“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


Primates, Physical Movement, and Gestures

This week’s lecture was both unique and enjoyable with presentations on Primate Cinema, Awareness-Through-Movement, and Physics Gestures.

The presentations on primates by Rachel Mayeri was my first time witnessing social experimentation that dealt with animals, technology, and psychology. I was impressed with how engaged the primates were with television, but also sad that our lack of a communication medium with animals restricts our possibilities for understanding the reasoning behind their reactions to the piece. I think it’s very hard to quantify and judge chaotic movement, and that just happens to be one of the limitations of inter-species communication.

Human-Primate Interaction. I see friendship.
Human-Primate Interaction. I see friendship.

It’s also hard to say how much of a mental toll this experiment may have taken on the creatures. Humans in a similar position could possibly be driven to madness. Someone mentioned the uncanny valley and how that may contribute to a high degree of aversion, and I think they may be right. The humans dressed as primates had professional disguises, but I think it was still extremely clear that it was a human. I’m not sure how convinced the primates were by the disguises, but there’s no doubt that the similarity to their own kind led to some unease. Regardless, I really wonder how exposure to technology affects cognitive development within other species. That is one of the main externalities of industrialization, and it’s unclear whether or not it is positive.

Dr. Deborah Forster’s “non-exercise” series of movements was a reminder of several things that I had been shown in the past. Much of it was a reminder of the human mentality when it comes to limits. A former sports coach of mine told me about his theories of record-breaking and overcoming apparent physical ceilings through belief. I think that along with belief, awareness of your body contributes to performing above standards. In sports, attempting to exceed a boundary leads you to consider all possible changes you can make in terms of body positioning and exertion. I think that this is similar to Forster’s explanation; that many of us had forgotten to consider the lower parts of our body in our sitting posture.

As I was writing this blog entry, I noticed myself paying more attention to my posture. My mind is relatively simple in the sense that I’m not very good at paying attention to multiple things at the same time. As I began to focus on my breathing, it became unnatural and forced. While awareness can have positive effects, some functions are better left automatic I suppose!

I really enjoyed the class engagement in transmission by Dr. Adam Burgasser, with how we physically got to participate by spreading gestures. I thought that it was a clever way to demonstrate chain reactions, and the application that was demonstrated by our requirement to spread a gesture is not only relevant in biology, but also relevant in the public sphere as ideas become public and art becomes visible.

However, my favorite part was the visual representation of “subjugation” through pipe-cleaners. Unlike the body gestures that all similarly approached a heart-like shape when we were asked to represent “love”, “subjugation” was more abstract and created a greater diversity of shapes, ideas, and forms. No longer limited by the physical contortions of our bodies, we were able to create a variety of shapes which combined together to form something visually interesting. There is something beautiful about the fact that I would never guess that the long colorful network of pipe-cleaners was a collective attempt to convey the idea of subjugation. I wonder what other creations could be inspired by a single concept.

A wonderful medium of variable expression.
A wonderful medium of variable expression.

-Paul Llanura


Week 8 – Artificial Life Dilemma

This week we looked at fractals, artificial life, and robotics. Something that really stuck out to me was fractal art as well as the appearances of fractals in nature. I find fractals to be very beautiful, and the fact that their formation is more often natural than deliberate, makes it all the more fascinating. It’s intriguing how plants, shells, solid formations, etc. show how complex patterns can be visible on all scales.

Snowflake Fractalfibonacci-shell

For this week I decided to create a hypothetical based on a-life, robots, considering human ethics in a dangerous context.

You live in a future in which robots are very human-like. They have been assimilated into human society, and many of these robots act similarly to humans. In fact, if their appearance was more human-like, you would have a hard time telling that they were artificially created.

You happen to be a railroad worker, and you have three coworkers. Two of them, Bob and Joe, are human and the other is robotic. The two workers who are human are total jerks. They often slack off, they have ugly personalities, and you somewhat feel as if their existence is a waste of oxygen.

The individual who you are most fond of is the robot. The robot’s name is Roberto and he’s a hard worker, very friendly, and oxygen-efficient. You grow close to Roberto over the course of two months. During your taxing duties, you two talk about subjects that go beyond work, and you feel legitimate connection to this robot. You would consider him your friend. Roberto’s system memory remembers your connection and he also sees you as a friend.

One day, during a heated day of construction, a train takes the wrong path and is headed towards the area where work on the track is taking place. Bob and Joe are currently on track to being run over by the train, but they are too busy listening to music to notice. It looks like they are about to die. You and Roberto, on the other hand, are on a bridge ahead of Bob and Joe, and the train will pass below you before it comes into contact with them.

Roberto informs you that if you push him onto the tracks, it will save the lives of Bob and Joe by stopping the train in its tracks. However, it will also lead to his destruction. Roberto is no longer the same robot as he was when he was first produced. He has gained memories and experiences from working alongside you, and if another Roberto were produced to replace him, he would not be the same individual that you grew fond of.

But his sacrifice would save human life, which you can argue as being more unique and less replaceable than a machine.

You have 10 seconds to consider your actions. What is the morally correct action: pushing Roberto onto the tracks, or seeing Bob and Joe get mauled by the train?

This question is inspired by a question by Philippa Foot called “The Trolley Problem.”

-Paul Llanura

Week 7 – Panopticon Systems and Surveillance

In class we touched on the idea of surveillance and the all-seeing eye from the panoptical perspective.The panopticon works like this: An institution, presumably a prison, is overseen by a single watchman, by situating him in a centered vantage point in which he can potentially see every single other individual (or inmate) in the institution. Because the individuals within the institution are unaware of whether or not they are being watched, they are forced to act orderly. This could easily be extended to the public sphere. We talked about the implementation of this in a city atmosphere in which a one-way window could convey the possibility of police monitoring. In theory, it would likely deter thievery and crime in general.

Blueprint for the institution. Circular shape allows for a center which could potentially see every point.
Blueprint for the institution. Circular shape allows for a center which could potentially see every point.

I thought that this was a brilliant idea. Not only is it incredibly efficient, but it also cleverly takes into account the psychological state of individuals within a system. It works similarly to induction puzzles, which often involve considering the mental states of subjects within a scenario (as well as some math). You must often keep track of the assumptions that each subject can make in a given situation and use them to come up with a conclusion.

However, it crossed my mind that the concept of the Panopticon is heavily dependent on the idea that humanity is pessimistic. You can easily argue against the viability of a large-scale panoptic model. An inmate within a panopticon prison may simply assume that he isn’t being watched because statistically, he probably isn’t. The panoptical model assumes that people only consider the worst case scenario and doesn’t consider that an optimistic individual would consider their chances and assume that they aren’t under surveillance at all times.

Artist rendering of a panopticon prison from within a cell.
Artist rendering of a panopticon prison from within a cell.

The text considers the dangers of the increasing ubiquity of GPS technology in the sense that it has implications on the topics of “privacy, solitude, surveillance” (Wilson 291). Steven Wilson’s “The Telepresent” is a project in which individuals pass a present amongst each other. The object records data in the form of GPS coordinates and photographic images and makes them readily available on the web. Therefore, as it moves from individual to individual, it continually collects and communicates information to the internet while maintaining its disguise as a mere gift box. I think that this project really raises questions about the Internet of Things and the ethics of surveillance. In the future, many objects may not appear to be computers, yet unknowingly will be taking information from their surroundings. As computers become more prevalent and less visible, we have to consider how this will affect privacy and what laws (if any) would be capable of deterring the use of these technologies maliciously. While Wilson’s project is for an artistic purpose, it does foreshadow what could be extremely common in a future where all objects are connected to some kind of network.

I think these issues will become clear in the future as soon as paranoia is visibly getting ridiculous. Very self-conscious individuals will feel forced to inspect suspect objects, and people will act different depending on whether or not they are within a public space. Like the idea behind the panopticon, people will likely assume that they are being watched, and possibility of being watched will dictate behavior in a manner that will make people behave as if they are always being watched. Should we be concerned about a declining privacy levels in the future?

-Paul Llanura

Midterm – “Petit Mal” – Robots and Mechanical Autonomy

For the midterm I decided to take a good look at the section on Robotics in the Information Arts text. I was particularly interested in the work of artists in autonomous robotics and performing robots. Here is a portion of the paper that I wrote regarding this technology.

Artistic and technological approaches to robotics have led to several projects which have challenged concepts of machine independence and performance. In “Petit Mal”, a work of 1993-1995, Simon Penny drew from the fields of robotics and computer science to raise questions about social and cultural implications of artificial life in the context of public space and the real world. The work is composed an aluminum double pendulum, two bicycle wheels, two motors, a processor, sensors, a battery pack, and a floral tablecloth wrapping. These are combined forming a mechanical looking body which looks elaborate and mechanical yet playful. By using the form of a mechanical dicycle, the work raises questions about the necessity of the anthropomorphic characterization of contemporary robotics.

“Petit Mal” is an interactive, autonomous robot which travels within a public space, interacting with subjects which it perceives through its sensors. The interactions are visible through the robot’s movements in both its double pendulum body, representative of its chaotic design, and its wheels, which determine its positioning on the ground. Penny’s project goes against anthropomorphism in robotics by suggesting that a machine does not necessarily have to resemble a human form in order to be believably reactive and functional. “Petit Mal” is a robot that does not resemble any human form, as it doesn’t have any parts that are anatomically similar to those of a human. However, through its unpredictable and reactionary responses to stimulus, regardless of how simplistic, it demonstrates life and consciousness. Uniqueness is what gives an entity its life and identity, as that is what separates it from a program which runs a monotonous, generic code with a predictable result. Penny arguably creates life by creating a robot that responds uniquely and chaotically to its surroundings.

The value of “Petit Mal” is in how simplistic and barely useful it actually is. It opposes mainstream concepts of heavy functionality from machinery. There is not any complex processing going on within the computers of the robot. Instead, it portrays how a machine may be merely observant and aware of its surroundings. Like a child, it wanders a space, barely affecting it physically, but seeing its environment and traversing it in a curious manner. This child-like nature is also a result of the shape, form, and design of the robot. The bicycle wheels provide an elementary, rugged appeal and the domestic pattern of the tablecloth wrapping detracts from the seriousness that the otherwise aluminum-plated robot would exude.

-Paul Llanura

Week 5 – The Viability of Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

The other day my friend was telling me about some distant planets which were pretty big deal about a year ago. The one in particular that he mentioned was Kepler-22b, which is special due to its classification as a “habitable” planet. “Habitable” from a scientific, astronomy standpoint refers to the living conditions of a planet and their proximity to the ideal life conditions of Earth. Apparently, scientists have discovered several planets which could potentially harbor life. I thought this was pretty amazing discovery and I was eager to read more about it and check out some pictures. It was then that I realized our current limitations. The planets aren’t in our view, they are merely assumed existences based on observable light patterns. Several artists provided hypothetical renderings of planets, which displayed a bit of an interesting relationship between art and science. Science to a very high extent is dependent on artistic representation in order to aid what it has difficulties representing visually.

Kepler-22b, a "habitable" planet.
Kepler-22b, a “habitable” planet.

Artists and researchers have expressed a degree of curiosity and hopefulness in regards to potentially seeking out or making contact with extraterrestrial life. Wilson’s text wrote of the Arts Catalyst, a collaborative arts and research group which examined radio telescopes and other tools. They produced artworks based on the imagery from the use of the scientific devices and also presented the insights learned from their project through lecture. Richard Clar’s Spaceflight Dolphin takes a more blatant approach to space, launching a wire sculpture into orbit which releases dolphin signals to potential inhabited planets. In this case, we see how human culture and art is placed into the public sphere of the galaxy. I think it is inspiring to see science interact with art in a manner that is educational and visually pleasing as well.

To look at the various projects of Arts Catalyst: http://www.artscatalyst.org/projects

On the other hand, there are numerous critiques of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), all of which challenge space research and its value. Here are several of the criticisms along with some of the potential problems that I see with an increasing interest in space exploration.

  1. The decision of seeking out alien life should be agreed upon by an educated, majority representative body. If a majority of humanity thinks that it is a bad, potentially harmful idea, then it should not be approached by any means. The implications of continuing this kind of research would affect humanity on a large scale if there are results, and those affected should have a say on the matter.
  2. Steven Hawking postulated that extraterrestrial life is likely more intelligent than us, and therefore a threat. He also stated that the likelihood of us being discovered by them is much higher due to their probable greater advancements in technology. Using this kind of logic, however, you could reason that we would only discover primitive forms of life, keeping us free from harm.
  3. This kind of research is very expensive, with questionable benefit. We are a long ways from needing to relocate to a new planet, and it’s very possible that the discovery of new life could have an adverse effect on humanity due to the religious and ethical implications that would come into question.
  4. The motives for SETI may be motivated by an illogical manifest destiny mode of thought. Humanity is constantly looking for a new frontier to discover, and our consideration for other lives seems to always be on the backburner.
  5. We haven’t even discovered all that Earth has to offer. The ocean is a mystery on its own, and the amount of enthusiasm to discover its depths should be satisfied before moving on to other planets.

In this video, several different scientific perspectives consider the pros and cons of space research. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-2WMJX1z84

What do you think? Do the reasons listed above damage the viability of SETI? Why or why should humanity not consider continuing space-related research?

-Paul Llanura

“Mind Garden” – A Brainwave Induced Experience

Paras Kaul’s “Mind Garden” was a project that drew my attention due to its description as a “3-dimensional audio, visual, and neurolinguistic journey”. This was a description written in 1997, and it seemed very ahead of its time. The project simulates an environment based on readings from an electroencephalogram. It uses brain wave analysis and a variety of medias in order to attempt to interpret the thoughts of the participant. Based on the interpretation of the participant’s brain waves, the program develops forms and objects which the user may then experience. To me, this sounds like a limitless and amazing technological development. While “Mind Garden” was limited to a fractal garden, I would like to experience an even wider scope of virtual environments.

A funny condition with the project is that the clarity of the environment is heavily dependent on the participant’s ability to emit alpha and theta brain waves. These brain waves are associated with complex thought, making the project rely very much on the ability of the user. Therefore, the creators avoid blame; if you have a lackluster experience as a participant, it was due to your incompetence at releasing the correct brainwaves.

Visual representation of brain wave types.
Visual representation of brain wave types.

Walking around in a world that you have created through your own thoughts sounds amazing. The most primitive versions of this technology was limited to simple shapes and forms, but imagine the possibilities of an updated, graphically powerful program.

I’m fascinated that a project like this was a vision eighteen years ago. The program was developed for the sake of demonstrating the potential of brainwave interactive learning and healing, which had only recently emerged at the end of the twentieth century. With augmented reality and brainwave interpretation having a strong presence at CES last month, it seems that the experience of Kaul’s project, in regards to brainwave interpretation and 3d environmental systems is reaching greater levels of refinement. Emotiv Insight, a crowdfunded EEG headset, is a prime example of the advancements in brainwave technology while Oculus Rift is a electronic headset which hopes revolutionize augmented reality and artificial environments.

Emotiv Insight is a wearable electronic headset that tracks brainwaves through EEG and produces meaningful data that supposedly helps improve one’s mental fitness and health. They were funded by Kickstarter pledges in 2013, showing the considerable interest of the public in the type of product, as well as how crowdfunding may support technical and artistic pursuits in the future. You can check out some information about Insight here:


Emotiv Insight Headset
Emotiv Insight Headset

The Oculus Rift attempts to create an augmented reality experience. It is one that is primarily focused on gaming, but also supports augmented reality in general. I feel that Insight and Oculus are present-day equivalents to Kaul’s “Mind Garden”. It’s nice to see that interest is still strong in these fields, and I hope to try simulations that come about in the future.


Both technologies are exciting, yet I foresee objections to their implementation from a wary public. Virtual environments and augmentation can potentially blur the lines between reality and fiction. Also, playing with brainwaves is a very unnatural process, which could discourage some people from wanting to be involved. To a more extreme sense, it could even lead to social ostracizing if those seen using these future technologies are seen as something robotic and nonhuman in nature.

Still, I’m hopeful of the advances in the studies of brain waves, virtual environments, and the adventures they may bring.




-Paul Llanura