Individual Work

Lens, created by John Cayley in 2006, trades in hinting obscurity. Its form serves as an apt metaphor for the technological advancement and obsolescence which make it so difficult to access in its current format.

There are two ways to access lens: Onsite at Brown University’s four-wall VR CAVE environment, or remotely via QuickTime player. However, Apple’s transition from PowerPC to Intel processors in the late 2000s makes lens difficult to access on modern machines. The author’s own suggested workaround has, apparently, been deprecated: Apple stopped supporting PowerPC applications entirely with OSX Lion in 2011.

Should you find a way to access it, lens offers a fitting critique of the fixity of digitally-rendered surfaces. The word “Lens” is presented simultaneously as solid and transparent. It is white text on a black backdrop, but within that white text more text is visible. In the CAVE, rendered in positionally-tracked 3D, a viewer is able to peer, literally, through the word, as if through a window.

This experience is not spectacular, nor is it meant to be: Cayley warns us that “No great claims are made for the aesthetic or literary value of lens in its present form.” However, lens offers us something more: an opportunity for patience and inquiry.

The text, in this case, is not quite a body. It is more an object: Just as Cayley prefers the modest “transaction” to “interaction” when discussing exchanges between humans and computers, so, too, does lens avoid the ambitious sci-fi promise evoked by “virtual reality.” Rather, we sit with the text. We consider it conceptually. Perhaps, we wonder about how, in Cayley’s words, “literal surfaces subvert our experience of space and relative distance.”

The question of how purported “literal” objects, surfaces, and texts impact our experience of the digital is placed, literally, front and center in lens. Its obsolescence reminds us that text, whether it be stored in digital “files,” on parchment paper, or in QuickTime format, is only as material as it is accessible. Someday, the files will corrupt, the parchment will turn to dust, and the window, virtual or literal, will have to shut.

Author statement: 
lens began as a study piece relating to work-in-progress for the four-wall VR Cave at Brown University. It demonstrates how literal materiality - the surfaces of letters composing the texts of 'lens' itself - can, in a simple illusory 3D space, subvert our familiar experiences and assumptions concerning surfaces of inscription. For example, by making a letter large enough within the programmatic structures of lens, the region of colour defining the letter-shape becomes an entirely different type of surface - it becomes a surface of inscription for other texts that had been perceived 'underlying' it. In doing so, literal surfaces subvert our experience of space and relative distance. Surfaces that were 'in front' now form surfaces for other texts. They may even become other 'spaces' within which writing drifts. Letters both delineate and redefine spatial relationships. No great claims are made for the aesthetic or literary value of lens in its present form. It is technically simple and has technical constraints. In the QuickTime version, there is no attempt to render a genuine illusion of 3D space (no 3D graphics are employed). 'Distance' is rendered by scale alone, and scaling of fonts (via sprites) in QuickTime still leaves much to be desired.