Getting out of the box II

Chris Isaac Larnder

Part II of the introduction to the
November 2003 meeting of ACM SIGGRAPH Montreal

There’s more than one way of getting immersive environments "out of the box". One way, as we just discussed, is based on bringing the image out of the monitor and onto natural surfaces in the observer's real world. Another, more conceptual approach, involves choosing visual subject matter that relates closely to the viewer's immediate real-world surroundings. Workspace Unlimited founders Thomas Soetens and Kora Van den Bulcke have reproduced, in a 3D walkthrough environment, the very same building that we are currently sitting in. Visiting a reproduction of a building while physically present in the very same building overcomes, in a very particular way, the barrier between the observer's bodily space and that of the observed (computer-generated) space.

As you move through a virtual world built on these principles, you end up thinking about the real physical space you are in, which is exactly what the virtual one portrays: it is of the same form, and communicates the identical set of information. When you pause and look around you, the experience of the virtual world is not interrupted: you are simply examining details of the very same geometrical space, only from a different perspective! Body and view are kept together, united in a special type of immersive experience that is reminiscent of the self-referential drawings of Escher.

In both Dr. Roy's installation and that of Workspace Unlimited, the viewer’s sense of bodily presence does not detract from the experience, it is an integral part of it. Any sounds or movements in the real world do not contradict the experience, for the installation accommodates it in its basic premise. This principle is actually in direct contradiction to the basic underlying assumption of most “virtual reality” installations, which rely on reinforcing the separation between the real physical space that the viewer inhabits, and the imaginary space of the virtual world. The more viewers can forget their immediate real world, the more that the experience of the imaginary world becomes “immersive”. The experience is never complete, however, because there are always irritating little reminders of your bodily existence, such as an itchy leg, a sneeze, or a sound originating in the observer's "real" space.

There are always “better systems” under development, but the basic premise remains this complete denial of the “real-world” context in which the physical body exists. The logical conclusion to this approach would appear to consist in bypassing the body altogether, plugging the brain directly into the machine. At this point, whether the brain continues to be stored in the body or not becomes immaterial to the intended experience. A rather literal-minded resolution of the mind-body problem, I shudder to think what Descartes would have had to say about it..

Luckily, the “logical conclusion” just outlined is only one of many possible visions of the future. With the rise of early science and the Industrial Revolution came also the image of Frankenstein, reflecting the fears of pure reason developing without the guidance of the heart. In today’s ongoing Information Revolution, Frankenstein’s grandson is surely the image of the disembodied brain with wires protruding from it. Far-fetched, yes, but a number of philosophers have already used such a hypothetical image as a starting-point for exploring contemporary adjustments to the concepts of “identity” and “presence”. Recall also the work that Dr. Sawan presented to us already two years ago, in which an electronic radio receiver is implanted directly in the visual cortex of blind patients!

But we are getting a bit off-topic here. Before I get accused of fear-mongering or of reinforcing what are euphemistically referred to as “cultural barriers” to new technological programs, let us return to the subject at hand: Suffice it to say that both of the installations you will be visiting tonight can be thought of as evidence that there are alternative means of acheiving a sense of immersion other than by blocking out traditional bodily perceptions. In one case, it is a change in how the material is displayed; in the other, a special choice is made in what is displayed. Although neither of them would stave off any hypothetical cybernetic apocalypse, they certainly represent, for me, a healthy trend in which the dialogue between mind and body, although transformed, remains intact. The objective, in both projects, is to acheive a sense of immersion by removing the seperation between the observer's world and the world being observed, a goal that has been long recognized as a key element in many religious and artistic traditions throughout the world.