My first visit to virtual reality (a cartoon-like ‘Virtual Seattle’ at VPL Labs in California a number of years ago) indicated that for me at least, the great attraction was not the lure of computer technology or of interface devices, which included a cumbersome helmet (‘eyephones’) which put little video monitors over my eyes; and, the coarsely rendered, neon-colored artificial world, in which I had the illusion of being immersed was not a convincing imitation of the physical Seattle, or for that matter, any other landscape which could possibly have drawn me in. The allure of this cyberscape was the impression that it was responsive to me, as if my gaze itself was creating (or performing) this world and that I was to some extent enunciating it according to my own desire. My most abiding memory was of exhilarating ability to fly through the artificial world at great speed simply by cocking my hand like a gun?’navigation’ is a poor term for this experience. Best of all, I had a sense of the weightlessness and super-power that I had imagined in childhood and had read about in myths and comic books, but had never before experienced, not even in my dreams. (My childhood friends in first and second grade and I tried fruitlessly to fly day after day by flapping blankets while jumping off walls and out of trees.) It is this feeling of transcendence of the mortal body and the gravity of earth that for me is a key to the desire and media attention which has been focused on ‘cyberspace’ and the subculture which has grown up around it.
In actuality, however, my field of view in the virtual world was constantly being reconstituted in ‘real time’ by a computer from a digital store through devices which tracked the position of my head and hand. (‘Simulator sickness’ and the disturbing experience of ‘lag’ between head-motion and image formation are clues to the inexact fit between a cyberscape and the body in physical space.) Despite its futuristic connotations, a ‘world’ like ‘Virtual Seattle’ belongs to the most traditional kind of virtual environment and may even be considered the last gasp of Renaissance space. However, the spectator’s station point is inside the projection of an image, transformed from a monocular and stationary point of view into mobile agency in a three-dimensional space. Of course, this visual three-dimensionality is supported by sound—the most potentially immersive and virtual medium of all. I was fascinated with being both in the picture
and having control over it—that is, I could chase a whale or follow restaurant sounds to the Space Needle landmark, whatever took my fancy, and when I got tired of it, I could tell the operator at the computer, ‘Give me another world!’
- Margaret Morse teaches criticism and theory of electronic culture at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She has published art criticism on work in a variety of genres from single-channel video, installations, media-architecture and interactive art to virtual environments. Her publications on electronic culture treat topics from news, sports, aerobics, and talk shows and television events like the Romanian Revolution and the Gulf War to malls, freeways, cyberspace and issues such as What Do Cyborgs Eat?
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