3-D epiphany

Forget cyberpunk: Char Davies is remaking virtual reality along human lines.

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I find myself among the stars. As I exhale and fall, the sky goes gray, then bright — heavens lost against a light that softens and leaves me within a brush stroke forest, among simple, almost calligraphic forms, the trunks of trees that seem to rise into forever. Those stars, like snow, leave the heights and drift down.

I have been here before; in the winters of a New England childhood, amid the crowded thin trunks, the endless oaks of the forest beyond my home.

A stream, black and quick, runs from behind to beyond, and I flow into it, bobbing gently. While I should seize the moment and explore this new world, I am content to relax, and breathe, and watch the moon glide against the sky …

The water softens; its reflections turn from white to a robin’s-egg blue and, gently, other colors appear. The forest floor loses its frosting of snow and becomes a pulsating carpet in yellow and violet, the trees a riot of early, bright leaves — as if Monet’s God has been loosed in this world and paints its spring.


Throw away your preconceived notions of virtual reality. Trash all of the adolescent fantasies of violence and disembodiment of William Gibson, the hormone-charged visions of Neal Stephenson and the weakling efforts of a hundred cyberpunk imitators. With the recent premier of “Iphimhre” at the National Gallery of Canada, Char Davies has redefined our place in cyberspace, and made the virtual world seem more human than our own.

Not that this was entirely unexpected. As a visual artist almost alone in a world of scientists and mathematicians, the Toronto-born Davies has been on a decade-long mission to wipe the slate of the hard-edged black-and-neon engineering-as-aesthetic that everyone associates with virtual reality (think “Tron,” or “Johnny Mnemonic”). With a painter’s sensibility, Davies has aggressively pursued a single goal: the presentation of an ambiguous vision using that most precise of modern palettes, computer graphics, bringing the body into cyberspace with an interface driven by breath and balance.

Such paradoxical efforts define Davies. A former Marxist who traveled to Deng-era China, she’s now a software millionaire. As a painter amid engineers, she explored their code to find expression of her own aesthetic sensibilities; and, although she’s the outstanding auteur of the virtual world, she spends most of her time in the gentle woods of southeastern Quebec. Without Davies’ constant influence, computer graphics would likely look a lot less natural, incapable of expressing the richness we associate with the living, organic world.



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To understand how “Éphémère” came to be, we need to recap the brief history of computer graphics. In the late 1980s, Davies set aside her career as a painter to become a founding director and vice-president of Montreal’s Softimage — the first company to produce software to create 3-D computer graphics without intense programming. Davies wore many hats at the fledgling start-up — wrote the manuals, led its first marketing efforts, got the investors lined up — but never left her sensibilities as a visual artist behind.

Once the programmers showed her how a light could be used to illuminate a virtual object, she asked for a translucent object. Then she asked for multiple lights, and layers of translucency, and on and on and on. By the time it had satisfied Davies’ personal aesthetic, Softimage found itself the darling of the Hollywood studios in this newest age of movie spectaculars. Hardly a single graphics-heavy blockbuster has been produced without Softimage: “Titanic,” “Independence Day,” “Armageddon” all employed its tools. And one reason everything on screen looks so real is that — in the earliest days — an artist judged each effort against a private standard of visual fidelity.

As Softimage grew into a $100 million company, Davies stepped into a role both new and familiar; as vice president of visual research, she returned to art — now crafted with software rather than a canvas and oils — creating a landscape of personal iconography drawn from her long-developed aesthetic sense of light and color. Over four years, Davies designed a series of award-winning “lightboxes” — images that combined translucent organic forms with layers of light. “Yearning” (1993) looks most like a coral ice-form captured beneath a quiet, sunlit sea, more real — and more evocative — than any photograph, absolutely alive.

Frustrated with the limits of still imagery — which flattened her 3-D forms into 2-D photographs — and armed with a brand new palette, Davies set her sights on the then-emerging field of immersive real-time computer graphics, more commonly known as virtual reality. In the eight years following the founding of Softimage, computers had grown exponentially more powerful; the lightboxes could be transformed into enveloping environments, new worlds that could surround an individual in Davies’ expressive play of space and light.

This, however, she could not do alone, so she enlisted the assistance of programmer John Harrison (who has been the technical force behind most of the breakthrough work in immersive media) and 3-D designer Georges Mauro. In two years together, they critically examined and redesigned every part of the virtual experience.

Consider virtual reality as presented by that jolly elf Jaron Lanier in the late 1980s. A bulky, heavy visor — known as a head-mounted display (HMD) — cut participants off from the real world and dropped them into a world of simple, almost childlike forms. Devices tracked movement from both the HMD and one hand, dressed in a neoprene glove studded with sensors. By flexing the fingers, one could “point” to objects in the virtual world, or travel about. Although quite crude, this “classical” VR shocked the computer world into a new vision of what computing was for. (Remember, before the Web, VR had been the Next Big Thing.)

So where are our HMDs? Why aren’t we sticking our heads into cyberspace every day when we log onto the Web? Simply put: Most VR is very uncomfortable, unfriendly and, well, boring. Glowing, hard-edged objects burped up from a black void don’t interest people very much. They make for great fiction but bad business. By the time Davies got around to working in immersive virtual space, most people had given up on VR.

Davies continued to use the HMD, but she had already intuited a new, body-centered interface to cyberspace. While learning to scuba dive in the early ’90s, Davies discovered a joy that every diver knows: unbounded movement in all three dimensions, not just right/left and forward/backward, but up/down as well. Divers control their position precisely with subtle variations in their lung capacity. Breathe in, your lungs fill with lighter-than-water air and you rise; exhale, you become heavier, more dense, and sink.

Harrison and Mauro designed an apparatus that, when worn around the chest, tracked lung capacity. Henceforth, travel in immersive virtual space would be about floating, rising and falling, not pointing and clicking. The sensual impact of such a transition is profound: Each of us breathes, quite naturally, so a breath interface to an immersive virtual world is the easiest thing in the world to master — we’ve been doing it since we emerged from the womb.

But what would this new, breath-controlled space contain? As the interface moved toward completion, Davies focused on the content of the immersive space. Reaching back to a vision of 20 years before, Davies strove to re-create a moment of reverie in the Ontario farmland, when the land itself seemed to be inside her, a merging of the world outside and the universe within. During a year of intensive work, Mauro and Davies crafted 10 interconnected scenes, each of which portrayed another aspect of a natural world, centered around a glade with a single, massive, leafless tree. Every form in these spaces was to some degree transparent; each could be seen through another even as the immersant — Davies’ neologism for the participant in immersive virtual space — floated through.

“Osmose” (1995) premiered at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal to instant and near-universal acclaim. In the days immediately before the opening, Davies addressed the challenge of presenting the work in an exhibition environment. Immersants in “Osmose” found themselves transported to the world of Davies’ creation, and if left on their own, they’d remain there for upwards of an hour. But only one immersant could voyage at a time, so a 15-minute time limit had to be established. (Even then, only 30 people per day could fully experience the work.)

Davies added a coda to “Osmose,” a gentle conclusion during which the immersant slowly floats above and away from a fading world. Suddenly, people began to emerge from the work in tears, citing a similarity between this elegiac ending and near-death experiences; some wrote in the comment book that they were “no longer afraid of death.” Many reported an experience of the numinous. Somehow, something in “Osmose” — in Davies’ vision — had struck a deep chord in others. Davies had confronted a series of deaths in her family — and her own battle against life-threatening illness — in the years immediately preceding her work on “Osmose”; it represents, in her words, “longing, union and reconciliation.” Immersants put it more simply. One wrote, “I felt as though I was an angel.”

These near-religious reactions to “Osmose” caused quite a stir in the electronic arts community, and while most critics praised the groundbreaking nature and vision of the work, a few stepped forward to bash it as “too pretty.” One actually wondered why Davies’ hadn’t chosen the war in Bosnia for her subject material. Truthfully, “Osmose” overturned our expectation that electronic art must be dissonant, politically strident or all too theoretical. The public voted with its feet; when “Osmose” premiered on a cold December evening at the Rico-Maresca gallery in SoHo, the crowd waited in a block-long line just to get a glimpse of it. “Osmose” even garnered a segment on NBC’s “Today” show. Wherever it’s been shown, in London, Mexico or Montreal, it’s always been fully booked.

Davies had made her point; she’d overthrown the Cartesian, hard, masculine paradigm of visualization as science and substituted an “enveloping space” that could nurture the soul. “Osmose” is the French word for osmosis — to flow between — and in this world between the real and imagined, immersants found something within themselves.

After “Osmose,” Davies threw herself into a schedule of lectures and presentations, always letting the work speak for itself. If she has a political agenda in her work — beyond a revising of our expectations for immersive virtual space — it concerns the imminence of the natural world, and its accelerating disappearance. Davies worries that someday our only experience of the natural world will come in the synthetic form that she herself has pioneered; one of the paradoxes of “Osmose” is that it carries the seed of this danger.

After the end of 1996, Davies began to pull back from the public stage, to focus — one more time — upon her vision. “Osmose” had captured one possibility; many others remained open for exploration. In particular, “Osmose” never changed; it was almost a lightbox in space — still, quiet and reflective. Davies wanted to capture the cycle of nature, of all that is natural — trees, earth, bodies — and bring them into a continuity, illustrate their comings and goings as the only consistency. Harrison and Mauro had learned a lot from their work on “Osmose”– and, inexorably, the computers they used for their work had become even more powerful, more capable of expressing a rich, dynamic world.

“Éphémère” (1998) doesn’t begin where “Osmose” left off; Davies presents another vision entirely, a very painterly vision, which draws more from antique Chinese watercolors and Joseph Turner’s landscapes than from the brief history of computer graphics. Each form in “Éphémère” stands on its own as an object of beauty — the painter’s eye in cyberspace. And yet this work is no derivative collection or tour through art history; each form is a careful brush stroke in light, gently transparent, ambiguous, suggestive.

The work collects three separate environments into a unity: the landscape, which transforms itself through the seasons; the earth beneath it, with its Dali-esque rocks that vibrate and rumble tectonically; and, buried beneath the earth, a body — not necessarily a human body — of blood, sinew and bone. These spaces exist and evolve over a 15-minute visit; the forest passes through day and night and all the seasons; the earth moves, ever so slowly through subtle changes; the body beats and flows and eventually comes to dust.

Unlike a film, “Éphémère” responds to your presence in it; as you look at objects, or move toward them, they pulse, or sound, or transform your perception in seductive yet startling ways. The rocks within the landscape will — should you stare at them long enough — shine through with a vision of another landscape within them, which will then become the universe around you. The rocks in the soil slowly change into the pulsating organs of a body; the body’s streams of blood will curve around you; you can drop into this stream and follow it until it becomes a river through the forest. “Éphémère” invites you to participate in its beauty, to become part of it.

“Éphémère” is without question the most visually satisfying — and joyous — work of real-time computer graphics ever created; furthermore, it is one of the finest pieces of computer graphics, period. The use of light, of color, of transparency, of form, of sound, of motion: Each of these contribute to a whole unlike anything that has ever been imagined. Its subtle yet omnipresent interactivity produces a playfulness within immersants that leave them wanting more time inside it. Lots more. Each of the immersants I could interview felt as if they’d had just a taste of something vast and wonderful. I did, too. And “Éphémère” is quintessentially a nonverbal experience; people leave the HMD smiling, but unable to speak, in a reverie.

The interface in “Éphémère” uses breath and balance — as in “Osmose” — and its installation at the National Gallery of Canada does justice to both interface and content. The darkened exhibition space, close and black and almost womblike, opens to two panels, side by side: One displays the work as seen by the immersant, while the other is a shadowbox cameo of the immersant, gently illuminated. Immersants often strike graceful poses while floating though both “Osmose” and “Éphém&egravere”; the installation emphasizes the unconscious graces that this work brings out in ordinary people, and, while only 30 people can travel to the world of “Éphémère” on a single day, many more can watch and listen as they move through this singular vision of cyberspace.

Davies now plans to take a breath herself, as “Éphémère” begins a tour through museums around the world. She’s both satisfied with this latest painting in light and modestly surprised at the popularity of her work.

“Éphémère,” like “Osmose” before it, is a private vision of the ephemeral nature of being in the world. But Davies’ touchstone within has become something that all of us can grasp.

Mark Pesce is the co-inventor of VRML, the Virtual Reality Modeling Language. His next book, "The Playful World : How Technology is Transforming our Imagination," will be published by Ballantine Books in October.

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