|E-Mail From Carl
Originally Published March 1995 by Mark J. Jones
Photo Courtesy Mano Tohei
Editor's note: It is with sadness that we announce Carl Loeffler's death on February 5th, 2001. Carl apparently collapsed in an airport, and there is speculation that it was related to a recent case of malaria from which he was recovering.
If you ever find yourself doing research in virtual reality, chances are you will come across the name Carl Eugene Loeffler. Loeffler is a pioneer in combining telecommunications with art, and is project director of Telecommunications and Virtual Reality at the STUDIO for Creative Enquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. Recently he and colleague Tim Anderson released a new book called The Virtual Reality Casebook (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1994), which, in addition to containing a hearty and thoughtful sampling of activity in the area of VR and art, contains one of the most extensive bibliographies and resource guides available to the academic and non-academic alike (the bibliography alone is 69 pages!).
Here, exclusive to CyberStage, and done through a series of e-mail exchanges, Loeffler describes his background, his early work, and his thoughts on where VR is headed.
MJ: I've gone through the material you e-mailed me. and I think we can slot an interview in for the March issue. As I was sitting here writing this message it occurred to me that an interesting angle would be to conduct the interview over email, kind of like an "Email from Carl" piece. It would give us some interesting design concepts, and we could avoid scheduling conflicts by getting around to each other's responses when we could. What do you say? If you like the idea, let's start with a personal angle: What is your background, and how did you become interested in VR? Who were your early mentors?
CP: I was raised on a small farm in Ohio, near Lake Eire. We weren't serious farmers, though. My father was a space engineer for TRW, and thought it was important to give us kids a neat place to grow up. Farms are wonderful, and I do think that experience has contributed to my development as a creative person. I was pretty isolated out there, so my imagination ran wild and turned everything into toys. My father worked on the Lunar Landing, Viking and Voyager, and earned a Presidential citation. I inherited his interest in science and systems. He loved to read sci-fi, me too. I just finished Snow Crash and loved it...
I am someone who has traversed in a wide range of electronic art media, from 1/2 inch open reel black and white video, to satellites, to television, to computer nets to distributed virtual reality. To work in virtual reality is the next step in visualisation technology. And it is the ultimate intermedia... so it is natural for me to work in VR.
And I have nearly 20 years experience as an electronic media artist behind me that I'm now bringing to VR.
I went to California in 1967, to continue my education. First I tried L.A., living in a beachtown -- Manhattan Beach actually. I didn't like LA, too big. So I went up to San Fransisco, and took a degree in art from California State University. I showed up there in 1969, pretty cool year. There, I was a dual art major -- studio art and art history -- so I studied lots and lots of art history. After completion, I wanted to go to graduate school to study conceptual art, but my professors advised me to go out and be a part of the conceptual art scene, [saying] that [it] was the best [thing to do to] understand it. At that point stuff like video and performance was not discussed at all, so I [decided to] start "Art Com" in 1974/75, and began creating lots of art and organizing projects.
I founded Art Com as a site for advanced art, and it still exists today. Art Com is active in 14 countries. Nowadays, it has a low profile in SF. The space was a gallery. Actually, in those days it was called an "artist run space" or "alternative space." Art Com was one of the first handful of such spaces in the U.S., such as the Kitchen in NYC. We had fun. Art Com is a non-profit organization, but nearly 90% dependent on earned revenue a path I put them on in 1983, and they are really happy about it now. The public funding here is politicized in a twisted sense, and is being cut way back. The California Arts Council barely exists, I saw them come into existence and go away.. amazing. So, for a decade I was responsible for staging a lot of experimental video and performance art in San Fransisco. While there I assembled an anthology about performance in California, called Performance Anthology.
Art Com never exhibited paintings or other more traditional art. It exhibited books as art, mail art, video, concept, performance, and sound poetry. We did a lot of electronic stuff, like transcontinental satellite performance events in 1977. In 1978 we got involved with slo-scan video and computer networking projects with similar Canadian art spaces. The Art Com organization had a kind of retrospect exhibition at SFMMA (San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art) in 1979, and I directed a project called "Artist's Use of Telecommunications" -- it took 2 years to set it up, and it was over in 2 hours! Essentially, a two way audio and slo-scan video link to Australia, Japan, Canada, Austria, and points in the U.S. This was the first time a slo-scan networked project found its way into a museum. It was neat to connect up like that. The organization was conducted over computer networks, largely the I.P. Sharp system, a Canadian teleconferencing company that donated connect time. We also used Atari computers that had acoustic couplers, built-in modems, and just printed out on paper, no screens! [On that project] I worked with Robert Adrian (Austria), Bill Bartlett (Canada), Liza Bear (NYC) Hank Bull (Canada), Eric Gidney (Australia), Ko Nakajima (Japan), Willoughby Sharp (NYC), and others.
I taught lots of courses at the SF Academy of Art, on both Art History and Studio Art. The Studio classes were about Video and Performance, and Video-Performance Art. Students would also help stage live Art Com events, a great learning experience. The Academy considered me a high risk, because I encouraged lots of experimentation.
Then, in 1991, I was brought in as a Research Fellow for The STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, a research facility in the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie-Mellon University. I proposed to conduct projects in distributed virtual reality. [My first task was] to build the only immersion-based VR lab at CMU from the ground up. I would guess that this is the first and only VR production facility in any art department in the US.
A still from the STUDIO
MJ: Tell me about some of the early works at CMU, when the VR lab was first constructed. How awkward was the system? The graphics, the response time, etc.? What did you learn from that early work in regard to the fusion of the human with the machine? What kind of sensibilities did the artists in the program bring to it?
CL: First it was the problem of introducing and arguing for VR as an art medium. And it was pretty much as my experience in the '70s when I argued for video and performance as an art medium. There is a kind of strange security in the way society repeats itself over and over. However I was lucky to be at the STUDIO which has a fairly open policy about art and investigation.
Initially, I had to forge many relations at CMU. Because my work is network-based, the first critical relation was with the Information Networking Institute (INI). I manage an independent program in distributed VR, and for this, I usually receive a small group who are doing graduate studies at CMU. Other relations include College of Fine Arts, Computer Science, architecture, and Software engineering.
Producing VR is very intermedial, and requires an intense systems integration of hardware and software. Same is true for the production team, a mix of highly specialized persons. It is near impossible to produce VR alone, as [compared to] painting for example. To produce VR, there is someone like me, the concept and content person, who understands the phases of production from start to finish. It is also important to understand the field of VR, and produce work that address, and investigates key developments. Then you need CAD (computer assisted design) modelers, visual artists doing texture maps, many C language programmers, telecommunication specialists, and sound artists. CMU is blessed with extremely talented graduate and under graduate students. It is a very good situation for someone like me ...I'm able to produce my best work to date here.
At the STUDIO, you are really expected to establish the support for your work. It is not a place where everything is paid for, and a interesting mix of industry and art resulted for me. A number of establishments came forward and helped very much. The first was the Computer Science department at CMU who loaned me a few IBM 486 clone machines to get things moving. Sense8 Corporation was extremely supportive from day-one, and encouraged us to continue developing the lab. Over the years applications were sponsored by various conferences such as the International Conference on Artificial Reality and Tele-existence, Siggraph, Virtual Reality Vienna. And also corporations such as the Ford Motor Company, Intel, and now Silicon graphics.
The early 486 machines were painfully slow, and I found myself either defending the technology or helping someone take off a head mount display who was suffering from motion sickness. When we moved over to the Pentium, and produced Virtual Ancient Egypt: The Temple of Horus, which was presented at the Guggenheim, things were much better. If you construct the application carefully, you can experience very nice performance using the Pentium. Presently we are investigating combining hyper-media and VR using the Pentium platform, it should prove very interesting.
Now we are also doing Virtual Pompeii for Silicon Graphics and the Archeological Institute of America, and this will be produced for an ONYX with a Reality Engine which offers another kind of experience.
I really enjoy working with the folks at Intel and Silicon graphics. The main focus has been a merging of content with technological performance issues. So that means they are interested in content-rich art that displays well on their machines. Or as someone at Intel said: "We're a cool company doing cool things with cool people!"
The Virtual Reality Casebook
(Currently out of print)
MJ: Where did the Virtual_Reality_Casebook come from? In the last couple of years we've seen book publishers go nuts with VR books, only for them to start cooling off on the idea lately. The Francis Hamit book (Virtual Reality and the Exploration of Cyberspace) is a good example, where the publisher declared it out of print even though it is an excellent book (*I* think) and it supposedly sold quite well. Is this reflecting the possibility that VR is a fad that will begin to decline in pop-culture status?
CL: The focus of the book is two fold: existing applications in the area of the arts and education in Australia, Canada, Scandinavia and the United States; and resources such as an extensive annotated bibliography, lists of production companies, hardware and software suppliers associated with virtual reality. We made sure that a lot of artists were represented in the publication, and it is available in three languages: English, Japanese, and Norwegian.
By largely focusing on existing applications, the anthology illustrates that virtual reality is internationally pervasive and subject to interpretation beyond military simulations. We decided to include very little references to the military because there are enough already, and what is necessary is to point to other purposes for the technology.
Based on the success of Virtual Reality Casebook , I'm invited to edit another anthology on the same subject. It will be applications based, and available as a printed edition and a CD-ROM as well. I've already begun the research. And now there are many more artists to include.
Is VR a fad? Yes, a very large one. Strange that is has become a household expression, and legions of people have this expectation that virtual reality will deliver them to someplace that they desire. Fuelled by the Holodeck in Star Trek and films like Lawnmower Man, the imagination of the public has gone wild. And when most people try it, they are disappointed with the experience and dismiss the technology.
On the other hand, the real work in virtual reality is just beginning, and this is being fuelled by a number of concerns. First and probably the most important, is the emergence of virtual reality in the arts. This is evident by the number of art and computer science departments establishing inter-disciplinary VR labs. "Movies did not flourish until the engineers lost control to artists" (Paul Heckel, 1991).
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