Virtual Worlds (Part 1)

I’ve been interested in virtual worlds since I first heard of them. Actually that’s a lie. I’ve always been suspicious of virtual worlds. I love mixed reality – virtual representations of real world things, or real world representations of virtual things – it has almost unbounded potential for usefulness, and virtual reality technology is great for games and storytelling, but how is pure virtual reality actually useful?

Dave Taylor has an interesting blog entry on his take on Second Life, and virtual worlds in general. I think he makes some good points, first about the user experience, which at least in Second Life needs a lot of work, and then later about the need or lack of it for realism in virtual worlds.

“My take: Second Life is an evolutionary step”

I agree that Second Life is an evolutionary step, but it’s a step backwards. Part of the beauty of the internet (I’m including web and various other services, such as IM etc.) is that when I’m online, I am disembodied, a pure spirit, floating in a sea of concepts. My ‘I’ is diffuse, and in a sense, I am simultaneously everywhere (or at most, a single step away from everywhere). My location in concept space is really only defined by my attention, which itself can be diffuse – on a server in Australia, learning about the behaviours of Finnish animals in one tab, while simultaneously listening to radio from the US, and keeping an eye on pictures posted by my friends on holiday in Russia. All this time, I am as easily accessible to those who know me as if I were standing right next to them, no matter where I or they are in “real” space. In concept space, I am right next to them.

This is a good thing. It is the kind of evolutionary step people are talking about when they write science fiction with “ascended” races. When we’re on the internet, we mimic as best we can many of the attributes that throughout the ages humanity has given to its gods. Omnipresence, omniscience, ability to be communicated with from anywhere. Pure spirit, existing in concept space. That is the next evolutionary step, and to anyone who has seriously used the internet, virtual worlds with their characteristic localising, their embodying, their tendency to demand your whole attention are an evolutionary step backwards, a seriously limiting experience. That is their nature and it is not something that can be fixed through technology.

This reason alone is enough to convince me that they are not the next leap forward.

However, I am a believer in the power of limitations. Great art is made by people who discover ways of making limits seem irrelevant, but it can’t be done without a deep knowledge of those limits. If we truly had no limits, then art would be boring. Limits and structure suggest and encourage different ways of interacting, and the kinds of limits imposed by virtual worlds can (when used in parallel with concept space rather than instead of it) help fix some of the problems that we humans have had in the ascent to concept space.

Serendipity

When you’re everywhere and nowhere at the same time, as you are in concept space, it’s awfully hard to bump into someone by chance. Without limitations, you see what you want to see, and talk to who you want to talk to, but actually that’s a pretty impoverished condition compared to the many interesting chance interactions that can occur to you when you’re limited to a particular body and location. Though we grasp at omniscience, until we actually have it, chance encounters are an important part of life and learning.

Teleprototyping

Sometimes, even in concept space, the concept or place that we’re reading about or talking about is a three dimensional, real world object, with solidity and function. No matter how abstracted we have become, it’s much quicker and more intuitive to give someone a parallel to the object in a world with similar constraints to the “real” world the object exists in. You can explore and learn by playing. If a picture of an object is worth a thousand words, how many more words is a functional, virtual prototype of the object worth?

Art

Art is always looking for new mediums to express itself in, and with a virtual world, it has an old one (reality) with a new twist. What could be better for giving people a new way of looking at the (real) things around them?

Communication

As humans, our communication relies much more on non verbal channels than any of the disembodied spirits floating in concept space like to admit. As we spend more time in concept space, we will come up with more and more ways of expressing our different modalities of communication in that space, but perhaps it’s easier just to pull across wholesale many of the ways we communicate in the “real” world. Particularly as our interaction with computers is so serial at the moment – keys, mouse clicks, mouse movements. Simulating what is essentially parallel communication is a big challenge until we get more and better peripherals, so borrowing from the real world is a good idea.

These are things that by their nature Virtual Worlds are good at – in some ways an improvement on the internet of concepts. In Part 2, I’ll talk about a mixed reality of concept space and virtual space. The ways websites are starting to locate (in a philosophical, not big brother sense) their users, and some ideas for how virtual worlds can support diffuse attention and concept-type interaction.