Using the computer-driven VR environment to promote experiences of natural world immersion
Frank, Lisa A.
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In December, 2011, over 800 people experienced the exhibit, <1>:"der"//pattern for a virtual environment, created for the fully immersive CAVE (Trademarked) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This exhibition took my nature-based photographic work and reinterpreted it for virtual reality (VR).Varied responses such as: "It's like a moment of joy," or "I had to see it twice," or "I'm still thinking about it weeks later" were common. Although an implied goal of my 2D artwork is to create a connection that makes viewers more aware of what it means to be a part of the natural world, these six VR environments opened up an unexpected area of inquiry that my 2D work has not. Even as the experience was mediated by machines, there was a softening at the interface between technology and human sensibility. Somehow, for some people, through the unlikely auspices of a computer-driven environment, the project spoke to a human essence that they connected with in a way that went beyond all expectations and felt completely out of my hands. Other interesting behaviors were noted: in some scenarios some spoke of intense anxiety, acrophobia, claustrophobia?even fear of death when the scene took them underground. These environments were believable enough to cause extreme responses and disorientation for some people; were fun, pleasant and wonder-filled for most; and were liberating, poetic and meditative for many others. The exhibition seemed to promote imaginative skills, creativity, emotional insight, and environmental sensitivity. It also revealed the CAVE (Trademarked) to be a powerful tool that can encourage uniquely productive experiences. Quite by accident, I watched as these nature-based environments revealed and articulated an essential relationship between the human spirit and the physical world. The CAVE (Trademarked) is certainly not a natural space, but there is clear potential to explore virtual environments as a path to better and deeper connections between people and nature. We've long associated contact with nature as restorative, but those poetic reflections of Thoreau and others are now confirmed by research. Studies are showing that contact with nature can produce faster, greater recovery from stress and other illnesses, reduction in anger, and an increased sense of well-being. Additionally, I discovered that the novelty of a virtual reality experience can bring new focus and fresh attention to elements of our world that we have grown immune to. Possibly, the "boletus edulis" in one scene seemed to have been made more remarkable and mysterious in VR than if it was seen in the backyard. A VR environment can be used to create opportunities to experience being in the world differently. Here they can be inside of an egg that is inside of a nest that is held by tree branches over a creek bed in a floating landscape where a light spring snow is falling. We are liberated from the worldly limitations of our body. The question is this: in ananti-natural environment, can immersants in a CAVE (Trademarked) become more ecologically sympathetic and spiritually connected? Although the exhibit was not put through any form of testing as of yet, my observations amount to a remarkable vision of what VR might provide for us as an instrument to expand consciousness and promote wellness. Creating exceptional, transformative experiences may seem like a lofty goal for VR but that purpose is at the heart of any art making process.