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very nervous system (vns): bending the mirror
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Bending the Mirror
Notes On The Many Transformations of David Rokeby's Very Nervous System
by Angus Leech

After more than twenty years of refinement and numerous awards, the technology behind David Rokeby's Very Nervous System has become the locus of a growing community of users. Angus Leech takes a look at the history of a new interactive tool called VNS.

Welcome to the Funhouse
To interactive artist David Rokeby, the human-computer interfaces he creates represent a kind of two-way "transforming mirror": they are prisms which filter and distort not only the computer user's view of reality, but the user's reflected "self-image" as well. (For further explanation, see Rokeby's essay Transforming Mirrors.) Meanwhile, in the case of Rokeby's first major interactive artwork, Very Nervous System, the metaphor of the prism has become active on entirely another level. For here is a single idea, call it an invention, which has been refracted into many practical and artistic applications. As a fun-house mirror, VNS has been bent to many uses.

Very Nervous System was officially born in 1986, and refers to a series of digital art installations in which Rokeby has used video cameras, image processors, computers, synthesizers and sound systems to set up physical spaces (city squares, gallery environments, swimming pools) in which the movement of human bodies triggers sound and music. Motions like walking or dancing through the space are detected by the cameras, processed by the computers, and translated into whatever audio the system has been programmed to respond with, from funky basslines to Chinese folk music. If the system is primed to play jazz, for example, different bodily gestures (say head motions and hand motions) effectively "play" different parts of the tune (say drums and trumpets respectively). The "dancer" then hears the music and responds with further motions in kind. As the Rokeby writes in The Harmonics of Interaction:

The sound propagates through air, enters the ear (and body) and travels through the transformations of human acoustic perception, the labyrinth of the individual's brain, and the tangled interface (psychological and physiological) linking mind and body, to manifest itself as further movement (or lack thereof) which completes a cycle and starts a new one.

Rokeby refers to the relationship between human and computer in this case as a tight feedback loop in which the computer "watches and sings" while the person "listens and dances": both are not only perceiving but also responding to the other in a constant state of rhythmic readjustment. In his essay The Construction of Experience, Rokeby notes that VNS thus encourages the user to become more aware of not only his or her body, but of the installation space as well. For some, the experience can even be "intoxicating and addictive" in a way that borders on the "shamanistic". Such users abandon logical reflection in favour of a more intuitive link between body and sound; self-consciousness is exchanged for a more direct and open involvement with the physical world.

The Harmonics of Opposition
VNS was born out of Rokeby's guiding instinct toward contrariness and his interest in the human body. As a medium, he found the computer to be extremely biased, and decided to work against these biases as much as possible. On his Web site, Rokeby explains the chain of reasoning that informed VNS as follows:

Because the computer is purely logical, the language of interaction should strive to be intuitive. Because the computer removes you from your body, the body should be strongly engaged. Because the computer's activity takes place on the tiny playing fields of integrated circuits, the encounter with the computer should take place in a human scaled physical space.

In a 1995 interview for Wired magazine, Rokeby explained to writer Douglas Cooper that this contrarian impulse applies to the field of virtual reality as well. He put it bluntly: "To go into virtual reality is not as interesting to me as to project VR into real space. I prefer the augmentation of normal space to the construction of an alternative space." Taking certain radical art-theorists (Stelarc; Hans Moravec ) to task concerning their feeling that the human body has become obsolete because it cannot keep up with the flows of information and experience that become possible in a digital age, Rokeby proposed an opposite value trajectory, noting, "I don't want to throw the body out. I'd rather adjust the environment: make the environment more appropriate to the body, instead of vice versa."

Rehabilitating Technology
This decision to construct a physical interface adaptable to the human body may go a long way toward explaining why VNS has turned out to have so many practical uses for medical professionals and rehabilitation centres working with persons with physical and sensory disabilities. Fine tuning VNS's motion tracking and video processing function has enabled a number of organizations and individuals who have purchased the system to apply it in ways initially undreamed of by its creator. For example, in 1989 the system was acquired and modified for a young paralyzed woman who was unable to speak or write. After a few simple adjustments, VNS became an augmentative communication tool. As Rokeby explained to Douglas Cooper,

"All she can move is her eyelids. Eye tracking won't work, since her eyes wander. So the system figures out the changing distance from her eyelash to her eyebrow, and she uses these eyelid motions to communicate in a highly optimized code. She's capable of typing fifteen words a minute this way."

VNS has also been used by rehabilitation programs to open up new possibilities for creative expression. For example, in 1994 Jutta Treviranus of the University of Toronto's Adaptive Technology Resource Centre began a virtual reality multimedia camp. The camp deploys VNS, as well as other VR technologies, as alternative access systems for children who cannot use more traditional instruments of expression. In an atmosphere of non-judgemental play, VNS is calibrated to the needs of each participant, allowing him or her to translate even poorly controlled gestures and facial expressions into music or visual images. Individuals who cannot hold a paintbrush or play a guitar use their bodies to become these instruments instead. The effect of opening hitherto restricted horizons for disabled participants can be remarkable, as Rokeby recalls in his conversation with Cooper:

I once demonstrated the work to a 5-year-old blind child. Amazing. The edges of the active area were like physical walls for him. He literally bounced off them the first time he ran into them. Walking into the space through silence and then hitting the edge where he was visible to the camera: suddenly he was making noise. It was quite startling.

Soft Reflections
The heart of VNS is its motion tracking and video processing capability, which Rokeby first developed in a primitive way for the pre-VNS installations Reflexions (1983) and Body Language (1984-86), and which he has continued to refine into the present, incorporating both new technologies and the wisdom of nearly twenty years spent watching audiences and other users interact with his work.

If the evolution of VNS has been enriched through this process, then so in a way has Rokeby himself, having had the good fortune (and acumen) to create an interactive system with a good deal of commercial potential. VNS has been licensed not only to rehabilitation centres but also to other artists working in the performance, music, video art, and interactive spheres. Since 1993 it has been sold as several generations of upgradable hardware (VNSI, VNSII, VNSIII), and in late 1999 the system was made available as the software application softVNS. In July, 2002 Rokeby released an updated and expanded version of this software, dubbed softVNS 2.

One explanation for the proliferation of VNS is its versatility. According to Nicholas Stedman, a Toronto artist who uses the system in his own interactive installations, softVNS represents "amazingly diverse software, considering what it was originally designed to do." Stedman notes that artists can use the system's motion analysis capabilities to play music, control video projections, function as a robot's vision, or feedback into whatever other computerized functions the artist desires.

Aside from this built-in flexibility, Stedman also points to a more external explanation for VNS's popularity, noting that Rokeby regularly promotes his software by holding workshops designed to educate other artists about the system. "The thing about David," says Stedman, "is that he's so helpful, and he supports the people who use the software quite a bit. So a huge community of users has grown up around it in Toronto and elsewhere." Rokeby, a member of Toronto's Interaccess electronic artist-run-centre, has been running VNS workshops there periodically since he began to develop the software version. The news has spread even further through Interaccess's user group for MAX, the graphical programming environment upon which softVNS runs.

Bending the System
While Rokeby has frequently expressed his enthusiasm for the sometimes surprising applications that others have found for VNS, the system has also been repurposed and reinvented numerous times by the artist himself in the course of creating new work. Several Rokeby installations, including (Perception is) The Master of Space (1990), Measure (1992-94), and 60 (1995) are essentially straightforward variations of VNS. The system has also played a functional role in many of the artist's more recent, video-based works, including Watch (1995), Silicon Remembers Carbon (1993-2000), and Shock Absorber (2001). VNS has also been used in collaborations with other artists, such as Border Patrol (1994-96), a work with Paul Garrin. Rokeby's most recent collaboration, Steamingmedia.org (2002) with Tapio Mäkelä, will feature several "submarine" versions of VNS installed in swimming pools.

In his essay Transforming Mirrors, David Rokeby remarks that one might take an extreme position and assert that a work of art is only truly interactive if both it and its audience are permanently changed through their interrelationship. He points out that few artworks contain the adaptive mechanisms to achieve this, but that often their creators take on this role, adjusting the work based upon the responses of its viewers, gauging their reactions to every little change. In such a case, the artist might be seen as a prism through which the transforming mirror (ie, the artwork) is itself refracted and transformed. While there have certainly been other artists and influences -- other prisms -- involved in the many transformations of Very Nervous System, it's clear that it has most often been Rokeby himself bending the fun-house mirror.

Angus Leech is the Assistant Editor of HorizonZero.

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