“Placeholder” – Virtual Reality and Perception

For my final project, I decided to focus on the subject of virtual reality in a study of Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland’s “Placeholder”. Here is a portion of the paper that I wrote.

Immersion within a computed world was made possible by advancements in virtual reality (VR) in the mid-1900s, challenging notions of physical limitation and disembodiment. In “Placeholder” (1993), Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland drew from the fields of anthropology and psychology to raise questions about the nature of communication and perception. The work is composed of a large headset, which relays both the visual and audio sensory experience, 11 computers running a total of over 25,000 lines of code, and an enclosed space to bound the individuals within preset parameters. These components created a space in which users were able to enter an artificial environment by wearing the headset. The users could then interact with the space through physical movement, interact verbally with another individual who is simultaneously within the same world, and change their perspectives to match those of another living creature. By creating three virtual spaces and the option to navigate these spaces under the form of four different species, Laurel and Strickland provide commentary on the egocentric perspective of humanity and the playfulness of exploring an unfamiliar space.


“Placeholder” is a project which was exhibited at the Banff Center for the Arts in Alberta, Canada. It dealt with virtual reality environments, allowing its users to navigate the landscape of three locations: a cave, a waterfall, and a series of earthen spires. The users may walk around the space within a physical boundary in the real world. The headset provides the user with visual outputs, which are primarily constructed out of both photographs and videos taken at real-world locations. The user also experiences spatial audio as a result of an omnipresent “goddess” which communicates through verbal narration. The voice of the “goddess” figure comes from a third-party individual who is aware of the current experiences of the “Placeholder” users. Symbols throughout the virtual world act as an interface for changing location and perspective. Spiral symbols act as portals to other worlds while snake, crow, spider, and fish symbols allow the user to see through the eyes of the selected creature. The project uses information derived from anthropology and biology to create a speculative experience, demonstrating the extent of research put into making the journey legitimate. The experience is unique to each individual, as the narrative of the journey is constructed based on the user’s actions and responses to the components of the virtual worlds.

It was a lot of fun researching this project as it represented an early approach to a field which I consider to be exciting and currently progressing through new advancements in digital headsets and augmented reality experiences.

-Paul Llanura

Final: Smoky Silence

Smoky Silence ScreenshotArtist: Kathy Huynh
Completion Date: March 16, 2015
Place of Creation: Home
Style: New Media Art
Technique: Computer Process
Material: Processing with sound input

Click here to try the program!

Our lungs are fractals that expand and contract with every breath we take and every word we say. As our world becomes more industrialized and we create more air pollution, what are we really breathing in?

Smoky Silence is an interactive display created with Processing, a program that creates graphics using code. It features abstracted lungs composed of Ford Model T cars, with smoke-like particles diffusing in from the trachea. It analyzes sound input for the gain levels, which then determine the branching angle. The piece resolves when the sound input reaches maximum gain, prompting the participants to breathe once the smoke is cleared. Smoky Silence uses data to determine the functioning of a biological system composed of industrial parts, with the goal of environmental activism.

Aesthetic Design

The overarching aesthetic concept is simplicity. Instead of using a more realistic image, I drew a highly simplified representation of the Ford Model T. Without any unnecessary details or volume for the viewer to latch onto, the viewer is more likely to consider the system as a whole, without focusing on any singular element. The smoky circles billowing down were an aesthetic afterthought, but it actually solidifies the main concept by communicating to the viewer that the lungs are not independent and sterile, but filling with smoke. The visuals are achromatic largely for aesthetic simplicity, but by avoiding the use of color, which can evoke specific feelings, it invites participants to impose their own interpretations upon it.

Movement by Sound Input

Digital mediums are an optimal choice for responsive art pieces. The loudness of participants is quantified as numerical data, which then determines the movement of the system. Lungs expand during inhalation, and contract during exhalation. When people speak, they are usually exhaling to create noise, and louder noise needs more exhalation. The movement of the Ford lungs mimics exhalation. Sound input from participants is analyzed for its gain levels, a measurement of volume. The higher the gain, the smaller the branching angles of the fractal, thus the more the Ford lungs contract. The Ford lungs most resemble biological lungs at normal speaking level, because the low gain levels cause subtler contractions. When participants are encouraged to be loud, the lungs contract more and the smoke is denied entry. I also tried to correlate the opacity of the smoke to the gain so that the smoke would fade if the gain was higher, but my method caused the computer to go to sleep when the gain reached maximum.

The Ford Model T: The Beginning of the End

https://i1.wp.com/www.autoconcept-reviews.com/cars_reviews/ford/ford-model-t-1908-1925/wallpaper/1914%20model%20Ttouring%20copy.jpgThe Ford Model T was specifically chosen to serve as the bronchi and bronchioles for its iconic value. While the Model T was not the first car to be produced on an assembly line, Fordism revolutionized the assembly line to make the Model T the first widely available automobile. Cars were originally a privilege of the wealthy, but by streamlining production, Ford made cars accessible to the middle class. His developments in mass production promoted mass consumerism, and thus the Model T serves as an icon for the beginning of the end. I considered using a variety of several vehicles, and even a historical progression of vehicles from the base to the tips. But I chose to remain with the singular Model T for aesthetic simplicity, preservation of the fractal purity, and for its monumental historical significance. The moment Americans charged into mass consumerism was the moment air pollution drastically increased. The Model T is not only the product of a system but a system in itself, taking input to produce output. By inserting this industrial system within a biological system, the viewer feels an invasion of their intimacy. The belief that our bodies belong to us alone is disturbed by this commercial and industrial presence, sprawling throughout our lungs and bringing its waste in with it—the smoke.

Artificial Life

The system almost gives the illusion of artificial life not only because of its resemblance to biological forms but because of its responsiveness. At normal speaking levels, the lungs seem to shiver and tremble at the sound of a voice. When I presented to the class, they seemed to quickly understand that the system was responding to my voice, because the amount of movement was directly affected by how loud I was. When the class gathered around the laptop to decide what to chant, someone even said, “It likes it when we laugh.” The intimacy of the interaction suggests that the system is alive and understands.


Firstly, conceptualization began when I remembered Ron Eglash’s TED talk on African fractals. According to Eglash, when fractals were first discovered, many mathematicians dismissed them as useless. But “they were breathing those words with fractal lungs”—the irony of the situation was striking. My longstanding concern for environmental welfare pushed me to expand the idea by asking whether our fractal lungs are still breathing air or just smoke.

The piece also brings to mind new media artist Amy Alexander’s Scream, a software application which “disturbs your Windows interface” “when it detects a scream”[3]. They are similar in that these programs encourage loud noises to produce highly responsive visual effects. However, Scream is intended as cathartic therapy, while Smoky Silence is intended as environmental activism.

Smoky Silence as Environmental Activism

The name of the piece hints at its goal of environmental activism, primarily addressing the issue of air pollution. If participants remain silent, the lungs spread at their widest to allow massive amounts of smoke in. Only when they collectively cry out do the lungs contract and deny the smoke entry. The branching of the lungs resembles a tree, further connecting to the environment; trees also breathe the air we polluted. Smoky Silence serves as a tool to encourage active awareness. Many people are aware of the sad state of the environment, but lack the desire for action, pushing the issue to the back of their mind. Smoky Silence demonstrates that while a single person can greatly affect a system, it takes a crowd of determined participants to change it entirely—and the same idea applies to the environment.

I have considered lowering the maximum gain threshold, but I think keeping it as is reinforces the message that the environment is in great danger and that a monumental amount of effort and cooperation is needed to reverse the damage we have done.

If I exhibited my work outside of the academic context, I would like to eliminate the audience by encouraging everyone to participate. Ideally, it would be displayed on a massive screen above a busy street or in a crowded public space, serving as the opening event for an environmental rally in a heavily polluted city. The size of the screen promotes visibility and significance of the issue. Those who feel awkward, out of place, or unsure would be welcomed into the unified crowd, but those who are already emotionally invested in the environment would feel the power of the effect increase at least twofold with their determination.

The piece could also be inverted to spread awareness about noise pollution, which is the most unfamiliar and neglected form of pollution. It would be displayed in a busy city intersection or around a freeway, acting as a meter for noise pollution. The visual would be turned upside down so that it resembles a tree rather than lungs. The use of sound input would also be inverted so that greater volume causes the tree to contract, instead of expanding in all its natural glory. However, because the goal in this case is to encourage people to expand the tree, perhaps a different image should be used in place of the Model T, which was specifically designed for the original piece not to be attractive or impressive. With a more intricate and attractive display, people may be more likely to quiet down so that they can admire the display in its entirety.

In its ideal context, Smoky Silence would serve as an effective rallying tool for environmental activism. It teaches participants not only the power of a single voice, but of a unified crowd. By promoting unity and participation, people would become more aware of the dire situation of the environment.

Rally the voices, and battle the smoke.

-Kathy Huynh

Final / Harmonograph: Art Meets Physics

Artist: Kelly Ching Ki Kwok

Completion Date: March 16, 2015

Place of Creation: At home, in front yard

Style: Mechanical, function, interactive art

Technique: Woodwork, physics

Material: Wood (plywood, wooden dowels, balsa), hardware (ball and socket joints, washers, screws), free weights

From lecture I was extremely inspired by the harmonograph. Artists like Karl Sims and mathematician, Hugh Blackburn were predecessors on building machines like this. Like my midterm, this is an art machine that incorporated ideas of physics. Instead of mechanical forces, this time is oscillatory waves. This machine contains 3 pendulums; I decided I want mine to have maximum movement, thus maximizing the number of degrees of freedom, which is 2.  I enjoy art machines like these so much because they are interactive and educational. This could definitely be something at the Exploratorium. P1330457 P1330507 P1330508


FINAL: Not For Medical Use

Title: Not For Medical Use

Artist: Leslie Ewen

Completion Date: 3/15/15

Place of Creation: San Diego

Style: video

Technique: youtube video editor

Material: every image and scan taken during my father’s cancer


I wanted to make a movie using all the images of my father’s brain scans during his cancer treatment. All the images were taken during his cancer treatment at UCIRVINE. Over 25,000 images compiled into a sequential series of images. By uploading all the images into a video format it is possible to watch the evolution of his illness unfold. It also conveys my personal feelings though an artistic expression. A period of hypnotic confusion. The text “not for medical use” a disclaimer that is printed on almost every image I felt further reinforced the theme for this course involving the overlapping of science art and technology. The human need to categorize and compartmentalize data in order to understand and communicate its importance. The human need to reconcile to digest and attempt to understand things that are not so easily understood.

Leslie Ewen

Sonic Solar System ver. 2

Title: Sonic Solar System ver. 2
Artist: Ben Breidenthal
Completion Date: March 17, 2015
Place of Creation: Laptop
Technique: Computer Programming/DSP
Material: Pure Data patch

Hey class! For my final I’ve been making refinements and upgrades on my midterm. While still incomplete, I thought it would still be nice to show my progress. For a basic description, see the original video in my Midterm post. For my final I have about 26 minutes of the program running on its own.

You’ll notice a different sonic quality to the overall piece, this is because I am using a different formulation for frequency modulation. There are also different pitches to give a wider range of sound. I also made it easy to change and add more planets, and you’ll hear a few very high pitched sounds that are the dwarf planets in our Solar System. The rest of the improvements are more to do with making the code more elegant and customizable.

So close your eyes, put on some headphones, and take a step out of the human experience and get into a different perspective on a different time line and hear what it’s like at the center of our Solar System. Thanks for a fun quarter everyone, looking forward to checking out all your final projects!!

-Ben Breidenthal

Aesthetically Endangered Forests

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 1.18.50 AM

Dorian Koehring A10317052

Title: Aesthetically Endangered Forests

VIS 159/ICAM 150 Final Project, Winter 2015

TA: Stephanie Sherman

Completion Date: 03/17/15

Place of Creation: Computer

Style: Audio-Visual (Musical Electronic Composition + virtual desktop recording feedback-looped Graphics recorded directly from desktop.)

Technique: Audio component created via Ableton Live. Visual component created by virtual feedback looping of my desktop using ManyCam and CamTwist.

Material: Soundscapes both recorded by self and found through the web, various found-sounds recorded around house, synthesizer, violin, GIFs found on web and edited via Photoshop.

Link to documentation of piece: https://vimeo.com/122503521

         For my final project, I decided to combine complimenting forms of media (music as well as video) in order to create a more in-depth piece than my midterm. Touching on an array of topics, “Aesthetically Endangered Forests” attempts to demonstrate how beauty stemming from complexity and self-repetition is seen in a plethora of naturally occurring systems.

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 1.20.06 AM

Indeed, the visual component of my piece attempts to convey the fractal nature of forests and other systems virtually by taking advantage of feedback loops and the positive aesthetic effects caused via its self-repeating nature. Similarly to the way in which one can create a visual feed-back loop by connecting a video camera to a TV and pointing it at the screen, the fractal nature of the tree-themed graphics in my piece were created in a parallel, modernized fashion: using two desktop-recording programs simultaneously so that one records a selected area of my desktop while the other records the output of the first program. Furthermore, by beginning with a lush, bird-filled soundscape and transitioning to a harsher, barren soundscape of a forest being demolished at the end of my composition, the musical component intends to exemplify how deforestation by humans not only endangers life’s complexity and biodiversity, but also endangers beauty itself. Ultimately, I hope my piece manages to instill a deeper and fuller understanding and appreciation of the innate fractal nature of our universe and the essential bond shared between complexity/self-repetition and aesthetics.

Inherent to a diverse array of fields, including music, visual art, ecology, geology, physics, astronomy, mathematics, computing, even psychedelia, fractals are no-doubt some of the most gorgeous phenomenon of our universe.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 9.12.31 PM

– Dorian Koehring

FINAL: Post humanism and Cosmetics

Title: Post-Humanism and Cosmetics

Artist: Lauren Simons

Location: Computer/Home

The work deals with how as technology advances, the boundary between organic and mechanic is becoming increasingly obscure. Living organisms are merging with machines, or more generally technology, in new ways that were once thought to be impossible. As we become more reliant on machines, there is a movement toward post-humanism that holds the idea that the body, in its organic form, is limited in its potential and that the integration of technology as an extension of the body is not only inevitable but necessary. This leaves one to ponder, with such rapid advancement and the age of the machines upon us, will the corporeal body be enough? As discussed through out the quarter, there have been many scientists and artists working around these questions regarding the body as becoming obsolete in the age of technology. One of the early pioneers of this notion of post humanism that we studied was Australian performance artist Stelarc and his work entitled Third Ear. In this project Stelarc had a prosthetic ear implanted into his forearm that is fully functional in its ability to hear and transmit sound. The work is about replication of a bodily structure, relocating it and thus re-wiring it for alternative functions. It manifests the human desire to deconstruct our evolutionary architecture and exemplifies this integration of technology and the body. However it does so in a way that does not completely render the body idle, but rather presents the body as an extended operational system. Stelarc writes, “It is no longer a matter of perpetuating the human species by reproduction, but of enhancing the individual by redesigning. What is significant is no longer male-female intercourse but human-machine interface. The body is obsolete.”

Make up is the chosen medium for this piece because in the same way that Stelarc’s third ear exemplifies technology as an extension of the body, make-up, although not mechanical and much less invasive, can be considered a technology that enhances or redesigns the body. Just like any other technology make up has evolved and changed over time as we have become more technologically advanced. Not only have there been great advancements in pre-existing formulas, application tools, and packaging, but there are also a vast amount of new products that have been created in response to the ever-changing beauty standards in society as well as advancements in other areas of technology that have greatly influenced how make up has evolved. For example with advent of things like social media, high definition, and even the change over from film to digital has greatly revolutionized the make up industry. For example, the introduction of Panchromatic and Technicolor film in the 1930s directly contributed to the development of a revolutionary product that changed the make up industry forever. “Pan Cake” was patented in 1929 by Max Factor and Company, a popular American make up line, and its revolutionary formula integrated the same Panchromatic technology used in Technicolor film, into a compressed powder foundation that when applied leaves a slight sheen on the skin that reflects light and therefore compensates for any darkness or discoloration that was found to appear on film when using products that were not panchromatic. Similar light reflective technologies are used in make-up products today that are specifically designed make the skin appear flawless and natural on film, even at the high levels of definition that modern day digital film can achieve. Not only have cinematic and studio make up changed in response to technological advancement, but every day make up products and trends have also vastly changed. As mentioned earlier, social media such as instagram has not only advanced the cosmetic industry in terms of better marketing and expansion of brands, but has also changed society’s beauty standards. With our personal lives are becoming more and more publicized, there is more pressure to look conventionally beautiful and an overall increase in the general concern of individual appearance.

I present this piece as series of four make-up looks, the first three of which were created to exemplify the changes in beauty standards over time and how the make up industry has evolved in response to these changes, as well as in response to other technological advancements that have influenced the cosmetic industry. All of the looks represent the most popular make up trends of a particular era, and in order to create them I only used products that would have been available, or ones similar, during that particular time. The first piece was inspired by the 1920’s. This was a period of renewal that sparked an increase in consumer growth and in the liberation of women. With a flourished economy women becoming more active independent members of society, the cosmetic industry, sky rocketed during this time period. These historical changes are exemplified in the make up trends of the era. Dark eyeliner, bold red lips, and pink cheeks exemplify how women began to take advantage of their new-found freedoms. Powder foundation, rouge (cream blush applied with the finger tips on the apples of the cheeks), and eye kohl (an early eyeliner) were the products used during this era. Make up was applied sparingly and was used to enhance natural features. The second piece was inspired by the 1950s, which was the era of the color cinema. As mentioned earlier, changes in film greatly influenced the cosmetic industry. Foundation was applied in thick layers in order to smooth out any lines or imperfections. For this particular look I used a compact powder foundation with light reflective technologies, much like that created by Max Factor as mentioned earlier. Dramatic eye-liner on the top eye lid, heavy mascara, and shimmer eye shadows that were meant to make the eyes appear bigger and brighter, were characteristic trends. (Mascara did not come in a tube at the time but came as a block that you applied with a brush, however I could not find one so I used a tube.) Women also used lip liner to emphasize and highlight their lips making them look larger as well as filling in their eyebrows for a more structured bold appearance. These dramatic enhancements of certain facial features were initially meant for film quickly became mainstream and are representative of how advancements in film have influenced make up and on beauty standards. From comparison of this look to the one prior, you can see how makeup trends had begun to shift from a natural application to a much bolder and exaggerated appearance. You can also see that there was an increase in the type and quality of products available that further exemplifies how make up as a technology has evolved. The third piece is inspired by what today’s make up trends look like. Heavily contoured cheekbones, defined symmetrical eyebrows, and perfectly sculpted lips are current trends. There is also more than triple the amounts of products available on the market today, not to mention numerous brands and application tools that were not available during the eras that inspired the previous pieces. For example there are now pore reducing foundation primers, concealers, HD foundations, dark spot correctors, beauty blenders and possibly hundreds of other products all meant to give the appearance of a flawless complexion. These trends advocate for an over all appearance that is very structured and symmetrical and are not meant to merely enhances ones features but essentially changes them completely. By this you can see how greatly the make up industry has evolved, and along with is so has the conventional standard of beauty. Sure women have always used make up as a way to enhance their features, however one can argue that as we continue to advance in technology, make up trends and products have evolved away from a standard that emphasizes enhancement of natural beauty, toward one that advocates more for artificiality and perfection. This change in beauty standards can also be seen in the expansion of other cosmetic technologies such as plastic surgery and botox. Again, there is this notion of changing and redesigning the body in this post-humanist merge with technology.

1920’s Inspired Look:

IMG_4791 IMG_4809

1950’s Inspired Look:

DSCN0802 DSCN0809

Inspiration  Photo:


Look inspired by current make up trends:

DSCN0832  DSCN0844

When you consider how greatly technology has advanced in such as short amount of time and these ideas of post humanism and of the body becoming obsolete, you can see that these ideas are closely related to some of the more recent topics that we have studied regarding artificial life and robotics. The final make up look in the series is presented as an abstract representation of a human being as a machine. This is meant to make a statement about this movement toward the merging or organic with mechanic and desire to create artificial life and machines that are meant to emulate, and in some cases replace the organic corporeal body. In my blog posts I reviewed the work of Yves Klien and his artificial life project Octofungi, which is an autonomous robotic sculpture through which Klein contemplates the definition of life and what differentiates between animate and inanimate objects. I also researched projects done by the performance group Ullanta Performance Robotics, whose work delves into the field of emotional robotics and means to show that robots are no longer passive slaves but rather intelligent sensing communicating entities. What I want to emphasize by this last piece is that as we become more reliant on machines and robots, there seems to be a decline in the human necessity.

Final Piece:

DSCN0846 DSCN0845

While Stelarc is advocating for technology as being only an extension of the body, much of the work being done in the field of robotics seeks to ultimately create a new one, a mechanical body that in the future may render the organic body obsolete. From this an intense debate arises around the question of whether advancements in robotics are overall advantageous or detrimental to human life. There is this notion that technological advancement is equivalent to progress, however can reliance on technology be considered real progress or are we inadvertently dooming ourselves to a future in which we are human beings are redundant? Is progress an illusion? The critical question here is at what point do we become too reliant on technology?

To sum up, this project is meant to show that as we become more technologically advanced there seems to be a movement toward the merging of the natural body with technology. Where as Stelarc’s Third Ear is an extreme example of this, make up can be considered a less invasive form of technology that exemplifies this merge in every day scenarios. While post humanism advocates that technology be used as an extension of the body, work done in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence seek to create new entirely mechanical bodies that in the future may render the human body obsolete. This poses questions regarding whether or not these advances can actually be considered progress or is this merge of organic and mechanic potentially harmful? Furthermore the work exemplifies how beauty standards have changed as technology has advanced and shows how this has contributed to the evolution of the cosmetics. A question that arises is, do societal beauty standards change in response to advancements in make-up? Or has make up evolved in response to constantly changing beauty standards. Perhaps both. In this way the work brings up broader social issues regarding who and what sets the standard for beauty and in what ways has the cosmetic industry contributed to this standard? Is there a double standard?

A second stage of the project that I would like to add, but do not have the time frame or tools to do so, would be to photograph the different looks using a lens from each time period to physically show how advancements in film have forced make up to change.







Stephen Wilson, Information Arts