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Of course, it's not me that's there, but my "avatar," a stylized red bird with a yellow tail, named Squawk, who is my proxy in this online three-dimensional world, itself an unusual experiment being conducted by Michael Heim and his students at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Art Center is famous as one of the few colleges that train automotive designers (the stylish new Volkswagen Beetle was the work of an Art Center alumnus); now Heim is pioneering a new kind of "industrial" design, the design of virtual worlds. The courses he offers -- one in the theory of virtual-world design, and an actual world-building course where students get down to crunching code and making virtual structures -- are the first of their kind in the U.S., and perhaps the world.
Having swooped around the columns, I decide to go and check out the main structure, which, now that I can see it at close range, is formed from several tiers of arches. With its electric-green patterning, it resembles a psychedelic version of the architecture in a Giotto fresco -- medieval meets mescaline. I aim my avatar to fly through one of the arches and punch the forward cursor key, holding it down to zoom ahead. But suddenly Squawk comes to a dead halt as I hit a brick wall. Not being an aficionado of video games, my navigational skills in virtual space leave something to be desired, so I try again. And again I hit the wall. Behind me, Tobey Crockett, one of Heim's theory students, laughs and tells me, "Hit the shift key, that'll take you through anything." And magically, it does. Now I am inside the building, surrounded by glowing arched walls. "If only I had a shift key in real life!" I hoot. "Don't we all," Crockett responds. "Especially on the freeway."
This world-on-the-desktop that I have been playing in is formally known as "accd world" (for Art Center College of Design). It's the work of about two dozen students, plus Heim and fellow professor Tom Mancuso, who have been gradually constructing the surrealist playpen over the past three years. What is immediately striking about accd world is how unreal it is. Over the past months, a series of films, from The Matrix to The Thirteenth Floor and eXistenZ, have presented a superrealistic vision of virtual reality. So seemingly real are the virtual worlds in all three films that characters cannot distinguish between the virtual world and physical reality. It is just this realist tendency that Heim eschews.
When I mention The Matrix, Heim, who is a leading philosopher of cyberspace and the author of the seminal The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, cannot suppress an ever-so-slight sneer. He is clearly not impressed by the film's vision or its aesthetics. Simulation of physical reality à la The Matrix or The Thirteenth Floor will neverbe possible, he says. Contrary to the Hollywood dream, reality is more than just 60 million polygons a second. He believes the job of virtual-world designers is not to try and fool us into thinking we are in another version of the physical world, but "to think through the technology and make discoveries about what can be done that is unique to this medium."
IN THIS, HE IS GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN OF MOST current virtual-world design. And building virtual worlds is indeed a fast-growing hobby. The major arena for virtual-world construction today is the online realm known as Active Worlds. At present, there are 631 separate worlds residing in this virtual "universe." At least there were last night when I logged in. Two weeks ago, there were only 580. This digital universe is going through its own inflationary phase. When Heim started accd world, there were just a few dozen worlds, and he tells me that back then, "We all thought that was a lot." Now, new worlds are being added every day. Active Worlds charges $399 a year for a world of your own, though Heim assures me that through other service companies you can get one for less than 100 bucks -- surely the best bargain you'll get all year.
According to the Active Worlds Web site, this "scalable universe is home to hundreds of thousands of users and thousands of kilometers of virtual territory." Just how they measure distance in virtual space is never explained, but you get the point -- the place is growing fast. Unlike Heim and his students at Art Center, most Active World builders choose a fairly conservative approach to their own private Idahos. There actually isan Idaho world, and a California, a Texas, a Virginia and a New York. Taking their cue from AlphaWorld, the original Active World, many of these microcosms are patterned on conventional American towns. You wander down tree-lined streets past large houses. There are public squares and parks; permanent blue skies (no pollution); and a general sense of cleanliness (no litter). There are also fantastical buildings, such as medieval castles and Greek temples, but the overall design sensibility is extremely straight. In AlphaWorld, there used to be a local newspaper (The New World Times), and there are â billboards that real-life advertisers can rent to pitch their products to these virtual citizens.