1994 VR Conference Proceedings

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"DETOUR: Brain Deconstruction Ahead"

By: Rita Addison, M.A.
New Media Artist
P.O. Box 550
Hamilton, MA 01936

As an individual and artist I've always been intrigued by how we find ourselves engaged with a sensory stimulus. For example, people who came to see my nature photography would often comment that they could "hear" or "touch" the visual images presented. How can one sense evoke another? What is that sensory/perceptual threshold we cross over that makes us feel more keenly alive, aware and more in touch with ourselves and others?

How do people with various cognitive, physical and perceptual disabilities experience sense-specific input? Can one simply "makeup" for a deficit by "turning up" another sense, as I'd heard? Quite suddenly I was about to find out firsthand: I was in a car accident in July, 1992.

I sustained head injuries and ever since then, I've struggled to get to know and understand my changed perceptual self. I could no longer use my camera to capture the wonder and awe I felt in nature, nor use it to earn a living. Cognitive, sensory, physical and perceptual deficits made me feel alienated from myself and everyone else. I wrote, "Sad. Lost. All the places I find I don't like and I don't know what to do once I'm there. Pain flies like a boomerang around the rim in my mind, and down my neck, shoulder. Rankling dreams every night. Dangerous, jerky and jolting. I scream."

Identified now by a diagnosis, "traumatic brain injury" and a classification, "disabled," I was scared. I felt driven to find out what was going on inside my brain. I knew it was there, right underneath my bruised scalp. I knew it was swollen and could feel it push up against my skull. I couldn't touch or see it, or make it move and blink open and shut, but my brain was real all the same. I wrote, "I have to find my way back to my brain. Right now it's just like a black hole. I am lost without our connection. My mind, my best friend is hurt. I miss you. I know you're in there. I won't abandon you."

Who could tell me what, if any, functions would return. What kind of recovery could I expect? After all, I'd always created "jobs" from ideas within my head. How could I survive now? I couldn't even figure out which to use first: toothpaste or toothbrush.

And, could I ever find an alternate way to express my creative vision?

Eight months later when I joined a head injury survivor group, I finally found people with whom I could feel a connection. By then I'd re-learned how to dry my back after a shower, I could use the numbers on a phone and had almost been able to control my stutter for a conversation.

In the group as other survivors told their stories, I felt such a sense of relief. Finally, somebody really knew what I was going through.

We were all struggling with a desperate need to communicate, and to be truly understood. We felt that neither physicians, nor rehabilitation therapists; neither family nor friends comprehended what we were really going through. I recognized my efforts to isolate myself as reactions to my own frustration and feeling of hopelessness.

For example, I'd stopped trying to answer honestly when asked, "How are you?" Before, when I'd mention my troubles in seeing and interpreting what I saw a frequent response was, "Well now, I've heard that if one sense is damaged that the others become more sensitive to make up for it." Boy, did that annoy me!

I was irritated at the casual (and probably well-intended) remark from which I inferred: the loss of a sense can somehow mitigated by the fact that we have others left. Actually my anger motivated me to start a very productive search for information about cognitive, sensory and perceptual systems, how they get injured, how they adapt and what kinds of damage are recoverable/irreversible.

By now, I'd regained some of my ability to read and understand what I just read. I started learning that perception is more than just the sum of the senses. I began to realize that a meaningful perceptual experience could be achieved despite sensory deficits.

I started thinking about alternatives to my previous choice of vision as a creative medium. I found myself asking a familiar question: how does art really engage someone? Is it really just a single-sensory dependent phenomenon?

What about Virtual Reality -- a new computer technology offering multi-sensory, so-called "immersive environments?" I'd always been intrigued by the idea. For example, could a person experience "red" if they were blind?

I also had the notion that Virtual Reality could somehow enable someone to kind of crawl behind someone else's eyes and experience the world from their view. That could mean that Virtual Reality could even allow others to experience how those of us with disabilities really live in the world.

We could share our perceptual phenomenologies!

As I've discovered, meaningful perceptual experiences of wonder are possible through VR, despite certain cognitive and sensory deficits.

Virtual Reality artists create whole worlds and journeys for the viewer. Whether a participant uses a head-mounted display or enters into a "Cave" (Cave Automated Virtual Environment as created by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago), the goal is to feel immersed in the experience. I've found that suffusive colors and well-chosen sounds relieve me from having to actually make out what I see. I can sense it instead. Sensor feedback technology , such as head tracking equipment, allows you to actually interact with the environment as it evolves around you.

I'm working on a VR experience about my accident and changed world thereafter. It's titled, "DETOUR: Brain Deconstruction Ahead." I will present a video of this work in progress at the conference. "DETOUR" was also chosen for presentation at the 1994 SIGGRAPH Conference in July. In preparation, I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the gifted and talented people at EVL in making this concept become a VR "reality."

I want to work more on this concept of being able to share perceptual phenomenologies. I want to create a program people can use to share their own story , their own disability, their own journey. I want to create VR environments which can empower and engage us all.

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