Ellen Sandor and Janine Fron, (art)n
Silicon Graphics World, September 1999, pgs. 17-18

A group of artists directed by Ellen Sandor from (art)n and Dana Plepys at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois at Chicago are improving the way we interact and record virtual reality with a new application called IGrams. A paper on the project was published in the IEEE proceedings for IV '99 UK.

IGrams (immersa 'grams) are a real 3D snapshot application designed for the virtual reality CAVE environment that evolved from (art)n's PHSCologram process. They are the instant immersive prints of VR. The IGram application is a flexible software program that can improve VR content production and enhance the final piece. It's a new way to create storyboards and real-time sketches, and to test experimental visual effects. The images are autostereoprints, quickly output in real-time. The IGram print translates what the work looks like without goggles and can easily be exchanged with remote teams. Users can capture images during content production and output them as real 3D images to evaluate the look and performance of 3D objects. It's a dynamic pre-visualization medium for every stage of content production, including final documentation for exhibitions and presentations. Options for cropping, close-ups, creating variants and limited animation effects offer animators a way to be more hands on with their subjects.

IGram documents can also be provocative art objects that tell new stories from different angles of the CAVE. Inspired by Man Ray and the Surrealists, who were known for using photography to record their fabricated worlds, this new direction celebrates the evolution of photography and sculpture.

The group's first works explore photography as performance with a poetic snapshot series from Margaret Dolinsky's unique CAVE pieces: Blue Window Pane, Dream Grrrls and Strait Dope. The IGrams bring the characters from these stories to life in different ways by manipulation of the IGram's virtual camera movement. The series features engaging sculptural close-ups with unique variants and cropping studies.

(art)n's PHSColograms (skol-o-grams) are a digital assemblage of photography, holography, sculpture and computer graphics. The PHSCologram process draws on earlier advances in photography, including daguerreotypes, photogravures and gelatin silver prints. Rodin was among the first sculptors to use photogravures to publish his "Monument to Balzac" in the famous Camera Work quarterly. Brancusi and David Smith are also known for using photography to document their works. Brancusi's photographs show his vision of the artist in the studio; Smith's photographs reveal the artist in the landscape. The documentation produced by these artists are strong works in their own right. It is (art)n's vision for IGrams to inspire a new aesthetic consciousness in virtual environments that encourages artists to explore the nature of photography and sculpture in their own work.

IGram development has addressed the desire to better document virtual reality environments created for EVL's CAVE(tm) system. The CAVE is a fully immersive 10'x10'x10' cubic room, where stereo images are projected onto three walls and the floor. A participant wears LCD shutter glasses, equipped with a tracking device to create the stereo effect and define the user's location within the environment. A three-dimensional 'wand' is used to navigate and interact with virtual objects within the space. IGrams are created by the user within the CAVE while they are exploring and manipulating the three-dimensional space in real-time.

The CAVE is powered by the SGI Infinite Reality Engine. Content is created with proprietary software and commerical packages such as Alias and Maya. Any 'Performer-based' CAVE application can be used to capture IGrams. The three-dimensional scene is ported to the IGram utility and displayed in the CAVE, where the user translates, rotates and scales the scene within a virtual 3D frame representative of the IGram output area. The 'depth-of-field' is controlled by changing interleaving values and distances with the 'wand', which affects the stereo perspective projection. In this process, the CAVE itself is akin to a virtual camera, the virtual frame in 3-space - the camera's viewfinder, and the wand - the lens/aperture controls.

Interleaving is the digital simulation of the photographic combining procedure. (art)n's autostereographic process is a result of interleaved computer graphics based on the concept of binocular disparity. Following the virtual 'positioning' of a digital setting, individual images are captured at slightly different angles across the scene in a straight line from left to right. Each of the images is broken up into rows and columns of pixels. (art)n's proprietary code combines these rows and columns of pixels, and arranges them into a single image. The image is output onto a piece of film or paper. The result is a blurred image on transparency film. A barrier screen or lenticular lens is placed over this image to cumulate the sculptural effect. In the case of IGram production, once virtual "positioning" of the scene is complete, ten individual images are captured, interleaved and displayed full scale in the CAVE for aesthetic evaluation before committing to final hardcopy output. When cropping and framing results are satisfactory, interleaved IGram images are sent to the Epson Photo EX color inkjet printer to transparency material and final processing. (art)n's patented PHSCologram process is flexible, and the group uses Silicon Graphics Indigo 2 Extreme, Windows, MacOS and other systems.

(art)n's early work with VR content included off-site PHSCologram production via the internet. PHSColograms of the MATIF stock exchange in Paris, Simulation of a Purkinje Neuron and a Double Scroll Attractor were created with EVL. A rendering of a German city, statistical data exploration and molecular modeling were created with Virtual Reality Applications Center, Iowa State University and a simulation of a tear ripping through a crystal was created with VRAC, IBM and Cornell University.

(art)n also created character animation film stills and VActor portraits with Christopher Landreth, Brad deGraf and SimGraphics, and video game portraits with Rare for Nintendo. This selection of work served as powerful art documentation and R&D for creating a future PHSCologram process that would output directly from a VR application. Preliminary work on writing the code for direct output from the CAVE was produced with Dr. Carolina Cruz-Neira, the mother of Virtual Reality who wrote the original CAVE software.

The IGram team and authors of "Collaborative Visualization: New Advances in Documenting Virtual Reality with IGrams" include Ellen Sandor, Janine Fron, Kristine Greiber, Fernando Orellana and Stephan Meyers, (art)n, and Dana Plepys, Margaret Dolinsky, and Mohammed Dastagir Ali, Electronic Visualization Laboratory, University of Illinois at Chicago. (art)n is also working on VR hard copy applications with Dr.Cruz-Neira at VRAC, Iowa State University and the GMD- German National Research Center for Information Technology, Visualization and Media Systems Design in Sankt Augustin, Germany.

In 1981, Ellen Sandor produced the first large scale immersive environment, opening a dialogue for the future of photography and sculpture in what would later become the digital world. This compelling installation sketched the potential for art in virtual reality and the evolution of photographic documentation. She also opened doors for artists to collaborate with scientists and worked with NASA, JPL, the Scripps Institute and others, offering an unparalleled look at science as art.

Ellen Sandor, an MFA graduate from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is the founding artist and director of (art)n. She is one of the first women artists to artistically document supercomputer icons in the mid 1980s with PHSColograms. Her portfolio under the name of (art)n has grown to become one of the most extensive documents of virtual reality and computer graphics content. Her passion for the re-inventive powers of art is changing the vocabulary of making fine art in the digital domain.

(art)n was formed by Sandor in 1983, and has created PHSColograms with Christopher Landreth, Chuck Csuri, Dan Sandin, Donna Cox, Ed Paschke, Miroslaw Rogala and other artists. The group is known for making artistic statements by re-presenting digital content as unique art objects, sculptural installations, and animated stills with interactive sound. (art)n's latest project with Thomas J. McLeish of Murphy Jahn, Townhouse Revisited 1999, is an immersive 10" x 25" x 40" cube composed of five PHSColograms that explore architecture and the human body.

Twenty years ago, following an exhibition of "townhouse" designs by the Chicago Seven (Thomas Beeby, Laurence Booth, Stuart Cohen, James Freed, Gerald Horn, Helmut Jahn, James Nagle, Kenneth Schroeder, Stanely Tigerman, Cynthia Weese and Ben Weese) the Graham Foundation held a competition for which 169 participants submitted schemes. Ultimately an exhibition of the competition winners and the Chicago Seven was held at the Foundation. On the twentieth anniversary of those events, the Foundation decided to repeat the competition in an attempt to expose new architectural talent and to explore the changes in design concerns that have evolved over the past twenty years.

A selection of (art)n's vintage collaborations in art and science and character animation film stills was installed in the Silicon Graphics Corporate Briefing Center and Visionarium in 1993 and Nihon SGI in Tokyo. (art)n's work is in the permanent collection of The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, International Center of Photography in New York, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, United States Department of State Art in Embassies Program in Zimbabwe and Germany, Museum of Jewish Heritage NYC, Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, The Smithsonian Institution, Cranbrook Institute of Science and others, including private collections.