The ARCH


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

Read the full post here: http://www.archvirtual.com/?p=3230

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’.

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