I run like I’m climbing an invisible staircase, in long loping steps. This may be due to prolonged childhood exposure to Saturday morning cartoons; other people soar like Superman, arms extended, or like soap bubbles, floating above the landscape of waking life. But Brenda Laurel doesn’t fly at all. She swims.
Beginning with her early career in the 1970s as a designer of interactive computer fairytales, Laurel has always done things her own way: she has been a telepresence researcher, a theatre actor, and a leading thinker in the field of human-computer interaction. She has held down shifts at both Apple and Atari. She’s been the CEO of her own games company, written four books, and regularly hunts the Pacific Ocean for abalone. And although it’s not particularly outside of her usual realm of conversation, she’s telling me how she flies in dreams because she is telling me about Placeholder, a piece of virtual reality she co‑created, in 1993, somewhere between an artwork and a technology demo, in the heart of the Canadian wilderness.
At the time, Laurel was working for Interval Research, a think tank in Palo Alto funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, but Placeholder was created at the Banff Centre for the Arts, in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, a geography from which the work samples extensively. “Experiences are said to take place,” she wrote in 1994, by way of explaining that Placeholder, a two‑person VR system custom-built on an SGI Onyx Reality Engine (“number two off the assembly line”), was inspired by three real places in and around Banff National Park, which encircles the mountain town of Banff: a cave containing a sulphurous hot spring, a magnificent waterfall, and the Bow River valley.
Participants in Placeholder – let’s call them immersants – experienced these places as impressionistic, interactive video landscapes, constructed in digital space from images and spatialised audio recordings taken by Laurel, her collaborator the filmmaker Rachel Strickland, and the small army of coders and improvisatory theatre actors they brought with them into the field. To achieve the desired recordings, the group came face-to-face with nature; Laurel’s husband, Rob Tow, even wore a pair of head-mounted microphones, under a rain poncho, into the twenty-metre-tall, near-freezing waterfall. “We were not concerned with achieving a high degree of sensory realism … a perfect audiovisual delusion of sticking your head in the ‘real’ waterfall,” Strickland wrote. “No, it gets more slippery than that. What we have really set out to capture or reproduce is just the simplest ‘sense of place.’”
An environment is one thing. But a sense of place emerges from much more than stereo recordings or well-shaded polygons: a place is the collective experience of all the living things within it, and all of the stories that they tell. The naturalist Barry Lopez writes of two landscapes: one exterior, comprised of the holy and distinctive order of a given place, its form, the changing qualities of its light, the unknowable, interrelated lives of its animal inhabitants, and one interior, comprised of the equally delicate interrelationships of mind, our thoughts and intuitions, our morality, as profoundly shaped by the exterior world as by any consequence of blood.
The purpose of storytelling, Lopez writes, is “to achieve harmony between the two landscapes, to use all the elements of story – syntax, mood, figures of speech – in a harmonious way to reproduce the harmony of the land in the individual’s interior.” Lopez’s understanding emerges from his time spent studying indigenous storytelling traditions; he cites the Navajo’s sung ceremonies and one particular night listening to wolverine-hunting stories among the Nunamiut of Alaska. A story right with its landscape can touch truth “alive and unpronounceable,” he writes, bringing the natural world into balance with the mind, although it needn’t be encyclopedic to do so; the shifting order of nature is too much to capture, at any level of resolution.
Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland, both close readers of Lopez’s work, found this notion profoundly validating. In sampling the Canadian Rockies, they abandoned photorealism, focusing instead on evocative details – a four-point sample grid of waterfall recordings, modelling the field of sound that moving water creates – and story. To create Placeholder’s immersive storyworld, Laurel and Strickland enlisted the help of a theatre troupe in Banff, the Precipice Theatre Society, known for “rollicking, commedia-style performances” throughout Western Canada highlighting environmental issues; as a largely improvisatory troupe with little knowledge or understanding of computers, let alone virtual reality, they became “ideal collaborators” on the Placeholder project, workshopping the behaviours and vocalisations of the work’s four archetypal critter‑characters — Snake, Fish, Spider, and Crow — on field trips into the wilderness.
Beyond the character development, the actors helped Laurel and Strickland tease out the fundamental affordances of each space. On their first outing to Placeholder’s hot spring cave, for example, the actors brought candles; in the flickering darkness, Laurel describes, “we did animal voices and toning and just kind of wandered around in the fantasy of that spot,” and “when it came to capturing it we had the knowledge that the most important thing about that space was its acoustic properties;” accordingly, they used Yamaha sound processors to imbue the Cave world with reverb, emulating its real‑life echoes.
When it came time to script the work, Laurel drew from audio recordings of the troupe’s improv sessions, both in the field and in the studio, then cast actors in the roles of Snake, Fish, Spider, and Crow, processing their voices with stylised filters that would become each creature’s signature. In the final work, immersants were drawn to the creatures by voice, “fragments of narrative” emanating from petroglyph-like animal forms. Each of these forms was both a character and what Laurel and Strickland called a “smart costume,” a set of perceptual abilities and gestural commands designed to give each immersant a first-hand perspective of another creature’s sensory experience. That is to say, in approaching the crow, a person suddenly became the crow; when they spoke, they did so in Crow’s digitally-processed, cawing voice, and when they moved their arms, they took flight across the river valley.
Which brings us back to how we fly in dreams. While designing the smart costume for Placeholder’s Crow character, Laurel surveyed strangers on the streets of Banff, looking for some consensus on the conventions of dream‑flight, figuring dreams to be a useful analogue for virtual reality. She found little commonality; some flew like Superman, some made “a hydrofoil kind of shape with their hands behind their body.” None of these seemed to align, either, with what was by then the standard for flying in VR, a mode invoked by pointing two figures, itself a gesture with no mimetic relationship to anything in the living world. Dejected, she sat down on a park bench. A murder of crows landed nearby. She realised, “Oh I see, you fly by flapping your wings,” and headed back to the lab, where, after Rob Tow added some memory to the computer system — to count flaps — she donned headset and sensors and flapped her wings until the system sent her all the way out of the world.
Placeholder is full of such bodily considerations. It did not attempt to give its immersants the “now‑iconic disembodied hand,” for example. Looking down, a person in Placeholder’s virtual wilderness would not see a skeletal wireframe or an odd hand‑like glove, but rather two points of light, actuated by custom “grippees.” And instead of relying on head‑mounted trackers to determine the direction its immersants hoped to travel, Placeholder was one of the earliest virtual realities to separate gaze and direction of movement, so that — quite naturally — a person could stand facing in one direction while looking in another. They accomplished this with a sensor on the pelvis, understanding that a person’s hips are a much clearer indication of their direction than their head.
Laurel’s research at Interval, Atari, and her previous company, Telepresence Research, had led her to believe that men, in particular, found virtual reality to be an “out of body” experience, while women described it as a new form of embodiment. Motivated by this distinction, she and Strickland were resolved to bring the body back into virtual space by any means necessary. Their approach to sensor placement and natural gesture, which nearly compensated for the system’s terminal lag – even on thirteen computers (“and a lot of duct tape”), Placeholder ran at twelve frames a second – accomplished a “not-so-obvious goal” of “making humans aware of being embodied” in virtual space.
In her academic writing about Placeholder, Laurel uses the German word Umwelt, characterised by the biologist Jakob von Uexküll as “the organized experience – or point of view – unique to any creature, which depends on that particular creature’s sensory and cognitive apparatus.” After experiencing the Umwelt of another living thing, Placeholder’s immersants emerged from the experience newly conscious of their arms, their legs, and even their own sensorium, just as we might emerge from a theatre seeing the world, anew, as merely another stage.
This is no coincidence; beyond the participation of the Precipice Theatre Society, Placeholder drew extensively from Laurel’s background in theatre; her PhD is from Ohio State University’s Department of Theatre, theory and criticism, and her most influential book, Computers as Theatre, compares successful software to a play; code, like a script, runs differently with each performance, and “when the audience is directly engaged with the action of the play, [the interface] literally disappear[s] from conscious awareness.”
There is always a performative element to headset VR; with our senses elsewhere, our bodies stagger around foolishly, often gathering their own audience. When the Precipice troupe tried Placeholder, their “physical fluidity and improvisational skills made their interactions in the environments a joy to watch,” Laurel observed, from her vantage point behind glass, at the helm of the computer system. As Placeholder’s director, she performed in real time as “The Goddess,” an overseer guiding immersants through the system by piping cheeky suggestions directly into their heads.
These choices represented an explicit deviation from the conventions, language, and reference points of computer science research, which was nevertheless the context in which Laurel and Strickland existed. At the time of Placeholder, Laurel was already a highly recognisable figure in the world of human-computer interface design, having worked under Alan Kay at Atari, participated in Apple’s Human Interface group and edited The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, a classic anthology featuring essays by such luminary figures as Timothy Leary. This makes Laurel and Strickland’s working motto for Placeholder – “No Interface” – all the more striking.
Their supposition, borne out by few VR designers since, was that the medium necessarily precluded the need for an interface, which is after all only an intermediary between the human body and the screen. In full immersion, in a properly-designed virtual experience, we should be able to interact with the digital realm precisely as we interact with the physical world, one to one. The very idea of a pull-down menu, in virtual reality, sends Brenda into a snit. “You have to be totally present,” she explains. “You need to be unconstrained and present. I want [VR] to be the door opening into color in the Wizard of Oz. I want it to be arresting and utterly consuming.”
Of course, pull-down menus remain rampant in VR, along with immersion-shattering cursors and windows, head-mounted direction tracking, and “out of body” approaches that leave immersants – and particularly women, for that matter – nauseous and disoriented. VR is not the first nor the only technology to suffer from a lack of insight into its own past, but it may suffer from that lack the most. Despite a massive influx of venture capital into VR startups and plenty of high-profile VR hardware projects from companies like Samsung, HTC, and Microsoft over the last few years, consumer adoption so far hasn’t matched the hype. When Facebook purchased the VR hardware company Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion dollars, Mark Zuckerberg pledged to get one billion people using the technology; the company has not yet reached even one percent of that goal.
“What frustrates me most is that we learned some shit that some people aren’t paying attention to,” Brenda says. Separated by a generation, today’s practitioners are “probably not even aware of what was built in the early ‘90s, mostly by women.” She cites the Canadian artist Char Davies — whose 1995 VR work, Osmose, featured a breathing interface — but there were many, many women working in VR in the mid‑1990s: the artist Nicole Stenger created Angels, the first real-time interactive immersive movie, during a research fellowship at MIT in the late 1980s, and the computer engineer Carolina Cruz-Neira invented the CAVE automatic virtual environment, a room-scale VR environment projected onto the floors and walls of a room-sized cube, for her PhD dissertation at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1992.
“It’s like the past is erased somehow, and part of that is smarty-pants entrepreneurship,” Brenda laments. “But most of it is that — I will say this one and I will say it quickly — today’s practitioners do not have the benefit of a liberal arts education. They don’t know anything about art and they don’t know very much about research. They’re right in the now bubble.” Perhaps it’s not entirely a question of research; although rare is the commercial VR experience that fully considers the questions of embodiment and interaction in the way Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland did with Placeholder in 1993.
Perhaps it is also a question of agency: the active forms of expression and play ostensibly made possible by a virtual reality headset and sensors. One of Placeholder’s key affordances was a set of totemic objects, or “voiceholders,” stones with faces to which immersants could whisper secrets. The voiceholders quite literally held voices, playing them back as recordings to whoever chanced by, an auditory evocation of the markings people have made on landscapes since Paleolithic times, and, as Strickland writes, “the virtual equivalent of footprints, graffiti, and shadows, planting flags on the moon or peeing in corners.”
Leaving a mark on the landscape might be a deep-seated human impulse, a shortcut between the exterior and interior landscapes, and a way of transcending our limited ability to be in two places at once. Although VR allows us to be both here and not here, there and not there, it doesn’t give us what a simple etching gives us: permanence. Indeed, our sense of being in a place is only reinforced by the possibility of leaving something of ourselves behind there, whether we choose to do so or not, and in this sense Placeholder’s voiceholders mimic the most fundamental affordances of the natural world.
In National Parks and protected wilderness areas around the United States, signs often implore visitors to “take only photographs, leave only footprints,” but we cannot exist in nature without changing it — we breathe, we disturb the dust, we are, like everything alive, porous. An environment that is truly responsive, as opposed to one that simply responds, is one we can alter, even destroy. But if that’s true, so is the opposite. Brenda Laurel’s recent writing goes so far as to posit that the endgame of immersive reality — she goes beyond just VR to include augmented and mixed reality technologies in her argument, which is just as true for all technology — should be to help its immersants “understand and enact the Good.”
She writes about Gaian interaction design, an approach to the design of computer systems taking into account the complex perceptual feedback loops and ecosystems of the living world, its “nested entities” and their interrelations, which include us; in a recent paper, “AR and VR: Cultivating the Garden,” she outlines an acutely beautiful scenario in which children tend a community garden while learning Native American folk stories and chatting with their compost in augmented reality. These things can easily be done with available technology, she writes — what’s lacking is the will.
Perhaps it’s a consequence of the vast and irrevocable commercialisation of computing technology, of the great flattening of “cyberspace,” which once included undefined new realities like VR, into a series of vertices facilitating consumption and entertainment, that such an ecologically-oriented approach seems so idealistic, even naive. But as Brenda Laurel herself discovered in working with theatre actors in the realm of stories, myths, and landscapes, it is sometimes the most naive among us who have the keenest sense of a technology’s potential. VR doesn’t need to obliterate the world; it needn’t be an escape from reality. Instead, technologies like VR can bring us into equilibrium with the world again, can allow us to perceive our bodies.
“At the end of the day, this was a spiritual project,” Brenda says, of Placeholder. “It was a spiritual quest to see how close the digital could get to the experience of being in the natural world. And what we might add to the experience, to heighten our experience of the natural world and what we get out of it.” I once caught Brenda Laurel crying after a demo of Tree, a VR film told from the perspective of a kapok tree in the Amazonian jungle, which, when we both tried it at the Versions VR conference at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, in 2017, was supplemented by fans, heat lamps, and an attendant burning incense, to simulate the sensations of a forest fire.
The true inheritors of Placeholder are games, which traffic more explicitly in the agency Brenda sees as being fundamental to true VR; I see echoes of Placeholder in David O’Reilly’s Everything, in which players hop from one embodiment to the next, by turns becoming leaves of grass, insects, horses, mountains, planets, levels, the game itself; I feel them in the games of the Santa Monica‑based studio thatgamecompany, Flow, Flower, and Journey, which have no adversarial objectives and instead evoke the actions of the living world, blossoming, flowing, evolving, and moving towards the sun. As Laurel herself knows, the opportunity space for Gaian technology is great, and the scales at play can boggle the mind; we must be aware “of the largest‑order entity even when we are considering the smallest.” For in the little, we can behold the great; in the wilds of the landscape, order for the inside of our minds; in the flight of a bird, an interface beyond our dreams.
- ^ Brenda Laurel, Rachel Strickland, Rob Tow, Interval Research Corp., “Placeholder: Landscape and Narrative In Virtual Environments,” ACM Computer Graphics Quarterly, 28:2, May 1994.
- ^ Barry Lopez, “Landscape and Narrative,” in Vintage Lopez, New York: Vintage Books, 2004, p. 9.
- ^ “Placeholder: Landscape and Narrative In Virtual Environments,” ACM Computer Graphics Quarterly, May 1994.
- ^ Brenda Laurel, interview with the author, 25 September 2018.
- ^ “Placeholder: Landscape and Narrative In Virtual Environments,” ACM Computer Graphics Quarterly, 28:2.
- ^ “AR and VR: Cultivating the garden,” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 25:3, Summer 2016.
- ^ Brenda Laurel, “Gaian IxD,” ACM Interactions, vol. VXIII, no. 5, September/October 2011, p. 43.
Claire L. Evans is a Los Angeles‑based writer and musician. She is the author of Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women who Made the Internet (Penguin Random House), the singer and coauthor of the pop group YACHT, and the founding editor of Terraform, VICE’s science‑fiction vertical.
Brenda Laurel hugging a tree on the trail to the Panther Falls, Banff National Park, 1993. Courtesy Brenda Laurel