I, An Avatar

"Art is the R&D of VR."
--Kevin Texiera, VR Project Manager, Intel Corporation

"I saw the encounter between human and machine as the central drama of our time. The quality of our interaction with machines will largely define the quality of our lives. For what we have made, makes us."
-- Artificial reality pioneer and artist Myron Krueger

I am a musician and performer. In recent years, I have used virtual reality systems in my performances, collaborating with machines to create new art forms, new experiences and new worlds.

One night, I stood on the stage of an outdoor amphitheater under the stars. On my forearms were electrodes fastened with velcro; from those electrodes, thin wires trailed back to the BioMuse system. As I moved, the electrodes picked up the electrical energy generated by my contracting muscles. The BioMuse translated that energy -- the energy of my nervous system -- into music.

As an actress, I've used gesture to convey emotion. As a singer, I've used the muscles of my throat, chest, to some extent my whole body, as a resonating chamber to generate sound. But here, in the most explicit, precise and intimate of ways, I was using the electrical energy of my cells to make music.

I was pulling down the light of the heavens from those stars, making the music of the spheres. I felt myself as pure energy, driven by and connected to all the energy in the universe, felt it flow through me -- then gave it back again to the audience, to the universe, as sound. I remembered how life sparks in me, how I push life out into the world, how I make music -- how I am music.

The Cree Indian poet Joy Hara writes: "Oh woman/remember who you are/Oh woman/it is the whole earth." In the ecstasy of these performances, I know -- I feel -- this is true. By ecstasy, I mean connectedness to all being. As I feel the energy of the earth move and flow through me, I am that earth. As I move, I create a gesture which creates new worlds. As the poet Mark Strand says: "I move/to keep things whole."

Another night, I stood in Myron Krueger's VIDEOPLACE Artificial Reality installation in front of a brightly lit white backdrop. A video camera captured my image distinguished from that backdrop, and Krueger's "responsive machines" turned me into a virtual "Tiny Dancer" projected onto an overhead projection screen. A second camera watched Krueger's hands on a lit desktop (the VIDEODESK) and projected them, enormous, onto the same screen.

Suddenly I could float and fly, a virtual Tinkerbell -- then land, ever so gracefully, in the palms of those two virtual hands. "It's like magic!" I heard people in the audience exclaim as the hands flicked their virtual fingers and tossed me up again, ever so gently, into the virtual air.

Yes, magic (as author Arthur C. Clarke has said, "Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic") -- yet to me, a completely real and transfixing experience, and a real and transcendent new relationship with myself, and with those hands. I became the dancer I have always secretly seen and felt myself to be, and showed myself to the world as that dancer.

For those moments, my tiny, dancing inner self became my outer self. My imagined self became my felt and experienced self; my secret self, my revealed self; my private self, my public, witnessed self. I lost my recent memory of my body's limitations, and refound my deeper memory of its limitless beauty and power. My body became a true "body of knowledge" which knew itself as spirit, reborn, embodied and moving -- tossed, tickled, cradled by large and knowing hands.

For this is the reality of digital "avatar" interaction: your image -- mirrored, projected -- is an extension of your identity. What happens to it, happens to you. What touches it, you feel. If I touch your projected image, and you touch mine, we will feel physically touched by one another, down to our neurons (Krueger calls this phenomenon "VideoTouch"). And when images touch, inner worlds touch. When virtual selves fuse, not just bodies, but hearts, minds and souls fuse as well.

Since the late 1960's, Krueger, one of the great pioneers of virtual reality (which he termed "artificial reality"), has been creating "computer controlled responsive environments" to define and explore interactivity as an aesthetic medium, means of expression, and source of compellingly real experience. In VIDEOPLACE, your entire, unencumbered human body is the "human interface." The system perceives your body and responds to its outline and every move in real time, generating sound and projected graphics (including your "new body," which may be that of a Tiny Dancer, an amoeba-shaped blob, a Rockettes-style chorus line, or any one of several dozen transformations) determined by your movements.

"Response is the medium," says Krueger. Everything you see, hear or become is the system's response to something you do. Your body becomes a series of transformations which operate on reality; you change yourself and the world by moving in it. You become the artist, and your body, your instrument. As collaborator, Krueger creates a "set of poetic possibilities" -- a context for interaction in which the laws of "reality" are recomposed from moment to moment. Reality itself becomes a performer.

"The human brain evolved to support the body's way of knowing," notes Krueger. "Yet our culture reveres the intellect and has no use for the body; it immobilizes the body, severs us from it, makes it a vestigial organ. This is a real source of individual and cultural pain. In VIDEOPLACE, you move to change what you see, to recreate yourself and your world. Experienced as interactive art, VR reconnects the mind and the body. This is a huge cultural event -- a personal and cultural healing. Imagine VR Healing Theme Parks, VR home healing centers, VR spas."

As your body becomes a means of seeing, as moving becomes an act of discovery, the perceptual becomes conceptual. Adds Krueger: "When you move in new ways and generate situations for which you have no rehearsed expectations, you can have, just for a moment, a genuine experience. Engaged in this experience which your rational mind 'knows' is impossible but your body 'knows' is true, you are immersed in examining the true nature of self, of knowledge and of reality."

When you feel the power of your heart, mind, body and soul to make reality, you may feel that reality is what you make it, in the very instant of creation. You may feel that how you see yourself is how you are seen, that the world is not fact, but vision -- that to change how you see and experience yourself is to transform both yourself and the world.

Sometimes in VIDEOPLACE performances, I give flying lessons to audience volunteers (after all, VR was first used by the military for flight simulation). It's easy: you extend your arms, and as you tilt slightly to the right, virtual you flies to the right. Tilt to the left, and you fly left. You can share the virtual sky with someone, but unlike in military simulations, you don't get to kill your partner -- you just get to play tag, or waltz, or kiss.

One night, my audience volunteer was a woman in a wheelchair. She held out her arms, tilted slightly to the right, and away she flew. I flew after her, and there in the virtual sky, we played tag and danced together. She was laughing; I was crying.

Together, we were healed.

Here's what my Tiny Dancing lessons have taught me: big hope from tiny dancing grows. And the longest, most important healing journey may well begin with tiny, dancing steps in cyberspace.

Photos courtesy Myron Krueger
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