“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.

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“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

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