Produced by Softimage in Montréal, 1994-1995, Osmose was an immersive, virtual environment utilizing 3D computer graphics and interactive 3D sound, a head-mounted display and real-time motion tracking based on breathing and balance.
What is Osmose
” …By changing space, by leaving the space of one’s usual sensibilities, one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating. For we do not change place, we change our nature.”
–Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1964 Clearing with Tree
Created by a team led by artist Char Davies, Director of Visual Research at Softimage (Montréal), Osmose is a space for exploring the perceptual interplay between self and world, i.e. a place for facilitating awareness of one’s own self as embodied consciousness in enveloping space. This work challenges conventional approaches to virtual reality and explores what Davies believes to be the most intriguing aspect of the medium, namely its capacity to allow us to explore what it means, essentially, to “be-in-the-world”.
Immersion in Osmose begins with the donning of the head-mounted display and motion-tracking vest. The first virtual space encountered is a three-dimensional Cartesian Grid which functions as an orientation space. With the immersant’s first breaths, the grid gives way to a clearing in a forest. There are a dozen world-spaces in Osmose, most based on metaphorical aspects of nature. These include Clearing, Forest, Tree, Leaf, Cloud, Pond, Subterranean Earth, and Abyss. There is also a substratum, Code, which contains much of the actual software used to create the work, and a superstratum, Text, a space consisting of quotes from the artist and excerpts of relevant texts on technology, the body and nature. Code and Text function as conceptual parentheses around the worlds within. Through use of their own breath and balance, immersants are able to journey anywhere within these worlds as well as hover in the ambiguous transition areas in between. After fifteen minutes of immersion, the LifeWorld appears and slowly but irretrievably recedes, bringing the session to an end.
In contrast to the hard-edged realism of conventional 3D computer graphics, the visual aesthetic of Osmose is soft, luminous and transparent, consisting of translucent textures and flowing particles. Figure/ground relationships are spatially ambiguous, and transitions between worlds are subtle and slow. This mode of representation serves to ‘evoke’ rather than illustrate and is derived from Davies’ previous work as a painter. The sounds (447K WAV) (1.8M AIFF) within Osmose are spatially multi-dimensional and have been designed to respond to changes in the immersant’s location, direction and speed: the source of their complexity is a sampling of a male and female voice.
The user-interface of Osmose is based on full-body immersion in 360 degree spherical, enveloping space, through use of a head mounted display. Solitude is a key aspect of the experience, as the artist’s goal is to connect the immersant not to others but to the depths of his or her own self. In contrast to interface techniques such as joysticks, Osmose incorporates the intuitive processes of breathing and balance as the primary means of navigating within the virtual world. By breathing in, the immersant is able to float upward, by breathing out, to fall, and by subtlely altering the body’s centre of balance, to change direction, a method inspired by the scuba diving practice of buoyancy control. The experience of being spatially-enveloped, of floating rather than flying or driving is key. Whereas in conventional VR, the body is often reduced to little more than a probing hand and roving eye, immersion in Osmose depends on the body’s most essential living act, that of breath — not only to navigate, but more importantly — to attain a particular state-of-being within the virtual world. In this state, usually achieved within ten minutes of immersion, most immersants experience a shift of awareness in which the urge for action is replaced by contemplative free-fall. Being supercedes doing.
Based on the responses of several thousand individuals who have been immersed in Osmose since the summer of 1995, the after-effect of immersion in Osmose can be quite profound. Many individuals feel as if they have rediscovered an aspect of themselves, of being alive in the world, which they had forgotten, the experiencing of which they find to be very emotional, leading some to even weep after immersion. Such response has confirmed the artist’s belief that traditional interface boundaries between machine and human can be transcended even while re-affirming our corporeality, and that Cartesian notions of space as well as illustrative realism can effectively be replaced by more evocative alternatives. Immersive virtual space, when stripped of its conventions, can provide an intriguing spatio-temporal context in which to explore the self’s subjective experience of “being-in-the-world” — as embodied consciousness in an enveloping space where boundaries between inner/outer, and mind/body dissolve.
The public installation of Osmose includes large-scale stereoscopic video and audio projection of imagery and sound transmitted in real-time from the point-of-view of the individual in immersion (the “immersant”): this projection enables an audience, wearing polarizing glasses, to witness each immersive journey as it unfolds. Although immersion takes place in a private area, a translucent screen equal in size to the video screen enables the audience to observe the body gestures of the immersant as a poetic shadow-silhouette.
Charlotte.Davies: Concept and direction
Georges.Mauro: Creation of graphics
John.Harrison: Virtual Reality software programming
D.Blaszczak: Sound design and programming
email@example.com: Music composition and programming