I AM FLYING THROUGH A VAST OPEN SPACE, MY RED wings beating a steady rhythm. In the distance I see an iridescent green structure, vaguely recalling a church, hanging in the void. I veer to the right and head toward it. As I approach, a forest of luminescent columns heaves into view beside the main structure, each column suspended in the air. I swing around and am surrounded by these monumental pillars, soaring between them like an eagle. For a moment I feel as if I am really there in that immense imaginary space.
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 never be 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 is an 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.
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.
I have a theory that in the age of digital technology, desire expands to fill the available bandwidth. When every home is wired with ADSL (or the next data-funneling miracle), and we all have bandwidth out the wazoo, will we be satisfied to express ourselves online in merely two dimensions? I suspect that Heim is right, and just about the time you finally get around to building your Web site, you'll have to learn to master the art of three dimensions.
One of accd world's dimensions