Traces is a project for networked CAVEs (immersive VR spaces). But it is very different in its goals and its nature from any other CAVE or VR project (to the knowledge of the author). The root of the project is a long standing concern over the disembodying quality of the VR experience, which stands in a stark contrast to the rhetoric around VR, which argues that the experience allows the user to interact in a bodily way with digital worlds. As I first argued in my essay Virtual Reality as the End of the Enlightenment Project (in Culture on the Brink Eds. Druckrey and Bender, Bay Books 1994), conventional HDM (Head Mounted Display) VR dissects the body, privileging visuality to the exclusion of bodily senses. The body is reduced to a single Cartesian point, the body is checked at the door.
When I first used a CAVE, I was fascinated with the visceral sensation of collision with virtual objects. I realised that part of the disembodying quality of HDM VR was because when you look down, your body is not there! In a CAVE, you see your body colliding with virtual objects. Because of my interest in the problem of embodiment, the CAVE became an attractive site to work in. But clearly only half the problem was solved, the user could experience virtual objects in a more bodily way, but the user was still reduced to a point from the perspective of the machine. Thus it became necessary to build an input system which described the entirety of the users’ body. After substantial research, we built a multi-camera vision system which constructs a realtime body model for the user. This body model is currently of a low spatial resolution, but of a high temporal resolution, the user experiences no “latency” or lag, between their movements and the virtual structures created.
In Traces, virtually all sound and visual experiences are generated in real time based on the users’ behavior. Unlike other VR projects, I have no interest here in illusionistic texture mapped models, the illusion of infinite virtual space or building “virtual worlds.” All attention is focused on the ongoing bodily behavior of the user.
Traces will be a telematic, networked experience. But creating an illusion of close proximity (like in the work of Paul Sermon) is not the goal. Rather, there is an emphasis on the highly technologically mediated nature of the communication. The users never see each other, only the highly mediated results of each others’ behavior. The user interacts with gossamer spatial traces which exhibit the dynamics and volumes of bodies, but are translucent and ephemeral.
Collaborators: Andre Bernhardt, Jeffrey Smith, Jamie Schulte and Phoebe Sengers.
Traces is developed with the support of GMD as the Cyberstar winning project and the support of Carnegie Mellon University.