[-empyre-] empyrean's squishy avatars

taking my moderator pointy hat off..
i'll introduce empyrean..

Empyrean is a web based, single user and multi-user VRML environment running
on an Open Source VNet server; which also exists as an online gallery
installation, an offline installation; as a 13-minute documentary video -
"soft skinned e_scape"; and as a Real Video streaming from the web site. The
work showing in Manchester is the MU gallery version, not yet linked from my
online site but available at http://empyrean.cofa.unsw.edu.au/gallery

The work plays with  the concept of the net being a living organic space and
re-dresses the seemingly prevalent net desire to remake online virtual space
as a poor imitation of the "real". Empyrean offers an online environment,
which has no horizon line to anchor oneself against, and no attachment to
offline "hard" space. It is also a meditation on the form and beauty of
virtual space, its electronic first nature if you like.. as the low polygon
modelling makes clear that we are inhabiting computer constructed space and
exposes its seams..

The world consists of  7 interconnected scapes  each  with  a different
aesthetic and theoretical reference. The influences coming form popular
physics, the scapes are mostly named  after quarks, which are small
sub-atomic particles..like strange, charm, beauty , truth, etc, (Brian Eno
listeners will know this)  ideas of spirituality (empyrean is named from the
medieval term for the final and encompassing sphere of the heavens in an
earth-centred universe.  The Empyrean was the place where god and the angels
lived, outside of which nothing was seen to exist; the final frontier of
being; the edge of reality) It also deals with ideas of the postHuman in a
quiet visually crude way with a transparent but bloody and beating heart
penetrate by information threads in the "truth" scape; with the colonisation
of the web,  the isolation of virtual space, and of course  the ideas of the
tactility and sensory embodiment in networks  ..the touch of connectedness..

I am completely drawn to Virtual Reality Modeling Language, a self
reflective, invocational (to refernce Chris Chesher) language.. It has the
great advantage of operating within low enough bandwidth to network
relatively complex environments containing multiple users, and radically
diverts Virtual Reality from its early ideals of seamless sensory immersion
into a duplication of hardspace made possible only to a few by
supercomputing technology; into an easily accessible application which
allows mass participation and interactions in mixed reality. Meanwhile it
retains just that right balance of transparency and clunkyness to remind us
that we are the creators of our own simultaneously subjective and objective

Users interact via avatars that have no human characteristics whatsoever,
rather being cellular or electronic constructions. This addresses the trend
to homogenize avatar representation to a tall western silicone enhanced
stereotype. Although users can communicate with each other through a Open
Source V-net text interface, in the gallery space text options are removed
and users primarily interact through sound and gesture. Avatars are very
cute may squeak, squawk, blink, swell up and go opaque, gurgle, giggle,
blush. By using means other than text for communication the multiuser VRML
domain is not tied to a dominant language group, age category or educational
factors, and it makes immersion in the space a fun activity. One of the
outcomes for me doing the is work has been the delight of engaging with
avatars as a new hybrid life form - a soft skinned species.

Sound is erlaly important to immersion here.. and its design by Mitchell
Whitelaw is spatialized and attached to the etheric objects, which are
mostly moving and often set at different pitches, so once inside the world
the soundscape is constantly shifting around the viewer's avatar. In a sense
you could navigate by sound alone as each zone has a distinctive soundscape,
like the glassy crunching and grinding spheres of "chaos", or the frenetic
cellular skating rink in "charm", or the tinkling birdsong of the delicately
choreographed neurons in "void."

The thing about is that you don't have to understand anything.. there isn't
a game plan. there are floating fragments  of text  about connection , life,
code, etc but no narrative to piece together. Jim Andrews just gave me some
feedback that it was like John Donne in VR which I quiet liked. But to
experience the space you need no special knowledge or skills. My favourite
way to be in it is just to  play with the avatars.. making them blush and
squeal keeps me  easily amused.


Authored & Produced: Melinda Rackham
Sound Design: Dr Mitchell Whitelaw
Additional Scripting and Modeling: Horst Kiechle
Vnet Modification: Danny Stefanic, and Lian Loke

Additional Production Support:
College of Fine Arts, UNSW
Australia Council for the Arts
Banff Center for the Arts, Canada
Vislab, Sydney

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