The ARCH


Fragility of Spaces: French Architecture Students Present Second Life Work at VWBPE

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From my studio in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, I’m listening to 3 architecture students in Paris, France presenting design concepts they developed during a week-long ‘intensive’ design studio at Paris-Malaquais using the virtual world Second Life, and I feel as though I’m participating in architecture’s best kept secret.  I’m joined by dozens of others logged in from every corner of the world as part of this <a href=”http://www.vwbpe.org/&#8221; target=”_blank”>VWBPE Conference</a> session by the newly founded European initiative ‘ARCHI21,’ and can think of no other medium, method or technology that could bridge our worlds as effectively.  As I listened carefully to their fascinating presentations, I was totally immersed and engaged, and if the quantity and thoughtfulness of the back-channel chat was any indication, the others in attendance were equally impressed.

This intensive was the first time most of these students had been exposed to Second Life for architectural design, and due to time constraints, they were given very little time to prepare for this presentation.  Not only that, but they are presenting their work in English, their second language, which is a significant part of what ARCHI21 is all about:

“A consortium of British, Danish, French and Slovenian universities has just begun its first action learning phase of ARCHI21, a two-year project as a part of the EU Education and Culture DG Lifelong Learning Programme.  Innovative approaches converge language learning, architecture and design, social media and 3D virtual worlds.   With a thematic focus on communication of  ‘respecting fragile places’ , this project explores the areas of  a) content &amp; language integrated learning in higher and vocational education sectors,  b) the inter-relationship between linguistic competence and design competence building in project-based learning and  c) the intercultural issues to be considered.”

I was in awe at the quality and theoretical sophistication of their work, and the deep thinking they had put into these projects in such a short space of time.   Having spent the past several years exploring virtual architecture, I was challenged and even a little intimidated by what these students were able to come up with in just one week.  My only criticism might be that I think they seem to have underestimated the utility of common ‘real world’ visual cues and practical function of virtual spaces – instead prioritizing pure philosophical and theoretical exploration.  I think it’s possible to achieve a balance between conceptual thinking with the more pragmatic concerns of potential end-users of these spaces – blending form and function into a seamless composition, rather than favoring one over the other.  However, they may have explored this more than I am aware, and since this was their first exposure to Second Life, with only had a single week’s development time, I can hardly fault them for not exploring every possible angle.

I am honored to be a part of this fascinating project as an associate partner as ARCH Virtual, and will be sharing much more of their work as it is made public.  Congratulations and thanks to these 3 students for sharing their work!

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The Many Advantages of Virtual Collaboration

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The results of this Harvard Business School study, and many others like it, provide enough ample and compelling evidence to suggest that virtual collaboration is a powerful means of achieving new levels of efficiency and effectiveness:

“Remarkably, an extensive benchmarking study reveals, it isn’t necessary to bring team members together to get their best work. In fact, they can be even more productive if they stay separated and do all their collaborating virtually. The scores of successful virtual teams the authors examined didn’t have many of the psychological and practical obstacles that plagued their more traditional, face-to-face counterparts. Team members felt freer to contribute–especially outside their established areas of expertise. The fact that such groups could not assemble easily actually made their projects go faster, as people did not wait for meetings to make decisions, and individuals, in the comfort of their own offices, had full access to their files and the complementary knowledge of their local colleagues.”

As information-based virtual collaboration gradually turns the corner to mainstream adoption, it won’t be long until the benefits of 3D collaboration are as unequivocally proven (if they haven’t already), and virtual worlds like Second Life and OpenSim will soon prove to be an ideal modality for gathering a virtual team together to collaborate within a realtime, 3D collaborative environment.

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Virtual Worlds and the Built Environment – White Paper published by Daden Limited

Check out this article HERE.

Daden Limited‘s new white paper, ‘Virtual Worlds and the Built Environment’ (download here) provides an insightful overview of several Second Life case studies relating to architecture, engineering and construction industry projects, along with descriptions of  what make virtual worlds a useful tool for AEC industry projects.
“Whilst the hype (and marketing interest) around virtualworlds has faded, the technology is increasingly being used in areas such as training & education,collaboration and data visualisation. This paper explores the on-going use, and future opportunity, of virtual worlds to help model the built environment, and as a result to use the virtual world to build a better physical world.”
A few points of interest include their overview of differences between SL and traditional AEC tools:
There are a number of key differences here in comparison to more traditional Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) visualisation tools.
Principally that:
  • The user is embodied in the world as an avatar, rather than having just a “camera” view
  • The avatar/user can go where they like, and interact with the build
  • The environment is multi-user, so users  can interact with other users
  • The environment is rendered in real-time, so although visual quality may not be as high, the environment can be far more dynamic and flexible, and renders instantly rather than needing an over-night render-farm.

I also appreciate their list of advantages of using virtual worlds in AEC fields:

The advantages of virtual worlds such as Second Life include:

• The ability to make changes instantly, in-world

• The ability to support multiple users in the same space – typically 50-100 (but of course you can always clone spaces)

• The ability to make things interactive – even linking computers to real computer applications, and signs to real signage systems

• The ability to not only integrate building environmental and performance data, but also to visualise it in new and effective ways

• The ability for users to peel-back layers of a building to see structural and service components

• The ability for users to annotate the space, feeding back comments which can be automatically collated

• The ability to track users through the building, and their interactions with its systems

• The ability to let users choose between configurations and vote on them

• The ability to support “live use” of the building, eg for entertainment or training

• The ability to clone the building to create multiple copies to explore what-ifs

• The ability to use the same platform to support virtual meetings, conferences, training, collaboration etc

• Dynamic rendering which enables the instant changes and multi-user deployment

Extranet Evolution has a great write-up (link) about this paper as well.   Consequently, Paul Wilkinson’s twitter feed is also a must-follow resource for anyone interested in construction collaboration technologies (and more!) – follow him @EEPaul

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Special issue of ITcon dedicated to the use of virtual world technology in architecture, engineering and construction

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If there was ever any doubt that virtual worlds have a place in architectural practice and education, this month’s special issue of  ITcon presents a staggering amount of content that is sure to help promote the use of virtual worlds and game engines within AEC industries and beyond.

The Journal of Information Technology in Construction (ITcon) is a peer-reviewed scholarly publication recently published a special issue dedicated to the use of virtual world technology in architecture, civil engineering and facility management.

“Virtual worlds, which are similar to the computer games with which they share technology, take their participants called residents to new places beyond the physical and geographic limitations of the real world.  Residents become producers of content in the virtual world, designing and  developing the environment around their own interests. This  virtual world technology can  offer significant benefits  for AEC disciplines from 3D walkthroughs, interactive visualization, through virtual collaboration, design and planning to education, and training. The special issue is aimed to provide insights into the use of virtual world technology in AEC and includes seven papers with authors representing institutions in Australia, Canada, Finland, New Zealand, UK, and the USA.”

The papers are all free to review, published with open access distributed under creative commons license, so be sure to check out this incredible resource.

Here are a few snippets taken from their summaries – just to provide a sampling of what you can expect to find in this issue:

“This paper investigates the innovative use of emerging multiuser virtual world technologies for supporting human-human collaboration and human-computer co-creativity in design.” (link)

“This  paper presents  the concept of  Building  interactive  Modeling (BiM) which complements the capabilities of BIM with social interaction to enhance collaborative information and knowledge sharing. Role-playing scenarios developed in Second Life demonstrate specific opportunities of BiM.” (link)

“…study of design collaboration in the CyberGRID (Cyber-enabled Global Research Infrastructure for Design), a virtual collaborative space developed in Second Life to support design work in global virtual networks. (link)

“This paper will bring evidence to bear that suggests the value in using Virtual Environments (VE’s) is in their potential to facilitate collaboration …  scrutinize design and construction in the VE Second Life.”  (link)

“The paper presents potential utilization of Second Life© (SL) in enhancing learning/training construction project management.”  (link)

“The research potential of Second Life in construction: the whole life cycle costing example.” (link)

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The Architecture of Healing: The Making of the Veteran-Civilian Dialogue Space in Second Life

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If only I had a Linden for every time a client asked for a meeting space or auditorium in their new sim…  The grid is saturated with auditoriums, and these vast, elaborate and often prim-intensive spaces could almost always be put to better use.  So when the ‘cats’ (founders of Startled Cat) originally described their need for a conversation space, I quietly took notes, listening carefully as they articulated their needs – waiting for a pause in the conversation to push back a little.

But as they described the project in greater detail, I realized this one was different.  This space would soon be hosting some of the deepest and potentially life-changing conversations on the grid, and the architecture of this space would need to play an integral role in organizing, nurturing and encouraging a variety of emotionally powerful experiences.   The space would be used by Intersections International to host a Second Life version of their Veteran-Civilian Dialogues (VCD), which brings together veterans and civilians in facilitated conversations around the impact of war upon both groups.  The dialogues are designed to help bridge the gap to civilian life for returning soldiers, and have proven to be life altering for those who attend.


I had just attended a presentation by the Dalai Lama here in Madison, which was hosted by The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.  Part of the discussion, and one of the recent interests of the Center itself as it completed a new research space, involved the role and science of architecture in shaping experience, so I was especially excited to explore ways in which some of these principles might also apply to virtual modalities.  This project would be a perfect place to start.

The initial design briefing called for a central gathering space, with smaller break-out spaces surrounding it, and the first round of design concepts proposed a wide variety of styles and configurations in mini-model format.  I often find it beneficial to propose even the most far-fetched concepts, which can sometimes lead to surprising or unexpected directions (some of the really ‘out there’ concepts aren’t shown here).  In this case, the team unanimously gravitated toward the circular scheme – feeling that it was probably the most apt metaphor, concentrating the energy toward a central space with translucent spires ascending above it.

During our initial design reviews with the client and end-users of the space, a fascinating and somewhat surprising bit of feedback was brought up.  It was suggested that many veterans prefer secure spaces, and the openness of this design might actually be quite unsettling and uncomfortable for them.

One example someone shared was the fact that many veterans prefer to sit with their backs to the wall so they can more easily survey their environment.  While it might be easy to dismiss the idea that such a strong physical reaction to architectural space might also apply in a virtual environment, it has long been known that people really do experience a strong connection, or sense of ’embodiment’ in their avatar to a certain extent.  One example often cited is the fact that if a virtual object is thrown at your avatar, many people will physically flinch in the real world – even though the virtual object could obviously do them no harm.  This mind-avatar connection is precisely what gives the virtual experience a significant advantage over other online meeting tools and social media, by providing a strong sense of presence and immersion within a space.  This is exactly why a  VCD in Second Life could become a truly meaningful experience to those who participate – the virtual world captures the sense of community and togetherness within a space that no other online medium could come close to replicating.

As developers working with virtual worlds, we’re constantly touting the importance of the design and architecture of virtual spaces, and how it can be used to shape and encourage meaningful experiences and achieving functional goals.  Yet, in this case, I had completely underestimated just how important the virtual space could really be, and with their feedback in mind, we re-examined the design concepts.

We revised and modified the design to make it feel more secure by enclosing some spaces, first by raising concrete walls around the outer circle but we soon realized that we had actually gone too far and had created an environment that was too confining and enclosed – to the extent that it could actually make the civilians participating in the dialogue uncomfortable.  We continued to fine-tune the design until we arrived at a concept that seemed to work well, then started massing it out at full scale.

As the space took shape, the clients and end-users visited and provided feedback along the way.  At times, we were able to transform the space on-the-fly to test various ideas as we brainstormed together.  It was an incredible experience to be able to literally prototype the client’s ideas at the very moment they were describing it – translating ideas into form in realtime.   This is one of the most potent advantages of the virtual design process that trumps traditional architectural design development, but I digress.

One of the VCD facilitators mentioned the importance of orchestrating procession, where participants would walk together on a path leading to the conversation space, and how important this can be for framing and setting the stage for the dialogue.   As he spoke, we opened one of the sides of the central space and prototyped a meandering pathway and walked along it together to try it out.  With some additional tweaks, we had the processional pathway complete.

As brainstorming continued, Jenaia Morane (one of the ‘cats’), wondered what it would be like if we elevated the entire conversation space so that it would look out over the water.  Within seconds we tested the idea, and immediately agreed that it worked really well and also enabled us to frame views of the surrounding landscape.  The processional path now ascended to the central space, giving it a sense of hierarchy and subtle grandeur.

Jenaia and the rest of the team at Startled Cat polished up, landscaped, textured and detailed the build in time for the first Veteran-Civilian Dialogue.  The event was captured incredibly well in the following machinima, including the procession to the conversation space, and the role of the virtual architecture in helping to choreograph and reinforce that experience.

“You are about to enter a sacred space, where the conversations will be focused on one of the most difficult and disturbing of human creations – war.”

The Second Life version of the Veteran-Civilian Dialogue was mentioned in this New York Times article, which also describes the VCD  experience.  I think this photo, featured later the same week in the New York Times ‘Week in Pictures’ captures the spirit of the VCD quite well.

Robert Chase, the Executive Director of Intersections International recently wrote about the Second Life experience:

“The implications for our Veteran-Civilian Dialogue Project are profound. In Second Life, traumatic brain injury and horrific disfigurement caused by war can be eclipsed by exchanges between young, strong, attractive avatars in the metaverse. Skills of engagement and confidence in one’s core strengths can be kindled in Second Life and transferred back into “first life.” Introverts can become part of the conversation; extroverts can seek solace in the silence of observation.”

To learn more about the project, check out this Monday’s Metanomics broadcast, where host Dusan Writer welcomes Intersections International to Metanomics for a discussion of virtual dialogues, spirituality and human connection in the ‘age of the machine’.