Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why do we pursue Realism in the Virtual World?

By request, I'll be delving into some theory tonight concerning my thoughts on the spacial architecture of our virtual world.  Depending on how I feel about this post by the end, this may become a series. ;)

As prevalent in our virtual experiences as it may be, Architecture is a topic that's not often discussed.  Even though Architecture as I know it is being experienced daily, only the most rigorous builders concern themselves intellectually with any sort of architectural theory behind their work.  These people are also (often, but not always) concerned with pushing themselves and finding new applications and new techniques for creation.  On the other hand, most everyone else -- everyone who is actively engaging Architecture -- gives it a passing glance... checking to make sure that they are adhering to arbitrary guidelines of realism or at the very least making sure that their walls aren't z-buffering.

I'd like to note that although I did not create this house, I went well out of
my way to landscape around it.  Why did I do  that? Why is there a door?  Is
there any point to the landscaping beyond my own aesthetic sensibilities?

I'd like to note that I'm not making this contrast because I'm some sort of architecture snob, but rather to begin a conversation on Architecture in our virtual world.  If you think about it from a purely pragmatic standpoint, it's a rather odd thing that we would engage in creating any sort of realistic architecture in a virtual environment.  For what use does a virtual avatar have for a doorway?  Why do buildings need to be on the ground!?  We can fly and shift through objects in our environment, yet the large majority of us have taken to conventional structures and only use our abilities to fly and shift when it is convenient.

This is something I find absolutely fascinating about our experience in Active Worlds -- especially in the public building worlds where this phenomenon is most prevalent -- because I don't think that is what most people had in mind before virtual reality existed.  Even environments Snow Crash, the inspiration for the Active Worlds technology, loosely followed laws of physics at best.  Check out this description of the popular Black Sun bar:

"The black sun is as big as a couple of football fields laid side by side.  The decor consists of black, square tabletops hovering in the air (it would be pointless to draw in legs), evenly spaced across the floor in a grid.  Like pixels."
Did you catch that?  In this example, the interest isn't so much in realism (although it is played on later), but rather in what is pragmatic and beneficial for the computer.  The author later describes also that the club is matte black, because it is easier on the computer.  He didn't even touch on an exterior description.  In a world where you can teleport to locations and shift through objects... is an exterior even necessary?

SW City's Nimbus Land is actually a hybrid of two opposing lines of thought:
a cloud city (which is inherently unrealistic) using realistic visual cues such
as doorways and pathways for the benefit of the user.

Probably not.  The difference is in that we create in such a way because it is comfortable for us, and intuitive for other users.  When I create a doorway in the virtual environment, it isn't because people can't find another way in... but rather because I want a visual cue to direct visitors on how to enter the building.  In much the same way, I place (most of!) my buildings on the ground because if they were high up in the air, most people wouldn't find them because a building is expected to be on the ground.  These are conventions that most builders have identified without much thought, and follow for convenience. In fact, I think that -- for most, this goes beyond convention and is actually felt as necessary for user interaction.  We've touched on how the convention of the doorway exists for a visual cue.  The cue isn't unnecessary, and in fact does serve a very practical purpose by directing users on where to go... and what would its alternative be, exactly?

What would replace a doorway?

This question really hits it home.  Why do we pursue realism in the virtual world?  It's not just because it is what we know, but rather because it is what everyone knows!  Most builders aren't trenching themselves knee-deep in theory and declaring a manifesto: they don't have to!  Some certainly do and I think they derive a good deal of satisfaction from that, but most builders you'll run across just want to make a nice house.  A nice house that they've tried their hardest to make easy to navigate, aesthetically pleasing, and enjoyable to visit.  When it comes down to it, a house with no doors or windows that is a few hundred meters up in the air is, well... it's awkward.  We're conditioned to reality, and for better or for worse, it is our easy and common solution to mimic reality the best that we know how.

For this reason, we have a ground plane, though it is only a flat simulation of a true ground.  We've created sunlight... even though our virtual plane orbits no star.  We strive to make sure that our creations make 'visual, physical' sense, even though that floating object will never suffer the effects of gravity.  It is a peculiar habit, but it's a very poignant example of how our virtual forms can interact with function.

Form and function.  Now that's a big topic in architecture!  I'll have to discuss that further in my next entry. :)


  1. This reminds me of back when I tried to write a fanfic based on AW (yes, at one time, I was that pathetic), and all the characters could shift, fly, and teleport. I kept thinking to myself "Why would these people even walk anywhere?!"

  2. I remember reading that! Funny what questions occur to you when you are forced to world-build. :)

  3. Yeah its kinda crazy to think about. :D

    Another inconsistency that I think goes along with this is "terraphobia." I think Comit made an SWiki article about it. We all build on the ground, but nobody's ever on it!! :P

  4. I'd just like to make a plug for anyone following these comments: Seiya made some excellent commentary on this article in the AW Forums Blog post, which can be found here: