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This article was published in Leonardo, The International Journal of Art and Science, New Art Foundations Issue,"Cognition, Perception, and the Computer, Vol. 23, No. 2, Editor: Roger Malina, Berkeley, CA, June 1990.


This paper presents the idea that the way in which human beings perceive reality is undergoing change as a result of being exposed to 3D computer imagery. The premise is supported by views taken from the fields of Phenomenology and Information Science. The impact on global society and the changes that may be expected are expressed as a direct outgrowth of the juxtaposition of humans sharing their accumulated experiences in 3D image databases. Thoughts about how perception is being altered is expressed and material for the instruction and understanding of working with computer imagery is provided.

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This article is about phenomenology, information science, sociology, perception and 3D computer images. It is also about evolution, understanding and expression. The article is motivated by observing a wide range of interpretations on the meaning of computer generated imagery. These issues range from putting computer imagery into a historical art context (1) for understanding, to views that the computer is code dependent (2), and, therefore, the images which one can make on the computer have basic constraints ,and have limited modes of expression to offer the user.

The larger issue, from a sociological perspective, stems from the bridging of the artistic process with technological methodologies. My first major encounter with this schism came in 1970 as one of the many who first entered the doors of Walt Disney's legacy to the art The California Institute of the Arts. I entered the design department to explore new relationships with media tools which for me, at that time, included lasers, electronic music synthesizers and video studios. The dance department, as well as the art department, and even the traditional music department found it increasingly difficult to understand why anyone in art school would embrace technology as a creative medium.(3) Afterall, technology was too mechanical, insensitive, highly sterile and , therefore, non-artistic.

However, as Bach and Chopin melodies would drift into the evening air over the olive groves of the then Villa Cabrini Nunnery, the first site for CAL ARTS, so did unusual electronic sounds, and every once in a while a thin pencil like beam of light from a helium neon laser could be seen laced through the evening fog around the rose gardens.

So, what does all this have to do with cognition, perception and the computer? Well, by the sounds of discontent and confusion that exists in trying to place computer images in their proper historical context I would say quite a lot. Some things never change, and it seems the language to be developed for defining creative visual work done on the computer is still in a quandary as it was when trying to understand electronic music and laser imagery. The confusion between real art, real design and how these forms are executed on a computer has not been sufficiently understood by those critics who are constantly trying to associate creativity done with technology and especially with work executed on a computer.

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The most recent confusion with computers centers around the words visualization and imagery. But the confusion here concerns itself on a descriptive level with the meaning of these words and does not enter the levels of understanding which refers to the inner manipulation of verbal symbols that coincide with the visual symbols created on a computer. The difficulty I am going to have in writing this paper, and the difficulty for you the reader is to define a common ground of meaning with terminology so some sense of continuity will result in what I have to say.

Basically the problem for the both of us is going to be in using words and linguistics to conjure up visual metaphors(4) which describe what it is we are seeing on the computer screen. The temporal organization of the "personal psychosm" a term developed by Dr,s Von Eckartsberg, can aid in the understanding of new visual metaphors in describing 3D computer imagery. Every new computer image creates a new matrix of meaning structures in the human mind which will require a deeper understanding of complex information data structures which are inherent in computer imagery.

At the beginning of this paper I stated this article would be about phenomenology, information science, sociology, perception and 3D graphics. The reason this article concerns itself with these topical areas is because it is my firm belief that the way one perceives reality is influenced by what is seen on the computer workstations, and the way in which these images are analyzed in terms of their meaning is falling short of understanding man's unique place in a world filled with digital imagery. These topical areas have been chosen because they represent those areas which will support my position that the way some perceive the world today is a result of images seen on the computer.

In a way, man's dependency on his technological environment is a classic case of a global cybernetic system, and it is my contention that it is not possible to entertain thought about the global cybernetic system which would be separate from the system itself. Man has evolved to an inseparable and inextricable woven state of being between technology and existence. For all of us who recently saw a simulated model of Neptune rotating on its axis being transmitted from the Voyager 2 space craft 12 billion miles away I suggest that our perception of the solar system has changed and that our perceived place in the universe has been altered. Why? Because in the twelve years it took the Voyager 2 spacecraft to reach Neptune, computer modeling in real time was only a thought back in the late 70's and our mental perception of this distant planet now has been made visible in our mind's eye by new visualization technologies. What was once invisible is now visible. Keeping this thought in mind I would now like to pursue some thoughts on reality as we perceive it today as a result of being exposed to, and as a result of working with 3 dimensional images on the computer screen.

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The topics to be discussed will be:

The Phenomenology of the Image

Before I take an excursion into how we perceive the outside world its important to establish the premise for this paper. That premise is that the way we as humans perceive the world, our actions in it, and eventually the way we create in it is directly being influenced by computer generated images. In order to construct an argument for this point of view it will be necessary to explore the way we as humans process signals from the outside world which enter our bodies.

Phenomenologically speaking the areas I am interested in are memories, anticipation, imagination, cognition and perception. Lets start with memories. If I ask you to remember something; what happens? Simply put you remember. However, remembering has a time vector going into the past associated with it. The major portion of human history was recalled mentally and then transmitted verbally, then in stone, then with the written word, then photographically, cinematically, and now with video and electronic photography. Today I can remember with the assistance of an optical storage database. Whats that? Its a device that allows a human to view on a computer screen images which have been stored from images taken from any time period of that person's past or present life. The time vector is no longer linear. The time vector now can be changed by telling the optical storage device to recall images in specific intervals, for specific durations, and it can even select only specific images from different time periods. What was once the provenance of mood, or feelings, when it came to remembering, has now been redefined by an array of images that can be preset to follow any topological path programmed by the computer. The very act of memory, within a global environment fed by programmed images alters the way memory initially began and provides a human with a processed sense of human time.

For example: before Voyager 2 reached Neptune my ability to remember anything about Neptune was reduced to some vague planet in the distant solar system. Today when I remember Neptune it revolves in my mind as well as all of Neptune's moons, and I feel confident that these mental images are real. However, these images of Neptune were made through transformed digital and numerical representations of what Voyager 2 was looking at. The new technology took the digital information and created a visualized model of Neptune. Although I think I know what Neptune looks like I needed the visual dimensioning capabilities of the computer to provide me with a realistic mental picture of Neptune. It is safe to say I now have a digital Neptune "in my brain". The question: as a result of a digital Neptune spinning in my brain will I perceive the solar system any differently? If I do perceive the solar system any differently how will it appear differently?

The answer: I can now look into the night sky and see Neptune 12 billion miles away because its in my mind's eye. The planet is not static to me anymore, it was not an artificial model I saw in the planetarium, or an animated film based on previous facts about Neptune; this is Neptune 12 billion miles away. My personal universe has expanded. Another example: If I take a childhood photograph and I convert it digitally into the computer using a scanner I can then animate myself using the same background on the photograph. I can also digitize film footage or video footage of when I was a child. When I look at the same environment in the real world today, as an adult, I can now remember what it was like when I was a child moving in the same place. The difference of course is that I can also look at my childhood and my adulthood simultaneously on the computer screen with the aid of windowing a user interface which allows the screen to contain a variety of images on the screen at the same time. Reality has been changed for me because I can associate images between the outside world and in my optically stored world and the possibilities to rearrange stored images allows me to think better of how I may rearrange my present world.

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The phenomenon of anticipation is similar to memory but anticipation has a time vector which goes into future time for an event which is about to happen. At this point another very profound change has occurred and that is the way we think with computer imagery. As I watch my animated childhood progress before my eyes on the computer screen I know that I can alter time sequences within the computer. As I create the direction my images will take I also know how to anticipate the next scene since I have seen them and even lived them. However, if I randomize my stored images I can see new associations of my own life's pattern. When I return to the real world I begin to realize that how I anticipate can have many options and that many variations of environments could be experienced. The time line in the real world has been loosened and the knowledge that I can vary my direction causes me to select an action which may not have any relationship to the action which just preceded it. What this means is my decisions now have the capability of being multi-directional, and I find myself in a true post-modern world of multiple associations and constructions.

This one facet of experiencing images on the computer has completely altered my world view and my frame of reference to it. Now lets place into this matrix of multi-dimensionality the phenomenology of the imagination. The imagination vector goes in any time direction and carries with it any remembered image. For me, I can now imagine a realistic Neptune juxtaposed with an imaginary civilization on Neptune. I can even place events on this computerized planet made possible by the imaging power of the computer. When I go to my workstation to create an image I know I have a database of images that were once invisible and now are made visible and I can begin to explore relationships within my 3D computerized world from a mental imaginary frame work of a realistic projection of 12 billion miles into space.

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The renaissance was dealing with only the seen vanishing point. The mental latitude and longitude of my imagination has expanded to such an extent that a simple vanishing point is only one small dot in a universe of dots. Therefore, the creative mind now sitting in front of a 3D computer workstation has a mind set of a new space of coordinates to create from, and it is these coordinates that have leaped far beyond any system of esthetics from which to be judged. Compounding this new realization derived from the visual capabilities of the computer is the phenomenology of thinking. When I stated that any remembered image could travel on the imagination vector thinking is an interlocking system of associations which also travels on these vectors. Another way to look at this is that the mind develops a template by which to observe the outside world. For humans the integrity of these templates is essential for maintaining a state of mental balancing. The logical and illogical structuring of ideas in association with any given template is what constitutes all the various ways of thinking on this planet. When a mental template which has been developed from the real world encounters the 3D world of the computer something very profound begins to occur. This becomes very intriguing especially when there are shared databases constructed from different templates. The creation of visual imagery within a 3D computer reality which can make associations from any of these templates underscores and defines the postmodern world.

The last phenomenological framework to be discussed is perception. What then is perception?(5) Perception is the organization of our sensations. How is one to understand 3D space within a computer? The computer processes data, the representation of which can be placed in 3D mental perception.

The data that is represented that is also composed of multiple mental templates. Therefore,to describe 3D space in the computer from any one position in the real world categorically will not work. The implications of this are equivalent to all the major paradigm shifts which have occurred in human history. If the computer becomes the main depository of all human mental templates and also has the ability to create 3 D realities or virtual realities humans will begin to see that their dependency on their own willfulness to maintain mental balance will be then allocated to the computer. It is at this point a whole new perception of the world will undergo drastic changes which can be seen in isolated cases today and which I will mention in the section on the sociological impact of image making by the computer.

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The Information Science of Image Processing:

Reference was made in the previous section to images stored in databases. This area deals with considerations on how an image is interpreted, processed, and manipulated by a human being. Whereas phenomenology concerns itself with the psychological aspects to cognition, information science concerns itself with the way images are processed as a result of a psychological state. This is particularly important as electronic image management (EIM)(6) becomes the predominant retrieval activity for viewing human evolution. Another way to look at this is through picture management7. Reality as we know it has no fixed interpretation other than the interpretation of data exchanged and agreed upon by consenting humans. Virtual reality is a construct within the computer which can simulate the real world. By placing a specially designed helmet which contains small computer screens it is then possible to navigate in a computer generated world in such a way which would be impossible to do in the real world.

The virtual reality is a visual construction from many types of data that can then be formed into images. Lets for a moment enter the virtual world. In keeping with the Neptune analogy lets enter the virtual world where Neptune appears to be in space. In reality Neptune is in space, but in the virtual world this space can be navigated in, and for the viewer there is the sense that one is moving in this space. There is also a stereographic way in which to look at computer images simply by putting on a special set of glasses. The point is that not only can a designer or an artist create within a computer image but they can also create new images using stored images from a vast image database. The complexities arise when a created image is then sent through a network to another person who has to alter, add to, or participate in the image that has been created. A great deal of development has occurred to enable the designer and artist to have the tools by which to create with. What has not developed is the realization that these attempts to create either artistic images and even new design techniques on the computer are coming from an entirely new and paradigmatic visual relationship with the real world. Once the phenomenon of new 3D visual experiences from the computer affects the psychological association with the real world it then follows that the way in which new images are created and identified will also change.

However, since there is a dependency on the real world for physical existence the way in which the world is perceived will be reflective of the way images can be created on the computer. How this translates into image processing on the human level requires an equal understanding for new thought arrangements as it does to understand the way in which images are created on the computer. The taxonomy of computer imagery will require an equal esthetic philosophy to be developed. Since philosophy is dependent on language it follows that systems of thinking which were an outgrowth of a predominant 2D visual reconstruction of the real world will require another dimensional aspect for interpretation. In otherwords, we have to become Z buffered in our thinking. Marshall McCluhan, the Canadian media philosopher had provided some remarkable insights in his book the Gutenberg Galaxy. His contribution was seeing oral culture transform itself into a print culture and then into an electronic culture What is occurring today is this electronic culture is transforming itself into a computer culture. How computer images are processed depends on how they are classified in a Z buffered mental space.

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Therefore, if the frame of reference by which to understand newly created 3D images is not matched by a system of thought that incorporates multiple dimensional associative metaphors then those images can never be understood in their proper sociological, philosophical or esthetic context. Compounding the issue of perceived reality changing as a result of 3D computer imagery is the state when a perfect virtual reality representation of the real world can be called up and placed in the virtual reality space composed of other images. Associations which are now made in the real world have to be considered from how they will be processed in the interactive 3D image database. Therefore, any image created today within 3D computer space reflects the emergence of a mental state that has been spatially expanded and is in fact representative of an entirely new way to communicate between our fellow humans. The "Event World" (8), the world humans interact with everyday, has been transformed and the incoming data is being processed by a new way of thinking.

Dr. Debons who has developed the "Debonian Information Model". Debons illustrates how the flow of data from the event world into our thinking processes effects the way we communicate. By showing how data is transformed into information Debons also shows how all perception is virtual since reality is always a function of the sensory mechanism. Whereas, phenomenology is the study of behavior as a result of our experiences, information science is the study of how data is transformed into information as a result of the predominant mental template that is processing the data. Both our behavior as humans and how we process incoming data is now undergoing new transformations when considering the new 3D image making capabilities proviedd by the computer.

The Sociological Impact of Image Making by the Computer

As was mentioned in the phenomenology of thinking the computer will become the depository of all mental templates currently on the planet. The ability to retrieve images from a visual database and alter those images is allowing a new reconstruction of the world to take place. Although the computer can not duplicate reality it can process images of reality in ways we have never seen in reality before. Micro worlds are being juxtaposed with macro worlds and super computers are sending information around the world to be shared with other super computers and eventually viewed by the end user. However, it is at the user level that all the changes in society are emanating from. The issue here is extremely complex given that the mental referencing to computer images has been experienced, as well as the way new data is processed mentally with these new mental visual referencing experiences which have been generated from the 3D imagery on the computer screen. The social interaction of humans follows a predetermined set of rules, code of ethics, and behavior patterns especially for a specific social set.

The visual symbols which represent each social set have been fairly stable through out time. However, as a result of being able to alter any symbol within the computer the social patterns have likewise become loossened. When all the symbols of a culture can be rotated or be placed into cylinders and jettisoned into 3D space the real world becomes very fluid and there is a new sense of playing with symbols. If you are not allowed to burn a flag in the real world can you burn a flag in a virtual world? The loosening of the meaning of the flag as a symbol in the United States has reached the point where a special amendment to the constitution is being suggested to assure that people can not deface its image.

Behavior patterns are likewise being altered. Roger Rabbit, an animated cartoon character developed by Stephen Spielberg, became a new addition to human interaction. People no longer want to entertain a long pattern of meaning throughout a lifetime, but will almost instantly leave one relationship for another. Not only has the meaning of symbols undergone change, but also the configuration of how meaningful events are juxtaposed to one another. The ability to alter space on a computer screen has been carried over into the altering of physical space in the real world, and people are just supposed to adapt to those changes. The reflectivity of the computer society is quite different from the print society. Whereas print follows a predictable path of behavior the computer offers new and very surprising social behaviors. If the computer continually offers unique and very personal experiences for the user the ability for humans to interact in any meaningful way may become non existent. Therefore, it is at this time in the evolution of the development of 3D computer images that we can begin to see how the perception of reality is undergoing a significant alteration and the accompanying behaviors that are associated with that perception stem from how reality is manipulated on the computer screen.

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How to Perceive New Visual Symbols

Given the assumption that there has been a new mental framework developed as a result of 3D computer imagery the next issue , and the most fascinating one of all, is not only how to detect new visual symbols within the computer, but also how to understand them from the traditionally based disciplines of esthetics, philosophy, psychology and communication theory.

In light of this there is a statement by Yuchiro Kawaguchi, a noted Japanese computer graphic artist , which has special significance. Kawaguchi states, "Theory on perception today is spoken of as a requisite of existence. Perception in an imaginative world is based, if anything, on personal experience, and is co-existent with conditions of being, Computer Graphics, as a tool measuring the revelation of non-existent things, may be rather synonymous with existence.It is no exaggeration to say that computer graphics will have to take up the challenge of experimenting in such visible territories as essential elements of its future mission. Computer graphics is not satisfied simply to surpass a simple spatial phase; it must go beyond even a time stage. Perhaps we ought to construct computer graphics so that it will push out in a wider sphere the viewpoints of artistic materials...the artists qualities to be born by computer graphics may very well exist in a certain manner in a new expression that mixes such time and space. They may rightfully hold a new sense in opposition to the inevitable time and space held by things like transformation and metamorphosis"9.

What is he saying? He is talking about the way we will come to perceive the 3D image and that these images will be regarded as having qualities that surpass the time and space existence we are so familiar with in our own world. Kawaguchi sees the inner world of the computer expanding as new memory chips are developed and he even feels there may be ways to surpass the ability of the computer to relay images beyond the capacity of our eyes and ears. Consequently, our phenomenological frame work will be receiving information on a new spatial level and the ability to create within this new 3D space will reveal new designs and modes of expression which mirror this new mental framework. Its difficult to understand these new developments especially when there are no methodologies by which to measure this world in terms of its functional design capabilities or artistic expression. However, there are techniques which can be identified. The tools which are provided by the software also provide the user with capabilities of expression which should be looked at very closely. There should be a flow of communication between the new user of a 3D workstation and the experienced operator especially in an instructive environment. Evolving into the future is going to require compassion as well as understanding and the birth of a newly constructed world is being created by scientists, artists, designers, musicians and of course the children.

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The Interface of Two Realities

Finally we arrive at the point when the computer rendition of reality may be expanding faster than our own ability to comprehend it. Considering the above issue we arrive face to face with the beginnings of virtual realities being fortified by super computers for creating not only realistic images of the real world but at the same time of analyzing that world from any particular professional vantage point. With this interfacing of two the real world and the world in the computer there are also the many perceptions of the real world from all the various cultures who will be experiencing the computer reality being sent by fiber optic systems around the planet. The rich texture of global civilization will be able to be called up in a visual database and it is from this database of imagery that the user will begin to interact with an entirely new world.

What was once impossible to visualize becomes visible. One example of trying to comprehend this technology is IRIS, the Institute for Research in Information and Scholarship, at Brown University. However, there are new institutes and research centers emerging all over the planet in preparation for learning how to not only use this technology, but also how to think with it.

There are words which come to mind that best prepare an individual for understanding this interface and the word elastic seems to provide the best metaphor. The ability to stretch ones thinking beyond the bounds of the mental templates that provides a certain amount of consistency in thinking and a willingness to entertain the limits of the way one has constructed their world. It is clear that the planet earth is reaching a point where it will no longer be able to contain life on its surface due to the inability for a global consensus of the need to stop existing systems which are destroying social as well as ecological infrastructures. With the emergence of 3D realities being created with the computer an ideal world can of course be created. However, when an artist who is being affected by a planet that no longer can support life the virtual world of the computer provides a new palette from which to make a statement. Genetically speaking the global gene pool may have provided mankind with this technology to over ride the various systems of thought which were based more on a survivalist mode rather than a cooperative mode.

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Be that as it may the approach to understanding what is being created within this new 3D reality is unprecedented in the history of mankind and to spend countless hours in trying to place the newly created images into historical referencing systems is futile.

Given the fact that humanity is under more stress than ever before it would be highly prudent to look at the developments in 3D computer imagery from a solution oriented framework rather than from a historical framework. Humans simply are running out of time. These new technologies of visualization are providing new and revealing ways of how there is interconnections on micro levels and macro levels. Any attempt to place a simple cone on top of a sphere in a 3D landscape might probably be the most important artistic statement made in a long time. Why? Because the the creation was done inside of the computer and the computer represents the beginnings of a global sharing of information and if there is no recognition for the new flexibility to create within the computer then the same systems which have brought mankind to the brink of disaster will continue to follow the same path. The only invested interest mankind should now have is how to recombine all of its present resources so balance is restored. Inside a 3D world new order is being created and although these new combinations may not affect the ozone layer from being depleted they allow new images to be created that are motivated by the need for more integrated planetary structures. Technology is outstripping the ability for most humans to even understand it. Peoples capacity for integrating high technology into their everyday lives is reaching a saturation point where only a few techno-elite individuals are responsible for its direction. Clearly, these issues will also have to be resolved so that both virtual reality and the everyday world are understood as well as integrated. © 1989 WVDB


  1. Jones, Beverly, "Computer Imagery: Imitation and Representation of Reality", Leonardo, Supplemental Issue Computer Art In Context, 31-38 (1989).
  2. Youngblood, Gene, "Cinema and the Code", Leonardo, Supplemental Issue Computer Art in Context, 27-30 (1989).
  3. Hodgetts, Craig, "Biography of a Teaching Machine", Art Forum, Vol. XIII NO. 1, 61-65 (September 1973).
  4. Valle, Ronald S. and von Eckartsberg, Rolf, The Metaphors of Consciousness, (New York: Plenum Press, 1981) pp. 21-93.
  5. Huxley, Aldous, The Doors of Perception, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1954).
  6. Fisher, Richard D. " Electronic Image Management", Advanced Imagery, A37-A40 (July 1988).
  7. Berry, Jack, "Picture Management with Recordable Laser Disc", True Imaging, 32-34 (Nov/Dec 1988).
  8. Debons, Anthony, Horne & Cronenweth, Information Science: An Integrated View, (Mass: G. K. Hall, 1988) Chapter 4.
  9. Kawaguchi, Yoichiro, Growth Morphogenesis, (Japan: JICC Publishing Inc, 1985) pp. 6-11.

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