Saturday, May 16, 2009

Attaining Presence: 4Jetpacks4 and Bryn Oh

Posted by Alpha Auer

4Jetpacks4 was an immersive installation created by Bryn Oh, with the participation of Glyph Graves and Nonnatus Korhonen earlier this year. I was privileged to be one of the group of avatars that were given the tour of the research centre back on March the 6th. I will not talk here about what 4jetpacks was all about. The extraordinary video by Evo Szuyuan above does that far better than I ever could. What I will attempt to do instead is to talk about "immersion" and "presence" as integral parts of virtual world creativity. I know from personal conversations we have had that this is a subject as dear to Bryn Oh's heart as it is to mine, the thing which she puts at the center of her (virtual) creative activity.

I will quote a bit from scientific sources while I try to set up a basic definition of "presence", as a sense of “being there” in a mediated environment (IJsselsteijn, deRidder, Freeman and Avons, 2000). Lombard and Ditton (1997) define it as an illusion of non-mediation in which a user no longer perceives the display medium as a separate entity. A high level of presence will help users remember a virtual environment as more of “a place visited”, rather than “a place seen” (Slater et al., 1999). A success indicator of the attainment of presence is also considered to be the realization of similar behavior patterns in virtual environments to those in the physical realm (Slater and Wilbur, 1997), and even the manifestation of similar physiological responses towards a given event to its approximation in the physical realm (Meehan, 2000).

Various definitions of the term “presence” and their relevance to the immersive virtual experience are discussed by Mantovani and Riva who challenge the notion that experiencing a simulated environment deals with the mere perception of its objective features; instead proclaiming that presence in an environment (real or simulated) means that individuals can perceive themselves, objects, as well as others not only as situated in an external space but as immersed in a socio-cultural web connected through interactions between objects and people, leading us to the paramount importance of the interacting agent within a virtual culture, i.e., the avatar.

And this to me, lies at the very heart of the problem where artistic activity in a virtual world such as Second Life® is involved. Is the goal to be sought the "perception of objects" only? Or could it be that what would set artistic activity in a virtual world as a genre apart, would involve conditions wherein "individuals perceive themselves, objects, as well as others not only as situated in an external space but as immersed in a socio-cultural web connected through interactions between objects and people"? For me, without the shadow of any doubt, it is the latter. And it seems to me that this definition is what 4jetpacks is/was all about as well: That the creation of an immersive experience was the primary intention became obvious to me during Bryn Oh's opening statement where she addressed the importance of "presence" in virtual art. In her terminology the word "presence" is interchanged with "immersion", which does of course add up to very much the same thing. "Viewing" art, i.e., "the mere perception of its objective features" does not seem to overly interest Bryn Oh, and I am so very heartened to observe this in a fellow content creator, and one for whom I have a great deal of respect at that.

Bryn Oh is an exquisite builder. Every texture, every prim, every shape and object placed in perfect proximity, culminating in visual systems that I am awed by over and over again. And a very good thing that this is so: The immersive experience needs that level of concern for perfection to be pulled off with credibility. Creating an immersive experience does not imply that one can get away with shoddy visuality. If anything, it would imply the exact opposite: For us to become fully "present" within the "artwork" involves a level of visual expertise on behalf of the artist whereby perfect cohesion and gestalt are achieved to the extent at which not even a tiny component of the installation appears out of sync, thus distracting us from the immersive experience through its ineptitude or its misplacement within the overall system. Whether the visual gestalt that is meant to bring about "presence" involves high levels of abstraction or realism, opulence or stark minimalism would not be the issue at all by the way: I would seriously doubt whether one would need minutely detailed craftsmanship emulating realism to attain a state of presence. But, I would dare to say that what one would need would be a continuity of visual language - which as any artist worth his or her salt knows is a devil of a thing to pull off.

However, presence needs more than visuality. It also needs narrative. It needs a story or a situation endowed with sufficient power and imagination to pull us in. "Presence in art" needs substantial planning. An observance of fine detail whilst maintaining a firm grip on the whole. In other words, not a thing to be pulled off in one afternoon. Amongst much else, it is visuality, performance, role play, cyberpsychology combined. Bryn Oh has whatever it takes...

In the end, for me, the attainment of "presence" is more than likely to be the thing which will eventually create a "genre" out of the currently rather haphazard conglomeration that is the state of art in virtual worlds today. It really does seem to me that art generated in virtual worlds needs to be contextualized within the broader framework of contemporary art, given a raison d'etre, a property unique onto itself - and the attainment of "presence in art" would be a not too easily imitated attribute of virtual world based artistic activity. 4jetpacks gave me huge hopes in this direction and I am very grateful to Bryn Oh for having given me just that - hope!


A video created by Bryn Oh on 4jetpacks ends this post:

Also please read the post by Hamlet Au on NWN talking to Evo Szuyuan about her utterly remarkable SL-video skills and all that is involved in the attainment of the perfect SL-video here.


HatHead said...

Very interesting post and concepts. The focus here is primarily on the visual skills of the artist in regards to achieving a sensation of immersion - "Every texture, every prim, every shape and object placed in perfect proximity" - but this approach does not articulate well the nature of immersive environments and installations which are self-organizing or procedural, where the artist may not know what every texture, shape and position will be ahead of time. Svarga's virtual eco-system is an example of a self-organizing installation.

Thanks for the thought-provoking, um, thinking - cheers!

Alpha Auer said...

Hello HatHead, Thank you so much for this comment.

I am not a programmer myself, however part of my RL work involves research in data visualization where I do in fact collaborate with a team of computer scientists. And, as far as I am aware, emergent and self organizing systems are fully bound by their code. That is to say that the attributes of the parameters (which are as much within the control of the creator as any rezzed cube would ever be) determine the subsequent evolution of the system. And in that sense, I see no difference to what ultimately manifests: A fully coded, self organizing environment created by someone with an awareness of the visual problematics involved tends to be vastly different from the creation of someone who does not operate with those considerations in mind. In fact, my function in this research group is as a designer whose job is to help formulate methodologies for setting up parameters under which a computational system can function adeptly, while yet leaving room for fluctuation, variation and growth.

Be it achieved through numbers or hands on building, for me, skill is skill. Only the medium differs - nothing more really...

However, the attainment of presence is far from being a problem of visuality alone. It is a mass of interrelated issues, of which visuality is only one. But this I already touched upon it the post itself, so no point in repeating myself I suppose.

Other than that, coding can bring in elements of the unexpected, indeed the bizarre (utterly weird combinations of elements and so on...), which would of course be immense tools of immersion in the hands of a skilled creator.

Again, thanks for your comment.

Bettina Tizzy said...

Alpha, forgive me, but I must chide you for not including the "posted by Alpha Auer" bit at the top of this remarkable post. I am already receiving compliments for it, and that's just not right.

I do, however, congratulate myself for my friendship and collaboration with you. It is not a matter of "couldn't have said it better," but rather, "I couldn't have said this at all." Your academic approach is sorely needed in virtual worlds and is precisely the sort of thing that will give content creation in all its forms the credibility with art and architecture circles we so hanker for and don't often merit.

Yes, 4Jetpacks4 was the most immersive experience I've had in a virtual environment, and it was also tremendous fun not knowing what was going to happen next. It was a shame that the performance was limited to so few people because of lag considerations, but this, too, will change as technology (think Blue Mars) make greater audiences possible.

Alpha Auer said...

oooops!!! sorrrriiiieeee.... :D (*contritious grin*)

I will do it straight away. I know I should remember to do it...

Quite needless to say, I am totally tickled pink by what you wrote up there dear co-blogger of mine... And, since I can't possible hope to accomplish even a quarter of the things you pull off so effortlessly, we seem to have a quite mutual admiration society going here...

HomerTheBrave said...

"However, presence needs more than visuality. It also needs narrative. It needs a story or a situation endowed with sufficient power and imagination to pull us in."

I would argue that 'presence' needs only narrative. That is, when someone tells you a story, there are no visual cues at all, but you are (hopefully) immersed in the story.

This is a real problem in SL, because people are building places without building stories. Wander Mainland and you find houses and gardens and zyngo parlors, but you don't find stories. This is why Mainland is uninteresting. If you go to Columbia sim, and visit Magellan Linden's historical exploration crash site, you find a story. The build itself isn't so impressive, but the wonderful story is engaging.

The 4jetpacks4 build is astonishingly beautiful and considered in both of those videos, and part of the beauty of the narrative is that this detailed build is ultimately destroyed before your eyes.

This leads me to believe that the real build is the narrative, not the prims and code, and that's an important achievement. Those who were invited into it before it was demolished were lucky. :-)

Alpha Auer said...

Homer! Thank you!

YESSSSS!!!Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

Bettina Tizzy said...

Homer - This comment of yours is simply grand. Interestingly, it came in while Alpha and I were on a 2 hour Skype conversation about precisely this topic: "...the real build is the narrative, not the prims and code..."

The most intriguing part of all this creativity in Second Life and other virtual worlds is not just that it entertains or interests us in some way, but that it enables us to believe in and be a part of an alternate reality.

Alpha Auer said...

Yes, that was eerily coincidental, wasn't it?

I have linked what I wrote on narrative from my own blog to the NPIRL blog so often that it has become downright obnoxious at this point. But I just simply cannot resist doing it once again: I desperately want to impress Homer you see...

HatHead said...

Hello Alpha, thank you for your thoughtful reply.

As every painting is bound by its paint, so too is it self-evident that every program is 'fully bound by its code'. However, if the resulting mechanism results in behaviour that is unexpected by its creator, it is demonstrating that it is not bound by the intentions of its creator's code. Certainly surprise and accident have a huge in place in art but circumstance is not skill, even if skill helped get you there. (My mother however disagrees and says I have skill for creating accidents)

A self-organizing system is deterministic however, by its very nature, its outcome cannot be predicted. That is, you cannot know the result until the recursive algorithm itself is run. Therefore it follows that the random nature of the environment interacting with a self-organizing installation may or may not result in an immersive experience, even with the exact same code. Indeed, such an installation may one day seem immersive and not the next, dependant upon the environment and when the viewer happened to be there, independent of the creator's skill.

Cheers! :-)

HatHead said...

..also, concur wholeheartedly about narrative as a primary element. Cheers!

Alpha Auer said...

Hi HatHead,
Unless you actively learned to be accident prone (which I would seriously doubt) it would not be a skill but an aptitude?

Maybe this is because of my job as an art/design educator, which over the past 15 years has exposed me to well over 500 case studies, (aka. students and their output), I cannot help but put a lot of stress on learning and the resultant value, which would be "knowledge" and which in it's turn results in "skill" in a particular activity. I hesitate (in public ;-) to use terms such as "talent", "aptitude" or indeed "genius" and "gifted" since these are things which cannot be qualified or quantified. (I have to admit that privately that I do believe in them, that there are people who are fundamentally talented as opposed to others who unfortunately are not - however, I try very hard not to let this private assumption interfere with my judgment. But in any case, I would still insist that the genius also needs to learn. In my experience these individuals will "get it" very quickly, whereas others will need to put in a lot of hard graft, over considerably longer durations of time, to attain more or less passable results). But at the end of the day, learning will get you skill to a greater or lesser degree. And while accident and surprise do indeed have a huge role in the creative process, in my experience skill does transform the very progression of happenstance.

Knowledge and skill can be acquired on an institutional level or a person can be self-tutored. The latter seems to offer far more potent results btw, since it would involve quite a bit of originality, will and tenacity, (which in themselves are very valuable attributes), to chart out your own individual curriculum, determine upon what it is that you need to progress. But one way or another I do believe that this process of education is imperative in attaining credible/sustainable results in creative output.

I should probably also add that I do not define "skill" as a thing to be associated only with menial endeavors, i.e., "skilled hands" at all: To give an example, I have become very skilled at conducting database searches to obtain references for the academic papers which I write. I have had to learn how to do this (self-tutored in this instance) - I now have the skill to do it.

But I think you are actually summing all this up rather beautifully yourself when you say "... circumstance is not skill, even if skill helped get you there". Precisely! Recently I read Max Ernst's collages being described as "deliberate serendipity" - I loved that! Learning gets you skill and skill is what helped you get there! And as such I would say that it is all quite inextricably bound, wouldn't you?