Arcades to Avatars: Virtual Reality in Art and Entertainment

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Chapter 5
Arcades to Avatars: Virtual Reality in Art and Entertainment

Aviewer floats through a mysterious, semitransparent landscape, like a diver underwater. Breathing in, the person rises through the bare branches of a huge tree. As the person enters the branches, their empty twigs suddenly become covered with leaves. The viewer then breathes out and drifts down, down, into the rocky soil on which the tree stands. Now the viewer gazes upward into the tree's roots.

This was the experience of people who entered a room containing an art installation called Osmose, a French word meaning "flows through." Osmose, designed by Canadian artist Char Davies and first exhibited in 1995, is one of many examples of art that uses virtual reality. Viewers of Osmose wore head-mounted displays as well as devices, invented by Davies, that fitted around their chests and sensed their breathing. The chest sensors sent messages to the computer controlling the exhibit. Responding to this information, the computer changed the display in ways that made the viewers seem to rise and fall.

Immersive Art

Beginning with the Stone Age cave painters of France and Spain, artists have always tried to immerse viewers in their imagined worlds. It is no wonder, then, that modern artists have been attracted to virtual reality since its start. One of the first people to create works using computerized simulations that viewers could walk into was Myron Krueger, who was a computer scientist as well as an artist. Starting in 1969, he constructed several projects that he called artificial reality.

In a Krueger project named Glowflow, sensors in the floor of a darkened room detected viewers' movements, and a computer changed lights and sounds in the room in response. Another of Krueger's installations, Videoplace, could be set up in several locations at the same time. Computers in the different spots were linked by telephone. This networking let the movements of a viewer in one location affect what someone in the other location experienced.

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Videoplace thus was an ancestor of teleconferencing as well as an artwork. Krueger said later that it "created a place that consisted of the information we [the viewers in the two locations] both shared."30

Another American artist, Lynn Hershman, created a different kind of virtual reality with an interactive videodisc called Lorna, which she displayed in 1982. The program on the disc began by showing a frightened-looking, middle-aged woman watching television in a dingy hotel room. Viewers could control the woman's behavior by clicking on the television and other objects in her room. Each click selected a section of the disc showing a different action. As a result, each person who visited the installation saw a different version of Lorna's story. Depending on viewers' choices, Lorna might eventually overcome her fears and leave her room for good, destroy the television, or, alternatively, kill herself.

As virtual reality improved in the late 1980s and 1990s, artists continued to explore it. The technology had its own exhibition, Virtual Reality: An Emerging Medium, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1993. One work presented there, created by Jenny Holzer and Jeff Donovan, was called Bosnia. It showed viewers a patterned landscape of brilliant orange earth and blue sky flecked with clouds. Clusters of cinderblock huts dotted the scene. When a viewer selected a hut, a recorded voice began telling a story about the war that was then destroying Bosnia's land and people. Each hut held a different voice and story.

Artists still like to play with virtual reality. For instance, Canadian inventors Vincent John Vincent and Francis MacDougall created software that let viewers take part in Vincent's virtual reality art installations. Stereo cameras in the installations photographed viewers' movements, and the software integrated them into the virtual reality programs as video images. Viewers then saw themselves, in real time, chasing and capturing virtual butterflies, composing music on virtual instruments, or painting designs on a virtual canvas. Vincent's installations appeared in more than six hundred places around the world in the early 2000s, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Canadian World Expo pavilion.

Making a Statement

French artist Maurice Benayoun used a CAVE installation to make a political comment in Far Near (Emotion), which he exhibited in 2001 and 2002. In this artwork, two people in the CAVE, working back-to-back, "dug" toward one another by making virtual holes in stacks of still images facing them on the screen. Each digger's goal was to find the image of the other person. The diggers could talk to each other by means of microphones. Benayoun wrote that the signals controlling the sound and images

follow[ed] a random path around the planet via [the] Internet, through war zones, places marked by pollution, poverty, and . . . communication saturation. . . . When the Internet signal passed through one of these troubled zones, the communication between the two diggers [was] affected. [The] picture [was] altered, distorted according to the nature of the attack. . . . The sound [was] also disrupted when the signal [went] through these "zones." . . . The sound distortion . . . [was] composed of pre-recorded sounds [and] real time sounds from radios serving the disrupted zones, thus creating a type of sound matrix.31

The Birth of Video and Computer Games

Only a few people have a chance to visit a virtual reality art exhibit. Far more will meet VR technology in a video arcade or at the controls of a home computer or a game console. Video and computer games cannot immerse people as completely as a CAVE, but they are certainly interactive, and most use the best 3-D graphics and stereo sound that they can afford. Some games provide sensations of touch and vibration as well. Video and computer games thus can be considered to be a type of virtual reality. Indeed, because these games are so popular, many experts think that if virtual reality ever does become widespread, it will probably do so first in the form of such games. (Surveys have shown that people in the United States spend about $10 billion a year on video games, consoles, and electronic toys—more than they spend on movies.)

The virtual reality–style video and computer games of today have three ancestors: computer games, video games, and fantasy role-playing games. All three developed together in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Even in the 1960s, when only large universities and corporations and the military had computers, some people found ways to make the hulking machines play games. Perhaps the first computer game was Spacewar, in which players made the computer move two simply drawn rocket ships against a background of stars. Students at MIT created Spacewar in 1962, and the game soon spread to other universities through computer networks that predated the Internet.

One fan of Spacewar was a University of Utah student named Nolan Bushnell, who managed an arcade at an amusement park in Salt Lake City during his summer vacations. After Bushnell graduated, he began trying to make Spacewar into a coin-operated arcade game. He more or less succeeded in 1971, but the game did not sell well.

Meanwhile, Ralph Baer, a German-born inventor, had started work on a game system that could be connected to a television set. In 1971, while Bushnell was peddling his Spacewar look-alike to arcades, Baer sold his invention to Magnavox, a company that made televisions and other home entertainment equipment. Magnavox named the device Odyssey and released it a year later. It was the first home video game console. It had two controllers and twelve plug-in circuit boards, each dedicated to a particular ball game (Ping-Pong, volleyball, hockey) or shooting game. The games had very simple black-and-white graphics and no sound effects.

Pong Takes Over

After Nolan Bushnell saw a demonstration of the Odyssey system, he and fellow inventor Ted Dabney formed a company called Atari and set about inventing their own virtual Ping-Pong game, a computerized version in an arcade machine. Their game included the sound of a ball hitting a paddle and took its name, Pong, from that sound. The first time Bushnell tried out his Pong machine, in a bar called Andy Capp's in Sunnyvale, California (the heart of the computer-invention hotspot nicknamed Silicon Valley), in 1972, the machine broke down because eager players stuffed it too full of quarters. Atari sold eighty-five hundred machines the following year—something of a record for arcade machines.

In 1974, Atari produced a Pong console that could be plugged into a television, much as Baer had envisioned. It, too, became a best seller. (It also led to a lengthy patent battle between Atari and Magnavox.) Atari went on to introduce a programmable video game console for home televisions, called VCS (Video Computer System), in 1977. This meant that one console could be used for multiple games and switched from one to another through software, rather than requiring a separate console or circuit board for each game. Programmable game consoles for televisions became tremendously popular in the early 1980s.

Meanwhile, also in 1974, Atari launched an arcade game called Tank, which for the first time included a computer memory chip that held graphics. Armed with such a chip, game consoles could finally begin to have visual displays that went beyond a few cursors and lines on a screen. A Chicago company called Midway introduced Gun Fight, the first arcade video game to use a computer microprocessor chip, a year later. The chip allowed the game to have more complex action than earlier ones, including a computerized opponent that moved unpredictably. Computerization was thus leading both arcade and home video games closer to virtual reality.

Do-It-Yourself Adventures

In the early 1970s, when video game machines could do little more than smack balls, fire guns, and direct dueling spaceships, some gamers were focusing on different tools that had no such limits: language and their own imaginations. They used those tools in another type of game, called fantasy role-playing games. One named Dungeons and Dragons™ was the most popular.

At first, these games used no machinery at all. Acting the parts of elves, wizards, warriors, and other magical characters, players worked together to make up their own stories. They searched for treasure and fought with monsters in all sorts of fantasy worlds, guided only by complicated rule books and dice that determined the outcome of game events, such as which characters would be wounded in a battle. Some people who liked fantasy role-playing games also liked computers, however, and they soon began trying to make computerized versions of the games. Computer graphics were almost nonexistent at the time, so these early inventors, already used to picturing their adventures in their imagination with the help of words, simply used text on the monitor screen to describe what players were supposed to be experiencing.

Zork, introduced in the late 1970s, became perhaps the best known early text-based adventure game. People played it on large computers at first, but when personal computers began to become common in the 1980s, Marc Blank, one of Zork's creators, joined with Joel Berez to design a version of the game that would run on the smaller machines. By 1987, microcomputers' capabilities had improved enough for one of the game's descendants, called Beyond Zork, to contain limited graphics, including a map. This and the many other games created for home computers in the 1980s developed into the computer adventure games of today.

VR Comes to Arcades

Beginning in the early 1990s, the heavy helmets of virtual reality gear joined video games in large amusement arcades. A number of new businesses started to make VR systems for arcades, but the computers of the time could provide only primitive graphics, head-mounted displays and gloves were uncomfortable and sometimes produced simulator sickness, and users sometimes tripped over the cables needed to attach the equipment to computers. When disappointed players stopped spending their money on these setups in the mid-1990s, many of the new companies went bankrupt.

Arcade games often still include aspects of virtual reality, however. Players today can roll virtual bowling balls through three-dimensional landscapes shown on floor-to-ceiling screens, feeling the weight of the balls through force-feedback effectors in the ball-shaped joysticks that they push and turn. They can duck and weave while standing on a sensor pad and see their movements reflected in the figure of a boxer fighting a computerized opponent. They can put on lightweight helmets and "fly" over virtual mountains and valleys as if they were in hang gliders. Similarly, people in so-called cabin rides at some amusement parks strap themselves into chairs that tilt, shake, and jerk as sounds and graphics on a movie-sized screen take them on simulated roller-coaster journeys through mountain passes, collapsing mine tunnels, or forests full of dinosaurs.

Virtual Communities

Thanks to the Internet, some video games that run on home computers or game consoles, especially the adventure games that descend from fantasy role-playing games, have developed virtual reality in another sense. People who enjoy them have formed networks through which thousands play a game online at once, interacting with one another. For example, a 2003 article states that the online version of the fantasy game EverQuest has more than 430,000 subscribers in the United States alone, and more than 140,000 people around the world have played it at the same time.

Online gaming groups are one example of what author Howard Rheingold calls virtual communities. Most virtual communities have been created through online newsgroups, bulletin boards, and chat rooms. These do not involve graphics, let alone virtual reality as it is usually defined. Nonetheless, the people who repeatedly visit such groups come to know each other and often form close (though not always happy) personal relationships, even though they never meet face-to-face and may live in different states or even different countries. Thus, like users of virtual reality, they immerse themselves and interact in a separate world of sorts that exists only inside computers. The Internet becomes the shared "place" where members of virtual communities meet to talk, just as a town square or general store might serve in a real community.

Virtual communities that "met" in particular online environments began appearing in the 1980s, even before the Internet developed. They communicated through computer networks that were the ancestors of the Internet. The first online multi-player environments, called multiuser dungeons or, later, multiuser dimensions (MUDs), contained only text. As computer graphics improved, the MUDs grew into MOOs (MUDs, object oriented) and MUSEs (multiuser simulated environments), which included graphics.

Building Homes in Cyberspace

Not all online environments centered on games. One of the earliest and most famous, LambdaMOO, was mostly a social gathering place, pictured as a virtual fraternity house. Indeed, LambdaMOO's creator, Pavel Curtis, has said that MUDs and MOOs "created a new kind of social sphere, both like and radically unlike the environments that have existed before."32 Some online groups that exist today have expanded on this idea to create almost complete alternate worlds. Members of online environments such as There, ActiveWorlds, and Second Life can fly, race vehicles, shop, set up businesses, go on quests, play games, stage parties or other events, chat with one another, and explore dreamlike landscapes. They can claim land and set up homes or other permanent buildings on the virtual ground. Their activities are limited only by their imaginations—and the amount of time and money they can find to spend online. (Members must pay a monthly subscription fee.)

In these nongame worlds as well as in online gaming groups, people represent themselves onscreen as personas called avatars. (The word originally meant the human form of a Hindu god or goddess.) They usually design the avatars to show something about the way they see themselves, who they would like to be, or how they would like others to perceive them. Avatars give people a chance to try out different personalities, including some that would be impossible in the real world. They may have superpowers or be as beautiful as movie stars. They may be of a different gender, age, or even species than the people who create them.

Science fiction writers have been drawn to the idea of computer networks as, in some sense, real places. One of the first was William Gibson, whose 1984 science fiction novel Neuromancer introduced a term for such an environment that has become very popular: cyberspace. Gibson described cyberspace as "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions . . . in every nation. . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. . . . Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of

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data. Like city lights, receding."33 Movies as well as novels have been set partly or entirely in cyberspace, including Tron, Blade Runner, Lawnmower Man, and the Matrix series.

Cyberspace Psychology

John Suler, a professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, has written a book on the psychology of cyberspace. He says that the "unique psychological features" of cyberspace include

reduced or altered sensory experience, the opportunity for identity flexibility and anonymity, the equalization of social status, the transcending of spatial boundaries, the stretching and condensation of time, the ability to access numerous relationships, the capacity to record permanent records of one's experience, and the "disinhibition effect" [which makes people feel free to engage in conduct that they might be afraid to try in real life].34

These features allow people to create a "second life" in cyberspace that is very different from their real one. They lead some players to take participation in cyberspace beyond art or entertainment, to a level that can have significant effects on their minds. Experts cannot agree, however, on exactly what those effects are. They agree even less on what might happen if in the future, as some writers predict, almost everyone spends large amounts of time in virtual worlds.