In a networked virtual world, interconnected participants are able to enter a dialogue and to interact with one another; they cannot actually do so, however, with the remote participants, but rather with the interpretation and representation of the data, transferred from the remote site(s). Thence, the process of the evolving dialogue in such tele-immersive scenarios is complexly interwoven with another liquid, hybrid and oscillating process, the one of 'becoming a subject'. The actual opacity of the individual sites, in that all sources, such as the participants' appearance, their input and in fact anything connected to the actual and physical on site, are only represented on the 'other site', holds something ambiguous, almost uncanny – opening the scope of something third, other in between. This article addresses the communication-inherent issues of disguise as they occur in tele-immersive virtual environments and examines the issue of presence, emerging from the interrelationships between the networked participants, their virtual representation, the underlying computer-controlled system, as well as between the virtual place and the physical location.
The issue of presence and embodiment in tele-immersive virtual environments differs from other virtual social spaces, such as chat rooms and current forms of online-games, in the human-scale, three-dimensional representation of the space and the user's manifestation - the so called avatar. One of the main purposes of networking such virtual environments is the visual and acoustic representation of remote participants as they share the same virtual space with one's Self, and thus creating a virtual meeting place somewhere in between the participants' remote locations. In such an environment, the tele-dialogue evolves based on an almost absurd scenario of disguise: While, locally, one is limited to communicate with an electronically masked opposite, this form of dialogue implies that also one's Self only appears to our 'human' opposite as its computer graphic incarnation, an avatar – which one is nevertheless identified with.
In a typical example of a networked scenario, multiple copies of the environment, as well as the representations of the users (avatars) are displayed at all client sites. Yet the fact that all modes of representations appear as an exact duplicate on the 'other side' does not represent a system-inherent condition, but is exclusively based on the intention of the programmer/designer and/or the convention all users of the tele-immersive environment share.
One possible reason for this common convention might be found in the primary impetus behind the development of virtual reality technologies itself, which is the most indistinguishable and controllable electronic replication of our physical reality, including its inhabitants. Assuming, however, that the shared data is based on mathematic descriptions and instructions, their form of interpretation and representation is entirely subject to the modality of the program/system – and thus, in most cases, also to the individual system of each remote recipient (client). How an environment is represented remotely and how users (avatars) appear and behave on each client's site is thus the expression of a (possibly selected) option, whereby the convention of reproduction is only one possible choice. As the temporary inhabitants are not able to actually enter the 'other' remote site—the virtual environment likewise cannot extend to another, remote place, but rather is generated at each local site (a server's location, respectively). The decision to which extent the data content can be reinterpreted and in which form it is represented establishes political and hierarchical structures—centralized network architectures, like the 'master-slave' model or the 'server-client' model, also shape our virtual architectures of communication.
The politicization of the virtual terrain is thereby partly inscripted by the environment's author and partly emerges from the opaque, disguising nature of the individual remote systems' signal and data processing. The author defines whether the participants are able to choose their own form of representation and how 'permeable', in general, the environment is designed, to which degree the user is able to modify its evolution and its outgoing and incoming signals, respectively, and which importance is attributed to the imagination and identity of the participating co-author. However much the users are accommodated, the implementation of such a representing mediator and translator in between will never result in a 'neutral' system. According to the aforementioned mathematic encoding of represented realities, any structure and instruction can be modulated, re-associated or replaced every single frame. Whether implemented as a time-based, narrative, or independently generative structure, such a potentially nonlinear sequence of dynamic, transformative events is very likely to entangle with the participants' subjective Self and its formation of identity.
For N. Katherine Hayles, Cyberspace opens common construction of body borders for transformative configurations, which always carry the trace of 'the Other'. The simultaneous estrangement of the self from itself and its cybernetic reconstitution as 'the Other' produces a "diffusion of subjectivity" that "constitutes a second mirror stage: the Mirror of the Cyborg." (Hayles 1993, 186) In my tele-immersive installation Ma a – Veil of Illusion, the interferences and distortions, caused by the system as a third, unknown participant, the allegedly 'other' in the system's own reflection of the participants' dialogue gains in fact a strange, ambiguous component. The project translates the Hindu-Buddhist notion of 'Maya' (Sanskrit: illusion) into an elastic veil, spanned between two remote, networked sites. The relationship between the Self and the virtual representation of one's Self and of the other remote participant becomes the cast of something third, other in the virtual layer in between. Although the veil's distorted mirror image remains the untouchable 'other', it spatially materialises the other participant's presence as it penetrates the electronic filter, occupying one's private local space. [fig.1,2,3]
The combination of immersive, embodying representation, networking technology and a performative, systemic translator in between opens yet another chapter in the concept of 'suspension of disbelief' in relation to contemporary media. In a tele-immersive virtual environment, the participants not only deal with a simple feedback loop (between themselves and the environment), but rather with a nesting of loops, in which the other (remote) sides are likewise involved. In other words, the participants pursue their dialogue via the dialogue with the virtual environment and the projection of their Selves. As addressed in Ma a – Veil of Illusion, the dialogue between the remote participants becomes entirely mediated – and consequently controlled by the underlying computer system, which might be more or less transparent to the users.
fig.1,2,3: Ma a – Veil of Illusion; local site in golden: EVL, UIC Chicago, remote site in blue: IAO Fraunhofer Stuttgart
After Frank Biocca, "inside the virtual world there is more than a computer graphic representation of the self, there is an internal subjective representation of the self, that is a model of the self's body and a model of one's identity." (Biocca 1997) Such a multi-layered identity-imagery, superposed by the aforementioned 'nested loops', turns the process of 'becoming a subject' into a liquid, oscillating and adventuresome journey. Being present in only one, single local environment, one's notion of presence can already take on the form of a spatio-temporal paradox: “At one point in time, users can be said to feel as if they are physically present in only one of three places: the physical environment, the virtual environment, or the imaginal environment. Presence oscillates among these three poles.” (Biocca 1997) Being additionally present at a remote site adds yet another vertex to the former triangularly shaped relationship; what kind of interrelationships evolve in case of multiple 'theres', at which we are present? Do they interrelate in a planar fashion, such as the triangle, or rather develop hierarchical dependencies? Or else, can we find in the virtual, multiple cloning of one's Self the already romantic notion of Deleuze-Guattari's nomad, redeemed from any –even virtual– territorial boundaries drifting in the "intermezzo" (Deleuze & Guattari 1987) of a rhizomatically unfolding Self?
In their realisation, however, tele-immersive virtual spaces appear much more introverted than extroverted, in the sense of actually stretching across the multiple remote sites. So it seems that we don't actually travel to distant places but rather bring them into our local environment – together with the (representations of the) remote users. Both, the sensuous experience as well as the process of interacting take place locally, ‘at home'. Thereby, the virtual place doesn't seem to be able to break away from its physical anchorage and the cybernetic transfer of our Self (still) seems to be somewhat uncanny. The most exciting aspect for remote users is commonly the fact that they are connected to other participants, located in Chicago and Tokyo, physical places they can relate to in their mental world map, rather than the fact that all of them actually –virtually—share the same space. Does this imply that the virtual place and the virtual body, materialised in virtually accessible environments, are coupled with one another in a similar way as we experience the physical and cultural boundaries in our daily life? It seems that space, however, will always rub against the body — in whatever form of reality.
Once, during a networking event at the Ars Electronica Center, Linz, Austria (EVL: Alive on the Grid, Ars Electronic Festival, 2001), connected to Amsterdam, NL, Chicago, USA, and some other remote sites worldwide, I was approached by a participant. "I don't believe that I am really interacting with all these remote people in Europe and America. How can you prove to me that it is not just a technical fake?" Well, I can't.