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Virtual Ecology

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 VR5and Wild Palms, and in films fromVirtuosityto 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 are rendered 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. And most of the virtual "worlds" created thus far have been decidedly macho, replete with gunfights, high-speed chases, and luscious babes.

One exception is Char Davies, a Canadian artist, who last year unveiled an extraordinary new virtual reality world she calls Osmose. It's produced by Softimage, the software company where she is director of visual research. 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.

Davies' aim with Osmose is 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 solve or mysteries to piece together.

Instead, one is transported to a luminous, multilayered landscape centered around a virtual forest. The user - Davies likes to use the term "immersant" - wanders among stands of softly glowing, semitransparent 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.

Osmose's interconnected "worlds" are each identified with a simple description: the Grid, the Clearing, the Forest, the Subterranean World, and so on. 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.

Rx for the Cartesian splitPhilosophically, Davies says, Osmose is 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 sharp-edged clarity of geometry dissolves into the nonlinearity of a softly glowing forest.

Davies feels a deep antipathy for the Cartesian ideology and for aesthetics that dominate both the virtual reality community and most of the computer entertainment industry. In the 17th century, RenvÖ¬O Descartes posited a strict separation between the realm of human consciousness and the natural world. 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. Davies wanted to heal the Cartesian split between mind and body, subject and object.

In many virtual reality projects, the human subject is reduced to an isolated and disembodied being maneuvering in empty space. "Cyberspace is the epitome of Cartesian desire, for it enables us to create worlds where we have total control," where we can "transcend the limitations of our physical surroundings," she notes. "The long-term effect of this may be to seduce us away from our bodies and nature."

Leaning into cyberspaceOne of the ways Davies attempts to transcend this dualism is by bringing the body into cyberspace. In Osmose, it is the user's balance and breath that controls his or her journey. Instead of clutching a joystick, the immersant wears a lightweight chest harness fitted with sensors. When one leans forward, one also moves forward virtually. Vertical motion is controlled by breath: to move up, one breathes in; to descend, one breathes out.

Technically speaking, most virtual worlds are created using the same kinds of mathematical techniques pioneered by the Renaissance perspective painters - geometry rules supreme. The effect is hard, clean, antiseptic. With Osmose, Davies was determined to create nothing less than an alternative metaphysics. Instead of building out of polygons, she uses points of light and translucent semi-transparent textures, which imparts to everything a soft-edged phosphorescence.

Last fall, Davies and Softimage brought Osmose to the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York, where it attracted large, captivated crowds. The gallery installation consisted of a Silicon Graphics Onyx workstation, a virtual reality helmet, the chest harness, and a huge stereoscopic video projector. 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. When one passes from the Forest into the Leaf world - by exhaling in order to descend into the mass of leaves at one's feet - the main forest scene slowly fades and one's field of vision gradually fills with large, luminous leaves in soft hues, 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. 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. At the top there is Text World, a sort of heavenly void filled with passages from Heidegger, Rilke, Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Gaston Bachelard, and others in which each explores issues of nature, the body, and technology itself. Interspersed with these texts are some of Davies' own writings.

According to Davies, these two worlds are 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.

Given its complexity, it's surprising to learn that Osmose was designed, modeled, and rendered by just three people - Davies, software developer John Harrison, and animator Georges Maurovɇֆ- in only a year, after Davies had spent six months planning the work. Sound designer Dorota Blaszczak and composer Rick Bidlack created the aural environment.

Davies is in the rare position of being both an outsider and an insider of the computer graphics industry. Her background is in painting and film and 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 1986 by Daniel Langlois, makes software used to create advanced 3-D animation; its products were used in the production of such films as The Mask, Jumanji, and Jurassic Park.

Davies, Harrison, and Mauro are beginning work at Softimage on a new virtual environment, one that will include a gentle kind of interaction between the immersant and the virtual world, which she calls "inter-responsivity." Like Osmose, this new work will be an organically inspired universe, a world in which 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 vÉ‚Äùbe.'"

Margaret Wertheim is currently writing The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, to be published by WW Norton. This article is reprinted from Metropolis Magazine.

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