The Overview – Eugene’s Cave

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Two users meeting in the third-person with the mobile device to show what they are seeing

The Overview is an out-of-body experience, achieved through the dislocation of perception when the user sees himself or herself from a third-person perspective using a head mounted display and CCTV. This experience disorientates the user from his or her ‘normal’ mode of perception, presenting to the user the possibility to rethink basic and habitual activities such as the way he or she navigates space in relation to his or her vision with a new sense of self awareness.

Two users meeting in the third-person with the mobile device to show what they are seeing
Two users meeting in the third-person with the mobile device to show what they are seeing

The installation opens the user’s mind to an alternate reality by altering the user’s primary sense, the sight. This alternate reality that users experience feel ‘unreal’ because it is outside of their comfort and sensory zone, and they do not know if they can trust what they see at first. This temporary distrust of their senses is termed the “Unreal Reality”.

With this alternate way of seeing, the user can then reprogram his or her brain functions in terms of the instructions sent to the body. The mind is forced to start afresh, a tabula rasa, and re-experience learning to navigate with the body.

There are some experiences which the human mind cannot imagine until experienced, for instance, seeing a new colour or to be out of one’s body. Although the Overview does not literally take one out of his or her body, it simulates it. Almost all test subjects reported that they indeed felt the out-of-body experience, or an experience that satisfied their expectations of the out-of-body.

How it works: The user puts on a pair of video goggles. Through these goggles he will see a live video feed of himself from a CCTV camera in the corner of the room. The view switches automatically every 20 seconds between 6 cameras planted around the room. The user navigates the area in this vision and is encouraged to contemplate a new found sense of perception. The user will be directed back to the designated space if he or she walks out of the camera field of vision.

[Optional:] A second user can join in by wearing a second pair of video goggles. The two users may then interact with each other in various ways through games such as tag, or they could communicate with each other through speech. Having a second user or player join in the space greatly elevates the experience.

 

THE UNREAL REALITY: “EUGENE’S CAVE”

What is your reality? Simply put, your reality is the sensory signals to your brain which includes the signals sent from the eyes and ears. These signals are your only input channel from the known universe.

 

Original illustration of Eugene's Cave
Original illustration of Eugene’s Cave

Think of yourself as your consciousness, trapped inside a cave which is your body. Your body is not you; but a vessel that you happen to control. Your sensory organs are like tiny holes at the top of this cave that let you peek out into the world. These holes are your sensory zone. The walls of the cave represent the sensations that we cannot sense with our bodies, e.g. infra-red light, ultra sound, radio waves or even dark matter, but we know they exist because of invented tools that indicate their existence. These human-invented tools produce output within our sensory zone, like a radio converting radio waves into audible sound.

Hence, altering your senses is comparable to altering your reality. This is where the unreal comes in: we have lived our entire lives inside these caves of a body that, to quote the Chinese saying, we have become like a frog living in a well – one that has lived its entire life gazing at a portion of a sky out of the top of the well and never knowing the true vastness of the sky. If the same frog were to step out of that well, the vast sky would look “unreal” to it, and it would temporarily distrust what it is seeing. In this case, the vast sky becomes the frog’s unreal reality. Therefore, if the walls of our cave were to crumble and our conscience is exposed to the true vastness of the universe, we will be just as overwhelmed as the frog coming out of the well and seeing the skies for the very first time.

There are ways to widen these holes in our cave, such as by enhancing our senses through the use of the drug Mescaline. Aldous Huxley describes the effects of the drug in his book, The Doors of Perception, where the author mentions his vision being enhanced temporarily (Aldous, 1954).

Users of the Overview experience the “Unreal Reality” when their primary avenue to reality (the sense of sight) is altered, rendering what they see unreal-looking. In a sense, the Overview simulates the closing of one hole in the cave and opening it at a different location on the cave. The minds of the users would be forced to re-learn basic things because their reality is suddenly changed and seems unreal. Their minds do not know if these new found visions could be trusted, and they start from a blank slate, a tabula rasa.

Tabula Rasa

Tabula Rasa means blank slate in Latin, and it is often used to describe a new-born’s mind. As the baby grows up, his or her mind learns to use the body through experience. The more the baby practices a particular action, the more familiar he or she will be with it. The baby eventually matures to a point where he or she does not even need to put in much thought before performing basic actions such as walking, turning around, etc. as these actions have become habitual.

Does this mean the older a person gets, the harder it is for him or her to learn new things or even re-learn innate actions? This is true in some sense, but one will still be able to realise or re-learn habits when they are older, for as long as if he or she keeps an open mind, opportunities may present themselves.

The Overview is one such opportunity that not only presents the chance for users to learn something new, but also to re-learn something that is already innate in them. By literally changing their perspective to one that is away from their body, it stimulates them to re-learn navigation. Attempting to navigate through this out-of-body perspective is akin to driving a remote-controlled car, however, the car is one’s body and the mind is the true remote controller.

In this new perspective, the interaction between the users and the space they have moved in is completely different to their daily interaction with space. It was also observed that they moved really slowly and every single movement was performed consciously. This is a stark contrast in terms of the thought process involved when the users embark on simple motor activities of walking or turning left and right in their daily lives. Due to the change in the method of movement, the perception of time takes on a new meaning as well. When one is forced to move really slowly through a space, his or her perception of time slows down. This feeling can be compared to when a person suddenly enters a pitch dark room and has to move very slowly. This change in perception of space and time encourages users to challenge their routines, and for a brief second their minds become ‘blank slates’ and they have to re-learn everything to do with perception and navigation.

In our everyday lives, we are so involved with our daily routine that we rarely observe what is happening around us. However, in this experience a greater perspective is revealed when we see ourselves from a third person’s point of view, and as a part of the space (and hence society) which we live in. This experience is not possible when we are busy living our lives and fail to notice ourselves as a part of the space we are in. Therefore, our sensitivity and awareness of the space we inhabit are heightened through this experience.

Since people are very used to the habitual ways in which the mind tends to see space, that when they see themselves from an out-of-body perspective, they feel like they are in an unreal place. This shows that how we perceive ‘reality’ tends to be influenced by the habits and assumptions that we live our lives with. When these habits and assumptions are challenged (in this case they are challenged due to a complete change in perspective, literally), the mind is at a loss as it does not have the familiar assumptions to grip on to, and essentially has to start from scratch and learn everything again.

Although not tested, users may be able to get used to this new way of seeing, just like how humans have adapted to their bodies when they were born into them.

The Dislocation of Perception

In a book by Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, where the author talks about his experience with the new drug Mescaline, the book begins with the infamous quote from William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is – infinite.” (Blake, 1790). At this point, the doors of perception are interpreted to be the limitations of our senses, and if there was no limitations to our sensory zone, we will sense the infinite universe.

Huxley admits that he did not experience the strange, wonderful geometric visions he expected of the drug, instead he experienced an enhancement of his perception. He was seeing things differently; as he describes – he saw them ‘as they were’, without purpose or function; he saw things in their ‘thing-ness’.

He certainly enjoyed the use of the drug as he felt it raised his consciousness to a significantly higher level which the Overview hopes to provide its users – but without the need to ingest foreign substances to help users realise escape from selfhood and see things through a difference perspective. The quote below is from Huxley’s book, and it is about the human urge for an escape:

The urge to escape from selfhood and the environment is in almost everyone almost all the time… That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradise seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul. – Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception

Similar to ingesting drugs like Mescaline, the Overview enhances one’s consciousness by altering the senses. The difference between them is that the latter results in the dislocation of perception.

Regarding the name of the project

Other than the fact that the user literally gets an overview of themselves within the space they are in, the Overview is named after “The Overview Effect” where astronauts experience a cognitive shift in awareness when they see the earth hanging in space. It is this cognitive shift in awareness that inspired this project, to create an experience that extracts the users from normal state of being and allowing the possibility of rethinking the way they navigate within the space (White, 1987).

My project is essentially another “Overview Effect” where viewers may experience a cognitive shift in awareness when they experience their lives from an outsider’s perspective. Entire teams of people in NASA built on a technology (a space craft) to shuttle astronauts to the moon, when midway through the journey, one of the astronauts casually turned his camera to show the earth to the audience at home.

“That was the first time I saw the earth hanging in space like that, it [the experience] was profound.” – Frank White (Author of The Overview Effect).

“I don’t think any of us had any expectations about how [looking back on earth] would give us such a different perspective.” – David Loy (a Philosopher)

“The focus had been, ‘We’re going to the stars, we are going to the planets’ and suddenly we look back at ourselves and it seems to imply a new kind of self awareness” – David Loy

“One of the astronauts said, ‘When we originally went to the moon, our total focus was on the moon, we weren’t thinking about looking back at the earth but now that we have done it, that may well have been the most important reason we went.'” – David Beaver (Co-founder, Overview Institute)

In relation to my project, the purpose and function of the CCTV technology is to survey people and to bring to mind the following questions: What would happen when we turn the cameras onto ourselves and we become both the surveyor and the surveyee? Should one become both the performer and the audience, would there be a kind of self awareness to be experienced?

I will be exploring these questions through my project with a combination of market-available consumer products in a way that they are not meant to be used.

HOW IT WORKS (technical aspects)

The camera(s) are connected to a DVR which will then output the video feed via a 5.8GHz transmitter. The transmission is received by a pair of video goggles which the user will be wearing. The user then sees a live CCTV feed of himself.

The DVR is set to show one feed at a time and to auto switch to the next camera after 20 seconds. Manual switching of camera feed is possible via a remote control.

Diagram of a one camera perspective set up
Diagram of a one camera perspective set up
One of the cameras tied to a pillar
One of the cameras tied to a pillar
(From left to right) Mobile display, 5.8GHz transmitter, DVR and a mouse
(From left to right) Mobile display, 5.8GHz transmitter, DVR and a mouse
The goggles worn by users
The goggles worn by users


RELATED WORKS

 

The Decelerator Helmet – A slow motion for real life by Lorenz Potthast 2012

The Decelerator Helmet (Potthast, 2012)
The Decelerator Helmet (Potthast, 2012)

The decelerator helmet slows down the user’s sense of sight and sound, simulating a slow motion for real life. This work is highly related not only because of the nature of the equipment involved, but also the way the user is put in an unreal reality.

The Overview differs from Potthast’s experiment in that the latter deals with the perception of time whereas the former is about the perception of space. This experiment has effectively projected the profound concept of slowing time down. One limitation of this project is that it is not convenient to put the helmet on. The helmet also affects the navigation of its wearers, resulting in their navigating based on memory rather than on their vision.

In the case of the Overview, users would not have to navigate base on their memories as long as they are able to locate or “find themselves” in the vision projected by the goggles.

 

Plato’s Cave by Nadine Meisel 1999

Plato's Cave. (Meisel, 1999)
Plato’s Cave (Meisel, 1999)

In this project, the wearer is provided various perceptions of space by wearing a helmet of spinning mirrors. During the early development phase of the Overview, I felt that the concept behind this project was “forced”, and there was no personal motivation behind it. I have since realized how closely related this project is to mine.

The Overview is motivated by personal curiosity and the search for an answer to the question of what would happen if the camera perspective of certain game mechanics were applied in the real world. This led to the realization of the ‘Out-of-Body’ concept and the apparent notion of Plato’s cave. A personal interpretation of Plato’s Cave can be referred to earlier on in this report, entitled “Eugene’s Cave”. The difference between both interpretations is that Plato’s Cave takes a more skeptical view of what humans are able to see, and that these visions are but shadows on a wall shown by another person and not reflective of the true universe; whereas Eugene’s Cave imply that human senses do allow them to get a glimpse of the universe, albeit through very tiny holes.

Top Shot Helmet by Von Bismark 2007

The Top Shot Helmet (Bismark, 2007)
The Top Shot Helmet (Bismark, 2007)

This experiment is truly an out-of-body experience. It is self-contained and a limitation is the user’s height and the height of the balloon, which could prevent him or her from performing certain actions such as walking through a door as the balloon floats 1.5 times above the user. Furthermore, the field of vision is relatively small. Hence, the user needs to maintain a relatively upright posture and retrain his or her movements, which dampens the experience.

What Makes The Overview Different

In summary, what makes The Overview different from the three works above is that the three works maintain a user centric point of view while The Overview isolates vision away from the user. For example – the camera follows the user in the Top-shot helmet and Decelerator Helmet but in Overview Installation, the camera does not necessarily “follow” the user as the cameras switch automatically and it is up to the user whether or not to remain in sight.

Also, the three works above all involve a sort of bulky helmet which greatly limits and restricts the movements and actions of the user. During the development phase of the Overview, measures were taken to overcome these inherent limitations. For instance, the Overview uses relatively lighter goggles which allow the users to maintain their freedom of movement so that they may focus on more salient issues such as the re-thinking navigation or the contemplation of space.

CONCLUSION

The experiments conducted through the Overview are a good example that the human mind can adapt to an alternate and less self-centred way of seeing. With this alternate way of seeing things, the user’s mind can then reprogram his or her brain functions in terms of the instructions sent to the body. The mind is forced to start afresh, a tabula rasa, and to control the body in a new way.

To be able to “control” your body in a different way brings a greater sense of separation between the controller (your mind or consciousness) and the controlled (your body). This separation between the consciousness and the body is usually blurred because most people have become so comfortable in controlling the body that controlling becomes effortless for the mind, much like how the more players of the game Second Life associate with their Avatars, the more comfortable they are controlling it.

We have become very adept at controlling the body through the limited input that it feeds to us. Therefore, in order to get us back to a state of tabula rasa, we have to alter the input that our mind receives and that is what The Overview does.