HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA — While we may think of interactive and virtual entertainments as products of the computer age, today's Xboxes, GameCubes and PS2s are merely the latest in a long line of 'virtual realities' that not only predate the computer, they predate electricity. Helping to place these systems into a larger context, the Getty Museum's Devices of Wonder introduces surfers to four centuries of 'high-tech' recreation - and then invites them to play along.
A companion site to the exhibit running at the Getty Museum until February 2002, Devices of Wonder takes 22 of the physical exhibits' several hundred "surprising and seductive ancestors of modern cinema, cyborgs, computers, and other optical devices" and makes them available for viewing, and in most cases, for the visitor's playtime amusement (in a strictly educational context, of course) through a series of Shockwave/Flash interactives. There is also a non-interactive, HTML version of the site, but this is definitely a situation where it's worth waiting for the downloads - after all, toys are not for viewing, toys are for playing.
After an opening flourish vaguely reminiscent of a Monty Python animation, Devices arranges its 22 attractions around the outside edge of the browser window, leaving the center as a 'play space.' The exhibit's guide is an Android Clarinetist - a six-foot tall, 19th century robot that appears to have lost both his clarinet and his clothing. (Perhaps hard times in the automaton musician trade led to his new career as online docent.)
The first item on display (assuming you have a top-left mentality) is the Physionotrace - a 19th-century parlor game based on a popular theory that character and intelligence could be judged by facial features. (Imagine a home version of a police identikit.) In addition to some background information, the exhibit allows surfers to test the theory by dragging and dropping various bits of facial anatomy (as well as hats and a change of clothes) onto a 'starter' face, and then seeing how feelings towards the cartoon figure change.
All the exhibits follow this pattern, one page of information and one page of entertainment - either consisting of a Flash applet or, when play-along isn't practical, a RealVideo demonstration of the device. Exhibits range from the absolute simplicity of Indonesian Shadow Puppets to the UniBug, (a 1990s example of a 'BIObot') and from the toys of the very rich (an 18th century microscope) to the almost universally accessible. (An example of the latter is the Thaumatrope - a piece of cardboard with images on either side, which optically merge when the card is spun.)
Some devices show a clear ancestral connection to current technology, such as the Magic Lantern's relation to movie projectors, and some have even more direct parallels with modern devices. The "Illustrated London News Grand Panorama of the Great Exhibition of All Nations" of 1851 is simply a roll-out paper version of the hundreds of 360-degree photo panoramas posted on the Web, and anyone familiar with funhouse mirrors or multiple-image photographic filters will instantly recognize their prototype in the Sorceress' Mirror.
Other amusements are less familiar, and all the more intriguing for that fact. The arrangement of layers of paper cutouts to create a three-dimensional theatrical scene, and the Portable Diorama (with which users can mix and match translucent foregrounds and backgrounds to create original landscapes) made the biggest impression simply because they were unknown to me.
Unfortunately, an exhibit which showed even more promise, the Anamorphic Images and Cone (in which severely distorted paintings can only be viewed by placing a reflective cone at their center) was non-functional during my attempts. (Though if history is any indication, this problem is caused by an incompatibility between the Java applet and my Macintosh platform --a temporary incompatibility, one hopes-- and Windows users will probably have no difficulty accessing the display.)
There's a definite irony in using 21st century technology to play with a virtual pair of shadow puppets, but then again, there's no fear of breaking a priceless artifact. On a side note, Devices of Wonder may also have unintentionally revealed a second evolution in this exhibit - that being the loss of 'style' in naming these amusements. Consider that a piece of spinning cardboard was called a Thaumatrope, a collection of paper cut-out facial parts a Physionotrace, while today, a gaming console with enough computing power to fly a space ship is given the name... Xbox. One must assume then, that the logical conclusion of this trend will be naming the ultimate gaming device, "It." (And Bill Gates will probably find a way to trademark the word.)
Devices of Wonder can be found at http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/devices/choice.html.