michael naimark

Tomorrow's Realities catalog,
Siggraph '91, Las Vegas

"EAT - A Virtual Dining Environment"

Fine Cheap Virtual Food

Michael Naimark


I. Why Many Artists Today Dislike Technology

Art is always content-driven. Indeed, when art appears to be something else such as form-driven, we say that the form "becomes" the content. Traditionally the arts community doesn't like it when art is primarily an exhibition of new technology and nothing else. Rudolph Arnheim put it bluntly when he said that art can't exist in a developing medium. For example, he saw the advent of sound in cinema as a major step backward for film as art. Consider what a back-handed compliment it would be to say to Abel Gance that you loved "Napoleon" because of its three screens, or to George Lucas that you loved "Star Wars" because of its high-tech special effects.

On the other hand, Nam June Paik once said that if it's been done before, he's not interested.

For several years I've asked my art students for examples of artworks (in any medium) that were both formally innovative and good art, however subjective. Some works were cited repeatably: Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, The Great Train Robbery, 2001, Running Fence, Tommy, to name the more popular ones. There's no reason to believe the two are mutually exclusive.

But something has changed, over the past decade or two, that has driven many in the arts community to be alienated by cutting edge technologies rather than wish to explore them. Remember E.A.T. (not EAT)? Perhaps it's because most high technology we see in any medium today is used more for flash rather than substance. Look at television (particularly compared to years past). Alas - spinning logos rule.

What's happened, many in the arts community may say, is a discoupling of media expertise from content. Advertisers boast that they can package dogshit well enough to sell a millions dollars worth. We have been seduced by packaging over substance. (Indeed, what does it say that we elected an actor President of the United States.)

II. The San Francisco Art Institute

My perception of the San Francisco Art Institute is as a most intense example of such anti-packaging sentiment. You're there to learn and to make art. If your art is a little rough around the edges and may not be up to today's slick standards, well too bad. No one there is going to add polish just to patronize a media-numbed public.

To a large extent, I agree. And to an even greater degree, I respect it.

So when I was asked to teach a something-like-high-technology class, what the hell, I accepted. The worst that could happen is I could cause some trouble.

If you can't cause trouble in the arts community, where can you?.

III. The Virtual Environments Class

I proposed a class called "virtual environments" where we would make an interactive videodisc-based environment. They gave me a $500 dollar budget (I told them it costs $300 to make a single videodisc) and convinced the Apple Multimedia Lab to loan us a Mac, a videodisc player, and the then-new little Kodak LCD video projectors.

The goal of the class was to produce an interactive installation. I've long been convinced that the necessary concepts for conceiving and making interactive video are not technological in nature. We didn't talk about technology much.

Most of the semester was spent wrangling out a common structure within which each of the dozen students could do their own work. The decision to base the installation around a table took about a month; a food-related theme took another month; and the use of live performers took a third month. The fourth month consisted of producing mock-ups.

At the end of the fourth month, and with three weeks left in the term, we had our "shoot day," where 1/2 of the class budget was spent at the local Safeway store for food to videotape (Crawford Communication, a videodisc pressing facility, offered to make our disc for half price). A camera was boomed from the ceiling of the studio pointing straight down and various "actions" were shot using the food, creating various "dishes." Additional footage (some but not all directly food-related) was added during editing and a videodisc was mastered in one day.

My teaching assistant, Erik Slavin, coordinated the computer-related work. The Macintosh was programmed to control the videodisc player according to the "actions" created by the students. Working in HyperCard, this took Erik about a half day. The Mac was also used to make the menu and guest checks, which list the credits on one side and would be "personalized" by the waiter ("Have a nice day! -Hank") on the backside.

The final two weeks were spent on the installation set-up, coordinated by Charles (Bud) Lassiter. A table was built with a hole for video projection. It was noted that the length of a dining table for two is related to social and economic class so one of the students proposed we build a trapezoidal table. Matching place settings were found to scale.

We opened our virtual dining environment for the annual Spring Show. The students took shifts being maitre d', waiter, and chef and were absolutely relentless with their restaurant metaphor. They got into it. And they won a SFAI gold award for it.


"EAT" is based around a formally arranged dining table, custom-built with a window under the plate and a Kodak LCD video projector mounted underneath. The clear glass dinner plate was sand-blasted to become a rear-projection relief screen.

The video material was shot mostly from a suspended camera pointing straight down such that the footage would spatially correspond with the plate projection screen. It was produced and edited on 3/4" videotape and mastered onto a quick plastic videodisc.

The Pioneer 4200 videodisc player was controlled by a MacII computer using standard HyperCard videodisc tools. The system was hidden in the "kitchen" and only used by the artist-waiters to enter the menu items.

On the table next to the plate was a large red pushbutton labelled "EAT." During the "course" of a menu item, the imagery may freeze until the EAT button was pressed. Another pushbutton, mounted in the table hidden from public view, was used by the waiter to call up the next menu item. Both pushbuttons were connected directly into keyboard keys.

V. Convivial Tools and Garage VR

Convivial tools (if I understand Ivan Illich) are tools accessible and usable by non-tool-experts. Like using home video cameras over Panaflexes. Like using small cheap computers over VGXs. Like bicycles over private airplanes.

The tools we used for EAT are just beginning to get convivial. Three essential conditions existed then that didn't exist five years earlier: a videodisc player for under $1,000, videodisc mastering for under $500, and software like HyperCard that didn't require an advanced degree to use. It may not be much but it's a start.

As these tools become more convivial, they will become less alien, and more artists will use them. Shoe polish will be made by those who like to make shoe polish and it won't be by those who just wish to make shoes.

Don't get me wrong: I like million dollar projects too. But having directed videodisc projects with budgets of more than a million dollars and others with budgets of less than a thousand dollars, I certainly cannot say that the payoff is proportional.