Virtual Bodies: Travels Within

Diane Gromala, Yacov Sharir

What are the possibilities that open to us when we consider virtual environments? What are the artistic, intellectual, visceral and emotional issues which can be addressed using virtual technologies?

Recent media frenzies about virtual reality portray these technologies as promising a brave new world, one based on notions and imagery of travels to distant and usually outer spaces. What if instead we explore this notion turned in on itself - our travels not to an abstract virtual "outer" space, but to the inner reaches of our body?

We seek to explore these and other questions related to how virtual reality, cyberspace, telepresence and emergent electronic technologies may influence the artistic processes and experiences of the body in the visual arts and dance. Virtual technologies offer means to extend, manipulate and color work in different ways, many of which are not possible in a technologically-unmediated physical realm. In exploring these technologies, we looked at how physical performance can be extended and perceived in other ways. Two of these derive from the experiential effects of the technologies, as well as a journey through a computer simulation of the body and the responses this elicits.

VR Experience

Imagine that as a user and dancer, you wear a virtual reality (VR) helmet or goggles, which block out your vision of the physical space, but replace it with a three-dimensional, stereoscopic computer simulation. (Essentially, you have two very small television sets in front of your eyes). As you turn your head, this simulation changes accordingly, creating the sense that you are actually in the simulated environment. Imagine too that you wear data gloves, or sensors on your hand, which enable you to reference or "see" your physical hands in the simulated environment. As you move your hand forward, you are able to navigate through the simulation, birdlike. As your perception accommodates itself this 3-D illusion, you accrue a sense of being in another world, or "immersed." This sense is heightened by your ability to act on and change the simulation, such as grabbing and moving computer generated objects that only exist in the simulation itself.

What distinguishes this experience from say, a video game or Disney’s latest high tech ride, is that you have a sense of being immersed, and that you can act on the virtual environment. And although it is akin to an altered state of consciousness in many ways, the simulated environment is a space you can experience with others who may be telepresent. That is, another dancer may be attached to a similar apparatus and although this dancer could be physically a thousand miles away, she is "with" you in the same virtual environment, appearing as a computer-generated figure, able to interact with you in real-time.

Experiential Effects of VR Technologies: Disembodiment

If this other virtual dancer, who is sharing the simulation, were to run toward you in the VR environment in a contact improvised sequence, you physical body would instinctually react. Yet at the same time, you would experience a sense of degravitation, an instability that is contradictory to the relationships with physical space that are core to a performer’s existence. This sensation is an example of disembodiment - one of the most immediate experiences in virtual reality simulations. It results from some of your perceptions’ adherence to your physical body, which no matter what other sensory input your body receives, still depends on a sense of gravity, among other physical forces.

In many ways, you are simultaneously in two places at once. Your physical body is connected to sensors, which track and transmit your movements from the physical realm to the simulation. Thus, through moving your physical body in the physical plane, you navigate through your body’s representation in the virtual plane. However, because many VR systems currently do not have forced-feedback, which would send much more than visual and auditory information back from the simulation to your body, you tend to experience a sense of disconnection rather than suspension, or weightlessness and instability rather than solidity. Further, you walk or fly through walls and objects which would be solid matter in the physical realm, were we indeed not virtually walking through images. Depending on how the simulations are created, you may look down at your feet in VR, and find that they are not represented, or there, at all. In another scenario, you may be represented fully as a figure in front of yourself. In effect, you become more akin to a cinematic point of view.

In virtual environments, the quality of space itself seems altered. Long distance travels in virtual environments are relative, and are usually strange combinations of movement within a very concisely defined area with movement in endless possible space. While the speed at which you can travel may seem constant, proportions of space do not. In such a world, the ability to orient or ground yourself necessitates alternatives to dependence on the earth or a stable, "home" base. Finally, we visually perceive virtual simulations not by reflected light, our usual optical modus operandi, but by light that shines directly into our retinae. This, in combination with a lack of typical atmospheric distortions which naturally result from altitude, humidity, dust and the like, give most simulations an eerie, or surreal quality.

Although this sense of disembodiment is the result of technologies in their developmental stages, it gives rise to a series of questions. Why attempt to replicate the physical world as it is? Why not create environments and spaces dramatically different from the "real"? How do virtual environments enter into discourses on representation? Although some users experience a sense akin to sea sickness, habituation (realignment of our perceptions), seems to disperse this sense after a few minutes. How far could we push this ability of our perception to itself? Little of these effects, or other issues as having small television sets shining very closely into our eyes, have been studied - are they ultimately destructive to our bodies? How can they be capitalized on artistically? Just what are the creative opportunities here?

Experiential Effects of VR Technologies: Interactivity and Chance Operation

Issues specific to these new technologies influence the creation, experience and understanding of works of art. These are related to the experiential and creative challenges and opportunities raised by the possibilities and requirements of an interactive, immersive environment. In addition to issues of disembodiment are issues related to interactivity, authorship and co-creation; agency and interface; "worldmaking" and a blurring of interdisciplinary boundaries.

Chance operation, as it is generally understood, originates in chance decisions, which ultimately are "frozen" into a linear sequence or performance which can be repeated. However, in an interactive simulation, this notion can be taken further, as the chance is dependent upon the dancers’ interaction with the computer simulation itself - resulting in not one but a number of possible actions and consequences, with some degree of unpredictability.

As a dancer immersed in a virtual environment, you are able to interact with the simulation, as you may reach into the computed space and change the course of events. In doing so, you become in a sense a co- creator of the experience. In one of our projects, Dancing with the Virtual Dervish, for example, this can happen not only with other dancers who are telepresent, but also with "intelligent" simulations of other dancers who are programmed and not based on any connection to anyone’s physical movement. These are variously termed "agents" or "puppets." In Dancing with the Virtual Dervish, our puppet, the dervish, is capable of interacting with you in the virtual environment. It provokes you or whomever enters the simulation into a response or movement in a number of ways: it can mimic your movements or tease you, invite you to follow with gestures, or dance alone, depending on what you do. The way in which the dervish responds to you is dependent upon a combination of possibilities: how close you are, how fast you respond, what your movements suggest. This brings chance operation to a set of variables that are not limited to linear performance, yet the variables are controlled enough to be excluded from what we generally term improvisation.

The creation of virtual environments, by their technologically defined nature, tend to blur boundaries between disciplines in a number of ways. First, digital information can easily assume mutable output form. For example, a visual artist can easily translate a work of digitized music into an image or multi-dimensional space, responsive to the movements of a dancer, ever in a metaphoric state. A musician can create sound from images or digital tracking of movements of dancers across a sensed floor. Dancers’ movements can trigger digitally-controlled lighting or sound, all of which can be connected, responding and interacting to each other in increasingly open-ended ways. Thus, instead of composing a linear sequence of events, the creative process is extended itself to creating a world of possible, open-ended interactions. Because of this mutability and interactivity among electronic media, particularly in our current culture, commonly held disciplinary boundaries tend to expand and blur. One can inhabit and change the course of cinema or dance in disembodied form. Multidisciplinary collaboration within the arts and with computer scientists and engineers becomes viable, desirable and necessary.

In such interactive environments, which are contingent upon the interaction of others, the notions of creator and audience also blur. Is the nature of dance altered by this potential? Does the performance occur within VR itself? Are some participants relegated to being passive audience members and others performers? How does one determine who gets represented in the VR environment? Could a dancer exceed the boundaries of what is defined as dance in this way: by programming or choreographing the environment and puppets in certain ways that force the VR users to move their bodies in certain ways. Could anyone then be defined as a dancer? Would it be possible to design a highly artificially-intelligent puppet which would be indistinguishable from a human dancer?

Travels Within . . . Boundaries of Inner and Outer Body

In Dancing with the Virtual Dervish, one enters a simulation of a human body of enormous scale, wrapped in letterforms and text. This body, which is in constant decay and transition, is comprised of a rib cage, pelvis, heart, kidney and other viscera, making it possible to examine issues related to our own bodies. What happens, for example, when you are able to visit a VR simulation of your own heart or navigate within your spine, going through the rib cage, exiting your pelvis? Is it a far different experience from navigating through an anonymous human model? Issues arising from such travels within organic, non-Cartesian environments offer us a range of experiences unknown to us before, inviting us to explore the limits of our understanding. Is our heart hospitable? Does it change as we dance through it? Does our experience of an organ, which we understand on emotional, symbolic and visceral levels, change? Is our rib cage a landscape, protective element, or claustrophobic containment area? In an interactive space, what motivates us to participate? Some of these issues are elicited by the nature of the art, while others are disembodied responses to enormous organic spaces. How do these experiential paradigms affect our artistic production, and our epistemological and ontological mechanisms and development?


Emergent electronic technologies offer us opportunities for new ways of creating, seeing, understanding and participating in art. Central to it are the related ideas of immersion and interactivity, which call into question some of the core assumptions of several art forms, including dance. Extensions of disciplinary boundaries and new forms of art enabled by these virtual technologies provide us with enormously rich areas for exploration.

Diane Gromala and Yacov Sharir teach in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. Gromala and Sharir are collaborating with Marcos Novak in a project funded by the Canadian government through a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Dancing with the Virtual Dervish was premiered at the University of Texas in April 1994 and the Fourth International Cyberspace Conference in May 1994.