Archive for December, 2007

Human Love Affair with Reflection

Long before the development of the computer, the mirror was used as a medium for visual simulation. Virtual worlds were simulated for hundreds of years. The term ’virtuality’ originally indicated the opposite of reality: the virtual distinguishes itself from the real and denotes a fictional world. The mirror was the central instrument for the creation of a virtual world. The creation of illusion was its inherent function. The images that arise through the reflections on its surface exist only apparently. They reflect back another real image fictionally. [1]

The ability to capture the real world and reflect it back in a true to life or even distorted way was for a long time the sole privilege of the mirror. Today this ability is emulated via digital media technologies. Through the development of photography, film, radio, television and computers, today’s world is inundated with images that imitate the virtuality of the mirror’s image. [2] With the introduction of new mediums, not only the mirror but all forms of representation developed by man in the last five thousand years have been translated into digital form. As a consequence a variety of digital techniques for visual simulation have taken root that operate within the tradition of past mediums. They consistently fulfil the same goal: they satisfy the needs of the viewer and meet his or her desire for visual simulation. The content and purpose of the presentation haven’t changed, rather the technique and form have. Through the use of digital technologies new opportunities arise to satisfy man’s age-old desire for experiencing fictional worlds. Independent from content and fictional histories the desire for immersion is at the fore: in striving to experience fictional worlds we are searching for an experience similar to that of jumping into a swimming pool or into the ocean. The experience of being completely submerged in another reality. We enjoy leaving our familiar world behind and exploring the characteristics of the new environment. We want to swim around and see new possibilities arise. The feeling of experiencing virtually a fictional place is according to Murray “pleasurable in itself”. [3]
An early example for a working approach of new media applying the experience of immersion is the ALIVE project of the MIT Media Lab. Core component of the project is a “magic mirror”, in which the viewer finds himself next to a comic character who directly interacts with the user. The figure follows any movement of the user, appearing to have a live on its own within the mirror. The digital mirror of the ALIVE project is the interface that reflects the picture of the user in a virtual world. The function of the mirror is implemented in the hardware, in this case the camera that records the picture and the screen that visualizes the user next to the comic figure. In the development of new media, the camera is the central interface for users and the screen the visualization component. A more recent approach is the project Augmented Mirror by the Ambient Intelligence Group at MIT. The aim of the project is to develop intuitive interfaces using the mirror as the primary interface. The research goals for the future are described as „ investigating several applications of the technology, including communication with mobile phones to collect behavior data, face recognition to identify members of a family as well as clothing store application instant messaging application.“ The production of illusion in the 20th century was primarily overtaken by mass media photography, film and video, which were then displaced by the computer with its screen that Manovich also designates as “illusion generator”. [4] In the digital age analogue glass mirrors are displaced as a medium of visual production. In its place stands the digital screen as the dominant interface between man and computer.

Digital mirrors for an interaction with passers-by are also in the centre of the media façade presented here at The installation aims at encourage the debate on digital media and the research on s technological interaction possibilities and limits.

[1] Pendergrast, M. (2003). Mirror mirror: a history of the human love affair with reflection. Cambridge, Basic Books.
[2] Ryan, M.-L. (2001). Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore/London, John Hopkins.
[3] Murray, J. (1998). Hamlet on the Holodeck. Cambridge/Mass., MIT Press.
[4] Manovich, L. (2001). The Language of New Media. Cambridge/Mass., MIT Press.

Daniel Michelis (Excerpt from: D. Michelis, Observing Interaction with Public Displays, 5th European Interactive TV Conference, Amsterdam, May 23-25, 2007)


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