By 15,000 B.C.E. Cro-Magnon had evolved with a brain capable of modern intelligence. With this new intelligence, artistic renderings were installed deep in subterranean grottos in the Dordogne region of southern France, in caves such as the well-known Lascaux. This birth of drawing and painting was among the first attempts at representation, in the modern sense of the word, in which animal figures (bison, reindeer, horses) and coded shamanist scrawls and motifs were brought to life on the walls of the caves. This recreation of both the external world of nature and the inner world of magic in the immersive space and controlled atmospheric conditions of the underground cavern was an early attempt at artistic expression for the purpose of the preservation of culture. Here, in the prehistoric caves, the human concept of virtual reality began with the multisensory, totalizing experience that engaged sight, sound, smell, and touch—the first conscious virtualization of the physical world.
The Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, one of the greatest of the European Gothic cathedrals, was built in central France beginning in the late twelfth century. With its magnificent rose windows and stained glass, resonant chambers, vaulted ceilings, and sacred labyrinth, the sanctuary transposed the virtues of the church by transporting the individual through the experience of immersion. The cathedral served as an architectural canvas for the depiction of the scriptures, figures from the Old Testament, and the narrative of the Crucifixion, as told through the elements of light, sculpture, glass, sound, and stone. The enigmatic labyrinth inlaid on the floor of Chartres invites the viewer to navigate its complex pattern as a spiritual exercise. From the interior of the space, the great height of the cathedral evokes the ascent of heaven. The immersive and totalizing depiction of religious life invites the visitor to consider virtual reality as a mystical realization and transformation from the material to the immateriality of human existence.
German composer Richard Wagner's (1813–1883) Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), as implemented at the Festpielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, in 1876, illuminates our understanding of the artistic impulse behind the creation of virtual worlds as it corresponds to the theatrical environment. Wagner understood the power of virtualization through music theater, and he mastered techniques of sensory immersion in order to heighten the audience experience of the "suspension of disbelief." The composer employed a powerful articulation of this age-old theatrical device to render stage action "believable," which has been used as long as humanity has employed the artifice of live performance to represent, recreate, and transform reality—transcending the notion of the sole possibility of the things that "are," replacing them with what "might be." Wagner used the mechanisms of the theater, as the computer would be used in the early twenty-first century, to transport the viewer's mind, emotion, and senses to an otherworldly virtualization where reality is reconfigured. As he stated in his essay "Artwork of the Future," "the spectator transplants himself upon the stage, by means of all his visual and aural faculties." This illustrates Wagner's desire to construct a totalizing experience through the narrative of music drama, one that fully engages the viewer's consciousness. The composer's invention of such theatrical devices as darkening the house, hiding the musicians in the orchestra pit, and reintroducing Greek amphitheatrical seating to orient audience perspective directly to the stage all contributed to the powerful illusion that takes place within the frame or "interface" of the proscenium arch—the portal to the imaginary space of the theatrical stage.
In the late 1940s, MIT scientist Norbert Wiener founded the field of cybernetics (derived from the Greek word for "steersman," or "governor") to explore the sociological impact of communications between human and machine. This research is critical to an understanding of the impact of virtual reality, as Wiener opened the door to the study of human relationship to technology and the cyberborgian (cybernetic organism) nature of the symbiosis of the two. Wiener describes an increasingly technological society reliant on machines, and he explains how the nature of those interactions affects the quality of life. The design of virtual reality technologies that extend our reach, such as tele-robotic devices (the control of robots at a distance), is informed by Wiener's research in cybernetics and his concern with the nature of sending messages and the reciprocal feedback inherent in those systems.
The virtualization of reality and the simulation of human consciousness by engaging the full range of the viewer's sensory mechanisms is illustrated by cinematographer Morton Heilig's claim in the 1950s that the cinema of the future—a medium already transformed by such innovations as the panoramic perspective of Cinerama—would "no longer be a 'visual art,' but an art of consciousness … [a] simulation so lifelike that it gives the spectator the sensation of being physically in the scene" (p. 250; emphasis in original). The experience of "being there" has since been a paramount quest in the development of virtual reality. Heilig's Sensorama, for example, a nickolodeon-style arcade prototyped in the 1960s, immersed the viewer in a multisensory excursion through the streets of Brooklyn that engaged all the senses through the synchronization of media using the technology of film.
In the mid-1960s, the engineer Douglas Engelbart conducted critical research at the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute, which resulted in the invention of the computer mouse, hypertext, and other interactive information technologies. For the first time, one could virtually navigate information space as an alternative to the linear methods of earlier forms of computing. The mouse pointer (cursor) and keyboard in conjunction with the visual display extended the intellectual reach of the individual. Engelbart believed that this intuitive and cybernetic approach to information processing would lead to the "augmentation of human intellect," by engaging the individual in new methodologies of complex problem solving, far beyond the scope of previous tools.
Computer graphics specialist Ivan Sutherland, the first scientist to bring real-time graphics simulation to the computer screen, advanced the possibilities of reality construction, claiming, "the ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter … a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal" (p. 256). At the University of Utah in 1970, Sutherland introduced the first head-mounted display (miniaturized graphics display) that enabled the superimposition of low-resolution computer graphics in the physical environment. Expressing the spirit of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Sutherland believed in a new mathematical wonderland that transformed the abstract nature of mathematical constructions into virtual objects and imaginary worlds.
The defining development in virtual reality was carried out in the late 1980s at the NASA-Ames Research Center in northern California by the artist and scientist Scott Fisher, who sought to render virtual worlds even more closely coupled to our sensory mechanisms. Fisher oversaw the creation of the VIEW system (Virtual Interactive Environment Workstation), the first virtual reality (VR) system that integrated the head-mounted display, dataglove (sensing device worn as a glove), voice recognition, and three-dimensional (3-D) audio, which enables the listener to experience the location and movement of specific sounds more realistically than the two-dimensional stereo field of left to right. As a result of this research, Fisher established the field of telepresence, in which one could virtually transport oneself to another place, real or imaginary, experiencing remote spaces and controlling objects at a distance. According to Fisher, virtual reality's potential was now as limitless as reality itself.
In the early 1990s, Daniel Sandin, along with his colleagues Thomas DeFanti and Carolina Cruz-Neira, developed the CAVE System (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) to project interactive, computer-generated 3-D imagery and audio into a physical space defined by multiple projection screens and a surround-sound system. The immersive nature of CAVE was intended as an allusion to Plato's Cave, evoking the shadowy presence of the representation of reality. The CAVE System also returns full circle to the earliest attempts at virtualization and multisensory experience, as practiced in the prehistoric caves of Lascaux, seventeen thousand years earlier.
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