Virtual Reality 1.0 and Immersion: Char Davies's Osmose

While VR as a technical medium had its origins in Ivan Sutherland’s work in the 1960s and its commercial origins in VPL’s headsets in the 1980s, as an artistic and production medium, it didn't really take off until the 1990s. This was partly technological: rendering a 3D visual world for 360-degree headset-based surround-viewing demonstrably required considerable computing power, something most individuals and organisations could not even dream of in the 1980s and 1990s. It took a concerted effort from institutes such as the Banff Centre for the Arts with their "Art and Virtual Environments" programme to get VR projects built. The Banff Centre used a Silicon Graphics Onyx Computer in the mid-1990s to produce a number of VR projects. These were primarily built using Montreal's Softimage 3D software.[37]

One of the co-founders of Softimage was Canadian digital artist Char Davies:

Originally a painter, Davies transitioned to digital media in the mid-1980s when she began exploring 3D computer imaging as a means of going “beyond*’ the 2D picture plane. In 1987 she became a founding director of the 3D software company Softimage, whose intuitive design philosophy arguably reconfigured the computer graphics industry. . . . During her ten years at the company . . . Davies began adapting its software for her own artistic purposes. [38]

Davies' Osmose from 1995 (see Figure 13.6) was one of the first successful VR installations, and to this day it endures as one of the few genuinely classic works from the first generation of VR in the 1990s. Osmose has a unique visual approach, which reflects Davies’ background as a painter: quasi-abstract natural and organic worlds (such as the forest in Figure 13.6) are semi-translucently rendered in an almost mystical reimagining of the natural world. Interaction is achieved by means of a unique breathing/balance chest interface (see the right image in Figure 13.6). This interface was influenced by Davies’s experience as a scuba diver: “Through use of their own breath and balance, immersants are able to journey anywhere within these worlds as well as hover in the ambiguous transition areas in between.” [39]

Left: Char Davies, Tree Pond, from Osmose, (1995). Digital still cpatured in real time through head-mounted display (HMD) during a live performance of immersive virtual environment Osmose. Right: Char Davies. Immersant wearing a stereoscopic HMD and breathing/balance interface vest (1995). Used by permission. Source: Tanya das Neves, managing director of Immersence Inc. and assistant to the artist.

As the video documentation [40] shows, the user floats through the natural world, in a sense transcending the limits of their physical reality, with the headset imagery providing a magic-realist immersion in a way that could not have been imagined or realised without both the 3D software of Softimage and the helmet interface. In short, Osmose presents one of the deepest, most profound experiences of total immersion in a virtual environment. Users reported an almost ecstatic reaction to it as an experience:

Based on responses from approximately 25,000 individuals who have been immersed in Osmose since the summer of 1995, the after-effect of immersion in Osmose can be quite profound. Immersants often feel as if they have rediscovered an aspect of themselves, of being alive in the world, which they had forgotten, an experience which many find surprising, and some very emotional. [41]

The complexity and visual richness of Osmose was extremely difficult to replicate in other works (though Davies did complete one follow-up VR project Ephemere). It is worth mentioning that the production team for Osmose was quite substantial and required deep programming knowledge from the developers, in contrast to present-day VR projects, which can be put together by single individuals or small teams who are conversant with 3D software such as Unity. First-generation VR suffered from this need for deep programming expertise, as well as the expense of the computing requirements needed to run the projects. By the late 1990s VR seemed like a dead end that couldn’t be achieved on any kind of mass scale and therefore was open to charges of elitism. It took another 10 to 15 years before cheaper devices such as the HTC Vive and Oculus Quest brought VR back as a possible medium for immersion.



37. See the following for more information on the Banff Centre’s "Art and Virtual Environments" programme: Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments, edited by Mary Anne Moser and Douglas MacLeod (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).
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38. Char Davies, Char Davies Artist Biography, www.immersence.com/biography/
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39. Char Davies, Osmose, 1995, www.immersence.com/osmose/.
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40. Char Davies, Osmose (1995) - Mini-documentary - 33 min, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsT59fp8LpY.
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41. Char Davies, Osmose, 1995, www.immersence.com/osmose/.
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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: feb 20th, 2024.