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1.6 Computer Art in the 1990s and Beyond

In 1993, for the first time ever, people in this country bought more PCs than VCRs.
Carol Barlz, Chair of Autodesk, remarks from the Millennium Conference, 1995.

Dramatic changes have taken place in the last five years that once again are in large part the result of technical advances in both hardware and software. Computers have become powerful enough and inexpensive enough to make them enticing for large numbers of artists and self-supporting designers, in addition to companies involved with visual communication of all kinds.

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Figure 1.24 Char Davies, Cartesian Grid and Forest, real-time frame capture from the immersive virtual environment, Osmose, 1995
(entrance grid to the forest world) This landmark virtual-reality work was created with sophisticated equipment that is not yet affordable for most artists If Moore's law continues to hold however, virtual environments will become a common form of artistic creation.

The site of creation has always been the mind. The computer emphasizes this fact and yet, somewhat ironically, as a medium and craft it is still extraordinarily demanding of its users. Although in the future you may use computers without even realizing it (just as you can drive a car, use a watch, set your alarm clock, and use a Walkman without thinking about the dozens of computer chips involved), this technology and its uses are still in the early stages of development.

One of the most talked-about applications of this ever-improving technology has been so-called virtual reality (see Fig. 1.24). Although the basic software and hardware have been in use since the late 1960s, advances in both areas can now bring us visually rich worlds that give the user a feeling of being immersed.

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7.7 Composition

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Representing and invoking space, whether realistic or fantastic or abstract, is essential to almost all visual art work. [. . .] In the piece shown in Fig. 7.38(b), Char Davies took advantage of the rendering capabilities of Softimage's high-end 3D software. The space that she created is ambiguously oriented and seems to envelop the viewer; it was based not on positioning distinct objects, but rather on controlling subtleties of color and of transparency.

Figure 7.38 Two different approaches to composing works with 3D systems.
(a) Matt Mullican, Untitled, 1989 (lightbox transparency, 36" X 48"). (Courtesy of Digital Editions, lnc., Los Ange/es.) (b) ln the 3D C G still image Stream, (1991), Char Davies placed 3D models in 3D virtual space and then moved the virtual camera point of view among them to capture the desired compositional framing.
Gallery Plate 5 Char Davies, Drowning (Rapture), 1991
(3D Computer Graphics Still).

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Although her piece was designed with VR displays, the impracticality of providing a VR viewing environment led her to show the work in other places as an installation incorporating the virtual world as projected video. Char Davies, whose work is displayed in Figs. 10.41 and 11.21, has access to high-powered computers and virtual reality equipment through her corporate affiliation as Director of Visual Research at Softimage (now owned by Avid).

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Particle Systems

I briefly discussed particle systems for simulating difficult-to-model phenomena such as smoke, fire, vapor, and explosions in Chapter 6. Because 3D modelling programs focus mainly on solids and surfaces, the user tends to think in terms of distinct, well-defined objects—the space between and inside those objects is largely untouchable. Particle systems offers a way of animating this space and providing different types of marks.

Char Davies uses particle systems in her immersive virtual-reality piece Osmose. She strives to create a sense of organic form and structure to support participants' explorations of the relationships between self and the world. Participants leave their familiar surroundings and constraints and enter one of a dozen virtual worlds based on elements of nature, including a forest, leaf pond. abyss, cloud, and subterranean earth, as shown in Fig. 10.41, (See the discussion of the Osmose interface in Chapter ll, Multimedia and Interactivity.

A particle system is an algorithmically controlled mass of small solid shapes that are automatically created and linked to simulate movement of a single, often nebulous, phenomenon. The artist can choose the shape of the particles, the rate of creation and extinction, the direction of travel, the density of the system, and other such parameters. Particle systems can create realistic simulations of visual events such as moving flames, clouds, water droplets, explosions, and others that are impossible to model in other ways.

Like other features of computer graphics programs, particle systems and flocking behaviors can be used to simulate real-world phenomena and add realism to a model or animation. The artist also can use them abstractly by choosing particle shapes and behaviors that encourage expressive visual effects unrelated to real phenomena.

10.5.4 Motion Capture

Figure 10.41 (a) Char Davies, Osmose, 1995.
Pond, real-time frame captures from the immersive virtual environment.
Figure 10.41 (b) Char Davies, Osmose, 1995.
Subterranean Earth, real-time frame capture. Throughout Osmose, space is experienced by the immersed participant as being bodily enveloping. This spatial sensibility, along with use of particle systerns and an ambiguous, semi-abstract visual aesthetic, contributes greatly to the evocative power of the work.

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In Osmose, Char Davies met the difficult challenge of virtual-reality interface desgin with on of the most asthetically integral art work interfaces that I've seen. In an interface that is at once central to the meaning of the piece and yet deeply intuitive and in many ways transparent, Davies created a 3D world that is navigated with a head-mounted display and real-time motion tracking based on breathing and balance (see Fig. 11.21).

Figure 11.21 The Osmose interface, 1995.
The Osmose interface was informed by Char Davies' experiences of deep sea scuba-diving, There is also a correlation with meditation practices that, by focusing on breath, seek to bring the mind and body into a state in which the boundaries between inner and outer osmotically dissolve. (a) Immersant using the Osmose interface. The computer tracks breath and balance to create an illusion of floating: breathing in to rise, out to fall, and learning to change direction. (b) The Clearing, real-time frame capture from the immersive virtual Environment Osmose (1995).

According to the Web site overview of the work:

In contrast to conventional VR interface techniques such as joysticks or gloves which are based on direct linear manipulation, Osmose incorporates the subtle, intuitive process of breathing and balance as the primary means of navigating within the virtual world. By breathing in, the immersant is able to float upward, by breathing out, to fall.

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Last verified: September 19th 2013.