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<nettime> Michael Heim: Virtual Realism
nettime {AT} desk.nl on Tue, 9 Jun 1998 07:36:27 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Michael Heim: Virtual Realism



[From <http://mheim.com/rio>, forwarded with permission; see the site
for links embedded in the text.]


                         Abstract: "Virtual Realism"
     
     Contemporary culture exhibits an increasingly polarized spectrum of
     attitudes toward virtualization. On one side are
     network idealists, who dream of uploading everything local and
     physical to global networks. On the other side are naive realists
     -- from the Unabomber to a host of neo-Luddite critics, who reject
     computers. These two social forces appear headed for a collision as
     computer evolution unfolds.
     
     Virtual Realism is a strategy for balancing these two forces.
     Virtual Realism includes several imperatives:
   
     * Clarify the language of virtual reality
     * Create a feedback loop between engineers and public
     * Observe current shifts in telepresence (technalysis)
     * Cultivate pre-modern (somatic) body awareness (Tai Chi)
     * Develop appropriate design models for virtual worlds
       
   This last component will be the focus of the presentation. The
   presentation will demonstrate models of online worlds designed
   according to virtual realism, and then a
   contrast with be made with more naively realistic worlds. The models
   come from the author's recent work with graduate students at the Art
   Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
   
   This paper (no footnotes) is available with full-color illustrations
   on the Internet at
   http://www.mheim.com/rio 
   
                              Virtual Realism
   
                              By Michael Heim
   
   Introduction
   
   Contemporary life bristles with attitudes toward virtualization. As
   computers emerge in all areas of life, some critics attack virtual
   reality as an extension of shallow television. Others hail global
   networks as the advent of new communities that transform economics and
   social life. In my book Virtual Realism, I analyze the spectrum of
   attitudes from "Na´ve Realism" to "Network Idealism" and I suggest a
   pragmatic balance called "Virtual Realism." For the purposes of this
   paper, I will sketch the opposing attitudes in simple terms: first,
   the Teilhardian optimism of network idealists, and then the na´ve
   realism of the Luddite critics sometimes associated with the
   Unabomber. I then condense the strategy of virtual realism into four
   main points while highlighting the design strategy based on its
   principles. The design strategy offers guidelines for constructing
   online, 3-D, real-time virtual worlds that harmonize conflicting
   attitudes. The presentation concludes by showing video samples of
   current online virtual world construction done by graduate students at
   the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where I
   teach Virtual Worlds Theory and Virtual Worlds Design.
   
   Network Idealists
   
   The idealist sees planet Earth converging. Computer networks foster
   virtual communities that cut across geographies and time zones.
   Virtual communities seem to heal isolated people locked in metal boxes
   on urban freeways. Through computer networks, the population can
   socialize while shopping, learning, and business are only a mouse
   click away. The telephone and the television seem to have been mere
   beginnings of a more powerful, multi-sensory, interactive
   telepresence. "Virtual communities" recall McLuhan's "global village"
   and Teilhard's "Omega Point."
   
   Network idealists advance a philosophy of convergence. The convergence
   ranges from the auto-poetic systems of Principia Cybernetica to the
   political activism of the Electronic Freedom Foundation. One way to
   grasp the idealist roots of this philosophy is to consider the
   Teilhardian thought current underlying mid-twentieth-century thinking.
   At the heart of network idealism pulses a thought most clearly
   articulated by the French Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de
   Chardin.
   
   Teilhard de Chardin envisioned the convergence of human beings into a
   single massive "noosphere" or "mind sphere." This giant network would
   surround Earth to control the planet's resources and shepherd a world
   unified by Love. Teilhard's catholic vision ranged from evolutionary
   physics to world religion. (His views received more suspicion than
   support from Vatican orthodoxy.) He saw in the physical world an inner
   drive for all substances to converge into increasingly complex units.
   Material atoms merge to create higher-level units. Matter eventually
   converges to form organisms. The convergence of organic life in turn
   produces higher-level complexities. The most complex units establish a
   new qualitative dimension where consciousness emerges. On the
   conscious level, the mind - and then the networking of minds - gives
   birth to a new stage of spirit. As in Hegel's nineteenth-century
   philosophy, Teilhard sees expanding spirit as the inner meaning or
   cosmic purpose of the preceding evolution. Convergence toward greater
   complexity, even on the sub-atomic level, exemplifies the Love
   principle (agapic rather than erotic). Only later, with the dawn of
   intelligence, does Love come into full self-awareness. For Teilhard,
   this is the Christ principle guiding the universe. "In the beginning
   was the Logos." Only at its culminating point does history reveal its
   full meaning as the mental sphere assumes dominance. Teilhardians see
   ultimate convergence as the Omega or End-Point of time, the equivalent
   of the Final Coming of Christ.
   
   Teilhard, like Karl Marx before him, inherited evolutionary dynamics
   from Hegel, the father of German Idealism. Hegel applied the Christian
   notion of Divine Providence to the recorded events of civilized
   history in order to show a rational progression. Hegel's elaborate
   encyclopedias and multi-volume histories of Western civilization
   affirm a hidden evolutionary will driving purposely towards a single
   culmination. The fulfillment of history, according to Hegel, is a
   spiritual unity harmonized in diversity, a oneness which subseqsuent
   interpreters describ as a "classless society" (Marx) or as "social
   progress" (the American Hegelians).
   
   Hegel saw a divine Idea unfold in the material world of historical
   events - even to the point of squeezing all recorded history into a
   Procrustean logic of progress. The motor that powered the movement of
   history was a series of internal civil wars, each bringing the entire
   society a little closer to perfection. The culmination of all
   revolutions, for Hegel, produced Western constitutional democracies
   where the individual and the individual's rights are recognized by the
   social collective. Just what this heavenly harmony looks like in
   practice appeared differently to the various proponents of Hegelian
   idealism. While Marx's advocates dressed in the worker's garb of
   political economy or in revolutionary guerrilla fatigues, Teilhard's
   vision blended synthetic physics with Christian communitarianism. It
   is especially the communitarianism that attracts network idealists.
   
   Connecting the communitarian impulse with the cult of technology may
   seem incongruous at first glance, but we must not forget that the
   organized, enduring community is itself a co-product of agricultural
   technology, of the development of machines. For millennia, machines
   functioned as stand-alone tools under supervision of a single human
   operator -- the hoe, the plow. With larger-scale projects and
   manufacturing, machines increasingly functioned in an ensemble -- the
   mill, the boatyard. The shift from machinery of isolated work tools to
   larger systems becomes one of the defining characteristics of the
   industrial era, with railroads, fuel distribution, and highway systems
   being obvious examples. The interconnection of one machine to another
   extended into the sphere of human society and cultural production with
   networks: first radio, then television, and now computers. The
   contemporary convergence of all three media has created a situation in
   which a vast variety of machines plug into seemingly limitless
   networks, all with the computer as the control switch.
   
   The network idealist builds collective bee-hives. The world-wide
   networks that cover the planet create a global bee-hive where
   civilization shakes off individual controls and electronic life steps
   out on its own. The idealist sees the next century as an enormous
   communitarian buzz. In that networked world, information circulates
   freely through the planetary nervous system, and intellectual property
   vanishes as a concept. Individuals give and take freely. Compensation
   is automated for the heavenly, disembodied life. Electronic angels
   distribute credit. Private territory and material possessions no
   longer divide people. The battle of the books recedes through digital
   mediation, and proprietary ideas give way to voluntary barter.
   Cooperative intelligence vanquishes private minds. Extropian idealists
   (who define themselves as the enemies of entropy) encourage their
   members to entrust their deceased bodies to cryonic storage until
   scientists one day either revive the repaired body or upload the
   brain-encased mind into silicon chips. The Teilhardian Internet is
   optimism gone ballistic.
   
   Na´ve Realists
   
   Realists remain unimpressed. They are uneasy with the idealists who
   celebrate electronic collectives. I know people in rural communities
   who hear wishful thinking in the phrase "virtual community." It sticks
   in their throat. For many, real community means a difficult,
   never-resolved struggle. It is a sharing that cannot be virtual
   because its reality arises from the public places that people share
   physically -- not the artificial configurations you choose but the
   spaces that fate allots, complete with the idiosyncrasies of local
   weather and a mixed bag of family, friends, and neighbors. For many,
   the "as-if community" lacks the rough interdependence of life shared.
   And here is where the naive realist draws the line. The direct,
   unmediated spaces we perceive with our senses create the places where
   we mature physically, morally, and socially. Even if modern life
   shrinks public spaces by building freeways, and even if the
   "collective mind" still offers much interaction among individuals
   through computers, the traditional meeting places still foster social
   bonds built on patience and on the trust of time spent together. Here
   is the bottom line for realists.
   
   No surprise, then, for realists when they hear that the Internet
   Liberation Front is bringing down the Internet's Pipeline for six
   hours, when Anti-Semitic hate groups pop up on Prodigy, when Wired
   magazine gets letter-bombed, or when Neo-Nazis work their way into the
   German Thule Network. The utopian communitas exists as an imagined
   community, as the Mystical Body. Real community exists, on the
   contrary, where people throw their lot together and stand in
   face-to-face ethical proximity. Computer hardware may eventually allow
   us to transport our cyberbodies, but we are just learning to
   appreciate the tradeoffs between primary and virtual identities. Put
   the New Jerusalem on hold until we phone security!
   
   The naive realist feels fearful about virtual reality. There is fear
   of abandoning local community values as we move into a cyberspace of
   global communities. There is fear of diminishing physical closeness
   and mutual interdependence as electronic networks mediate more and
   more activities. There is fear of crushing the spirit by replacing
   bodily movement with smart objects and robotic machines. There is fear
   of losing the autonomy of our private bodies as we depend increasingly
   on chip-based implants. There is fear of compromising integrity of
   mind as we habitually plug into networks. There is fear that our own
   human regenerative process is slipping away as genetics transmutes
   organic life into manageable strings of information. There is fear of
   the sweeping changes in the workplace and in public life as we have
   known it. There is fear of the empty human absence that comes with
   increased telepresence. There is fear that the same power elite who
   formerly "moved atoms" as they pursued a science without conscience
   will now "move bits" that govern the computerized world.
   
   The critics of fear often assume a philosophy of "na´ve realism."
   Na´ve realists take reality for what is experienced immediately.
   Reality, they assert, is the physical phenomena we perceive with our
   bodily senses, what we see directly with our eyes, smell with our
   noses, hear with our ears, taste with our tongues, and touch with our
   skin. From the standpoint of this empirically perceived sensuous
   world, the computer system is at best a tool, at worst a mirage
   distracting us from the real world. The elaborate data systems we are
   developing exist outside our primary sensory world. The systems do not
   belong to reality but constitute instead, in the eyes of the naive
   realist, a suppression of reality. The suppression comes through "the
   media," which is seen to function as vast, hegemonic corporate
   structures that systematically collect, edit, and broadcast packaged
   experience. The media infiltrate and distort non-mediated experience,
   compromising and confounding the immediacy of experience. Computers
   accelerate the process of data gathering, and threaten further, in the
   eyes of the na´ve realist, what little remains of pure, immediate
   experience. The na´ve realist believes that genuine, natural
   experience is as endangered as clean air and unpolluted water. The
   na´ve realist aligns computers with the corporate polluters who dump
   on the terrain of unmediated experience.
   
   The supposed purity of immediate experience was defended by the New
   England Transcendentalists in nineteenth-century America. Thinkers
   like Henry David Thoreau, backed by the publicity skills of Ralph
   Waldo Emerson, proclaimed a return to pure, unmediated experience.
   Thoreau left city life to spend weeks in a rustic cabin in the woods
   at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts so he could "confront the
   essential facts of life." Far from the social and industrial hubbub,
   Thoreau spent two years contemplating the evils of railroads and
   industrialization. Although railroad tracks and freeways now
   circumscribe Walden Pond, many contemporary critics, like Wendell
   Berry, seek to revive the Thoreauvian back-to-nature ethic and take up
   the cause represented by his Walden retreat.
   
   In the eyes of the naive realist, computer networks add unnecessary
   frills to the real world while draining blood from real life. The
   mountains, rivers, and great planet beneath our feet existed long
   before computers, and the naive realist sees in the computer an alien
   intruder defiling God's pristine earth. The computer, say the naive
   realists, should remain a carefully guarded tool, if indeed we allow
   computers to exist at all. The computer is a subordinate device that
   tends to withdraw us from the primary world. We can and should, if the
   computer enervates us, pull the plug or even destroy the computer.
   
   By voicing such fears, the naive realist sounds alarms that many
   people have come to connect with the Unabomber.
   
   Unabomber Manifesto
   
   The Unabomber is an important figure for understanding na´ve realism.
   The Unabomber's extremism cannot be understood in isolation from the
   one-sided commercial euphoria that sells millions of computers each
   year. The Unabomber's attack on computers became clear to the public
   in September, 1995 when the Washington Post published a 56-page,
   35,000-word manifesto on "Industrial Society and Its Future." Under
   the pressure of bomb threats against airline passengers, the newspaper
   carried the Umabomber Manifesto in its morning edition. By evening on
   the East Coast, you could not find a single copy of the Post with its
   8-page manifesto insert. The next day, however, the 200-kilobyte text
   of the manifesto turned up on the Internet. It appeared on a
   World-Wide Web site sponsored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
   The Unabomber had his own "home page," illustrated with wanted posters
   and maps pinpointing the series of explosions he had caused, all in a
   high-tech, Web format.
   
   Search the Unabomber Manifesto and you find the word "computer"
   mentioned frequently in conjunction with "control" and "technology."
   The serial bomber blames technology, especially computers, for a
   variety of societal ills: the invasion of privacy, genetic
   engineering, and "environmental degradation through excessive economic
   growth." The Unabomber Manifesto borrows heavily from an older school
   of social critics who follow the French writer Jacques Ellul. The book
   by Ellul, Technological Society, a bible in the 1960s, demonized an
   all-pervasive technology monster lurking beneath the
   "technological-industrial system." Ellul took a snapshot of technology
   in the 1960s, and he then projected and expanded that single frozen
   moment in time onto a future where he envisioned widespread social
   destruction. Ellul's approach -- what economists call "linear trend
   extrapolation" -- takes into account neither social evolution nor
   economic transformation. Ellul did not include the possibility that
   economies of scale would arise to redistribute technological power,
   allowing individuals, for instance, to run personal computers from
   home and publish content on an equal footing with large corporations.
   
   The dark future portrayed by Ellul appears throughout the Unabomber
   Manifesto, but the Unabomber goes further by linking the technology
   threat explicitly to computers. The killer critic sees computers as
   instruments of control to oppress human beings either by putting them
   out of work or by altering how they work. The Manifesto states:
   
   It is certain that technology is creating for human beings a new
       physical and social environment radically different from the
       spectrum of environments to which natural selection has adapted
       the human race physically and psychologically. If man does not
       adjust to this new environment by being artificially
       re-engineered, then he will be adapted to it through a long and
       painful process of natural selection. The former is far more
       likely that the latter.
       
   The dilemma outlined by the Unabomber can be found in other extremist
   critics. Many share the Unabomber's views without harboring his
   pathological desperation. The no-win dilemma they see is either to
   permit evolution to wreck millions of lives or to use technology to
   forcibly re-engineer the population. Laissez-faire evolution or
   artificial engineering seem the sole options: Either manipulate humans
   to fit technology, or watch technology bulldoze the population until
   all that remains is a techno-humanoid species of mutants. The Ellul
   school of criticism posits a monolithic steamroller "technology" that
   flattens every activity, and the Ellulian view allows only a static
   fit between technology and society. This school of thought sometimes
   puts a national face on the alien technology monster, calling it
   "Americanization."
   
   Na´ve realism and network idealism are two sides of the same coin. The
   computer's impact on culture and the economy turned from a celebration
   into a backlash against cyberspace. A cultural pendulum swings back
   and forth, both feeding off and being fed to a sensation-hungry media.
   The media grabs onto hype and overstatement, culled from marketers and
   true believers. When the media assesses the techno-culture, a trend
   climbs in six months from obscurity to one of the Five Big Things --
   complete with magazine covers, front page coverage in newspapers, and
   those few minutes on television which now constitute the ultimate in
   mass appeal. After the build-up, the backlash begins. The process is
   as follows: (1) simplify an issue; (2) exaggerate what was simplified;
   (3) attack the inadequacies of the simplification. Cyberspace was no
   exception, and the reverse swing against cyberspace was inevitable.
   
   The backlash is not simply the product of a fevered media economy. It
   taps into people's real attitudes towards an ever more technologized
   culture. This runs from those who are frustrated by the frequent need
   to upgrade software to those who experience "future shock" as a
   personal, existential jolt. While futurologists Alvin and Heidi
   Toffler preach "global trends" from an economist's overview, the
   individual suffers painful personal changes in the work and
   marketplaces. Waves of future shock may intrigue forward-looking
   policy makers, but those same swells look scary to someone scanning
   the horizon from a plastic board adrift in the Ocean. The big picture
   of evolutionary trends often overwhelms and silences the personal pain
   of living people. Those people will eventually find their voices in a
   backlash against the confident soothsayers in business suits.
   
   A streak of the Unabomber's Luddite passion weaves through the
   cyberspace backlash. The titles of several books published in the past
   few years give a glimpse of the breadth of the backlash. The books
   include: Resisting the Virtual; Rebels Against the Future: The
   Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution; Media Virus; Data
   Trash;
   Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway; The Age
   of Missing Information; The Gutenberg Elegies; War of the Worlds:
   Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality; and The Future Does
   Not Compute. Obviously, these books show infinitely more grace than
   the Unabomber's crude, coercive manifestos. But they all reject, to
   varying degrees, the movement of life into electronic environments.
   
   Some American critics have embraced the title "neo-Luddite."
   Kirkpatrick Sales, for instance, felt compelled to distance himself
   from the Unabomber Manifesto because he in fact uses many of the same
   arguments to reject technology and he shares with the Unabomber some
   common critical sources like Ellul. While agreeing in principle with
   what the Unabomber says, critics like Sales wish to maintain distance
   from terrorist practices. Such critics grew in numbers during the
   early 1990s when information technology extended into every area of
   life, spawning a multimedia industry and virtual reality companies.
   
   Virtual Realism: A Pragmatic Balance
   
   Naive realism and network idealism belong together in the cyberspace
   continuum. They are binary brothers. One launches forth with
   unreserved optimism; the other lashes back with a plea to ground
   ourselves outside technology in primary reality. Hegel would have
   appreciated their mutual opposition while betting on an eventual
   synthesis. Unfortunately, no synthesis is in sight. A collision is
   more likely. Even if we were to subscribe to an idealist synthesis, we
   would only subsume individual pain under collective social forces.
   
   We need instead to treat the conflict as an existential matter. Rather
   than conjure a solution with a wave of dialectic, I suggest we look
   toward a pragmatic balance. We need to find within ourselves both the
   Unabomber and the Teilhardian technologist, and rather than allow them
   to argue in the abstract, we need to have them work together,
   side-by-side in our current evolution. There is a delicate balance
   that sways between the idealism of unstoppable Progress and the
   Luddite resistance to virtual life. The Luddite falls out of sync with
   the powerful affirmative human energies promoting rationality for
   three centuries and now blossoming into the next century. But the
   idealist slips into the progress of tools without content, of
   productivity without satisfaction, of ethereal connections without
   corporeal discipline. Both inclinations -- naive realism and futurist
   idealism -- belong to our destiny. We are each part Unabomber, part
   Teilhardian.
   
   Between these two extremes swings the tight rope of virtual realism.
   This long thin rope stretches across the chasm of change and permits
   no return. Indifferent standstill is even more dangerous. The
   challenge is not to end the oscillation between realism and idealism
   but to find the path that goes through them. It is not a synthesis in
   the Hegelian sense of a result achieved through logic. Rather, virtual
   realism is an existential process of criticism, practice, and
   conscious communication. Virtual realism produces an uneasy balance:
   to balance the idealist's enthusiasm for computerized life with the
   need to ground ourselves more deeply in the felt earth affirmed by the
   realist as our primary reality.
   
   How do we cultivate virtual realism in ourselves? The answer is not a
   simple one, nor one to which we can subscribe once and for all and
   then put away in a convenient box of ready answers. For the sake of
   this paper, though, I will condense some main tasks of virtual realism
   as outlined in my book of that title:
   
    1. Clarify the language of virtual reality.
    2. Create a feedback loop between engineers and public
    3. Observe current shifts in telepresence (technalysis)
    4. Cultivate pre-modern (somatic) body awareness (Tai Chi)
    5. Develop appropriate design models for virtual worlds
       
   Let me devote a paragraph to each of these five points and then I will
   dwell on the last point, which will introduce the computer video
   portion of this presentation.
   
   1. Clarify the language of virtual reality.
       Fiction writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson were
       useful in the early stage of cyberspace development, but they
       wrote without actually experiencing VR technology. Their fiction
       was fine for stoking imaginations. Now, however, we are in the
       early phase of actual experiments. Fiction and commercial
       advertising distort the meaning of virtual reality, conceiving it
       as a nebulous state-of-mind or attenuating its meaning so much as
       to lose the essential features of VR: immersion, interactivity,
       and information intensity. Each of these features has a specific
       technical description, and VR is first and foremost a technology,
       not simply a subjective state of mind or a metaphor for whatever
       goes into computers. Keeping a close watch on the language we use
       supports the next point.
       2. Create a feedback loop between engineers and public
       . In a democratic society, lay citizens can influence technical
       systems. It is not easy for citizens to participate in the
       evolution of technology, but it is possible. I have seen this
       happen myself in the early 1990s as VR technology became the focus
       of national conferences in the United States. The path of virtual
       realism requires bridges spanning an informed population and a
       socially alert community of engineers. One of the important
       outgrowths of this loop is InfoEcology, the use of virtual reality
       to enhance environmental cleanup. (See Chapter 5 in Virtual
       Realism.)
       3. Observe and describe in detail current shifts in telepresence
       (technalysis).
       Art works and interactive art installations indicate how
       technology shifts the pragmatic landscape of work and play. A
       phenomenology of daily computer usage can help us gauge changes in
       tempo and reality scope. Tempo and reality scope belong to the
       ontological shift introduced by virtual reality. The user
       phenomenology of specific practices - what I call "technalysis" --
       contributes to the cautious pathway of virtual realism. One
       example of technalysis I offer is Electric Language, which
       analyzes the shift of reading and writing from print to electronic
       text.
       4. Cultivate pre-modern (somatic) body awareness (Tai Chi).
       Because high-end VR telepresence (with head-mounted displays and
       CAVE environments) signals dangers like AWS (Alternate World
       Syndrome) and other psycho-somatic disorders, we need to promote
       the retrieval of pre-modern dimensions of bodily awareness. Help
       for this effort can be found, among other places, in the Asian
       view of mind / body as a harmony to be cultivated rather than a
       duality to be exploited. Computerization needs to go hand-in-hand
       with sensitivity to the subtle energetic components of human
       experience. Taoist martial arts and practices provide key examples
       of integration that help balance computer culture.
       5. Develop appropriate design models for virtual worlds
       . This strategic point parallels the strategy for appropriate
       language (number one above). The design goal of virtual realism is
       to form a middle path between shocking with the new ("future
       shock") and denouncing computers as a distraction. The design of
       virtual realism avoids environments of complete fantasy that
       remain unrelated to pragmatic purposes. It also eschews the
       attempt to re-present the primary world. We can no more escape the
       primary world through virtual worlds than we can upload reality to
       the computer.
       
   This last point can help make virtual realism intuitive. We can better
   understand virtual realism when we view it as a style of virtual
   worlds design. Over the past year, my research in virtual worlds
   design has developed a non-representative but (potentially) pragmatic
   design for virtual worlds. My classes in Virtual Worlds Design and
   Virtual Worlds Theory in the graduate school at the Art Center College
   of Design in Pasadena, California, have produced samples of world
   building that convey the style of virtual realism as I conceive it.
   
   Design Principles for Virtual Realism
   
   By the year 2015, our daily lives will doubtless have assimilated
   high-end Virtual Reality with its immersive head-mounted displays or
   light-weight goggles. By then we will also enter full-surround
   environments where work and play migrate to electronic landscapes.
   Today, however, we are experimenting with Internet systems that
   deliver slow but real-time (synchronous), interactive 3-D worlds to
   the desktop. These current "worlds-through-the-window" create
   psychological rather than sensory immersion. In other words, we
   participate in these virtual worlds through monitors, keyboards, and
   mouse buttons, and it is our active building inside these worlds and
   the recognition of other builders that makes us feel immersed in the
   virtual world. These worlds are the psychological predecessors of full
   sensory immersive VR.
   
   Virtual worlds seek to engage our dwelling rather than our passive
   contemplation. Instead of working like broadcast media, these worlds
   invite user participation and customization. By identifying with an
   avatar (an animated token of one's self) and actively navigating
   through a 3-D environment, the user becomes part of virtual events.
   Through active building, users achieve psychological immersion, which
   is why one software universe is called "Active Worlds." To effect
   psychological immersion, the 3-D graphics of the online world must run
   smoothly over a modem; the worlds must provide avatars for user
   identity and real-time chat; and the objects in the world must allow
   interactive participation rather than passive viewing. Such
   requirements rule out, in my mind, VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling
   Language) or VRML-based worlds. To date, VRML is clunky and slow. To
   meet psychological requirements, I have chosen the ActiveWorlds
   universe, which employs RenderWare as its underlying script. The
   ActiveWorlds (AW) RenderWare universe permits the full ontology needed
   for psychological immersion: world backgrounds for atmosphere;
   embedded sounds in regions or in objects; interactive objects to build
   or modify; avatars to represent users in real-time with chat
   capability; and animated sequences that convey bodily gestures through
   the avatars. Admittedly, AW is rudimentary and limited, but it is
   constantly improving. AW seems to me the best 3-D experience on the
   Internet, and it signals the dawn of a larger transformation by which
   the Internet evolves into a three-dimensional, multi-user,
   participatory universe.
   
   Our experimental world is one of nearly two hundred evolving virtual
   worlds in the AW universe. Each of the two hundred worlds receives
   hundreds of visitors every day, and many of the visitors build by
   using objects already inside the worlds. Besides these additive
   builders, there are also authoring builders, who do not depend on
   pre-given objects or avatars but who create the objects and avatars
   for a world. In most cases, the authoring builders consist of teams
   rather than individuals. These authorial teams create and host the
   worlds, which then attract visitors and accommodate additive builders.
   Our "accd" world is authored and hosted by a team of students at Art
   Center College of Design (hence the name "accd world").
   
   A distinguishing characteristic of accd world is its central location
   on the spectrum between photo-realism and fantasy. Most virtual worlds
   in AW are based on real-world topology. Many attempt to represent flat
   land, mountains on a single horizon, and a planetary topology as
   recognizable as Earth or Mars. By contrast, accd world has no single
   flat land but only local regions of gravity. It contains layers of
   development up and down the Y-axis, spread out in discrete regions.
   Instead of a single geography, accd world contains many disconnected
   but related areas of construction.
   
   The construction mode parallels the principles of virtual realism.
   Virtual worlds do not re-present the primary world. In virtual worlds
   we need not believe we are in a re-presented natural world. Worlds are
   not realistic in the sense of photo-realism. Each virtual world is a
   functional whole intended to parallel, not re-present or absorb the
   primary world we inhabit. Treating artificial worlds as distractions
   from the real world is just as off-balance as wanting to dissolve the
   primary world into cyberspace. Realism in virtuality should seek
   neither photo-realistic illusions nor representations. Realism, in the
   sense of virtual realism, means a pragmatic functioning in which work
   and play fashion new kinds of entities. VR transubstantiates but does
   not imitate life. VR technology is about entering worlds and
   environments, and worlds arise from humans adapting things through
   pragmatic functioning.
   
   Virtual realism arises from habitation, livability, and dwelling, much
   more than from any calculating realism that strives to get every
   detail "correct." Not correctness but function establishes the
   genuineness of a world. The social transition to cyberspace is,
   therefore, as important as any computer engineering research. A
   virtual world can achieve a functional isomorphism with the primary
   world but its does so not by re-presenting the primary world. The
   virtual world needs only to foster a similar livability. It must have
   a home space for orientation, means of transport through virtual
   space, ways to store information, and tools for interacting with
   fellow avatars. Most important, the virtual world must use the right
   amount of fantasy to make the world attractive and "virtual" (having
   less gravity than primary being). The virtual world must have that
   "something extra" that transforms routine activities through fun and
   playfulness. A touch of whimsy can be compatible with efficiency and
   accomplishment, especially where users can choose the degree of
   playfulness in the world's teleology. At its current stage of
   development, accd world does not yet offer visitors the full pragmatic
   dwelling for which it eventually aims, but at present accd world seeks
   the right note of balance between fantasy and representational (na´ve)
   realism. In coming months, accd world aims to offer online tools for
   building art objects as well as opportunities for criticism by
   professional artists and art school faculty. These latter activities
   will support greater habitation, livability, and dwelling.
   
   The current avatars in accd world mix fantasy with function. Two major
   kinds of avatars - humanoid and winged - populate accd world. The
   winged avatars, including giant colorful birds and exotic flying
   insects, work well in the open spaces of the world. Because accd world
   contains discrete regions of construction in vertical layers, the
   flying avatars provide the thrill of navigating unhindered through
   wide-open virtual spaces. Flying avatars like Neckbird and the Insect
   series also display deformations that distinguish their anatomy from
   common sense forms. The noticeable deformations distinguish accd-world
   avatars from the typical prosaic avatars seen in AW humanoids. The
   Chairboy anatomy, for instance, comes attached to a large chair,
   making him permanently sedentary. The Greenman avatar wears clothing
   that does not match. Deliberate deformations play with the prose of
   virtual identity.
   
   Contrasting World Designs
   
   To clarify the style of virtual realism, I conclude by contrasting
   accd world with two other virtual worlds that purport to create a
   "learning environment": AW School and AlphaU. My contrast is
   illustrated by images captured from the three worlds. While captured
   images may help illuminate the contrast of the three worlds, a full
   contrast comes into focus only for people who actually enter the
   virtual worlds and engage them through real-time interactivity.
   
   Besides six illustrations, I will also show movies captured directly
   from the moving screens of AW. As such, the movies translate
   first-person free navigation into a series of passive, linear,
   cinema-like sequences. Like all linear media, the cinema brings its
   viewers into a mode of passive viewing. Passive viewing characterizes
   all broadcast media, while the most characteristic feature of the new
   media is their inaccessibility to passive contemplation. Truly
   interactive experience requires at least twenty minutes of direct,
   360-degree navigation, which is usually sufficient to induce a certain
   degree of psychological immersion. Cinema cannot substitute for
   interactive experience. What I show here, nevertheless, provides some
   clues about what I mean by the design style of virtual realism.
   
   The movies show selections from live online navigations captured from
   different perspectives and using different viewpoints. Users can
   switch between two main viewpoints. With the third-person viewpoint,
   the user sees the navigating avatar as if from a "god's eye view." The
   first-person viewpoint shows the world at the eye level at the avatar
   (though you cannot see the tip of your avatar's nose). The user
   chooses between these viewpoints depending on the activity. When in a
   chat situation, users often adopt the third-person viewpoint so the
   social distances between the avatars can appear. When in a world- or
   object-oriented situation, as when building or exploring, users often
   adopt the first-person viewpoint so the objects at hand can appear
   more directly. The user determines which viewpoint to use from moment
   to moment, and either of the two viewpoints occurs only in a
   particular user's window on the world. In other words, two users might
   choose not only different perspectives on things but also different
   viewpoints on themselves. These choices do not appear in the movies
   except as ex post facto decisions.
   
   Because virtual worlds occur in real-time on the Internet and because
   they run on simple, off-the-shelf personal computers, they deliver a
   relatively slow frame rate of between two to five frames per second,
   usually through a 28k- or 56k-bps modem. The resultant images appear
   crude and choppy as video, especially compared to the broadcast media
   to which we are all so accustomed. Cinema and television use 30 or
   more frames per second. The virtual worlds' meager frame rate
   corresponds to low-end hardware and to the Internet's current
   connectivity. To offset these limitations, virtual worlds contain
   relatively simple models made of a minimal number of polygons so that
   they will run smoothly. (The simplicity of their structure should not
   be confused with the ease of their production. The models are
   inherently difficult to create and mount.) The virtual objects
   consequently appear blocky and cartoon-like, especially to someone
   viewing them passively as movies. In their native interactive
   environment, these virtual worlds can be highly engaging. As the
   underlying technology improves, higher resolution models will soon
   become available.
   
   One of the postulates of virtual realism is that whatever goes online
   undergoes transformation. The real can no more be reproduced online
   than it can be replaced by fantasy. Reality is transformed by entering
   the virtual. Virtual worlds need not suggest a replacement of the
   primary world, nor should they be so fantastic as to terrify common
   sense. Virtual world design should aim at a harmony between
   photo-realism and fantasy.
   
   Transformation is the theme of the six figures I have taken from
   videos to convey the issues of designing for virtual realism. Consider
   Figure 1, which shows the entrance to AlphaU. When we look at the
   design strategy of AlphaU, we see an ontological nostalgia for the
   physical 3-D world. AlphaU attempts to re-present the 3-D gravity
   found in the primary world, including the adornments of flowerpots and
   the geometry of academic monumentality. Despite the nostalgia,
   however, a closer inspection reveals that the "pillars" of this
   academic monument are not at all Ionic columns but are in fact
   "teleport" booths. Teleport booths are ubiquitous in AW and their
   design was probably inspired by the Tardis telephone booth of
   television's "Dr. Who." Teleport booths allow avatars to "warp"
   instantaneously to another destination in virtual space. These
   "pillars" in AlphaU demonstrate that virtual worlds transform even
   where they try to re-present. Still more nostalgic are the various
   signs at the entrance of AlphaU. Figure 1 shows the sign for the
   Humanities Division, which signals one of the departments of academic
   disciplines divided according to the current university curriculum.
   Where once the academy sprang from the psychological "faculties" of
   the human mind, the virtual world here irrelevantly mirrors the
   departments of the primary world campus - a dubious legacy for
   Web-based education.
   
   A similar nostalgia for campus architecture appears in the samples
   from AW School. Figure 2 shows the AW School main building, which is,
   again, laid out as if it were red brick and monumental stone. The
   ephemeral, flickering virtual school seeks to replicate the solid
   structures of uppercase Education. Moving inside AW School, we find
   even more representational absurdity. In Figure 3, we see the wooden
   chair, desks, and blackboards of the conventional schoolroom. What
   more do we need? Virtual chalk?
   
   Neither AlphaU nor AW School finds the middle ground of virtual
   realism. These worlds lean toward the apparent security of a realism
   that actually threatens to stifle everything virtual by burdening it
   with pointless replication.
   
   There is far less reality replication in accd world. The challenge for
   accd world - seen in Figures 4 and 5 - is, on the contrary, to develop
   pragmatic functionality. In its current stage of development, accd
   world leans toward fantasy, as can be seen in the first view at Ground
   Zero (the entrance portal of a virtual world).
   
   Ground Zero (Figure 4) of accd world shows several ghost-like
   silhouettes strewn across the virtual landscape. These are indeed
   ghosts. They are remnants of avatars. If you look closely, you can see
   that these models are former avatars recycled to become
   semi-transparent statues. With their wispy veils and long gowns, they
   resemble bride statues, or faded brides. And they are in fact modified
   bride avatars. The original models, on which the accd bride statues
   are based, come from the first Internet-hosted wedding ever held
   inside a multi-user graphical virtual world. On May 8, 1996, at 9 p.m.
   Central Standard Time, history was made when Tomas Landhaus, 27, and
   Janka Stanhope, 31, were married in real life inside AW. Tomas and
   Janka came dressed in avatars specially designed for the occasion.
   After the AW ceremony, the real-life groom drove 3,100 miles from San
   Antonio, Texas to Tacoma, Washington to kiss his bride. In 1998, the
   designers of accd world borrowed the bride avatar and fashioned out of
   it a poetic fantasy to stand statue-like at the gates of accd world.
   The faded avatar models are relics of relics of real presence.
   
   In the background of Figure 4, you can see the fantasy architecture
   developed by accd world builders. The rainbow architecture projects
   exotic lines and colors. Turrets and sacred flames top the buildings.
   The horizon blurs the flat-earth plane by repeating an abstract
   pattern. Figure 5 shows a different section of exotic architecture.
   And from this perspective, you can see the horizontal plane give way
   to a deeper layer. Another floor of the building appears through the
   ground plane. From this view, you can see the multi-layered design
   strategy, but you cannot see the many islands of tiered development
   that extend throughout various sections of accd world. Sometimes the
   ground plane exists for miles and miles of virtual space. At other
   times, the ground plane vanishes into black virtual space as far as
   the eye can see. The architecture shown in Figure 5 will one day
   become part of the gallery space used later to display artwork made by
   visitors.
   
   Figure 6
   shows an entirely different section of accd world. This section
   contains huge slabs of rectangular panels. The white and blue panels
   float like Mondrianesque abstractions in virtual space. The avatar
   birds of accd world -- Tweak and Squawk - flit thrillingly through
   these spaces. 
   
   Conclusion
   
   These six figures illustrate, to a limited extent, two contrasting
   strategies for the design of virtual worlds. They show the current
   struggle for the right metaphors to shape cyberspace. The right
   metaphors, I suggest, are those that strike a balance. The balance
   arises between the need to extend ourselves more deeply into 3-D
   computer space and at the same time to ground ourselves more deeply in
   primary reality. We do not achieve such harmony by seeking to
   replicate the primary world in cyberspace, nor do we achieve harmony
   by substituting a pointless fantasy for the real world. Harmony arises
   from attention to both tendencies within - to the realist and the
   idealist in us. I would like to believe that accd world takes a tiny
   step down the pragmatic path of virtual realism.
   
   The computer video I bring provides a cinematic tour of these worlds
   in all their differences. The best tour, however, comes from entering
   the worlds live, in real time on a computer. If you wish, my avatar
   and I would be happy to take you on a tour of AW and especially of
   accd world.
   
   The journey to virtuality launches us onto an open field. Whichever
   way we choose to travel makes a big difference. The route of virtual
   realism is not an easy one. Nor can it be traveled once and for all.
   It is a continual balancing act, one that has already begun and that
   requires ongoing attention.
   
   Thank you for joining me this far on the journey.
   Redondo Beach, California
   April, 1998
   Email: mike {AT} mheim.com
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