michael naimark

Artshow catalog, Kanagawa International Art and Science Exhibition,
Kanagawa, Japan, 1989


Magic Windows, Magic Glasses, and Magic Doors:

Experiencing Place via Media

Michael Naimark
8 Oct 1989


Several years ago I gave a series of artist-in-residence presentations to ten-year olds at a public school near Boston. I set up a projection screen, stood in front of it, and asked the students how they knew I was not a movie.

There was silence.

I then asked them if they knew I was not a movie. They all nodded vigorously. Then some responses came forth.

"You're legs are below the screen."

"We saw you walk in."

"We can see your shadow." ("So?")

"You don't act like you're a movie star."

"You're answering our questions."

Their observations were perceptive and refreshing. But it was a sobering reminder that the way we experience moving images has changed very little since the birth of cinema and television: you sit, inactively, and stare at a flat rectangle, at either the wall-size mural of the film theater or the breadbox-size porthole of the television box. The formal constraints of these media are among the most severe of all the arts. And we have learned to accept them.

These constraints are beginning to disappear. Advances in display technologies, three-dimensional imaging, voice input, gesture recognition, and artificial intelligence are transforming the nature of electronic display, making it more like a window into a virtual world. Almost instinctively, these kids seemed to know this.

There are two projects that seem to spark my art students and colleagues into the future more than any others. One of these is the head-mounted display work currently under investigation at NASA. These are widescreen, stereoscopic, position-dependent helmets that give a sense of frameless "immersion" in a virtual environment.

Practically everyone responds the same to live demos. The strained look on your face disappears as the helmet is positioned in place and the optics are properly aligned. Your eyes no longer feel covered as you focus out onto the artificial place you are now seeing. Then you slowly move your head. You look to the left and you see the corresponding view to the left. You look up, and you see the upward view. Your jaw drops a bit and we hear a slow, quiet "wow."

Presently the helmet is heavy, the response to head movement is slow, and the imagery is restricted to the cartoon-like animation of today's realtime graphics computers. Smaller and faster versions of these displays are inevitable. The first commercial versions appeared only this year.

The other project is Lucasfilm's shared virtual community called "Habitat." Habitat is a subscription service for people with inexpensive home computers and modems that connects them together through phone lines. You see a view of Habitat on your screen and can move around, walk down the streets, go shopping, and interact with other virtual residents (who are also logged in at the same time). Presently, Habitat is a simple cartoon-land, movement is coarse, and live interaction with other subscribers is through text typed in cartoon bubbles above the characters' heads.

When people hear about Habitat from its creators, the same questions often arise. "Can you have sex?" Well no, we thought about it quite a bit and decided that procreation was problematic. But how you interact with others is your own business. "Can you kill?" No, that has subscription and billing implications, so we decided that no one can get killed. But you can form street gangs if you like . . .

The ability to create and wander around a virtual space and interact with others has no precident. Because the space is virtual, it doesn't have to obey the same rules of order and logic as the real world. "Roadrunner physics" is ok, if you like. It also doesn't require any construction material. You can be a Caesar from your armchair. And it can connect people geographically separated by putting them in the same virtual place. You can play poker in the virtual casino with an Italian, an Indian, and an Ifugao, with everyone in their own homes.

From M.I.T. in 1978, a small crew descended upon Aspen, Colorado. (I was fortunate to be on this crew.) The goal was to film travel up and down every street and to film turns in every direction through every intersection. This footage was used to produce an interactive videodisc-based system which allows participants freedom of movement through the streets of Aspen. The project lasted two years, involved three location shoots lasting from one to three weeks each, and required a mainframe computer. The Aspen Moviemap demonstrated that "travel" could be "surrogate."

Nine years later, a helicopter combed the skies of San Francisco filming along carefully chosen paths to create a ten mile grid one thousand feet above sea level. The helicopter footage was shot in six hours in April, the exhibit opened at the Exploratorium in May, and the system used a personal-scale computer. Rather than simply simulating reality, the Golden Gate videodisc was an attempt to do more: to give participants an interactive experience not possible in the real world, to see things in ways they never have before.

When we put this all together, we see that the emerging media technologies allow us to experience place in ways we never could before, alone or with others, real or abstracted. These virtual places are increasingly convincing and accessible. This phenomena is new, and names for it have emerged as trendy as one wishes: "telepresence," "microworlds," "artificial realities," "virtual environments," and "cyberspace." The challenge ahead is not simply technological: these technologies are inevitable. The challenge is artistic: how we will use these tools, if we expect artists of the future to create interactive portraits that we talk with and interactive landscapes that we walk through.