Digital Essay by Brian Michael Smith and
Jinsil Hwaryoung Seo, PhD.
Texas A&M University
Synapteos is a body of work that explores the cosmic synaptic, a concept I visualized after reading Frank White’s The Overview Effect — Space Exploration and Human Evolution. White described the role of the astronaut/space pioneer as one that not only pushes the boundaries of human ambition but as one that must also relay experience to the rest of humanity in order to progress human evolution through the exploration of the cosmos. The effect is specifically linked to the perception of Earth as a fragile ball “hanging in the void” with an imperative to protect the planet and its inhabitants by the creation of a planetary society without borders.
Immersion in a virtual space creates a personal experience, an exploration to a place unknown and exotic yet totally real in the context of the virtual world. The design of the installation reflects the virtual aesthetic and thus manifests itself in physical reality.
The name Synapteos was derived from the Greek sýnapsis (connection, fusion) and Ēōs (dawn) as a representation of the idea of a new age of interconnectedness between humans and the universe, as well as our continued integration with technology that allows for extraterrestrial exploration through internal exploration into an individual’s mental state.
Synapteos is an extension of the idea of the sublime as described my Immanuel Kant, based on the idea that the mind is afraid of what the mind cannot comprehend, so the internal search for the infinite within our own minds results in altered mental states. The altered state is the key to unlocking the Overview Effect, and the main pursuit of this installation.
1.1 The Overview Effect
Frank White’s theory on the Overview Effect was the primary inspiration for this installation. He has a romantic notion about space, or rather, space exploration. He insists that the experience of space flight is essential for humanity. This idea came from the many documented interviews with astronauts and cosmonauts after their flights, where they report what White describes as a “cognitive shift” in their perception of the Earth and its fragility as it is reduced, in their minds, to a delicate blue sphere hurling through the nothingness of space, and experience life on earth as a “unified whole.” He states that the Overview Effect is a “message from the universe… to all of humanity” and everyone needs to experience it. White believes that for humans to progress to the next level of evolution it is necessary for us, as a species, to be capable of leaving the surface of the planet, and that only through the exploration of the cosmos will the collective consciousness of humanity become mature enough to treat our home planet and fellow humans with respect. This is vital to the continued existence of our species.
White states that there are two “basic approaches” for relaying this message to people. The first impractically suggests that we just send more people into space through space tourism. Even though it’s been almost 30 years since White wrote his book space tourism is almost just as inaccessible today. This leaves us with the alternative—a “communication-oriented approach of replicating the experience.”
1.2 The Sublime Aesthetic
Rather than showing a literal version of going into space I wanted to create an abstract visual experience to evoke the emotion of space travel as I interpreted it based on the astronaut interviews Frank White gathered in The Overview Effect. From the descriptions given by the few who have been into space I felt a strong correlation between what the astronauts saw and experienced and the sublime aesthetic as described by the philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Kant’s description of the sublime can be described as a feeling of overwhelming grandeur mixed with fear that, as opposed to being an unpleasant experience results in a feeling of pleasure. These conflicting emotions contrast and create the feeling of the sublime. The sublime is also formless and is attached to some notion of morality or “profound implications” (Burnham), which aligns well with White’s description of the overview effect. With this in mind it can be concluded that the overview effect doesn’t not need to be attached to the act of going into space, but can be of a more abstract form which conveys the same message and uses the sublime aesthetic.
Elizabeth A. Kessler also explores the connection between space and the sublime in her book Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime. She introduces the Hubble images by first comparing them to 19th Century paintings of the American West. At the time of their conception the American West was new frontier, and represented the unknown, the grandiose, and a sense of awe. The troubling history of Manifest Destiny aside, the images of painters like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran effectively used the sublime aesthetic, and images of the cosmos have no trouble drawing comparisons to these paintings. Space is the new frontier now, and the imagery inherently evokes the mathematical sublime.
1.3 Virtual Reality
To create a work to stimulate a cognitive shift feel real enough to evoke feelings of the sublime. In order to accomplish this immersive visualization through virtual reality hardware was used. Immersion is used to “[blur] distinctions between image space and real space”(Grau, 2004) which will be necessary to achieve the effect of space travel. The relationship between the work and the “immersant” (Davies, 1998) needs to feel real. Virtual reality technology allows for a fully interactive experience that draws the immersant in to the virtual space to create the illusion of reality.
I was largely inspired by the writings about Char Davies’ Osmose, a virtual reality art installation that explored the dissolution of the barriers between “interior, exterior, mind, body and nature.” Unfortunately I may never get to experience the piece personally, but Davies documented he process extremely well, and art critics from the time wrote extensively about it. Much of the work explores the nature of virtual space and immersion as a medium and attempts to understand the role of virtual reality in art, as well as its effectiveness at immersing the participant. Her musings on the way virtual reality could be used to alter the mental state of the participant particularly resonated with the notion of using virtual reality technology to simulate the overview effect.
However, Davies’ work was developed twenty years ago. Twenty years ago virtual reality head- mounted displays were not available commercially as they are today. The inclusion of commercial hardware like the Oculus Rift (which is the technology I used for Synapteos) has changed the field of virtual reality art. Davies used expensive specialized hardware to create her installations, in contrast to the readily available and relatively simple-to-use Oculus Rift. This means virtual reality art can’t rely on spectacle to win over the user. Based on my personal experience while working with Virtual Reality it appear that the novelty is wearing off on many people, although this project may have still benefited from people’s general interest in virtual reality installations. In the future it will be more challenging, and projects like this will have to be better that installations have been in the past.
The project was multi-faceted and involved the integration of physical computing, programming, and construction. As the design of the concept progressed through digitally conceived iterations an aesthetic began to form that would encompass the entirety of the project. The “low-poly” aesthetic, as it is known, was effective at being simultaneously familiar and foreign.
2.1 Early Concept
Synapteos is about understanding one’s place in the universe. It seeks to unlock some form of transcendence by enlightening the participant through abstract visual imagery that is intended to create an open narrative about connecting with the cosmos. The idea was to tell the story about a space traveler from another galaxy wandering aimlessly from planet to planet, looking at the stars and trying to find its place in the universe. When an participant puts on the head-mounted display they place themselves into the role of this traveler.
For the design of the traveler I imagined it as a transcended human that had transformed beyond natural human form. In The Overview Effect astronauts and the space pioneers are described like nerves for humanity, reaching out and sensing for everyone who cannot in order for us to understand the overview effect. This idea led me to sketch a “humanoid nerve” based on microscope images of a human nerve cell.
The choice to use “low-poly” art style, as it is known, was a conscious choice. I wanted to avoid very literal and realistic visuals for this project because I wanted the immersion to happen within a stylized space to avoid the problem of the “uncanny valley” as well as create a distinctive visual experience that would leave a greater impression on the viewer.
Low poly art has not been in existence as an aesthetic style for very long. In the article A Comprehensive History of Low Poly Art Tim Schneider states that “‘low-poly’ could not exist as a category until high-poly became an option” (Schneider, 2014). It is a style that was original created by limitations of the hardware and software of the time, and as time progressed the graphics become more realistic, making the goal of graphics to push realism above all else. If polygons are the building blocks of 3D digital art then showing the individual polygons is like an impressionist painting—you aren’t concerned with the detailed rendering of a thing as much as you are concerned with capturing its essence.
The harsh angles, wide expanses of color, and geometric quality of low poly art reminded me of images taken by Mars rovers and other image gathering probes and satellites of other planets, and aerial photos of Earth. This is totally contrary to Davie’s work on Osmose, where she tried to make the virtual environment as organic as possible, and made every effort to hide the installation’s digital nature. By embracing the low-poly, digital aesthetic Synapteos claims the bold notion that virtual reality can have the same impact as a real-world experience.
This aesthetic also works as a metaphorical function for the limits of human perception and cognition of the universe. We try to break down the universe into local scales that we can rationalize, in relation to our local solar systems. As one of the participants said after experiencing Synapteos, “it made me think of the math behind the whole thing, and the relationship of the distances to the polygons.”
2.3 Visual Design
To stylistically visualize a foreign planet I drew inspiration from images taken by the Hubble telescope and the NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity. The colors I derived from Hubble images of nebula and galaxies. The color palette of orange, red, blue-green, and dark purple have strong association with space imagery, largely thanks to the images composited from Hubble photography.
The bleak and beautiful images of Mars captivated me when they were released to the public. Curiosity has been sending back true color images of the nearby planet, and looking at those images one cannot help but notice the similarities between Mars and Earth. The subtle differences give away the fact that it is, in fact, a picture from another world, whether it’s the unearthly color of the dirt or the blue color of the Martian sunsets. This simultaneous experience of the familiar and unfamiliar gives these images a sublime quality that I wanted to replicate when rendering the planet for Synapteos.
2.4 Low-Poly Method
There are different stylistic approaches to creating low-poly art. The style popularized by digital artist Timothy Reynolds isn’t actually about being “low-poly” in the literal sense, but is more about showing the polygonal quality of the models (Schneider, 2014).
His style is something that he obviously spent a great deal of time refining. It’s a divergence from animation and visual-effects industry standards for creating 3D models. In the computer graphics industry models have evenly distributed polygon meshes for ease of animation and to keep the polygons smoothed out and hidden. In early video game technology the polygons were reduced
for the sake of speeding up the render time, but weren’t necessarily trying to be stylistic. The end goal was still to make things as “realistic” as possible.
My low-poly work merges contemporary and “retro” computer graphics by retconning modern techniques. When creating something I would always start with a high-poly mesh to get a basic form. Then I would do a series of polygon reductions and triangulation before I would manipulate the mesh by hand, cutting away at the high-poly mesh like a sculpture cuts away from a block of marble. This technique creates a distinctive look that, because of the way the mesh was reduced, has an organic, uneven look. This creates a welcome tension in the aesthetic, making it look simultaneously organic and synthetic.
One of the challenges of working with virtual reality is figuring out a simple and intuitive interface method. Video game controls are a common method today, but those often require the participant to have previous knowledge of the layout of the controller. Using gesture or motion controls is also an option, and the technology to develop these controls is now readily available and easily customizable. Using these available motion control technologies I was able to design a unique interface purpose built for this installation.
I came up with a plan to build a chair that works with motion controls. The idea is that the participant sits in the chair with the head mounted display on and leans to control movement within the virtual space. To give freedom of movement I decided to simply put the chair on a and have all the movement recorded on a six-axis accelerometer for interfacing with the computer. I then mapped the data from the accelerometer to movement in the virtual space.
3.1 Chair Design and Construction
The shape of the chair was designed to reflect the aesthetic of the virtual space and bridges the divide between the virtual and the physical. This conflict between the perfection of the digital design and the imperfection of reality reiterates the same tension occurring in the low-poly design of the virtual space.
Because of the inconsistent sizing of the polygon faces in the design fabrication of the chair was no easy task. I used a CNC routing machine to cut out each of the panels, but I could only cut them straight. The shape of the chair required pieces to line up by both size and angle so the final form would come out looking like the concept. It was a difficult task that had a lot of payoff when it was finished. The result was a design that looked like it belonged in a virtual space more than the real world.
The overview effect is an idea that has been widely accepted within the space community and is still a driving motivational idea among scientists and engineers in the field (Faust 2015, Clow). Art has an opportunity to interpret this concept for people , and virtual reality could one day be very effective and creating incredible virtual experiences for people that would not be able to experience something in real life.
When I debuted Synapteos it seemed well received. Participants would comment on the effectiveness of the project to give them a sense of presence within the virtual space. I recorded some of the participant feedback, and one said “The feeling that I got was one that I felt like I was diving in to something continuously, like I was entering new space. On the whole I felt like I was moving into something rather than feeling like I was somewhere else.”
I interpreted this as meaning that while the installation felt immersive, it didn’t necessarily create an altered mental state.
The chair design created a more successful illusion, as people found the connection between the chair design and the virtual design to be effective. One participant said of the chair,
“It has an ergonomic quality to it; it looks like you should sit in it even though it doesn’t really look like a chair. And it looks like your arms would wrap around it in an interesting way. The idea for the navigation and having the chair envelope you is really interesting.”
I consider Synapteos to be an ongoing body of work. While reception was of the piece was generally positive I never got the impression that it was evoking any sort of cognitive shift as described by the overview effect. Virtual reality technology is a rapidly evolving field of research and artistic exploration. The actual devices for virtual reality are changing drastically and getting more options which make the experience more immersive.
I believe it’s important for people to experience the cognitive shift described in The Overview Effect. It’s a bold idea, but one that could change the way people think about themselves and every other living thing on the planet.
Burnham, Douglas. “Immanuel Kant: Aesthetics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9 May 2015. Web.
Clow, David, et al. “11 Flying in Deep Space: The Galileo Mission to Jupiter (Part II).” Davies, Char. “Osmose: Notes on being in immersive virtual space.” (1998): 65-74.
Faust, Jeff. “Review: The Overview Effect.” The Space Review, 19 Jan. 2015. Web. 8 April 2015.
Grau, Oliver. “Virtual Art: from illusion to immersion.” MIT press, 2004.
Kant, Immanuel, and John T. Goldthwait. “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime.” Univ of California Press, 1960.
Kant, Immanuel, Paul Guyer, and Eric Matthews. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Kessler, Elizabeth A. “Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime.” (2012).
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