On Wednesday i finished reading Rebecca Solnit's excellent and insightful River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West which I picked up very cheaply at the MIT Bookstore sale in Boston some months ago (what fantastic sales they have there!). It was intriguing to read so much detail about the 1870s experiments of Muybridge and his colleagues as they struggled to develop a photographic method that would capture an instant of motion. Eventually, all of these fragments would be joined together and cinema would be born, but in 1872 when Muybridge photographed a horse in motion at Stanford's Palo Alto estate in California, nobody had any idea what the future held.
On Thursday I visited the Reality Centre at my university, De Montfort, in Leicester where we tested the Collaborative Stereoscopic Access Grid Environment devised by Martin Turner and his team at the University of Manchester, and which we hope to install in the new DMU Centre for Creative Technologies when it is completed next year. As we put on and took off our special viewing glasses to watch Martin 'fly' through the virtual reality landscapes created by Howell Istance and his team, I had a powerful sense of deja vu, a kinship with Muybridge and his fellows as they fiddled and adjusted and tried out new ideas, never taking their eyes off the subject, staring at the images they produced, trying to achieve what seemed sometimes way out of reach but which, with just one final adjustment, would hit the mark. We strained to see what we wanted to be there, what we knew would be there, and sometimes it came into view, and sometimes it shimmered away again.
As I walked home in the rain, experiencing wetness in a definitely very real way, I thought of Muybridge and Stanford 133 years ago. Imagine virtual reality in 133 years from now. But maybe it will not be the machines that will have evolved, perhaps it is more likely to be the body itself. It is very noticeable that the human body and the horse body have not altered at all since Muybridge's experiments, but in 2138 they may actually have changed more than the technologies we're currently developing to view them. Perhaps even as a result of them.