Real-time technology has taken a while to evolve into an accessible form. In the early 1990s, software developer Softimage was one of the few companies that made graphics tools for artists. At a time when technical developments were considered key to commercial success, Softimage sought a level of creative engagement in the development of code that would parallel aesthetic objectives. Char Davies, the company's director of visual research and an artist herself, created `immersive virtual reality environments', which operated in real time. Osmose (ill. opposite), in particular, was considered revolutionary, and illustrated the untapped potential between artist and computer. Immersive experiences are commonly accompanied by joysticks, data gloves and cumbersome headwear, but with Osmose, the experience of immersion is determined by sensory devices on the body that, unusually, monitor breathing. A feeling akin to diving underwater is achieved, offering similar manoeuvres, such as the facility to accelerate and slow down. This experience alone has had a profound emotional effect on those emerging from Osmose's virtual space back into the physical world.

Previously, the aim of those making virtual reality worlds had been to make digital realms look 'real'; early results were often slightly crude. Osmose deliberately crossed realism with abstraction to achieve something that was believable, although not 'real'. Nature was portrayed as delicately constructed layers of transparency, translucency, light, particles and water; the 'immersant' navigated through a series of spaces that included a clearing, a forest, a pond, an abyss and fog. Appropriately, the final space was composed of code. Osmose's feat was to challenge what could be experientially and visually accomplished, using real-time computing as a medium. Davies's work remains a benchmark for virtual-reality environments today.


Char Davies, Subterranean Earth,
from Osmose, 1995.
Digital image captured in real-time
through head-mounted display during live
immersive journey/performance.
Char Davies, Tree Pond, from Osmose, 1995.
Digital frame captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live performance.

Note to illustrations: Osmose is an immersive real-time virtual environment with a highly considered aesthetic, developed using 3D modeling and animation by SoftImage, on a Silicon Graphics Onyx, the most powerful supercomputer at the time.

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Last verified: August 1st 2013.