Chapter 24: Virtual Places

24.3 Cyberplaces

It is logical to assume that designing places in cyberspace can, indeed must, be informed by the principles that have been guiding physical place making for centuries, for the sake of environmental, social, and cultural richness. This transformation, however, is not a matter of simply emulating physical form in electronic environments. Cyberspace cannot be "specialized" by appropriating physically based spatial metaphors: objects and spaces that are functionally and perceptually "appropriate" in the physical world lose their appropriateness in cyberspace.[16] On the other hand, having been conditioned from birth to function and perceive the physical world, we carry the expectations and sense of "appropriateness" to cyberspace. For example, while it is unnecessary to use a table to support objects in cyberspace, we are rather uncomfortable when objects simply "float" in cyberspace. And while the lack of gravity permits us to walk on the walls or on the ceiling (if they exist at all), the impression such freedom produces is quite surreal (as has been so aptly illustrated by the Dutch artist M. C. Escher; see figure 1.1).

On the other hand, the digital realm offers place-making opportunities that do not exist in physical space. Distances lose their meaning—they can be traversed in an instant—as do spatial boundaries. Even time can be easily manipulated: we can visit cities that no longer exist or do not yet exist. Choosing the right balance to engender the desired sense of place without falling into the traps of indiscriminate "borrowing" from physical space nor discarding everything we learned from it—is the challenge facing cyberplace making.

Much can be learned from the attempts that were made over the past decade to navigate this narrow, uncharted path. These attempts can be classified into four categories of environmental "shells" for developing placelike environments in cyberspace:


Hyperreality attempts to mimic the physical world in every detail. The degree of quality required for believability is rather high and not easily achieved. The test is the inability of the viewer to find telltale flaws in both the completeness of the imagery and its attention to such details as gravity, wind, weather, sunlight, natural materials, dust, dirt, and the aging of materials and surfaces. Technologically, this has been readily achieved using ray tracing and radiosity in still imagery (as discussed in chapter 9), but achieving it in dynamically updated imagery—either on stand-alone or networked computers—is still limited by the speed and storage capacity of computers.

Louis Kahn's Hurva Synagogue
Figure 24.6
Exquisite computer rendering of Louis Kahn's
Hurva Synagogue
, which was never built, demonstrates hyperreality's attention to detail.
(Courtesy of Kent Larson, MIT.)

Hyperreality environments can be used to recreate places that no longer exist or have never existed (e.g., Kent Larson's Hurva Synagogue [fig. 24.61, and Takehiko Nagakura's Danteum and Palace of the Soviets) or places that do not yet exist (e.g., the Virtual Museum of Arts El Pais, fig. 24.7). [17]

The advantages of hyperreality environments, in terms of place making, derive from the richness of experience, familiarity, and visual comfort they convey. The environment is easy for people to understand and relate to, since it contains such familiar implements as walls, ceilings, stairs, lights, doors, and even simulated materials. But it never rains in cyberspace; therefore 3D worlds have no use for roofs (although ceilings mighthelp provide a boundary for spaces). There is no gravity, hence no weight in cyberspace, therefore no need for columns and beams. Even windows lose their role as sources of air and light and function only as portals. Distances are elastic to the extreme: one can hyperjump from place to place without having to visit points in between. Hence roads, walkways, and elevators are silly constructs unless they assume their alternative meaning as transitional places that afford serendipitous encounters, views, and mid-journey changes of destination, or function as "props" that support the creation of a context.


Virtual Museum of Arts El Pais
24.7 Virtual Museum of Arts El Pais.
[Courtesy of MUVA Virtual Museum of Arts El Pais, Uruguay, 2002.]

Abstracted reality

Abstracted reality obeys enough laws of nature to engender believability but does not attempt to create a "perfect" reality. Objects and textures are abstracted, not perfectly rendered, but there is an attempt to avoid disorientation or the unfamiliar. For example, one could not walk through walls, and one needs to "ride" an "elevator" or ascend a flight of stairs to go from floor to floor. Stylistically, the imagery might be cartoon like or image-processed (e.g., run through a watercolor filter). Video games like Myst and Riven are examples of digital abstracted realities, much like Disneyland in the physical world. There is quite a bit more artistic freedom in abstracted reality than in hyperreality, which allows for stretching, or accentuating, place-making qualities such as scale and time.

Most current cyber-environments fall into the abstracted reality category, by default, and 3D multi-tiser domains (MUDs) are probably their best example. They employ a strong spatial analogy, with the explicit intent to facilitate multiuser (i.e., social) interaction. Like textual MUDs (chat rooms), they typically use "rooms"—a convenient mechanism to restrict the visitor's attention to activities in one "place" at a time. To change activities, the user must "change rooms": in some systems users can jump from one room to another, whereas in others they must "walk" to their destination, passing through points in between.

University of Sydney virtual conferencing center
24.8 University of Sydney virtual conferencing center.
[Courtesy of M. L. Maher, University of Sydney, Australia, 2000.]

The Virtual Campus of the University of Sydney, for example, employs an architectural, campuslike MUD (fig. 24.8). [18] Visitors "enter" the "conference building," go "up" the "elevator" to their selected conference "room," where they find a conference "table" flanked by "chairs."

It is, however, a strange sense of place that such virtual environments may engender. They have topology (connectedness) but no orientation. The user has no real experience of moving up and down when "riding" the elevator. A visitor cannot sit on one of the available chairs or put his or her notes on the table. The space can accommodate many more participants than can be assumed from its size.

So in fact abstracted realities do not always exhibit the spatially based place-ness they purport to engender. While the spatial metaphor is an important contributor to facilitating interaction and engagement, it is not enough. Our sense of place is determined by the cultural or communally held appropriateness of behavior and interaction, not by the spatial metaphor alone.

Hybrid Cyberspace

Hybrid cyberspace freely mixes "real" and "virtual" experiences. It does not pretend to obey the laws of nature. One could, for example, move through walls or fly. The range of artistic expression is limitless, and unusual juxtapositions could easily become surreal. Many elements of the site maybe unbuildable in the physical world. One could assume, for example, the form of a blue caterpillar, and sit on top of a mushroom the size of a person, smoking a long hookah—as described in Lewis Carrolls classic stories Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (1862-1864). Fellow participants could appear in the form of realistic or unrealistic avatars, even in symbolic representation, such as talking chess pieces or playing cards. [19] Objects could behave in unusual ways, changing size, texture, and form over time. The challenge for the designer is to strike the right balance between the real and the unreal, wherein the experience is aesthetically rich yet not so disorienting or sterile as to destroy the sense of place. Disorientation becomes a major issue, as perceived experiences may conflict with learned or expected ones. The surrealism of Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland adds much to the story, but Alice's experiences are often disorienting and somewhat inhospitable.


Char Davies, Bones, from Ephémère, 1998
Figure 24.9
Char Davies, Bones,
from Ephémère, 1998
Digital image captured in real-time
through head-mounted display during live immersive journey/performance.

Hypervirtuality drops all relationship to the physical world and the laws of nature. It generally avoids the familiar. In fact the uniqueness and innovativeness of the experience, to the intentional exclusion of the familiar, is of primary importance. Each virtual world creates its own set of rules, which could challenge our sense of reality, materiality, time, and enclosure of space. Common building elements such as walls, doors, windows, or floors have no meaning there. Examples of hypervirtuality are the space travel sequence toward the end of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and Char Davies's Ephémère (fig. 24.9). [20]

Of the four types of cyberspace, hypervirtuality seems the most fertile relative to the opportunities offered by the digital medium but also the furthest away from "place" experiences derived from everyday life experiences. There is a potential to expand the realm of sensory experiences by taking advantage of the computer's ability to organize time, data, and space, completely unbounded by the laws of nature. However, by completely discarding the physical spatial metaphor, hypervirtuality also loses any sense of familiarity, along with the social and cultural cues that derive from it. The unlimited freedom offered by hypervirtuality, along with its complete rejection of place-making principles, makes this type of cyberspace a form of place-less art.


16. P. Anders, Envisioning Cyberspace: Designing 3D Electronic Spaces (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999).
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17. See, and
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18. See
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19. L. L. Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (1862-1964).
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20. Ephémère (1998) is an interactive, fully immersive, visual/aural virtual artwork, where archetypal, metaphorical elements of "root," "rock," and "stream" recur in a dreamlike "landscape," extended to include body organs such as "blood vessels" and "bones," suggesting a symbolic correspondence between the presences of the interior of the body and the subterranean earth. See
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Last verified: August 1st 2013.