[Breathing and balance interface
for Osmose and Ephémère.]†

The medium of "immersive virtual space" or virtual reality—as it is generally known—has intriguing potential as an arena for constructing metaphors about our existential being-in-the-world and for exploring consciousness as it is experienced subjectively, as it is felt. Such environments can provide a new kind of "place" through which our minds may float among three-dimensionally extended yet virtual forms in a paradoxical combination of the ephemerally immaterial with what is perceived and bodily felt to be real.

My work as an artist explores VR's capacity for refreshing our "ways of seeing" through the design of immersive virtual environments unlike those of our usual sensibilities. Osmose (1994-95) is an interactive, "fully immersive," virtual environment that uses a stereoscopic head-mounted display, three-dimensionally localized interactive sound, and an embodying inter-face driven by the user's breath and balance. There are nearly a dozen "realms" in Osmose, metaphorical reconstructions of "nature" as well as philosophical texts and software code. The visual elements within these realms are semi-transparent and translucent.[1]

Since mid-1995, more than five thousand people [approximately 25,000 people, as of November 2007]† have been immersed in Osmose. The overall effect on immersants appears to be quite complex. Many of their responses are surprising in terms of emotional intensity, ranging from euphoria to tears of loss. The experience of seeing and floating through things, along with the work's reliance on breath and balance as well as on solitary immersion, causes many participants to relinquish desire for active "doing" in favor of contemplative "being." In comparing their reactions with those generated by psychological research into traditionally-induced altered states of consciousness, 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.[2]

Changing Space

Thirty years ago, in The Poetics of Space, the philosopher Gaston Bachelard examined the psychologically transformative potential of "real" environments like the desert, the plains, and the deep sea, immense open spaces unlike the urban environments to which most of us are accustomed:

By changing space, by leaving the space of one's usual sensibilities, one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating. … For we do not change place, we change our nature.[3]

Bachelard's poetic insight into the psychological effects of "changing space" is echoed by psychologists documenting the effects of traditional contemplative practices in terms of altering states of consciousness. According to Arthur Deikman's "Deautomatization and the Mystic Experience," the conditions fostered by such practices involve a dehabituating or "deautomatizing" of perceptual sensibilities.

Deautomatization is an undoing of psychic structure permitting the experience of increased detail and sensation at the price of requiring more attention. With such attention, it is possible that deautomatization may permit the awareness of new dimensions of the total stimulus array—a process of "perceptual expansion."

… Deautomatization is here conceived as permitting the adult to attain a new, fresh perception of the world by freeing him from a stereotyped organization built up over the years and by allowing adult synthetic functions access to fresh materials.

… The general process of deautomatization would seem of great potential usefulness whenever it is desired to break free from an old pattern in order to achieve a new experience of the same stimulus or to open a perceptual avenue to stimuli never experienced before.[4] (italics added)

This dehabituating of perception tends to occur as a result of certain psychological conditions, such as when the participant's attention is intensified and is directed toward sensory pathways; when there is an absence of controlled, analytic thought; and when the participant's attitude is one of receptivity to stimuli rather than defensiveness or suspicion.[5]

Most often attained through rigorous training in age-old meditation techniques (drug-induced experiences are outside the scope of this essay), such conditions lead to an undoing of habitual perceptions—in favor of alternative sensibilities. While these may be less efficient in terms of biological or psychological survival, psychologists believe that they permit experience of aspects of reality previously ignored. The experience of these unusual sensibilities includes:

Osmose: Breathing In and Letting Go

These "unusual" sensations are eerily similar to what many people claim they have experienced during immersion in Osmose. Among the responses we have gathered through written comments, correspondence, and video interviews, a substantial number of participants have reported the following:

In addition, we have observed a pattern of behavior among participants during immersion. After becoming accustomed to the interface of breath and balance, most people become intent on "doing," traveling around to see as much 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 slow down, mesmerized by their own perceptions within the space. In this final phase, attention seems to be directed toward the unusual sensations of floating and seeing through things in what becomes a kind of slow-motion perceptual "free-fall."

What is going on here?

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

If these responses are anything to go by, then it appears that immersive virtual space, as evidenced by Osmose, can indeed be "psychically innovating," to use Bachelard's words. Why? The answer lies in the very nature of immersive virtual space. Here, ephemeral virtuality coexists with an apparent three-dimensionality of form, and feelings of disembodiment can coexist with those of embodiment (given the use of an embodying interface as in Osmose). These paradoxical aspects, in combination with the ability to kinesthetically interact with the elements within the space, create a very unusual experiential context.

I want to emphasize, however, that the medium's perception-refreshing potential is possible only to the extent that a virtual environment is designed to be unlike those of our usual sensibilities and assumptions. In Osmose, for example, the immersant can unexpectedly see through things and float through them as well. Thus the "familiar" becomes the unusual. This creates room for other modes of perception: instead of the mind being on autopilot it begins to pay attention, in the present, to what is unusual and unknown.

Osmose: Unusual Sensibilities

Osmose does not reconstruct the world as we habitually perceive it (as empty space containing solid, static, hard-edged, and separate objects, with rigid distinctions between subject, object, figure and ground). Instead, Osmose uses transparency and luminous particles to "desolidify" things and dissolve spatial distinctions. When the immersant moves within the space, multiplicities of semi-transparent, three-dimensional forms as well as abstract foreground "flecks" combine to create perceptual ambiguity and slippages between figure and ground, near and far, inside and out. Compared to the all too familiar literal representational style commonly associated with three-dimensional computer graphics, this more evocative aesthetic intensifies the perceptual and cognitive process.

For the user-interface, a method was developed that relies on the participant's own breath and balance rather than on conventional, hand-oriented methods such as joystick, wand, trackball, or glove—all of which tend to support a distanced and disembodied stance toward the world. This approach, based on breathing in to rise, out to fall, and leaning to change direction, brings the experience inward, "grounding" it within the core of the participant's physical body. Conceptually informed by the scuba diver's practice of buoyancy control, this hands-off technique "frees" participants from the urge to handle and control the world of "objects."[8] This approach was intended to "reaffirm" the role of the subjectively-experienced, "felt" body in cyberspace, in direct contrast to its usual absence or objectification in virtual worlds. The use of breathing and balance also tends to deeply relax people, creating a tranquil state of mind and body.

The feelings reported by various participants were probably intensified by the solitary nature of the experience, as well as by the fact that the work is "fully immersive," (its space is perceived as totally enveloping, due to our use of a wide-field-of-view head-mounted display.) These aspects, in combination with the three-dimensionality of the work and the fluid, interactive sound, act to amplify the embodied yet virtual nature of the experience.

While the psychological effects of full-body immersion in a computer-generated virtual environment like Osmose have yet to be scientifically analyzed, the potential of the medium to dehabituate our sensibilities and allow for a resensitization of the perception of being invites further exploration.


Not to be forgotten is the possibility of the medium's potency being used to replace bodily experiences of the "real" with phantasms of virtual utopias. In her preface to Rethinking Technologies, Verena Andermatt Conley writes about our loss of "humanness" in the wake of the world "becoming technological."[9]

In view of the grim prospect of the twenty-first century, we are compelled to ask how critics of culture, philosophers, and artists will deal with technologies. How do they contend with expansionist ideology, and the accelerated elimination of diversity and of singularities? How do they resist or act?...Now, in a world where the notion of space has been completely changed through electronic simultaneity, where the computer appears to go faster than the human brain, or where "virtual reality" replaces "reality," how do philosophy, critical theory, or artistic practices deal with those shifts?[10]

This question aptly applies to immersive virtual space, especially when one considers that it will one day likely be used for such (questionable) purposes as adapting individuals to psychological and biological survival in a less and less "user-friendly" living environment. Moreover, unlike Bachelard's desert or deep sea, Deikman's meditation cell, or even an isolation tank, VR is a communicative medium, which by default carries conventional cultural values of the Western technoscientific worldview from which that technology has sprung.

[Char Davies, Tree, from Osmose, 1995
Digital image captured in real-time
through head-mounted display during
live performance.]†

The beginnings of an answer to Conley's question may have been formulated by Martin Heidegger more than fifty years ago in The Question Concerning Technology. As an alternative to what he called technology's tendency to function as an instrument of domination and control, Heidegger pointed to an earlier form of "techne" called "poiesis" by the Greeks, associated not with "challenging" but with a "bringing-forth" or "revealing" into presence. The Greeks considered this artistic activity to be somewhat equivalent to what they called physis or nature's own bursting forth of being."[11] I find inspiration here in terms of the use of immersive virtual space as a medium for "bringing forth" or "manifesting" abstract ideas into the realm of virtual "place" so that they can be kinesthetically explored and bodily lived.

This may prove to be a promising use of the medium, and, given effective subversion of its culturally-bound characteristics, may be a step toward suggesting alternative ways of seeing and being in the world. However, even so, there remains a significantly disheartening aspect. For even as "places" like Osmose may one day be accessible online as virtual sites of contemplation, so too such sites may signal the demise of traditional places of self-reflection and tranquillity. In particular this includes "nature" as we know it, as compromised in body and habitat by human activities, nature's unfathomable presences recede further and further from our urban lives. My own practice in the field of "virtual reality" thus contains a bittersweet aspect, entangled in feelings of both longing and loss.


This paper was presented in abridged form at Consciousness Reframed, 1st CAiiA Research Conference, Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts, University of Wales College, Newport, Wales, July 1997 and at Beyond Shelter: The Future of Architecture, The Graham Foundation, Chicago, IL, Sept. 1997. It is partially based on the presentations "Soul in the Machine: OSMOSE—The Paradox of Being in Immersive Virtual Space" and "OSMOSE as Metaphor: Alternative Aesthetics and Interaction in Immersive Virtual Space" delivered at the annual meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group in Graphics, New Orleans, LA, Aug. 1996.

1. Osmose was designed as an alternative to the dominant aesthetic and interactive sensibility of virtual reality. The work was created by myself, John Harrison, and Georges Mauro, with sound by Rick Bidlack and Dorota Blaszczak, and was produced by Softimage between 1994 and 1995. Public installations of the work were made in an intimate enclosed immersion area with a darkened visitor space. Visitors were able to "witness" each immersive journey from the immersant's point of view as it took place via live audiovisual connection. Adjacent to the video projection was a live shadow projection of the immersant, providing an associative link between his or her body as conduit for lived experience, and the work's consequent imagery and sound. For a more detailed description, see Davies, "Osmose: Notes on Being in Immersive Virtual Space," paper delivered at the 6th International Symposium on Electronic Art, Montreal, September 1995; and Davies and Harrison, "Osmose: Towards Broadening the Aesthetics of Virtual Reality," in ACM Computer Graphics 30, no. 4 (November 1996): pp. 25-28.

2. The subjective experience of being spatially enveloped or immersed in a virtual environment is key to my work and the views expressed in this paper. By "immersion" or "immersive virtual space" I specifically mean immersion within a spherically 360-degree, totally enveloping virtual space, implying a "being within." In my experience with VR, such sensation of envelopment is possible only through the wearing of a head-mounted display helmet with a wide field of view. While the word "immersive" is currently being used by the industry to describe wrap-around screens and domes (creating what I consider to be non-immersive experiences) my use of the word "immersive" denotes a totally enveloping virtual space.

3. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1966), 206. For Bachelard's discussion on the psychologically transforming qualities of immense open spaces such as the sea, desert, and plains, see pp. 203-10.

4. Arthur Deikman, "Deautomatization and Mystical Experience," and "Experimental Meditation" in Altered States of Consciousness, Charles Tart, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1990) 50, 47 and 263. Note that in terms of "receptivity" to Osmose, I have been told by at least one individual that although she was intellectually skeptical when she went in, "something happened" and much to her surprise she became entranced. This points to the medium's potency, for better and worse.

5. Deikman, "Deautomatization," p. 50.

6. Ibid., pp. 47-55.

7. Y. Karim, personal correspondence with the author, September 1995. "Osmose heightened an awareness of my body as a site of consciousness and of the [...] sensation of consciousness occupying space."

8. This method was partially informed by my own practice of scuba diving in the deep sea, certainly a "psychically innovating space" as Bachelard suggested. Diving at depths of 200 feet over a 6,000 foot abyss introduced me to the experience of being within an almost pure, abstract yet sensuously enveloping space, where, when there is nothing to "look at" perceptual and cognitive distinctions between near and far, inside and out, really do dissolve. While diving, navigation and buoyancy are achieved through subtle and skillful use of breath and balance, and the use of hands is discouraged. There are other relevant comparisons between diving and immersive virtual environments, such as the donning of heavy gear in order to access such spaces, as well as the necessity of limiting the length of the experience in order to avoid possible dangers to one's health.

9. Verena Andermatt Conley, preface to V (1993), in Rethinking Technologies, Verena Andermatt Conley, ed., (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. ix.

10. Ibid., p. xii.

11. In its most prevalent form, immersive virtual reality can be considered to be "a literal re-enactment of Cartesian ontology." Richard Coyne, "Heidegger & Virtual Reality: The implications of Heidegger's Thinking for Computer Representation," Leonardo, Vol. 27, no. 1, 1994: pp. 66-75. In terms of visuals, most real-time three-dimensional computer graphic techniques are based on representing "hard-edged solid objects in empty space"—in a combination of low-level mimetic realism, Cartesian space, and Renaissance perspective. In virtual environments the human subject is usually reconstructed as an omnipotent and isolated viewpoint maneuvering in empty space and probing objects with an acquisitive hand. Interactivity in many commercial computer games involves adrenaline-producing high-speed action and aggression. These approaches tend to reinforce a Cartesian way of seeing the world in terms of emphasizing the separation of subject over object, mind over body, and the world as "standing-reserve." For a discussion about the world being reduced to "standing-reserve" for human consumption, see Martin Heidegger "The Question Concerning Technology," in The Question Concerning Technology & Other Essays, New York: Harper and Row, 1977, pp. 17-27. The imperative to master and control is not surprising given the technology's origins, not only in value-wise in the Western philosophic tradition, but instrumentally in the military as well.

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: Sept 16, 2008.