Virginia Tech®home

Artificial Histories: Experiments in Simulating the Human Experience

Daniel Pillis

Research Assistant Professor in Immersive Environments at Virginia Tech

November 16, 2018
11:15am - 12:30pm
2150 Torgersen Hall


The fields of computer graphics and artificial intelligence have redefined the way we understand the world, as everyday activities and objects are increasingly digitized, simulated, augmented and virtual. The history of the digital human overlaps with a period of significant social change in what it means to be considered human, coinciding with a new epoch of science based on the technology of the modern computer. Artificial environments present us with a version of the world that invites new philosophical conceptualizations of freedom, meaning, and value, rupturing our understandings of time, infinitude and the self. Economies of virtual objects and artificially intelligent avatars have mirrored and inverted our financial and social structures, leading to new systems of exchange and divergent forms of social relations. The era of the deepfake defines our new fake world, where objective and subjective reality merge into a new artificial and digital version of the real.

Where did this all begin? How did this happen? How do we computationally model the nature of the human experience? What is the difference between an artificially intelligent virtual human and a fictional character in a novel, or a person at their funeral? Using augmented reality, interactive VR simulations, contemporary robotics and volumetric capture, our work examines historical ruptures in the development of the digital era. Using artifacts and technology both tied to their invention and the subsequent media forms generated from their period specific research, we create simulations, models and narratives that extend real space into the realm of the artificial . This talk will discuss research projects on the founding father of the field of computer graphics, Ivan E. Sutherland, as well as the work of Allen Newell and Herbert Simon, considered the fathers of artificial intelligence. Within this context of early work, we will examine the contemporary implications of their research through the lens of media archaeology with attention to the horizon ahead and their implications for the future of computer science.

Topics: interactive artificial environments, virtual objects, deep learning and history of science


Artist and technologist Daniel Gene Pillis is currently Research Assistant Professor in Immersive Environments at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology. Their team pursues research at the intersection of queer computing, embodied virtual reality, and embedded forms of consciousness in objects and narrative experiences. Their research interests are centered on the function of simulation and representation in human culture, considering how humans represent themselves and create identity and history from experience, objects and environments. To do this, they create immersive environments that simulate open worlds; enabling users to interact with animated objects, explore digital and tangible hybrid spaces, and engage with expanded forms of technologically driven narratives. Pillis was previously researcher and artist-in-residence at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University with Dr. Christopher Atkeson, where they focused on soft machines and inflatable robotics. They hold a Masters degree focusing on Virtual Reality and Immersive Environments from Carnegie Mellon University, where they worked with the father of computer graphics, Ivan E. Sutherland, as well as esteemed computer scientist Jessica Hodgins. Previously, Pillis received a Bachelors in engineering Cognitive Science from Rutgers University, where they conducted research in the Decision Making Laboratory with Dr. Gretchen Chapman. Pillis spent several years in New York under the mentorship of the contemporary artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, one of the last remaining survivors of the Stonewall rebellion in 1969. During this time they worked with contemporary art galleries such as Elizabeth Dee, David Zwirner, and Murray Guy. Pillis has exhibited work at the Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh, PA), the Mint Museum (Charlotte, NC), the Leslie Lohman Museum of Queer Art (NYC), Newark Penn Station (Newark, NJ) and has performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Cleveland, OH), Open Engagement International Conference (Pittsburgh PA) and the Theatre for the New City in the East Village (NYC), as well as numerous other galleries and internet venues.