Beyond the Macrocosm: A Critical Report

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Opposite 1. Klee, P. (1925). Horizon, Zenith and Atmosphere. [Watercolour on paper, mounted on board] New York: Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum. Above 2. Schmithals, H. (1900). Balls of Bacilli. [Pastel on paper fixed to wrapping paper] Private Collection.

BEYOND THE MACROCOSM: An analysis on how Virtual Reality affects perception. How can the design of virtual realities be used to visualise the intangible, the impossible and the complex?

Introduction In this critical report I intend to explore how the design of virtual realities can affect our understanding of our physical one. How can we combine virtual and physical methods to achieve a simplified understanding of how the universe works? When understanding outer space and the scientific theories that help us perceive the universe, how can the creation of virtual space help us visualise what has never been seen by the human eye? I will look at how technological and scientific breakthroughs have influenced artistic and graphic perspectives when conceptualising nature as a unified whole. I will also describe how my work weaves throughout these themes and how it contributes to this ever-growing exploration. In the parts where I talk about virtual reality, I am explaining a digital or artificial world that is an extension to our physical world that can be experienced in some way. Where I talk about VR, I am explaining specifically an experience tied to a virtual reality headset and controllers that interpret body movements into digital input, and deliver audio, visual, and perceptible feedback to the user. To almost every degree, our day-to-day experiences occur in a reality of our own designed constructions. We are bound to our architecture, transport, screens, artificial food, clothing, and so on. We live in a conceptual world that is every bit as real as the physical world. We are responsible for every action on this planet, whether good or bad, and we confine ourselves to our own design of our physical environment. In a world of cyberspace, the only major relevant laws of physics are the ones that affect the speed at which data is transmitted through wires and the electricity that powers it all. Paradoxically, virtual space cannot exist without physical space. The internet transmits information from

every known medium - moving image, writing, speech, etc, - and when combined, serve as extensions from our physical world. If you Facetime a friend, you will probably forget you are staring at electrons.

The Macrocosm Physical space holds the future of all scientific knowledge, whether it lies far into the depths of outer space or within the microcosm of atoms and elements at a molecular level. The exploration of space is now not only just to answer science’s biggest questions, but to look for a solution to the growing population, rising climate, and depleting natural resources. For that reason, does that make the exploration of virtual space just as important as physical space when finding a solution? Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant (2017) envisioned humanity being preserved as cryostatic embryos in an interstellar vessel on a journey to colonise a new habitable planet: could virtual space be used to upload human life for transportation across the stars, only to be downloaded into a new host at the other end? Currently, we have only one perspective of existence: being the only known intelligence (so far) in the universe. ‘If we find lots of planets like ours…we’ll know it’s likely that we aren’t alone, and that someday we might be able to join other intelligent life in the universe.’ William Borucki, principal investigator for NASA’s nine-year planet-hunting Kepler space mission. Our curiosity turns to space as we yearn to discover who we are as a race. Our past, future, and ultimately our purpose on this planet will be learned once a greater perspective of this universe is achieved, and this will be through discovering the mysteries behind black holes, galaxies and planets alike.

In the late nineteenth century, artists began a new quest to conceptualise nature as a unified whole. Because of the break-through of Einstein’s quantum theory of radiation and the general theory of relativity in 1916, artists’ perspectives shifted from the microcosm (visualising mind and matter, atoms and elements) to the macrocosm (visualising the universe). They learned that Einstein’s space-time was four-dimensional. Graphic expressions of cosmic unity required a different compositional approach; geometric squares and circles were replaced by curved lines that spanned across three dimensions. In fig. 1, Paul Klee uses an abstract mathematical construction to form gaseous, atmospheric overlays of earth. An example of a graphic expression merging the microcosm and the macrocosm is Hans Schmithals’ Balls of Bacilli (fig. 2), a painting of Earth and the Solar System being formed from a rotating primordial cloud of living organisms in 1900. ‘Man seeks to form, in whatever manner is suitable, a simplified and lucid image of the world, a world picture, and so to overcome the world of experience, by striving to replace it to some extent by that image.’ Albert Einstein, Principles of Research, 1918. Essentially, Einstein explains that we want to understand the world in the most straightforward way possible to make our own lives easier. We are on a never-ending pursuit for knowledge, and it will give humanity purpose if we learned and understood how and why the universe came to be. There are many areas of science that cannot be observed by the naked eye, such as the atom, the basic and smallest

using an electrical voltage to form an image that represents the topography of this tiny landscape. The discovery of this paved the way for more enhanced circuits made from atomic and molecular components such as computer chips. Later, in 1990, the microscope would be used by researchers to reposition 35 Xenon atoms on a substrate of chilled crystal of nickel and spell out the ‘IBM’ logo, fig. 3. Subsequently, it was now possible to draw in atoms. In fig. 4, I have made my own depiction of a ‘quantum corral’. The researchers-turned-artists using the same microscope in 1993 were also able to manipulate iron atoms into a circle, scan the surface again, then produce an image that looks similar to this. The peaks on the small landscape that form the corral are the arranged atoms, with further concentric circles being formed inside it that resemble a standing matter wave. This same wave formation can be found from waves emitted by musical instruments. This is a rare example of precise representation of quantum mechanical waves. Although my three-dimensional render is only a digital imitation of the quantum corral, artist Julian VossAndreae showcased a quantum-physics inspired sculpture that encapsulated the very thing tangibly. In an exhibition titled ‘Quantum Objects’ (on oxymoron in itself), VossAndreae displayed a series of sculptures that materialised microcosmic areas of science that could hardly be less material. In Leonardo: The Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology, he states ‘My motivation for making such an object goes beyond showcasing the data, which is fascinating in itself. I want

unit of matter that make up chemical elements for example. These core, intangible areas of science may be difficult to perceive if the very thing itself is invisible. Therefore, the creation and depiction of virtual worlds is now more relevant than ever when it can be used as a tool to conceptualise, illustrate and educate.

to evoke a sense of wonder in the audience and convey the feeling of witnessing something extraordinary.’ The Well (Quantum Corral) [2009], a gilded wooden representation of the atomic landscape, references the way gold was reserved in Renaissance art for the intangible: the other-worldly light of heaven. Voss-Andreae’s quantum objects shed an entirely new meaning and way of perceiving the invisible world.

The Microcosm In 1981, the scanning tunnelling microscope was invented by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer in an IBM research laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland. This was a leap forward for nanotechnology and quantum mechanics, as the microscope visualised individual atoms on a metal surface. By bringing the tip of a sharp, metal wire close to the very clean surface of another metal, the microscope scans the wave patterns

The Intangible The VR headset can now be used to design virtual worlds in a way that can not only help with visualising the intangible, but also visualise the impossible. In turn, it could visualise beyond what we know to exist, giving us an entirely new perspective that could make us question our own reality altogether. When conceptualising the universe and reality as we know it, can virtual reality push artistic perspectives

Opposite 3. Binnig, G. (1990). IBM. [Atoms on substrate] Zurich: IBM Facility. Below 4. A Quantum Corral

Opposite top 5. Waters, L. (2018). Available at: Opposite bottom 6. Gersht, O. (2015). On Reflection. [Installation] NYC: CRG Gallery. Top 7. Relajaelcoco. (2017). Singularity. [Youtube video].

beyond the previously perceived macrocosm? How can it be used to change our perception? Liam Sielski Waters, a 2018 graduate from London College of Communication’s BA in Photography, has a contemporary and experimental approach to generating photo-realistic 3D renders that blur the boundaries of the human identity within technology. Using a mixture of Cinema4D and a render engine Corona (fig. 5), he designs virtual compositions that are aesthetically purposeful and incidentally abstract. This combination not only questions what the future of photography may look like, but the future of how we perceive images whether real or not, as this way of producing photos no longer requires a camera.

eye.’ By creating a falsehood, Gersht has created his own artificial reality. Gersht is referring to the fact that the floral composition of flowers is entirely virtual, and the reflection of the flowers is also virtual. By blowing up the mirror that casts this virtual reality it shatters the falsehood, so you can only see what is left - the physical reality (the shards of exploded mirror). With the explosion filmed at a high shutter speed, the process can be rewound and the parallel and paradoxical relationship between the two realities can be seen: the further from the physical reality you go, the closer you come to the virtual reality.

The Metaphysics of VR Ori Gersht Israeli lens-based creative Ori Gersht, whose work is concerned with the relationship between history, memory and landscape, visited Central Saint Martins in 2018 and gave the Graphic Communication Design course a lecture on his practice. He explained in his installation Ori Gersht: On Reflection (January 29 – March 14, 2015) at the CRG Gallery, NYC, he displayed a series of photographs of mirrors that are reflecting flowers. These stills, caught at an extremely high shutter speed, show the fleeting millisecond the mirrors are blown up with small sticks of dynamite. Essentially, what you are viewing is the explosion of the reflection of the flowers, not the flowers themselves. Gersht’s flower compositions (fig. 6) reference three famous floral paintings by Jan Brueghel the Elder, which depict an impossible still life arrangement; the flowers in the paintings cannot exist at the same time as each other for they all bloom in different seasons. Gersht was inspired by how the lens has become an extension of the human body. When the invention of microscope in 1590 showed there was more life in a single drop of water than the Garden of Eden, the world began to see differently. Suddenly there was a new-found way of perceiving the world. If the floral arrangements by Jan Brueghel the Elder could paint a ‘version’ of the truth, so could Gersht’s photographic lens. Leslie Mullen states in her thesis Truth in Photography: Perception, Myth and Reality in the Postmodern World (University of Florida, 1998), ‘The manipulation inherent to photography brings to light questions about the nature of truth. All art forms manipulate reality in order to reveal truths not apparent to the uncritical

In Dawn of the New Everything, a book showing his journey through pioneering VR, Jaron Lanier defines the medium as ‘the technology of noticing experience itself’. As well as being an artistic medium, a scientific instrument and a colossal business opportunity, VR is just a simulation in today’s environment. However, when putting on a headset, a user can participate in a multi-sensory experience that can shift their consciousness and perception. This technology has the potential to make the virtual reality indistinguishable from our own. So, when we put on a VR headset, do we truly exist in that world? The 17th century French philosopher René Descartes famously said, ‘Cogito, ergo sum’, which translates as ‘I think therefore, I am’. Descartes is suggesting that the mind is non-physical and independent from the body. He cannot doubt he is thinking because doubting is thinking. Therefore, this is the only objective way of confirming his existence. In contrast, the 18th century philosopher David Hume believed that our existence is purely drawn from our senses and not reason, and everything is a product of our immediate feelings. ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’ A Treatise of Human Nature (173940) Book 2: Of the passions, Part 3, Section 3. This means that our existence is based more on the feelings and interactions we have with experiences, objects, people, whether physical or virtual, - which I agree with. If we exist in a daily life that is already surrounded by virtual experiences, such as projecting an extension of ourselves on social media, then why can existing in a virtual world not be your reality too?

Father John Culkin, a Professor of Communication at Fordham University, New York stated that in A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshal McLuhan ‘We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us’, and this can be applied to VR. Human experience outside VR can be changed by what happens inside of VR: one of the earliest forms of the VR system was developed as a flight simulator, training pilots in the US military and NASA. Another function of VR that is more common today is the system being used as a form of therapy to reduce symptoms for posttraumatic stress disorder. In his chapter on virtual reality in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Computing and Information, Derek Stanovsky emphasises that ‘virtual reality opens the possibility not only of recreating space and time, but the self as well. The subject is produced anew as it comes to occupy this new space’. A future possibility with VR is that it has the capacity to not only be an extension of our reality, but to supersede it altogether, creating what Jean Baudrillard calls a ‘hyperreality’ in his book Simulacra and Simulation (1994). He claims that a hyperreality is achieved when simulations in today’s environment have escalated to a point where they now compose our understanding of reality. Simulations can be indistinguishable as representations, replacing the very thing they represent. A VR user may live in a new reality if the simulation is seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between the physical and virtual reality.

VR Design VR can be used as a design tool. Digitally painting, drawing, building, and designing just about anything two or three dimensionally is possible. However, as the medium is still in its early days and predominantly aimed at the gaming market, there is yet to be an abundant variety of graphics designers that work specifically in VR. The latest VR headsets are still not the most accessible pieces of technology to own, or even to wear. In late 2018, HTC Vive released a wireless adaptor to the headset, although it removes a hefty cable that often restricts the user’s movements, mid-range headsets in general are still bulky, uncomfortable and very expensive. Moreover, staying in the immersive environment for too long can induce virtual reality sickness: headaches, unsteadiness, and nausea. It seems that VR is at a point today where the medium is limited by itself and its user.

In June 2017, Madrid-based design studio Relajaelcoco announced Singularity (fig. 7), a graphic design-centred virtual reality experience. The geometric and motion graphic-filled experience represents how human intelligence would rapidly evolve if we fully made sense of the world. In an interview with, the co-founder Francesco Furno said that ‘graphic design is currently living in a bad moment, with a lack of originality and focus on past ideas or “vintage” styles in recent decades. VR could be the kick it needs to evolve to the next level’. To some extent I agree with Furno, VR has the potential to mix everything we know about graphic design and push it in a new engaging experience for people, with the ability to truly change people’s perspective on the world. It can be all encompassing, and the medium is still very much unexplored, with a great deal of potential. Gradually, VR has begun to flow into the contemporary art world too, with art galleries showcasing works that come to life inside the big black eyeglasses. Anish Kapoor’s Into Yourself, Fall (2018), a dark and slimy journey through the user’s own human body, is like something out of Stephen Spielberg’s 1987 film Innerspace. Behind a Façade of Order, a constantly-evolving temporary installation at the Barbican in London, uses feedback loops that construct a complex visual paradox. Passers-by feed the program from their movements; imagery on the screen blur the lines between reality and that virtual space, it is unclear where the human presence stops and the machine begins. However, it is clear that many artworks that either depend on the viewer wearing a VR headset or depict a virtual world rely on this duality, a co-dependent relationship with the artwork and the viewer.

Beyond The Macrocosm My self-directed brief, Beyond the Macrocosm, is an exploration using virtual world-building technology. The purpose of the brief is to investigate whether VR and the creation of virtual worlds can allow us to illustrate and visualise beyond the preconceived boundaries of our reality by designing what does not and cannot exist. It asks how it can push artistic perspectives beyond what we already know about our physical reality, and how virtual worlds can potentially visualise the impossible, the intangible and the complex. This project began by looking at how technology has influenced art and design in recent history. Specifically, how

Opposite top 8. Escher, M. (1947). Other World. [Wood Engraving] Manhattan: MoMA. Opposite bottom 9. Klinger, M. (1890). Der Philosophe (The Philosopher). [Etching and aquatint printed on japan paper] Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts. Bottom 10. CodeParade. (2018) Non-Euclidean Worlds Engine [Youtube Video].

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in 1916 pushed artists to illustrate beyond the microscopic world, and to visualise the universe as a whole. This breakthrough greatly affected not just the subject and context of a lot of artists’ work, but the graphic styles and trends that can be spotted because of this discovery. I wanted to make this comparison and apply it to current technology by suggesting that VR and the creation of virtual worlds is what can help us in altering perceptions and allow us to visualise even beyond the known universe, the macrocosm. I based my project on conceptualising the creation of virtual space and showing that it is an exploratory realm. And it is this exploration that can prompt questions: what is and is not possible? How can I exist within a virtual world? Can the lines be blurred between the worlds? My outcome needed to communicate this concept clearly since virtual space is not something people wholly encounter and interact with day to day; the likes of AR (augmented reality) and VR are still relatively new mediums.

Escher Worlds M.C Escher, known for his spatial impossibilities and illusory inner world, was a fundamental inspiration throughout this brief. I began researching his work after finding Other World (1947), fig. 8, a wood engraving that depicts three perspectives of the same world existing at the same time. This image became a foundation for my concept: I knew I could reference this construction by Escher to communicate and hold all the ideas of my project in one composition. I proceeded to build my own ‘Escher temple’ using the digital 3D building software Cinema4D. The building has archways that conflict with the gravity of the environment, so I wanted to take this and use it to illustrate that fully exploring this building is only possible virtually, as only in this virtual reality can the laws of physics be defied. I also looked at an etching by Max Klinger, The Philosopher (1885-1900), fig. 9, for inspiration; this dreamlike illustration depicts a nude man interacting with his reflection - which looks more real than he does. Which is real? The man meets his illusion where the two images touch. I wanted to amalgamate this concept, along with the reflective work of Escher and Ori Gersht, and create this dream-like, parallel relationship between the user and the virtual space in my composition.

Non-Euclidian Geometry The first part of my project was spent creating an animation, the second part was to develop that into a VR experience. My ‘Escher Temple’ animation encapsulates three different virtual worlds in a single composition and required a lot of time to work out how to navigate a camera around them all. Building a composition which has three different skies, landscapes and objects that each exist within their own set of physics and are then mapped around one camera trajectory was not possible. It could not be done in one single Cinema4D composition. As each world is through a different archway; rendering three unique worlds in one composition required planning as the placement of the environments through each archway required a non-Euclidian approach. This meant that I was designing environments that used normal geometry and physics, but once combined, required a more skilled and technical approach to house more than one set of physics. In other words, I needed to cheat physics. I cannot find examples of 3D rendered animations where this has been done before in a single composition. However, there are many examples of this technique that have been achieved by using a render engine: in fig. 10, Code Parade developed a non-Euclidian render engine where the standard laws of physics could be denied within the virtual world.

A Metaphysical Experience Reflection plays a key part in the theory behind my VR experience, after looking at M.C. Escher and Ori Gersht, I wanted to encapsulate the relationship between virtual and physical realities in a perceptual self-reference. In the third and final virtual world featured in the animation that plays throughout the experience, I reference an enigmatic self-portrait by M.C. Escher (Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935, fig. 11), which depicts the artist reflected in a mirrored gazing ball. The sphere and the hand that holds it seem to exist in a void in which only the reflection is real. Escher faces his reflection, but the reflection of him is not seen drawing himself. In my animation, upon looking very closely, it is possible to see the reflection of a figure standing in the archway that is inside a hand-held metallic sphere. The figure is standing where the camera (or viewer) is, and you can see its shadow in the archway where it would normally appear outside the reflection.

To elevate this even further, I placed the looping animation inside the VR experience behind the same archways that feature in it, meaning the viewer can physically stand in the same spot where the virtual reflection takes place. Does the viewer become the figure in the reflection? If the reflection inside the VR experience is only validated by the user in the virtual world, which reality is the real one? The person inside the reflection or the person inside the VR experience? This full-circle design element embodies the theory that Ori Gersht converges on: the further from the physical reality you go, the closer you come to the virtual reality.

My work on virtual reality presented in this critical report explores the ideas that emerged across art and technology from the separated realm of the microcosm and macrocosm, and channel them into art that induces a visual experience. Virtual reality not only helps users visualise the impossible, but experience it too. The benefits of this mean that for users on the quest for knowledge will not just gain information from the experience they partake in, but understand it. It shows that virtual reality can be used as an exploratory metaphysical tool, to further human existence in the virtual world and beyond the physical one. As a medium, it has the scope to push the boundaries of design into a new direction, giving designers the potential to build worlds and change the perspectives of the users inside them. My aspiration is that my work will support and push all of these ideas into the sphere of our collective consciousness and benefit us in perceiving the unfathomable deeper nature of virtual and physical reality.

11. Escher, M. (1935). Hand with Reecting Sphere. [Lithograph]


Image References

Hyperreality – the point at which it is impossible to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality

Klee, P. (1925). Horizon, Zenith and Atmosphere. [Watercolour on paper, mounted on board] New York: Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum.

Macrocosm – the entire system, universe, cosmos, the largest structure

Schmithals, H. (1900). Balls of Bacilli. [Pastel on paper fixed to wrapping paper] Private Collection.

Metaphysics - a branch of philosophy questioning the fundamental nature of reality, existence, objects and their properties, space and time, cause and effect, possibility Microcosm – the microscopic world, the smaller structures that make up bigger structures Non-Euclidian (Geometry) – against the normal rules corresponding to the geometry of ordinary experience. Alice went to non-Euclidean Wonderland. Quantum Corral – a ring of atoms placed in a 2D shape on a substrate that show quantum mechanical matter waves. Electrons trapped inside the corral cause wave patterns which are visible on the image scanned from a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope. A typical quantum corral measures approximately 20 nanometres long by 10 nanometres wide.

Binnig, G. (1990). IBM. [Atoms on substrate] Zurich: IBM Facility. (2019). Liam Sielski Waters. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Apr. 2019]. Gersht, O. (2015). On Reflection. [Installation] NYC: CRG Gallery. YouTube. (2019). Singularity teaser extended. [online] Available at: continue=235&v=wSK28olnQms [Accessed 28 Apr. 2019]. Escher, M. (1947). Other World. [Wood Engraving] Manhattan: MoMA. Klinger, M. (1890). Der Philosophe (The Philosopher). [Etching and aquatint printed on japan paper] Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts. YouTube. (2019). Non-Euclidean Worlds Engine. [online] Available at: com/watch?v=kEB11PQ9Eo8&list=FL7llhJVclntNOoLdKT1GhA&index=2&t=0s [Accessed 29 Apr. 2019]. Escher, M. (1935). Hand with Reflecting Sphere. [Lithograph]


Further Reading

Alien: Covenant. (2017). [film] Directed by R. Scott. USA: Twentieth Century Fox.

Gamwell, L., 2002. Exploring the invisible: Art, science, and the spiritual. Princeton University Press.

Brennan, P. (2019). Life Signs | The Search for Life – Exoplanet Exploration: Planets Beyond our Solar System. [online] Exoplanet Exploration: Planets Beyond our Solar System. Available at: [Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].

Hoyle, F., 1983. The Intelligent Universe.

Einstein, A., 1954. Principles of research. na. (2019). ‘Quantum Objects’ Exhibition | Julian Voss-Andreae. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 May 2019]. Mullen, L. (1998). Truth in Photography: Perception, Myth and Reality in the Postmodern World. Lanier, J. (2017). Dawn of the New Everything. London: Penguin Random House, p.55. Hume, D. (1965). Hume on human nature and the understanding. New York: Collier Books. Culkin, J.M., 1967. A schoolman’s guide to Marshall McLuhan (p. 51). Saturday Review, Incorporated. Floridi, L. ed., 2008. The Blackwell guide to the philosophy of computing and information. John Wiley & Sons. Baudrillard, J., 1994. Simulacra and simulation. University of Michigan press. VRScout. (2017). This Is the First 360 App to Combine Graphic Design and VR. [online] Available at: https:// [Accessed 28 Apr. 2019]. Kapoor, A. (2018). Into Yourself, Fall. [Virtual Reality Experience] Hong Kong: Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre. Innerspace. (1987). [film] Directed by S. Spielberg. USA: Warner Bros. (2019). Behind a Façade of Order | Barbican. [online] Available at: uk/whats-on/2019/event/behind-a-facade-of-order [Accessed 29 Apr. 2019]. Writer, P. (2018). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms Reduced With Virtual Reality Therapy - Psychiatry Advisor. [online] Psychiatry Advisor. Available at: https:// [Accessed 2 May 2019].

Krueger, M.W. and Krueger, M.W., 1983. Artificial reality (Vol. 126). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. Lanier, J., 2017. Dawn of the new everything: a journey through virtual reality. Random House. Hawking, S., 2009. A brief history of time: from big bang to black holes. Random House.

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