

In addition to these emotional and psychic reactions, we observed a certain pattern of behavior among participants during immersion. After becoming accustomed to the interface involving their breath and balance, most people became intent on traveling around to see as much of the virtual environment as possible in what appears to be an extension of everyday goal-oriented, action-based behavior. After ten minutes or so, however, most undergo a change: their facial expressions and body gestures loosen and instead of rushing they slowed down, mesmerized by their own perceptions within the space. In this final phase, attention seems to be directed towards the unusual sensations of floating and seeing through things in what becomes a kind of slow motion perceptual "free-fall".

Winter Forest , a real-time frame capture from Char Davies' VR installation Ephémère (1998)
Like Osmose, Ephémère is based on natural worlds but it employs a different spatial concept, a vertical structure consisting of three distinct levels: landscape, subterranean earth and interior body. It also introduces new interactive features and an expanded temporal layer consisting of various life cycles as well as daily and seasonal changes,
© Immersence.

If these responses are anything to go by, it appears that immersive virtual space, as evidenced by Osmose and Ephémère, can indeed be psychically innovating, creating an experiential context that is very different than the world of our habitual perceptions and behavior. I want to stress, however, that this potential for shifting mental states exists only to the extent that a virtual environment is designed to be unlike our usual everyday surroundings. In Osmose and Ephémère, for example, the immersant can unexpectedly see through things and float through them as well. Therefore, the "familiar" becomes the unusual. This type of experience creates room for other modes of perception and instead of the mind being on autopilot it begins to pay attention.

While the psychological effects of full-body immersion in virtual environments, like Osmose and Ephémère, have yet to be scientifically analysed, the potential of the medium to de-habituate our sensibilities and to express fresh poetic and artistic visions is certainly worth further exploration.

Q: What are your plans regarding future projects?

CD: Currently, I'm in the early stages of conceptualizing a new work that will continue on from where Ephémère left off.

From a written interview, May 2002.


3. When used in regards to music, mimetic refers to electronic sounds that are developed from diverse sources
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Last verified: August 1st 2013.