Notes On Immersion

Posted by Rhizome | Tue Mar 18th 1997 1 a.m.

Immersive computer generated environments are becoming the focus of much
attention and speculation. The range of form and content although quite
broad and interesting is still rather clunky. From cartoon like VRML
avatars to Quick Time VR photography to naturalistic metaphors such as
the one produced by Char Davies there's a lot of focus around form. It
seems that what a viewer/interfacer gains from engaging in an immersive
environment is not even considered. [...]

Immersion in an environment has been around for a long time. It seems to
be a natural function of human art, architecture and symbolic
development. 30,000 years ago the cave painters created immersive
environments. Imagine crawling one hundred feet into the ground to get
to one of the chambers where the caverns opened up to a large expanse of
painted glyphs. The artists who painted the glyphs knew what they were
doing was important. It had to be preserved, encapsulated.

[...]

Within our commodity driven global world this sort of experience is rare
indeed. Can you imagine trying to convince Disney to fund an immersive
project that will change peoples awareness of life and elevate their
consciousness in a profound manner? Not likely. Yet the desire for this
type of evolution of awareness is deep within humanity.

[...]

If my supposition about the effects of immersion in a cave painting
environment is correct, no religious or ritual behavior was involved.
However I am assuming the meaning of religious practice to be the sense
one gets now in the 20th century. Perhaps in the primal past of
humanity a gathering to advance the awareness of a tribe would be a
ritual or religious practice. We have no way of knowing.

Let's think about this primal immersive event. The main elements are
contained space and symbols representing life activities. This is an
abstract space. It exists and has meaning because it is different from
normal life. It is a space at once physical in the grandiosity of the
cave and immaterial in the glyphs. However the intention is to alter the
awareness of the group or individual. The result occurs not in the
immersive space but upon return to normal life. It is an imprint and it
is permanent.

Several other complex factors may have been in operation in this primal
past. Knowing the natural tendencies of humans to groupings of families,
tribes, nations and so forth one must assume a social order of some
sort. Within this order there is indeed repeated, ritual behavior in the
form of dance, various solar commemorations, courtship, marriage and so
forth. In our modern religious practices these are fundamental. I cannot
imagine a young couple crawling down into a cave to be married in an
immersive glyph environment. It seems inappropriate, even in a primal
past. No, I believe the descent into immersion was an event unto itself.

[...]

My recent experiences with two way video teleconferencing and
performance via the internet lead me to believe that a dynamic new model
for transformative immersive environments is taking shape. Within a
simple Cu See Me interface the event is porous. People log on to a
conference and their faces show up on the screen. They are integrated
into the event. This is immersion. They are part of the performance and
not just a passive audience. Further they direct how the situation
develops through chat.

[...]

What happens in these performative events is similar to what in my
opinion occurred in the caverns 30,000 years ago. Normal life is
represented in an immersive space through glyphs. In this instance the
normal life represented by the glyphs are various art performances,
music, dance and social interactions. The transformation occurs with the
awareness of a break with the entertainment/ commodity format. The
consciousness is one of connection to other people. This is not the
repetitive ritual nor is it the packaged reproducible commodity.

There are some ground rules however. First the event/ environment must
be encapsulated. It must have a time limit and a general agreed upon
theme. Second; it must not be scripted or follow an entertainment
format. Third and most importantly, it must be organized through
personal contact. Remember my story about the artist leading the group
down into the cavern. In this instance the artist must lead the group
into the immersive environment. The group must distinguish between
normal life and immersion.

[...]
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