Virtual reality shimmers on the horizon of our collective consciousness like a technological mirage. In novels by William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, in television programs like VR5 and Wild Palms, and in films from Virtuosity to The Lawnmower Man, silicon has become a gateway to other "realities." By donning a virtual reality helmet and connecting to a computer, people can be propelled into artificially generated worlds that exist only in the ephemeral domain of cyberspace. Though such worlds have no physicality, increasingly powerful computer graphics render them in such lifelike splendor that a user can utterly believe he or she is "there." But while cyberspace has been rapidly overtaking outer space as the primary locus of our technological dreaming, it has been almost exclusively the domain of male imaginations — both in fiction and in real life. And rnost of the virtual "worlds" created thus far have been decidedly macho, replete with gunfights, high-speed chases, and luscious babes.

One exception to this rule is Char Davies, a Canadian artist who last year unveiled an extraordinary new virtual reality world she calls Osmose. Eschewing many of the conventions of the medium, Osmose is a sophisticated synthesis of the technological and the organic, an inspired silicon dream about nature, life, and the body. Operating on many different levels, Osmose combines technical virtuosity with a unique aesthetic and a subtle philosophical rationale.

Tree Pond, Osmose, 1995
Digital still image captured during immersive performance of the virtual environment, Osmose

Davies' aim with Osmose is simply to let the virtual space enfold and unfold as one slowly explores the dozen interconnected environments. Neither a game nor a mission-oriented adventure, there is no goal or end point, no puzzles to be solved or mysteries to be pieced together Instead, one is transported to a luminous, multi-layered landscape centered around a virtual forest. The user — Davies likes to use the term "immersant" — wanders among stands of softly glowing, semi-transparent trees, on a forest floor covered with delicate, opalescent leaves. The air is filled with the quiet strains of distinctly electronic, yet soothing music. A river of small lights wends its way through the trees like a stately stream of fireflies. The whole environment has a magical, phosphorescent quality.

Osmose's interconnected "worlds" are each identified with a simple description: the Grid, the Clearing, the Forest, the Leaf, the Subterranean world, the Code world, the Pond, the Abyss, the Lifeworld, Cloud, the Text world, and the Ending. Interwoven with the Forest is Leaf, where the immersant enters the space of the leaves on the forest floor; the Pond, where the user descends into a strangely plastic pool of water; the Clearing, where one can literally enter a tree, its lifeblood coursing through the veins in its trunk; and the Abyss, a glowing subterranean chasm beneath the forest floor.

The environment created by Char Davies refutes the high-speed, macho model of virtual reality with a peaceful, organic world.
Forest Grid digital frame captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live performance of Osmose, 1995

Philosophically, Davies says, Osmose is about "being-in-the-world in its most profound sense. lt's about our subjective experience as sentient, embodied, incarnate, living beings embedded in enveloping, flowing space." Her work involves a shift away from virtual reality's usual Cartesian perspective, a shift that is hinted at when one first enters Osmose. An immersant initially sees a three-dimensional geometric grid stretching out to infinity. After a moment, however, the grid dissolves into a softly glowing forest. The sharp-edged clarity of geometry is replaced by the indeterminate softness and nonlinearity of the Osmose world.

Davies feels a deep antipathy for the Cartesian ideology and aesthetics that dominate both the virtual reality community and most of the computer entertainment industry. ln the seventeenth century, René Descartes posited a strict separation between the realm of human consciousness and the natural world — a dualism Davies wants to abolish. And the coordinate system he devised (the familiar grid created by x, y, and z axes), which is the foundation of most computer graphics, produces cold, linear environments — the opposite of Osmose's organic shapes and feel.

In a genuine sense, mind and body are integrated in Osmose, for finessing one's motion through the virtual landscape requires the engagement of the whole body.
Spaces within Osmose include the Forest; the Grid, which greets users; and the Text world, containing passages from works that inspired the artist.
Text world digital frame captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live performance of Osmose, 1995

Osmose was inspired "by a desire to heal the Cartesian split between mind and body, subject and object, which has shaped our cultural values," Davies explains. In many virtual reality projects, the human subject is reduced to an isolated and disembodied being "maneuvering in empty space." She notes, "Cyberspace is the epitome of Cartesian desire, for it enables us to create worlds where we have total control." Most of the hype surrounding virtual reality "reflects a longing to transcend the limitations of our physical surroundings; the long-term effects of this may be to seduce us away from our bodies and nature."

One of the ways Davies attempts to transcend this dualism is by bringing the body into cyberspace, creating a "natural" interaction between the participant and the virtual world. Indeed, it is the user's body that controls his or her journey through Osmose. ln most virtual reality systems, motion is controlled by a joystick or other manual device that gives the user a kind of godlike control dependent on hand~eye coordination. It's a practice that was imported from arcade games, which in turn took their cue from military planes and simulators. In Osmose, by contrast, the body's own balance and breath serve as the controlling device. Instead of clutching a joystick, the immersant wears a lightweight chest harness fitted with sensors. When one leans forward physically, one also moves forward virtually. Similarly, bending back or to either side moves one's virtual self in that direction. Vertical motion is controlled by breath: to move up, one breathes in; to descend, one breathes out. This navigation system was inspired by Davies' experience as a scuba diver, where a similar technique controls buoyancy. And under the ocean, as in Osmose, a diver floats and is enveloped in a fluid, flowing space.

Scrim shadow of an "immersant" (user).
Users enter Davies' world, called Osmose, via a virtual reality helmet and navigate with body movement and breath.

Instead of trying to escape from the body, long a promise of virtual reality, Osmose "reaffirms its importance as the seat of experience." Indeed, this may be the first virtual world to truly convey the feeling of being immersed in an environment. In a genuine sense, mind and body are integrated in Osmose, for finessing one's motion through the virtual landscape requires the engagement of the whole body.

Technically speaking, most virtual worlds are created using the same kinds of mathematical techniques pioneered by the Renaissance perspective painters — geometry rules supreme, objects are built out of polygons, and light reflects in perfect Euclidean rays. The effect is hard, clean, antiseptic. With Osmose, Davies was determined to create an entirely different way of visualizing and realizing objects in her virtual world — nothing less than an alternative metaphysics. So instead of building things out of polygons, she constructed them out of glowing points of light, which imparts to everything a soft-edged phosphorescence. And while the space still seems three-dimensional, movement in it is fluid, divorced somehow from the standard coordinate system. This makes the experience and essence of Davies' project radically different from other virtual worlds.

Last fall, Davies brought Osmose to the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York City, where it attracted large, captivated crowds. (It had first been exhibited last August at the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Montreal.) The gallery installation consisted of three Silicon Graphics Onyx workstations — the Rolls Royce of image processing computers — a virtual reality helmet, the chest harness, and a huge stereoscopic video projector. (In all, close to $1 million's worth of equipment.) Although only one person could enter Osmose at a time, each immersant's voyage was projected onto a large video screen, where it could be seen by a wider audience. And by donning polarizing glasses, the audience was also able to see the images in 3-D. While not the same as full "immersion," it was mesmerizing nonetheless.

Entering — inhabiting — the Osmose world is a meditative, explorative experience. Movement is slow, and one has time to absorb nuances and details. lt's the antithesis of an action-packed video game. Transitions between the various "worlds" are also slow and gradual. When one passes from the Forest into the Leaf world (by exhaling in order to descend into the mass of leaves at ones feet), the main forest scene slowly fades and one's field of vision gradually fills with large, luminous leaves in soft hues. The shift from one environment to the other is like a long dissolve between scenes in a film, with the final viewpoint being that of an insect on the forest floor.

The borders of the virtual world reflect the two bases of Davies' work — the technological and the philosophical. Recognizing that Osmose is essentially software, Davies literally placed its programming at the bottom of the virtual universe. Beneath the ground under the forest are line after line of glowing green code, "grounding" the virtual space of Osmose in the computer language in which it is written.

Just as this Code world lies at the bottom of Osmose, at the top there is a corresponding Text world, a sort of heavenly void filled with passages from philosophical works that have insplred Davies. Selections from Heidegger, Rilke, Huxley, Joseph Campbell, and Gaston Bachelard explore issues of nature, the body, and technology itself. Interspersed with these texts are some of Davies' own writings about Osmose.

According to Davies, these two worlds act as parentheses to the overall virtual space, symbols of concrete reality bracketing the world within. They also remind the immersant and the viewers that Osmose is a highly crafted construction, a product of both great technological sophistication and intensive conceptualization.

Giiven its complexity, it's surpiising to learn that Osmose was designed, modeled, and rendered by just three people — Davies, programmer John Harrison, and animator Georges Mauro — in only six months. (Sound designer Dorota Blaszczak and composer Rick Eidlack created the aural portion of the environment.) Davies is proud of the small scale of the operation — for her, it demonstrates that one does not need the resources of a huge staff to create innovative virtual reality environments. The goal is to pry the medium reality away from a few privileged techies at big software firms and put it in the hands of artists everywhere. To that end, her team is now adapting its software to run on smaller, cheaper computers. At the moment, though, at least one Silicon Graphics onyx still comes in handy.

Tall, thim, and soft-spoken, Davies seems an unlikely adversary to the might of the techno-establishment. But she is in the rare position of being able to see the computer graphics industry as both outsider and insider. On the one hand, her background is in painting and film; on the other, she is a key member of Softimage, a successful graphics software company that was bought by Microsoft in 1994 for $130 million. (Softimage, founded in was by Daniel Langlois, makes the software used to create advanced 3-D animation for commercials and films. The company's products have helped make such movies as The Mask, Jumanji and Jurassic Park.)

While working toward democratizing the world of virtual reality (and waiting for the price of technology to drop), Davies is beginning work on a new virtual world, one that will include interactivity. ln Osmose, immersants are free to move around at will and choose their own journey through the virtual space, but nothing within it responds to their presence. In this new world, she wants to give users the power to affect the virtual environment. Like Osmose, this new work will also be an organically inspired universe, a world in which, as Davies puts it, there is "a dissolution of boundaries between inner and outer, an intermingling of self and world."

As with Osmose, the aim is not to replace nature. but rather to use technology to "distill or amplify certain interpretive aspects of it," so that those who enter these worlds "can see freshly, can become resensitized, and can remember what it's like to wonder," she says. Above all, by "reminding people of the extraordinariness of simply being alive in the world," Davies hopes that Osmose and its successor can act as "arenas in which we can perhaps relearn how to "be."

Margaret Wertheim is currently working on a cultural history of space, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, which will be published by W. W. Norton.

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Last verified: September 18th 2013.