VR Worlds Online 1.0

By Pauline van Mourik Broekman and Josephine Berry, 10 September 1997

Review of Parallel Space at the ICA - interviews and statements from designers and more

Where and what is Parallel Space? Early in July, artists, designers, cultural historians and geographers gathered at the ICA to ask. The latest symposium in the series "Towards an aesthetics of the future" took oblique views at ways in which people inhabit and use space. Communities may be sprouting in online worlds, but television, the postal system, radio and international travel have already dislodged us from those grounded in the physical environment. 'Global media vectors' as McKenzie Wark, one of the speakers, calls the information streams circulating the globe, contribute equally to binding and disconnecting populations, neighbours and families. Cutting up space in drastic and lasting ways, media vectors affect familial and social power relations, economics and nation states easily as effectively (and far less predictably) as do walls, borders, roads and buildings.

Yet many of these terms imply the arrival of a certain 'final' freedom of movement, one which we associate with the absolute speed of the immaterial - of information. But bodies and goods do not, cannot travel at these speeds, no matter how deeply entangled they are in info-economies and societies (or, for the compression zealouts among us, until they are fully digitised). Needless to say, many - most - cannot even consider it. It was these frictions that the participants of the ICA's symposium talked about. Inke Arns by looking at artists investigating the shift from a spatial to a temporal understanding of the space of nations (e.g. the Nationale Slovenische Kunst and their "State in Time" declared intermittently in cities all over the world), Iain Borden through skaters' adaption and coupling of the urban environment with their bodies and boards, Displaced Data by talking about the way music has created alternative public spaces in the African diaspora, and numerous VR designers and researchers by talking about the practical problems they face in designing virtual architectures.

Recent web protocols and programs such as VRML and Superscape are causing a visual revolution on the web, as well as hopes for community builders - and companies - of creating 3D meeting places where people will exchange more than 1 second salutes. Yet, as corporate interests encroach upon spaces online and off, it seems the old motto 'As above so below' holds true. In the certain knowledge that users of these spaces have got pocket-money to spare, buzzwords like 'shared interests' soon start to sound like code for 'financial transactions' and online worlds start to bear an uncanny resemblence to their more familiar forebears - exclusive corporate architecture and fantasy holiday destinations.

To be used with any effect, online VR worlds have to be navigable. Artists, researchers and designers active in this field are divided as to how this can be achieved. We questioned several before the ICA event (although not all of them were participants). Is the need to integrate virtual and physical environments paramount. And what of their visual characteristics? Is there something essentially different about virtual space that we should harness, amplify even? Or is it time for another familiar rephrased refrain: "The New Building is dead. Long live the New Building!"



The past few years have seen the arrival of Internet-based multi-user virtual worlds technologies, such as AlphaWorld and Worlds Chat, in which users move their avatars around a computer-generated world, and can chat to others. These virtual environments are frequently seen as being a replacement for real places, a means of escape from the constraints they impose, allowing the creation of a 'placeless' place, in which even one's identity is optional.

However, I believe that this vision is misguided. Once the novelty has worn off, chatting with indeterminate characters in a cartoon strip has little point, and they frequently sink into verbal abuse. I personally want to feel that in these spaces I am talking to real people with real purpose. A sense of place and commitment can, I believe, be inherited from our physical reality: both geographicand somatic.

My basic proposal is that a unified virtual grid of constructions, one that is co-located with real space, be set upon the physical landscape. This virtual grid is 'grounded' to the real space through a connection to physical architecture, made visible to the public through the traditional media of video. That is, real buildings can have a multi-user virtual extension to their structure, rising above it into the sky. People would come to identify the connection between the two through the use of video techniques: the virtual component to the building being superimposed on a live video image of the physical building. This video image can initially be provided on webcams, later extended to security cameras, and eventually televisual media, when filming either news reports or narratives, could also include the virtual. Through these means, the virtual gains a fixity, a reality, in the public imagination, and the functionality of the virtual can augment the physical. Let us extend the world, not escape it.

>> Dr. Avon Huxor <a.huxor AT> is Research Fellow at the Centre for Electronic Arts, Middlesex University.

RALPH SCHROEDER: The Social Life of Avatars

What do people do with each other in online virtual worlds? Do they behave as they do in the real world, following the conventions of everyday behaviour, or differently? The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is - both. If we look at two popular online worlds, Alphaworld and Cybergate, there are conventional behaviours as well as peculiar ones.

Alphaworld and Cybergate are both 3-D graphical worlds in which people - represented on screen as avatars - move around and communicate via text. these avatars have cocktail party type conversations ('where are you from?', 'do you come here often?'), build their own houses, and invite guests to show off their furniture, have parties, and the like.

At this point, as in the real world, segregation takes place: 'regulars' become cliquish, they hang out together in exclusive groups or in remote areas of the world. they also establish distinctive online personalities (the 'prankster', the 'helpful guide', the 'seen-it-all-before-cosmopolitan', etc.) 'Newbies', on the other hand, behave like tourists - they engage only in 'superficial' smalltalk and remain on the periphery of conversations.

This segregation goes hand-in-hand with spatial concentration and dispersion. Alphaworld and Cybergate both have many locales, but avatars tend to concentrate in certain places (a world called 'Alphaworld' inside Alphaworld and 'Pointworld' in Cybergate). And wÚhin these two worlds within worlds, they tend to congregate in one small cluster at the centre of the world. This partial segregation does not overlap with the segregation into 'regulars' and 'newbies' in a clear cut way: It tends to be the 'regulars' who use the more remote areas for one-to-one conversations, building homes, and the like; but even these 'regulars' must spend time in the centre in order to socialise fully.

There has been much theorising about the boundarylessness, 'fluidity'. egalitarianism, and community-like nature of virtual worlds. But these ideas go out the window as soon as you spend time actually observing the social life of avatars. The formation of distinctive groups or cliques with a particular sense of beloning, or again, the spatial concentration and dispersal inside the worlds, illustrate that life inside virtual worlds has features that set it apart from real world behaviours - but also reproduces them.

>> Ralph Schroeder <schroeder AT> is lecturer in sociology at Royal Holloway - University of London. He is the author of Possible Worlds, The Social Dynamic of Virtual Reality Technology (Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 1996).


"A virtual community is nothing more than a real dematerialised community. [...] As long as we have a body and we are conscious of the real environment around us, our projections (in the virtual community) of who we are, and how (behavioural patterns, actions, touch, desires, caprices etc.) spring from real life".

"If we are proper virtual entities surrounded not by this reality but by virtual reality, then we are no longer here but we are there. A lot of people believe that there is some sort of life beyond the one we experience now (in corporeal or virtual form). We are familiar with the idea of continuity of life, so when we think about virtual life we take it as another form of continuity. If you believe that you continue to exit after you die, what makes it so difficult to believe that you might exist one day as a virtual human?"

"Low form digital genes could be, for example, virtual identity components that make your avatar more social by controlling semi-automated facial or body (avatar) language so that the user can focus on the subject of discussion alone [...] But the fact of disembodiment opens a door that leads to unpredictable changes. In the real world, physical characteristics change and evolve slowly - this is not always the case in the virtual one. the idea of easy to assemble virtual identity cells suggests the speed at which we will be able to change. And this is what will make identity unpredictable. A micropersonality is a personality that we construxt fast, use in a specific situation, and then discard (it is then no longer part of us unless we recall it)".

Ioannis Paniaras is researching design in user interaction in virtual worlds at the Media Lab UIAH, Helsinki. His essay Crossing the Boundaries, Electronic Art Within and Without: Design of Virtual Identities and Behaviours can be found at: MATTHIESON

We aim to support the interactions of the viewer within the virtual place. At this early evolutionary stage there is a need to develop the user's 'learning curve' in their transition between real and virtual places. It's also important to develop user vision and interaction in preparation for the increasingly unreal spaces of the future. Such spaces could offer new ways of describing data or information that have little grounding in real life. Whilst the viewer's knowledge of real life architecture must be respected, recreation of the literal should occur only where it aids the experience such as in navigation or framing messages. To make up for the lack of tactility, we can use architectural constructs to offer alternative, non-physical manifestations of experience. Developing a 'Psychetecture' perhaps to evoke certain emotions: - visual reconstructions of claustrophobia, or calm, and to instil more abstract notions and concepts.

From Le Corbusier: "You fix me to a place and my eyes regard it. They behold something which expresses a thought. A thought which reveals itself without word or sound but solely by means of shapes which stand in a certain relationship to one another" (Vers une Architecture, 1923) For online architectures it would be imprudent to simply accept precedents from real life architecture, circulation models and social interaction. On one level the translation of these aspects solves many practical purposes associated with navigation and content provision within these environments.

Obviously, information and data come in many forms, not just architectural. A synthesis of more eclectic sources such as art, literature, philosophy and technology is needed to make these environments work on practical, visual and conceptual levels. Online architectures don't work right now because either they are so grounded in the literal that they offer the viewer what is often a pointless and mundane simulation of 'real life'. Or, at the other end of the scale, online architectures may be such abstracted 'information spaces' that they appear meaningless to the viewer who has not developed the perceptual and cognitive tools for 'reading' the work and so does not know what they should be seeing and how to interact with it.

>> Tracey Matthieson <yanta AT> is Creative Director of Okupi


For all the talk of reconfiguration of bodies in online worlds, there are bodies of knowledge that are not being reconfigured there. In the physical world you know someone is there when the hairs rise on the back of your neck, even if you can't see them. This, the knowable, is almost the indescribable and the unrepresentable. Attempting to build description and representation into Virtual Environments on this level will not serve to make subject/object relations more complex here. What might begin to construct this is if what Marcos Novak calls avatarchitecture concentrates on constructing knowable models of agency.

Agency is contingent not on presence but on the ability to have an affect within an environment. In text based VEs such as MUDs, agency is made visible through deposits of text on screen, but is made manifest by the behaviour and practice of the players. Within 3D online worlds, a user's agency is also tightly circumscribed, coded on many levels, some of which are easily learnable. But in the real world agency has a much wider brief. We can fuck up far worse. Transferring regularly between these spaces may lead to a retesting of the boundaries we once never thought to challenge.

>> Soda will be exhibiting new commissions in a touring group show entitled "Avatar" in Sweden next year. Contacts: Lucy Kimbell <lucy AT> and <info AT>

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <pauline AT>Josephine Berry <josie AT>