October 16, 2003

Ex Caverna

by Nick Montfort · , 3:14 pm

Nick in Brown's TCASCV, looking at Hypertable. Photo by Rachel Stevens. I got to spend my long weekend up at Brown University, where I met up with numerous digital media folks in literature and the arts, including several of my collaborators: Rachel, Noah, and William. I also got to talk with Robert Coover and Talan Memmott and see some of the work they (and Noah, and William, and others at Brown) have been doing in the TCASCV, where they’ve been bringing literature into virtual reality in the Cave Writing project.

I saw Screen (by Noah and other collaborators) finally, which I’ve seen documentation of but hadn’t gotten to experience. I also saw a dynamic word lattice that was part of Talan’s in-progress project and heard about William’s in-progress museum of words to rotate and manipulate. An A.R. Ammons poem has been used as the framework and text for one complete, elaborate piece; a piece called Hypertable provided a setting for several shorter works that incorporated texts in different ways, one of which is pictured here.

Cave Writing is an intriguing project. The new possibilities of 3D virtual environments lie in what they can do that ordinary environments can’t: allowing a space in which distant participants can be telepresent, fashioning physically impossible spaces, creating spaces with new physical laws. But these virtual spaces fail to do many things as well as ordinary space does. As when comparing a computer monitor and the printed page, virtual realities are not as high-contrast or high-resoluiton as what Richard Powers calls “NSR” (non-simulated reality). But they are certainly more dynamic, seeming as changable as chameleons and rapid as lightning. Coover pointed out that few people remember many lines from A.R. Ammon’s “In Memoriam Mae Noblitt” after seeing the virtual reality experience based upon it – and this was true in my case; I’d probably have remembered more if someone had simply recited it to me.

But the VR journey did highlight how quickly transforming a poem itself can be as it moves along, syllable by syllable, line by line – and how appropriate it is that “stanza” means “room.” However difficult or strange it may be to work on literary projects in such a space, the swiftly tilting rooms of this environment can call attention to the dynamics of a poem, what Robert Pinsky calls the poem’s “glorious speed and lordly indifference to old divisions and separations.” We’ve all had the discussion about whether or not computer environments (games and otherwise) are narrative; perhaps it is more interesting to figure out in what ways they are lyrical?