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Virtual Realityand TechnologicalFrontiers The human thirstfor stimuliand current technologyis carryingus into renewed interestin “multi-media” and Virtual Reality. But tribal celebration,church ritual and earliesttheatre alwaysdemanded the best technical support. Our current emphasisis directed toward interactive and personalizedparticipation.This changein focusfrom audience ambience , as in opera, to individualenvelop ment, as in Walkman listening,is worthy of lengthy consideration,but not here. As I reported in one of the earliest issues of Leonurdo [13,I experimented with non-verbal,multi-mediacommunication using music and abstract light images.A composerfriend improvisedat a piano,while I improvisedusing a lumia instrument [2] that gave me wide control overluminouspatternsprojected within a TV-like box. We both were familiarwith our expressivemedia and decided to try integratingour experiences . Each of us clearlyresponded and engaged the other’sartisticstatements, interchangingleading, followingand unison activities.Thisimmersion in a trulyvirtualrealityand alternativeform of communicationwas exhausting.I still remember our exhilarationwhen we agreeablycame to a conclusionand discussedour collaboration.Had a minicam been availablein those days,I could share the eventtoday. Unlike dance, it would have recorded rather exactly, except that the luminancerange would have been greater than video records. The point I wish to make, however, is the degree of involvementand intense concentration involved injust a short, 20minute experience. All artisticexpressionworth the effort generallydemandsconsiderable energy, focusof attention, and thought. If this future engagementof “VirtualReality”is as I imagine,the personalcommitment may actuallybe too strenuousand demanding. I wonder if we can manage in real time the complexityof synthesized sensualexperience.Now we have numbersof years to learn artistictechniquesin a singlefield-for instance, playinga musicalinstrument successfully .Whatwill be the requiremenu when we experiencean unexplored realm of several senses?Granted, the computer will be delegatedto manage most of the details,but should there not be concern for the degree of commitment,and immersion,and mental safety of the venturer ?We are no longer imaginingan arcade game. This is an episode of life. Are we readyforwhatwe propose to do? Dance, magic and mime have applied technologiesin interestingways; their essentialfeaturesresist a syntheticenvironment . Even the newest marvelsof animationfor public consumption,however entertaining, sufferfrom a detachment that the directnessof a human presence overcomes.Indeed, we have advancedconsiderablyin our viewing of sports,with minicamsinstalled even in the net for tennis. But the essential human aspectsremain unchanged, however improvedby advancesin training and equipment. In fact, the “essential space”or “form”that Virtual Realitywill encompassbrings to mind the questions raised by SuzanneLanger: T h e a r t sare defined by their primary apparitions” [S].We have barelybecome adroit using and understanding the functionsof single art formswe have been workingwith for centuries. Now we propose to launch ourselvesinto virtual constructswith minimalbasicunderstanding. Pessimistic as this sounds,I must admit to being one of the first to travel within this syntheticspace. Subsequent to my report on color-stereodisplays [4], the Ivan Sutherlandgroup with which I wasworking produced a head-mounted display and head tracker. Thus the computer displayeda room, primitively and with a fewlines, and one could look around in it, or from outsideit. One put on a snugly fittinghelmet with two video displays mounted over the ears that were viewed with opticsin front of the eyes. One could partially see the real world through the opticsaswell. The computer displays, in stereoviewing, produced images that appeared with depth, limited at the time to simple stickfigures. The helmet was attached to the room ceilingby a telescopingshaft, and six encoders communicatedto the computer the participant’shead position in space.First one designed the world to explore,then as the computer calculated the head position, the appropriate view was displayed.In those days the computerwas hard pressed to stabilize the few linesindicatinga room with door and windows. Interestinglythe flawsin correctingfor head motion were easily ignored in enjoyingthe view of a room that seemed to float in space.The only dangerousaspectof thisVirtual Realitywas the voltage in the cable leading to the displays on the helmet. The imagined realitywas simple and hardly taxed the sensesor imagination.It was a start,and these dayswe continuewith primitiveexperimentsusingvastly improvedhardware.As with all innovation , the people using it have improved and developed the least. rience continuesboth with opticaland computer-supportedtechnology.Yet I wonder,whateverhappened to our imaginationsfor recreationalrelease?A recent exhibitof Dutch seventeenthKentury art, “PleasantPlaces,”confirmsmy...


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pp. 179-180
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