Omni Chat:
Eileen Gunn,
Mary Anne Moser,
and Douglas MacLeod

Eileen Gunn: Hi! Welcome to Omni's E-Media. Our guests tonight are Mary Anne Moser and Doug MacLeod, two key people behind the legendary Art and Virtual Environments Project at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta. Their new book, "Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments," which they co-edited, is a collection of essays about virtual environments and descriptions of the environments that were created at Banff. This immensely ambitious project, something that may never be duplicated in its scope and intensity, took place at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta. It ran for several years in the early 1990s, culminating in a demonstration of eight artistic virtual environments presented at the Fourth International Conference on CyberSpace in 1994.

I'm particularly interested in having a lively conversation, so please don't be shy about joining in. I have some questions, to get the ball rolling, but please feel free to ask questions at any time. I've invited a few inquiring minds with an interest in virtual reality to join us and participate, and I hope all of you in the audience will join in too. (The session will be archived and available later.)

Maybe, Doug, we can just get started, and Mary Anne can join us when she shows up. What did you personally learn about the nature of virtual environments from the project?

Mary Anne Mosher: Glad to hear the project is now legendary!    
Douglas MacLeod: I learned that most of what we thought we knew about VR is rubbish. By this I mean that our preconceptions of photorealistic worlds that deny the body wasn't really what it's all about. I learned the importance of real architecture, real interactions and real art.    
Mary Anne Mosher: The Art and VR project began when VR was really quite hyped. At the end of two years, the bubble had certainly burst, and I think we were all ready to think about realms of representation that are a bit more satisfying for both producers and audiences.    
Tami Vining: Was the bubble burst, though, because the expectations were so high about what the technology would do, and it wasn't really creating a total environment, which would be new?    
Mary Anne Mosher: Yes, the expectations around the technology were certainly utopian. Although, having said that, much was and is possible. You just need to be able to pay the programmers!    
Eileen Gunn: How do these environments differ, in their relationship with the viewer, from equivalent books or movies? You could say that most art is about the creation of environments. So, Douglas, would you say that it's more like everything else than it's different?    
Douglas MacLeod: These works are different because they describe a new relationship between the artist and the viewer. The best ones are never linear like a book and it is possible that everyone who experiences an environment will experience it differently.

It has to be more like everything else to be successful - whether as art or as anything else. We keep forgetting to learn from the richness of our own cultural history.

Eileen Gunn: Is it more like an art installation? Though I experience books as virtual worlds (as a science fiction writer).    
Douglas MacLeod: I think that the word environment is a carefully chosen word. It's not an art installation, but rather just like my office is an environment that I am enpowered to change. A book is a virtual world but one that is less interactive.    
Mary Anne Mosher: In some ways the artworks explored new relationships with viewers, such Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland's use of the VR helmet and innovative dataglove (what did they name this technology they created?) But others relied on conventional modes, such as the gallery pieces, and some were screened almost like films in an installation setting.    
Eileen Gunn: What was unsatisfying about it or conversely, what was satisfying about creating the art?

Douglas, are you saying it was too avant-garde? I mean, to some extent Donkey Kong was abstract and unlike the things that came before it. Or are you talking about marketing people wanting something that's the same as everything else?

Mary Anne Mosher: I wasn't invovled in the creation in any way so I have to be careful. However, it seemed that some of the artists would have like to have taken their works further, but tim, resources and the limits of the technology inhibited it. So on that level it was in soem ways unsatisfying. Also, the limited audience for some of the pieces is an issue. But that is not unique to these VR artworks. I guess the other issue that continually came up in the discourse surrounding this project at the time was how our real material bodies were meant to be considered. Having said that, I think a lot of these questions have since been addressed, with the development of Web-based projects, and, as Doug mentioned, a certain contentment with the idea that our real bodies are not going to be written out of the story.    
Douglas MacLeod: MaryAnne is right. We should have done 4 projects instead of 9 and we could still be working on them. Jeffrey Shaw's work at the ZKM, for example, is constantly being refined.    
Douglas MacLeod: Whew. I'm responding to several questions at once to try to keep up with the flow. The Laurel/Strickland glove was called a Grippee. It wasn't that VR was too avant garde or that Donkey Kong was different, it's that in designing VR spaces and video games we seem to forget that people have been creating graphics and spaces for thousands of years and we ignore the very things that would make these places compelling. More than that we repeated the mistakes of the past.    
Eileen Gunn: Douglas: specifically, just what sort of things got ignored?    
Douglas MacLeod: The things that got ignored were all the basics: light, texture, color, the creation of shapes, the way people move through space, the way they interact with a space. It's too easy to blame these things on technical constraints. When someone like Marcos Novak (a real architect too) makes cyberspaces they are very compelling.    
Bill Humphries: Yes, it seems like we ignored some basic environments like how to put a bunch of engineers around a pump assembly so they can discuss, prod, take apart and modify it.    
Eileen Gunn: Bill, are you talking about disembodied pump assemblies? That's an area rife with possibility.

Mary Anne, is the interest in a disembodied body a sign of the neophyte in virtual environments? In my own limited experience in virtual space, that's fascinated me. It might be that it's not a serious issue, but rather a distraction . . .?

Douglas MacLeod: I have to say in terms of the disembodied body, that wearing a helmet and glove and being tied up in wires made me more aware of my body than any other computer interface I have ever used.    
Tami Vining: When I visualize VR, if the technology were up to it, I wouldn't be aware of my body at all, and there would be a lot more sensory input that would take the place of or add to what I think of as body awareness.    
Mary Anne Mosher: Eileen, I would ask you, what about the experience of disembodiment fascinated you? I think that question is very interesting, for it seems to open questions about our culture at this moment in time. So on that level I find it fascinating. But in actual fact, because we are all inescapably flesh when it comes right down to it, the experience of disembodiment is only meaningful if you are embodied. So I would ask Tami, why do you want to diminish your perception of your material body? I think it would be an interesting experiment to find those thresholds, but it is worth asking what bigger questions it begs about our desire to leave the body behind....    
Tami Vining: No, not make body perception less but add to it. I think it would be richer, and possibly have more sensory input than we're used to thinking of body awareness right now.    
Katherine Enos: Since perception is mediated by the body, however, I'm not sure that calling "perception" those sensory impressions that come in another way would really work, at least not for me. Perhaps this is the problem I have with the idea of "virtual reality."    
Paul Novitski: I don't think that a desire to experience perception 'without a body' necessarily represents denial or aversion of corporeality, any more than the desire to journey represents an aversion to home. It's both pleasurable and informative to leave home -- and doesn't obviate returning again. Who was it who said that you can't think until you learn a second language?    
Eileen Gunn: That's an interesting point, Paul.    
Bill Humphries: MaryAnne -- is it disembodiment or changing the way we interact. When I think of a William Gibson notion of Cyberspace, flying and swooping and changing focus and scale rapidly that doesn't necessarly involve disembodiment, just a change in the body.    
Mary Anne Mosher: I agree with you Bill. Happily, much of the hype about leaving the body behind has disappeared and people don't seem very interested in that line of thinking anymore. You will recall that there was a lot of science fiction, upon which the VR hype was built way back when in the late 1980s/early 1990s, about downloading the brain and so on.    
Bill Humphries: There's a recent story that does talk an instance where downloading is a good idea in the January '98 Asimov's that might be relevant here: 'Approaching Perimelasma' by Geoff Landis. His narrator 'downloads' his consiousness so he can deal with the environment around a black hole.    
Eileen Gunn: What's the ZKM? Is that something that's available to be viewed?    
Douglas MacLeod: The ZKM is the Zentrum fur Kunst and Medientechnologie its in Karlsruhe, Germany. And its focus is Art and Media. Like Banff, it allows artists to have access to state of the art tools and equipment.    
Eileen Gunn: What was the creative process for developing the works? Were they all team efforts? Were the visiting artists already experienced in virtual environments in any way?    
Douglas MacLeod: Artists submitted proposals to the project. They were juried by a variety of experts. Some of the artists had VR experience; some didn't, but all understood the mechanics of interactive art. All the pieces were very much team projects. Many of the artists came to consider the modelers and programmers to be almost their peers in the process rather than technicians.    
Mary Anne Mosher: Doug is the person who oversaw all of the teams who worked on these projects. It appeared that all were intense team efforts. As we were collecting the acknowledgments for the book, every artist had a long list of thanks, and many of them were of the "would not have been possible without . . . " ilk. It is true. None of the works would have been possible without the patient programmers, and in some cases, gallery preparators, technology partners, etc.    
Paul Novitski: Hi; I'm curious to know if techniques were developed to surpass the single viewpoint or the uni-directional vision of a mundane human. . . that is, provide multiple simultaneous perspectives on one or more subjects, see 360 degrees at once, etc. Or were the experiences of the virtual environment visitor pretty much constrained by everyday human structural limitations?    
Douglas MacLeod: All of the works were limited by the constraints of our human vision. Laurel and Strickland did try some experiments with mapping enveloping environments all around the viewer, but these often had to be simplified in order to make them coherent. The only example I know of an artist tampering with perspective is Tamas Waliczky's The Garden produced at the ZKM in which he develops a circular perspective.    
Katherine Enos: As a virtual reality neophyte, i guess i'm curious about how virtual reality worlds could possibly convey with any adequacy the sense of touch.    
Eileen Gunn: The datagloves, for one thing, convey a sense of touch. And there are also data suits, though I don't know much about how often they've been used.    
Douglas MacLeod: The early experiments with touch are often just force feedback from a mechanical arm that won't, for example, let you push it through a wall or a molecule. Some more sophisticated work has been done with a mass of tiny needle like structures that by pushing against the skin in different patterns can give the illusion of different textures.    
Eileen Gunn: What did the artists have to learn, not to make each other physically sick, experimenting with circular perspectives?    
Katherine Enos Andrew Davidhazy of RIT did photographic work with circular cameras and cameras which would move around the subject. To make a good exposure the subject had to tolerate being very slowly spun around on a stool. Some of his peripheral and circular images can be found at pomegranates webzine,    
Ellen Datlow: When I was in London I was taken to a "virtual reality" type ride" that worked very nicely, in a very primitive way. It was kind of like I-Max, I guess. A darkened theater where you sit in seats that move a bit and "you" are put into the position of "being" a human pinball. I can see that kind of ride could be made even more real using other senses than balance and perspective -- smell, touch, etc. It's all a question of fooling our normal sense perception.    
Douglas MacLeod: Getting sick in VR is often a problem of frame rate. 6 to 10 frames per second is called the Barfogenic Zone. The Garden piece was actually an animation so it wasn't actually immersive. We should remember however that perspective isn't the only means of 3D representation. There are also axonometrics and isometrics.    
Eileen Gunn: Mary Anne, the project I was working on was a VR air-combat game. And I liked the idea of removing the airplane and just swooping around in the air. I guess it's just an enjoyment of flying -- I'm not one of those people who has dreams about flying....    
Mary Anne Mosher: Doug, how do haptic interfaces work to convey a sense of touch? Are you up on those?    
Douglas MacLeod: Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but most haptic devices I have seen are really just force feedback things that convey (or restrict) a sense of movement but not texture.    
Mary Anne Mosher: I agree, enhancing, and playing with, the senses is enjoyable in and of itself.    
Douglas MacLeod: I wanted to return to an earlier point. One of the peculiar things about VR is that to a great extent it is repeating both the rhetoric and the dogmatic approach of Modern Architecture. CAD packages - which really are still the basis of VR - really do just mimic modern architecture which proved itself to be a rather miserable approach to making liveable cities.    
Andy Duncan: Good point about the somewhat soulless quality of much VR "architecture." Do we risk designing ever more sophisticated virtual environments that are too inhuman to "live" in -- like La Defense in Paris, or the city Nehru had Le Corbusier design in India?    
Tami Vining: I've been to a movie with just the sense of smell added and it greatly enhanced the environment I was used to experiencing in a theater.    
Eileen Gunn: Was that the John Waters movie, Tami?    
Bill Humphries: Tami, you know, I always thought deep space battles smelt like popcorn. *grin*    
Tami Vining: Yes, that was one. At the Seattle Film Festival here they experiment sometimes. The first time was at the screening for the rose and the smell of roses came through the air system for the opening credits. Another one, the director actually stood up there and fried garlic for the opening.    
Katherine Enos: I'm charmed by the idea of the director personally frying garlic before each screening! Maybe Jim Cameron should be present at each "Titanic" screening, to squirt water on the audience personally. Seriously, though: Even if John Waters' "Smell-O-Vision" and other such film gimmicks -- Sensurround, William Castle's "Tingler," etc. -- had worked extraordinarily well and convincingly, would those techniques have become accepted practice?

Continuing the thought: Would engaging sense perceptions such as smell and touch (in a VR sort of way) have been accepted by filmmakers and by audiences as a standard component of the cinema experience? Or does cinema (and television), for us, "mean" only sight and sound, so that new innovations don't "read"? And is this a potential psychological obstacle for VR artists to overcome: The tendency to "read" these things as "movies plus"

Eileen Gunn: We've only got a few minutes left, so I'd like our guests -- who are probably typing furiously as I say this -- to say something about their favorite aspect of the entire project; what did they each get out of it that they enjoyed most?    
Douglas MacLeod: My favourite aspect of the project was that we didn't know what we were doing. Every time something actually worked it was a delightful surprise. I remember when Dorota Blaszck, our audio programmer, added stereo sound to Lawrence Paul's piece, Inherent Rights, Vision Rights, it was a revalation to me because it made the piece so much more powerful.    
Doug (or Mary Anne), could you please describe some of those other architectural models that could be premises for alternative Vrs? (Or, since we're out of time, could you mention some of those architectures, references for us to follow?)    
Eileen Gunn: Paul, I think we're pretty much out of time. If Doug has a chance to answer, he's welcome to. But he's been typing his fingers to the bone.    
Douglas MacLeod: There may not be space or time here to describe all the new architectural models, but you might see if the San Diego Super Computer Center still has "In the Bag" by Marc Friederickson or contact Marcos Novak at UCLA's School of Architecture or visit the ZKM's web site (sorry I don't have the URL).    
Mary Anne Mosher: Thank you. I'll be thinking of all the things I didn't fully explain or have a chance to say! Seduction medium that way, no?    
Eileen Gunn: Thank you all, Mary Anne & Douglas, participants, and viewers, for joining E-Media tonight.    
Tami Vining: 'Bye. And thanks Eileen.    
Douglas MacLeod: Goodnight everyone, and thank you, Eileen, for providing excellent moderation.    
Bill Humphries: 'night all. thanks -- been interesting and I'm digging into the literature now.    
Andy Duncan: I'll try to come in on time next time! Thanks, all.    
Eileen Gunn: Thank you, Doug. Goodnight, everyone!    
This interview was conducted on Omni Online December 15, 1997
Copyright 1997, Eileen Gunn