Among the most frequently debated topics related to architecture in virtual reality is the fact that the majority of the content replicates real life. It may initially seem absurd to replicate physical architecture of any kind in a virtual environment, since no amount of effort to recreate physical reality could ever be totally successful. Avatars can see through walls, are free of gravity, and there are no weather elements to protect from.
While most of the people I talk to tend to write off this phenomenon as mundane and unimaginative, I think architects and designers might consider taking it more seriously. There is significant value in understanding and embracing the multitude of psychological and visually functional reasons for recreating familiar replicas based on real life architecture.. In fact, I think these observations could form the underpinnings of the new virtual pattern language.
Real-world replication is certainly not indicative of a lack of imagination on behalf of the virtual builder. While I have no background or training in psychology, I think it points to the fact that we learn to organize the world around us through the understanding of familiar patterns and visual cues from early childhood. As a result, it is only natural that the first layers of content in this co-created virtual world utilize these familiar patterns we depend upon to organize and understand our real world environment.
So, instead of disregarding the replication of physical architecture as an unnecessary crutch, I think we should strive to more fully understand the function of the core patterns and behaviors they represent. It is through these observations that we can begin defining the fundamental components of the next generation 3D virtual interface, and our best chance at developing the most efficient methodology in defining avatar navigation and behavior.
There is definitely a metaphoric value certain replicated creations can provide in translating identity. For example, a gable roof over a small parcel of land in Second Life can be visually translated as ‘home’ to many people. However, the metaphor of symbolism is only effective insofar as the audience is able to universally perceive and understand it. This practical limitation of symbolic interpretation should be carefully considered. Nevertheless, establishing visual metaphors to aid in describing and understanding a phenomenon is a potent opportunity in virtual worlds.
The virtual roof has yet another value beyond the metaphor associated with its shape alone. It can also serve to define boundary. It can help visitors understand and perceive the limit and extents of a ‘place’, outside of which the parcel’s content does not extend. It also suggests a vertical, or z-axis plane of boundary. The space above and below the roof plane are suddenly defined and bounded. Even after removing the physical and symbolic functions of a roof, it still retains an essential value in defining boundary.
While our virtual legs may not grow tired, the visual cue of sitting in a circle has a persistent psychological value and creates a visual impression that suggests ‘we’re together in a group talking’, even though the same communicative process could have been exchanged remotely through instant messages. The presence of our avatars indicates ‘we are here’, and has value toward that end.
So, while the recreation of physical reality in cyberspace may at first seem unimaginative, I think it plays a very important role in the functionality of virtual spaces. By distilling these behaviors down to their core function, I think we can idenitfy universal patterns and characteristics to inform the next generation of virtual architecture capable of transcending literal replication.
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