Applications and Tools, Art and Exploration, Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms, Visualization in 3D

The Architecture of Our Time: Virtual Worlds, and The New York Times

The New York Times magazine has a stunning article covering virtual world architecture, including the work of Scope Cleaver, Jon Brouchoud (Keystone Bouchard), David Denton (D B Bailey) , Lester Clark (Designer Dingson) and many others. In addition to giving a quick summary of Second Life and how prims are rezzed, the Times comments that in a virtual world:

“… the only limit is the imagination. Many of the buildings in Second Life are difficult to wrap your head around. They often represent a collision of architectural styles, time periods, interfaces (some buildings are formed out of Web pages), materials, objects (both living and nonliving), altitudes and even weather objects (both living and nonliving), altitudes and even weather systems.”

Prokofy Neva notes in the article that ‘‘If you want to play art farm, you can play that. To me it’s more interesting to see what you can do if you try to make the buildings usable, where people actually inhabit them.’’ Which brings to mind an old discussion I had with Prokofy over reflexive architecture. I was reminded at the time that for most of us, architecture in virtual worlds is about buildings that are livable - most of the Grid is houses (and shops), and Residents LIKE doors, and rooms, and kitchens.

Reflective and Expansive Architecture
But I’ve always remained fascinated with how architecture in virtual worlds also pushes other boundaries. Sure, it can help us live imaginary lives - we can live in a castle, or a beach house. But at the other limits of the form, it also opens up new ways in which we can relate to our environment, to concepts, and to information.

The Times article comes on the heels of an installation by Keystone on Reflective Architecture. (Teleport here). Alpha Auer covered this beautifully on NPIRL with photos, and quotes from the installation notes.

Image: Alpha Auer, NPIRL

Keystone commented that the work:

“In an environment where avatars are free to create anything they can imagine, the vast majority of the architectural fabric created is still largely driven by very literal parallels to the physical world. This happens for good reason, as we have learned to visually organize the world around us, real or virtual, based on familiar cues and patterns. A roof may not need to protect us from the elements in virtual space, but it organizes a space. Even though you can fly, a ramp is still a strong wayfinding mechanism.”

Having visited the installation, I think that Keystone continues to achieve something that I consider monumental: he has moved towards a reconciliation of the archetypes with which we find comfort, and the possibilities of virtual space. As I moved through it I was profoundly struck by how my notions of the space around me were challenged. It created a series of sudden shifts in perception, as if my rational mind, which first sought walls and doors and ramps, was then shunted slightly sideways as I realized that the walls were ephemeral. The walls, for example, which at first looked like solid brick, gained a transparency and were seen to be information streams instead.


As I walked up the ramps, there was another subtle shift: prims built into the ramp acted as wayfinding devices, widening as if to give a small positive reinforcement of my path. I was struck by how moving this was, for reasons I’m still not sure I understand: the building was communicating with me, it felt like a very human moment, where modernity had somehow given way to a warmer and richer dialogue between self and external physical space.

The experience of virtual worlds includes an experience of a dislocated sense of place and of self. Because a virtual world is immersive, your mind accepts it as a reality. It IS real. This seems counter-intuitive until you’ve experienced it: just because something is virtual doesn’t make the experience of it unreal. Your mind, instead, comes to accept its reality, the sole mitigating factor is that it isn’t physical.

And so when faced with moments that don’t match our usual archetypes for content and form we can find ourselves dislocated and, in the best of cases, transformed, because we come to find that we shouldn’t take our perceptions for granted, whether in the actual or virtual world.

Living Landscapes
I continue to carry with me a comment that Justin Bovington made when talking about Immersive Workspaces and what he sees as part of the future enterprise use of virtual worlds:

“You know, I kind of mentioned this to the Virtual Worlds Forum that virtual worlds themselves are more than just the space, they’re more than just collaboration and a great place to do a meeting. They have a secondary area which is beyond what we’re calling “beyond the avatar”, which actually is the environment itself as its own entity.

Like New York City is its own story, you know, exactly the same. And so what we’re trying to do at the moment is to tap into traditional back-end databases and creating visual metaphors in cyberspace. So what happens, the environment itself becomes a living embodiment of the company. And again we call those living landscapes. Pull your mouse out and you can see this wonderful tapestry of data. That’s changing people’s perception of their companies and ways to look at data together and that’s really quite exciting because we’ve only just tapped into that. And arguably that’s going to be a very, very powerful tool.”

Between this idea - of living spaces, and the work of Keystone and other architects in virtual worlds, we’re seeing the continued emergence of new archetypes and forms. These forms are not merely architectural, I believe - they present the opportunity to first make information and its access more intuitive, and second to make it more human somehow. To allow deeper collaboration with form and content, and to provide a sense of touch through the powerful tool of immersion and the sense of physical presence.

Are Virtual Worlds Evolving?
I suppose the Times article is a validation of sorts, at least for the architecture of virtual worlds. But what also strikes me is another dislocation: in my opinion, virtual worlds are no longer a novelty or a “get rich quick” scheme as in the days of Anshe Chung or the brand builds: instead, it is now accepted in much of the media as a part of the digital landscape.

Most of the press coverage of virtual worlds has been positive. As Mark Kingdon notes, there have been 40,000 press mentions of Second Life in the last year. This is not insignificant, and from where I sit, much of it is positive.

The dislocation lies between the view from without, perhaps, and the view from within. There’s a stream or a mood, fueled in part by the recent moves by Linden Lab on open space pricing which, if you read it at face value, would spell the demise of Second Life. But I remain convinced that in fact we’re at the cusp of an incredible period of growth and innovation, although I’ll add a note of caution as I would for any innovative platform: it’s still a high wire act, for now, and missteps can still be costly.

The Times article concludes by saying:

No one knows exactly where it will go, but it’s exciting to imagine, as thousands of Second Life-related blog posts attest. ‘‘It will be nice to be here while it evolves,’’ says Clark, now Dingson, sitting in a virtual chair overlooking the endless virtual sea.”


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