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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:



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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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 http://www.immersence.com.
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Last verified: August 1st 2013.