Chapter 2.5   Body and Medicine

Brain Processes, Heartbeats, Breath, Biosensors, Speech, and Psychology
Heart and Breathing

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Akitsugu Maebayashi has created a variety of projects that use the heartbeat of the visitor. In Hypersynch, the heartbeat of the performer is used to control two open-reel recorders on the stage. In Audible Distance, described in detail in chapter 7.4, three visitors in a totally dark room can navigate a virtual world and determine each other's presence only via amplified heartbeats. Char Davies created two virtual reality installations called Osmose and Ephémère, which pioneered new approaches to virtual world navigation via breath-activated interfaces (see chapters 7.3 and 7.4). Davies takes the unusual approach of using cyberspace to connect people to bodies and the earth: "Ephémère can be viewed as an attempt to reaffirm our limitations, our mortality, our dependency on aging bodies and an earth which which will, for those of us now living, absorb our bones, dreams of cyber immortality notwithstanding."

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Chapter 7.3   Virtual Reality

Unorthodox Spaces and Characters
Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland

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Laurel notes two kinds of interventions that she sees as essential in VR works such as as Placeholder: (1) using it as a tool to "honor and celebrate the natural world and the ways that it articulates with our imaginations" rather than searching for stereotyped abstract out-of-body experiences, and (2) finding a way to incorporate deep personal storytelling as it has been practiced throughout human history—"purposeful action that is intended to communicate, to teach, to heal." She notes that some participants in Char Davies's breath-activated Osmose VR work (described below) claimed to encounter spiritual experience, and she campaigns against the tendency of some in the art world to abandon hope of new possibilities: "How tragic that artists have come to hold the self-marginalizing belief that cynicism is superior to hope. To my mind, there is nothing healthier than rolling up one's sleeves and trying to give the world fresh visions of joy, fresh uses of technology that indeed 'exteriorize the soul.' "
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Char Davies

Char Davies is well-known for her Osmose and Ephémère VR installations, which challenge conventions about representations of artificial worlds and interface. Her synthetic worlds do not look like the customary polygon-dominated space of traditional 3-D computer graphics. They are populated with organic shapes that suggest plants, landscapes, body, and water. Similarly, the interface for navigating the world reads the breathing and balance of the visitor. Before working with computers, Davies was a painter. She then became a core developer at SoftImage, the software company that created the 3-D software much used by the movie industry. She has written numerous papers and presentations that explain her philosophical focus on the experience of the physical body in cyberspace. The biography on her Web site describes this focus:

In her work, Char Davies explores paradoxes of embodiment, being, and nature in immersive virtual space. She approaches this new medium as a philosophical "arena" for constructing architectures of enveloping immaterial form. Her approach embraces the medium's paradoxes by working with transparency, luminosity, spatial ambiguity, implicit rather than explicit meaning, and temporality as well as a body-centered user interface of breath and balance with the intent of affirming the role of the subjectively felt physical body in virtual space. [6]

In a paper called "Changing Space: VR as an Arena of Being," Davies reflects on the experience of the five thousand [thousands of]† people who had experienced Osmose. She was surprised by the intensity of experience for many of the immersants. She draws on psychologist Arthur Deikman's theory of deautomatization, which suggests that destabilizing psychic structures can result in increased attention and "perceptual expansion." Osmose put people in a safe but unfamiliar environment in which they could experience their bodies and perceptions in new ways. She refers to the literature on meditation, which reports similar phenomena. Many visitors to Osmose reported experiences such as "being in another place", "losing track of time," "unable to speak rationally afterwards," and euphoria. Davies believes that a conventional VR environment would be unlikely to stimulate these kinds of effects. The aesthetic decisions she made about the luminous nature of the virtual world and the noncontrol-oriented breath interface set the scene:

[I]n Osmose we used transparency and luminous particles to "desolidify" things and dissolve spatial distinctions… . [R]ather than relying on conventional hand-based VR interface methods such as joystick, wand, trackball, or glove—which tend to support a disembodied, distanced, and controlling stance toward the world—we used an interface based on breath and balance to allow participants to simply "float" by breathing-in to rise, out to fall, and leaning to change direction… [T]he hands-off interface approach freed them from the urge to "handle" things and from habitual gravity-bound modes of interaction and navigation. [7]

In Ephémère, visitors navigate an organic world that explores the temporary nature of existence and the linkage between the earth and the body. Davies's Web site describes the installation:

Ephémère is an exploration of the ephemerality of being and the symbolic equivalence of body and earth. The work's iconography, evolved through Davies's long-standing practice as a painter, is grounded in nature as metaphor: archetypal elements of root, rock, and stream, etc., recur throughout. Spatially, the work is structured into three parts: Landscape, subterranean Earth, and interior Body. The body, of flesh and bone, functions as the substratum beneath the fecund earth and the bloomings and witherings of the land. [8]

Davies explains that the structure of the event itself calls forth reflections on fleeting life. Processes of change surround the immersant—day and night, seasons, and decay and rebirth. The fate of some of the objects, such as seeds, rely on the proximity, movement, and gaze of the visitor. Davies believes that the VR environment, with is simulated realness and ghostlike presentation, is ideal for exploring ideas and feelings about this flow of the universe:

This river of life and time, the inexorable force that pours through all things, is what concerns me… . According to Heidegger, the Greeks called this flow physis:
"In truth, physis means outside of all specific connotations of mountains, sea, or animals, the pure blooming in the power of which all that appears and thus 'is.' "

The very immateriality, temporality and apparent three-dimensionality of immersive virtual space is well suited for manifesting such a concept. In Ephémère, besides the various comings-into-being, lingerings, and passings-away, and the transformations of illumination and spatial contexts, there are "flows" of rivers, root flows, and body fluids streaming through the work.

The artist in the era of cyberspace cannot escape responsibility. Davies hopes her works awaken awareness of the physical world and its future. She notes the domination of logical thinking in cyberspace construction and warns that it may "distract from earthly responsibilities and the very wonder of being embodied among all this":

The function of the artist in correcting the unconscious bias of a given culture can be betrayed if he merely repeats the bias of a culture without readjusting it. In this sense the role of art is to create the means of perception by creating counterenvironments that open the door of perception to people otherwise numbed in a nonperceivable situation… .
[erratum noted by Char Davies: this is a quote by Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker taken from The Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. New York: Harper & Row (1969), p.241] †

[The following is a quote by Char Davies:]
While our habitual perceptions may lead to the forgetting of being, the paradoxical qualities of immersion in a virtual environment, if constructed so as not to reinforce conventional assumptions and behaviour, can be used to open doors of perception. In this context, Ephémère is an attempt to reaffirm our poetic and mythic need for Nature, returning attention to our fragile and fleeting existences as mortal beings embedded in a vast, multichanneled flow of life through time.

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Chapter 7.4 Motion, Gesture, Touch, Gaze, Manipulation, and Activated Objects

Breath
Char Davies

Char Davies has created a series of virtual worlds populated by organic and landscape forms that are quite different than the polygon-dominated constructions that constitute most VR environments. One's breathing rhythm moves a person through the worlds as the work tries to "dissolve the boundaries between the self and nature." (See chapters 2.5 and 7.3.) In a Leonardo Electronic Almanac review of Osmose's exhibition at ISEA95, Annick Bureaud concludes that the breath interface was critical in the work's success in transporting the interactor into a virtual world:

With Osmose we are within the work but, more powerfully, the work is within ourselves that we exhale with our breath, intimacy, interpenetration of the work and the I, relying on the spectator's body, whose essential movements (breath and equilibrium) are the very conditions to the understanding of the work itself. [21]

Notes

6. "Immersence" Web Site, "Char Davies Bio," (http://www.immersence.com/biography/index.html).


7. C. Davies, "Changing Space: VR as an Arena of Being," (http://www.immersence.com/publications/char/1998-CD-Virtual_Dimension.html).


8. C. Davies, "Ephémère - Documentation," (http://www.immersence.com/ephemere/index.php).


21. A. Bureaud, "Review of Osmose," (http://mitpress.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/reviews/bureaudisea.html) [May 2007: Link not active]†


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: August 1st 2013.