By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Given that the cutting-edge Internet community likes to view itself as radically iconoclastic, it is interesting how conservative Netizens are in envisioning virtual worlds. AlphaWorld resembles nothing so much as a digital version of Disney's real-life virtual town, Celebration, in Florida. Like that bricks-and-mortar throwback, AlphaWorld reeks of Andy Hardy retro. Citizens are represented by avatars who generally look like cartoon people; they interact with one another by typing messages, which appear as balloons of text above their heads.
Theirs is a particularly dedicated "community," comprising people who physically live all over the "real" world. On May 8, 1996, two AlphaWorld citizens actually got married in this virtual world, kitted out in bride and groom avatars specially designed for the occasion. After the ceremony, the groom drove 2,300 miles from San Antonio, Texas, to Tacoma, Washington, to kiss the bride.
The Active Worlds universe also contains a lifelike virtual mall ("the first real 3-D virtual mall designed to resemble a modern shopping mall"), where real-life vendors are beginning to peddle their wares. And opening soon is a lavish virtual toy store, which looks as if it belongs in the Forum Shopping Center at Caesar's Palace.
Another world that takes literalism very far indeed is the virtual version of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Commissioned by the Office of Admissions at UCSC, this world offers prospective students a chance to check out the school virtually before visiting in person. No doubt this is a clever marketing ploy, but Heim questions why so many AW designers seem intent on simulating the physical world. Why bother, he wonders? Why not use the technology to do things that can't be done in the physical world? Hence accd world -- Heim's experiment in creating "a virtual world which aims at a harmony between realism and fantasy."
Where most AW builders restrict themselves to a flat-earth landscape with a set horizon and regular gravity (i.e., everyone walks around on the ground), accd world exploits the full potential of three-dimensional space. There is no horizon and only what Heim calls "local regions of gravity." Accd world is actually a collection of individual "nodes," each its own miniworld. The green structure described at the start of this piece is just one of the nodes; others have quite different aesthetics. One known as "Horse Heaven" is a bizarre equestrian fantasy equipped with a series of arched walls and terraces adorned with horse statues; another consists of a huge sphere inside of which is a large pearlescent drop. Being inside the drop is like being enveloped by pearl shell. All around you, the curved surface shimmers with delicate opalescent colors. Each node, Heim says, is meant to "stimulate active contemplation -- like watching fireflies or a sunset."
All of the nodes hang in a vast three-dimensional space, and from a distance each is represented by a sphere, as if it were another planet. One flies between nodes -- or rather one's avatar does -- by hitting the cursor keys. What is surprising is that, even with the rather crude graphics, the experience can be quite powerful. At moments I felt as if for an instant I was soaring through some parallel cosmos. At one point, the sense of motion was so convincing I even felt a bit airsick.
In accd world, Heim says, his team is trying to create what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called "aesthetic occasions." Heim hopes to produce "surprising moments" when one is moving through the world and suddenly sees a virtual structure from a particularly striking perspective. "Aesthetics is not in the fixity of the object," he tells me. "It's in the shifting view."
This approach to virtual-world building is not without its own drawbacks. Precisely because it is all very abstract, one can easily feel lost here. You can explore the various nodes as if they were part of a virtual art installation -- which is the best way of approaching accd world -- but without some implied narrative underlying the space, it all becomes a little random. Moreover, at present the artistic vision is somewhat lacking. Heim is aware of these limitations, and he rightly points out that, like many technologies in their embryonic stages, virtual-world building is still hampered by the fact that the tools are highly technical. To do anything innovative, you have to write code. He looks forward to the day when the technology will become transparent and more artists can take up this new medium.
For Heim, the advent of these online virtual worlds "signals the dawn of a larger transformation by which the Internet will evolve into a multi-user participatory universe." As William Gibson predicted in the classic cybernovel Neuromancer, Heim believes that in the not-too-distant future many corporations, businesses and individuals will have their own virtual worlds online. If that sounds far-fetched, he reminds me that just five years ago people thought he was crazy when he set his students a project to design their own personal Web pages. Back then, most industry professionals thought the idea of individual Web pages was loony, something the public would never buy. Jodey Crockett suggests to me that just as you can now buy clip art and prefab formats for your home Web site, so there will one day be "shops," where you will purchase prefab virtual rooms and virtual furniture to decorate them. "Like a virtual IKEA," she muses.
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