While a graduate student at MIT in 1979, the artist Michael Naimark collaborated on the Aspen Movie Map, the navigable laserdisc tour through Aspen, Colorado. Using a touch screen monitor and interactive display, the viewer navigates the streets of Aspen, exploring the environment virtually by controlling the direction and speed of the video. The Aspen Movie Map was Naimark's first exploration into what he refers to as "surrogate travel," in which the viewer is transported virtually to another place. Naimark's research opened up new interest in virtual forms of navigation in real or imagined places, in which the possibilities for nonlinear storytelling and interactive experience might alter our perception of time and space.
The video artist Bill Viola has been concerned with the idea of "dataspace" since the 1980s as a means to record cultural history in electronic or virtual space, inspired by the "memory palaces" of Greek temples and Gothic cathedrals. Viola compared these ancient architectural vessels of knowledge to the contemporary personal computer with its capacity for storage and instant-access retrieval of information. According to Viola, the symbolic ornamentation, paintings, and stained-glass windows of the European cathedrals might serve as a model for the branching pathways and hypermediated environments of computer-controlled video works, resulting in what he refers to as "idea space"—the conceptual basis for recent virtual reality applications that employ 3-D simulation of information space.
William Gibson coined the term cyberspace in his 1984 science fiction novel Neuromancer. By adding this term to contemporary vocabulary, Gibson gave literary meaning to the wires, hubs, networks, and computers that constitute the material manifestation of the more abstract virtual information space. Gibson foresaw a habitable, immersive terrain that would become a new environment for the staging of narratives concerned with the far-reaching possibilities of cyber activity. This reconstruction of the material world through the emerging information technologies would, in Gibson's terms, spark an age of the "posthuman," in which utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares are imagined and realized in digital form.
The computer scientist Pavel Curtis developed one of the first multiuser environments at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in the early 1990s, entitled LambdaMOO, and designed as a text-based virtual reality. The purpose of his research was to explore social phenomena in real-time virtual space—the forerunner of the chat room. Curtis's observation of social behavior in cyberspace is fundamental to our understanding of the sociological implications of communications in virtual reality. His research also explored the new paradigms of anonymity, the fluidity of multiple identity creation, and the extensibility of world building in digital spaces, and how they might come to transform social interaction.
Marcos Novak, a digital architect, describes his 3-D designs as "liquid architectures," digital spaces that are composed to virtually situate the viewer into complex "fourth-dimensional" environments. He has conceived of these immersive spaces as "navigable music" and "habitable cinema," with their allusion to musical and narrative forms. Novak poetically describes his research: "liquid architectures … is an architecture without doors and hallways, where the next room is always where I need it to be and what I need it to be" (p. 259). In Novak's renderings, architecture need no longer be experienced as a fixed or finite space, but rather engages the viewer in the interactive, fluid, and transformational properties of digital media. He has created a vocabulary and set of paradigms for future architects who will no longer work within the physical constraints of solid materials.
In 1993, Virtual Reality: An Emerging Medium opened at the SOHO Guggenheim Museum in New York City, one of the first exhibitions to investigate new artistic directions in virtual reality. The show featured two virtual worlds by Jenny Holzer. The first, The Lost Ones, was inspired by one of Samuel Beckett's short stories. The second, Bosnia, offered a response to the violence against women in the Bosnian war. The observer enters and discovers a vast patterned desert of striking color: bright orange earth and deep blue sky. As one travels across the landscape, one reaches villages with block huts. Each hut harbors a different voice, and each village has a different story to tell. Bosnia points to a form of interactive storytelling in which the viewer virtually enters into and inhabits the "narrative space," where the narrative unfolds according to viewer's interactions.
The multimedia artist Laurie Anderson created large-scale theatrical works during the 1980s that integrated dance, music, performance art, and technology. In 1995 she explored the interactive medium, creating the CD-ROM Puppet Motel as a nonlinear sequence of scenes and vignettes based on previous theater pieces. Puppet Motel is a new form of performance art that takes place on the virtual stage of the computer desktop; the audience becomes the performer, controlling the flow of time and the movement of the narrative. Anderson's experimentation with interactive multimedia can be viewed as a new form of "digital Gesamtkunstwerk," in which the theatrical "fourth wall" dissolves; the fourth wall is the mechanism that traditionally separates the audience from the stage to preserve the illusion of the stage. Here the viewer enters into, inhabits, and interacts with objects in an illusionary world conceived as theater in digital space.
The artist Char Davies has explored new ways to interface with the technologies of virtual reality: the apparatus worn by an "immersant" in her work Osmose (1995), which includes a head-mounted display and harness, incorporates breath and movement as a means for navigating a sequence of virtual environments. The viewer uses body motion similar to the scuba diver to negotiate the floating, meditative worlds of the artwork—the contemplation of self, space, nature, and sound, has a powerful effect in the evocation of otherworldly conditions. As Davies describes her work, "The medium of 'immersive virtual space' or virtual reality … has intriguing potential as an arena for constructing metaphors about our existential being-in-the-world and for exploring consciousness as it is experienced subjectively, as it is felt" (p. 295). Osmose reveals the potential for virtual reality to transform the inner being, similar to the effects of drugs or meditation to induce mind-altering or "out-of-body" experience.
In viewing virtual reality's historical evolution and cultural impact, we see the timelessness and cyclical nature of human expression—from the dreams and representations as depicted in the prehistoric caves of Lascaux; to the totalizing experience of the Gesamtkunstwerk; to recent digital forms of immersive experience and altered states of consciousness. The Japanese curator Toshiharu Ito, describing conFiguring the CAVE, an immersive artworkcreated in 1997 by Jeffrey Shaw, Agnes Hegedues, Bernd Linterman, and Leslie Stück for the CAVE System at the InterCommunication Center (ICC) in Tokyo, Japan, refers to a fourth dimension that exists between the work and the viewer, a space in which the viewer's awareness and bodily experiences can be restructured and recreated.
In describing immersive forms, "we cannot," according to Margaret Morse, "fully anticipate what it means to experience that realm until we are inside." Virtual reality is experiential and sensory—one does not simply observe the object, one is the object. One is not merely a detached observer—one enters into and becomes part of the landscape. The medium of virtual reality functions as an extension of the self, a reconfiguration of identity, intellect, dreams, and memories—ultimately blurring the boundary between self and exterior, between the real and the imaginary.
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