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From: manovich {AT} indy1.calarts.edu (Lev Manovich)

The Aesthetics of Virtual Worlds: Report from Los Angeles

West Holywood, Los Angeles, November 1995 

Welcome to a Virtual World! Strap on your avatar! Don't have the 
programming skills or time to build your own? No problem. We 
provide a complete library of pre-assembled characters; one of them is 
bound to fit you perfectly. Join the community of like-minded users 
who agree that three-dimensional space is more sexy! Yes, there is 
nothing more liberating than flying through a 3D scene, executing risky 
maneuvers and going for the kill. Mountains and valleys can represent 
files on a network, financial investments, the enemy troops, the body of 
a virtual sex partner -- it does not really matter. Zoom! Roll! Pitch! Not 
enough visual realism? For just an extra $9.95 a month you can update 
your rendering speed to a blistering 490,000 polygons a second, 
increasing the quality of the experience a staggering 27.4%! And, for 
another $4.95 you will get a chance to try a new virtual world every 
month, including a mall, a brothel, the Sistine Chapel, Paris during the 
Revolution of 1789, and even the fully navigable human brain. A 3D 
networked virtual world is waiting for you; all we need is your credit 
card number.  
        This advertisement is likely to appear on your computer screen 
quite soon, if it has not already. Ten years after William Gibson's 
fictional description of cyberspace [2] and five years after the first 
theoretical conferences on the subject [3], cyberspace is finally becoming a 
reality. More than that, it promises to become a new standard in how 
we interact with computers -- a new way to work, communicate and 
play.  

Virtual Worlds: History and Current Developments
 
(If such words as SIMNET, VRML, Quicktime VR and WorldChat are 
familiar to you, skip to the next section.)
        Although a few networked multi-user graphical virtual 
environments were constructed already in the 1980s, they were 
specialized projects involving custom hardware and designed for 
particular groups of users. In Lucasfilm's Habitat, described by its 
designers as a "many-player online virtual environment," few dozen 
players used their home Commodore 64 computers to connect to a 
central computer running a simulation of a two-dimensional animated 
world. The players could interact with the objects in this world as well 
as with each other's graphical representations (avatars). [4] Conceptually 
similar to Habitat but much more upscale in its graphics was SIMNET 
(Simulation Network) developed by DARPA (U.S. Defense Advanced 
Research Projects Agency). SIMNET was probably the first working 
cyberspace -- the first collaborative THREE-DIMENSIONAL virtual 
environment. It consisted of a number of individual simulators linked 
by a high-speed network. Each simulator contained a copy of the same 
world database and the virtual representations of all the other 
simulators. In one of SIMNET's implementations, over two hundred 
M-1 tank crews, located in Germany, Washington D.C., Fort Knox, and 
other places around the world, were able to participate in the same 
virtual battle. [5]  
        I remember attending a panel at a SIGGRAPH conference where a 
programmer who worked for Atari in the early 1980s argued that the 
military stole the idea of cyberspace from the games industry, modeling 
SIMNET after already existing civilian multi-participant games. With 
the end of the Cold War, the influences are running in the opposite 
way. Many companies that yesterday supplied very expensive 
simulators to the military are busy converting them into location-based 
entertainment systems (LBE). In fact, one of the first such systems which 
opened in Chicago in 1990 -- BattleTech Center from Virtual World 
Entertainment, Inc. -- was directly modeled on SIMNET. [6] Like SIMNET, 
BattleTech Center comprised a networked collection of futuristic cockpit 
models with VR gear. For $7 each, a number of players could fight each 
other in a simulated 3D environment. By 1995, Virtual World was 
operating dozens of centers around the world that, also like SIMNET, 
depended on proprietary software and hardware. [7]  
        In contrast to such custom built and expensive location-based 
entertainment systems, the Internet provides a structure for 3D 
cyberspace that can simultaneously accommodate millions of users, 
which is inherently modifiable by them and which runs on practically 
every computer. A number of researchers and companies are already 
working to turn this possibility into reality. 
        Most important among the attempts to spatialize the Net is 
VRML (The Virtual Reality Modeling Language), conceived in the 
spring of 1994. According to the document defining Version 1.0 (May 26, 
1995), VRML is "a language for describing multi-participant interactive 
simulations -- virtual worlds networked via the global Internet and 
hyperlinked with the World Wide Web." [8] Using VRML, Internet users 
can construct 3D scenes hyperlinked to other scenes and to regular Web 
documents. In other words, 3D space becomes yet another media accessible 
via the Web, along with text, sounds, and moving images. But eventually a 
VRML universe may subsume the rest of the Web inside itself. So while 
currently the Web is dominated by pages of text, with other media elements 
(including VRML 3D scenes) linked to it, future users may experience it 
as one gigantic 3D world which will contain all other media, including 
text, inside itself. This is certainly the vision of VRML designers who 
aim to "create a unified conceptualization of space spanning the entire 
Internet, a spatial equivalent of WWW." [9] They see VRML as a natural 
stage in the evolution of the Net from an abstract data network toward a 
"'perceptualized' Internet where the data has been sensualized," [10] i.e., 
represented in three dimensions.      
        VRML 1.0 makes possible the creation of networked 3D worlds 
but it does not allow for the interaction between their users. Another 
direction in building cyberspace has been to add graphics to already 
popular Internet systems for interaction, such as chat lines and MUDs.  
Worlds Inc. which advertises itself as "a publisher of shared virtual 
environments" [11] has created WorldChat, a 3D chat environment which 
has been available on the Internet since April 1995. Users first choose 
their avatars and then enter the virtual world (a space station) where 
they can interact with other avatars. The company imagines "the 
creation of 3-D worlds, such as sports bars, where people can come 
together and talk about or watch sporting events online, or shopping 
malls." [12] Another company, Ubique [13], created technology called  
Virtual Places which also allows the users to see and communicate with 
other users' avatars and even take tours of the Web together. [14]  
        Currently the most ambitious full-scale 3D virtual world on the 
Internet is AlphaWorld, sponsored by Worlds Inc. At the time of this 
writing, it featured 200,000 building, trees and other objects, created by 
4,000 Internet users. The world includes a bar, a store which provides 
prefabricated housing, and news kiosks which take you to other Web 
pages. [15]
           
The movement toward spatialization of the Internet is not an accident. 
It is part of a larger trend in cyberculture -- spatialization of ALL 
representations and experiences. This trend manifests itself in a variety 
of ways.  
        The designers of human-computer interfaces are moving from 
2D toward 3D -- from flat desktops to rooms, cities, and other spatial 
constructs. [16] Web designers also often use pictures of buildings, aerial 
views of cities, and maps as front ends in their sites. Apple promotes 
Quicktime VR, a software-only system which allows the user of any 
personal computer to navigate a spatial environment and interact with 
3D objects.    
        Another example is the emergence of a new field of scientific 
visualization devoted to spatialization of data sets and their 
relationships with the help of computer graphics. Like the designers of 
human-computer interfaces, the scientists assume that spatialization of 
data makes working with it more efficient, regardless of what this data 
is.         
        Finally, in many computer games, from the original "Zork" to 
the best-selling CD-ROM "Myst," narrative and time itself are equated 
with the movement through space (i.e., going to new rooms or levels.) 
In contrast to modern literature, theater, and cinema which are built 
around the psychological tensions between characters, these computer 
games return us to the ancient forms of narrative where the plot is 
driven by the SPATIAL movement of the main hero, traveling through 
distant lands to save the princess, to find the treasure, to defeat the 
Dragon, and so on.  
        A similar spatialization of narrative has defined the field of 
computer animation throughout its history. Numerous computer 
animations are organized around a single, uninterrupted camera move 
through a complex and extensive set. A camera flies over mountain 
terrain, moves through a series of rooms, maneuvers past geometric 
shapes, zooms out into open space, and so on. In contrast to ancient 
myths and computer games, this journey has no goal, no purpose. It is 
an ultimate "road movie" where the navigation through the space is 
sufficient in itself.        
         
Aesthetics of Virtual Worlds

The computerization of culture leads to the spatialization of all 
information, narrative, and even time. Unless this overall trend is to 
suddenly reverse, the spatialization of cyberspace is next. In the words of 
the scientists from Sony's The Virtual Society Project, "It is our belief 
that future online systems will be characterized by a high degree of 
interaction, support for multi-media and most importantly the ability to 
support shared 3D spaces. In our vision, users will not simply access 
textual based chat forums, but will enter into 3D worlds where they will 
be able to interact with the world and with other users in that world."
        What will be the visual aesthetics of spatialized cyberspace? What 
would these 3D worlds look like? 
        In answering this question I will try to abstract the aesthetic 
features common to different virtual worlds already in existence: 
computer games; CD-ROM titles; virtual sets in Hollywood films; VR 
simulations; and, of course, virtual worlds on the Internet such as 
VRML scenes, WorldChat, and Quicktime VR movies. I will also 
consider the basic technologies and techniques used to construct virtual 
spaces: 3D computer graphics; digitized video; compositing; point and 
click metaphor. What follows are a few tentative propositions on the 
visual aesthetics of virtual worlds.    

1. Realism as Commodity

Digit in Latin means number. Digital media reduces everything to 
numbers.        
        This basic property of digital media has a profound effect on the 
nature of visual realism. In a digital representation, all dimensions that 
affect the reality effect -- detail, tone, color, shape, movement  -- are 
quantified. As a consequence, the reality effect produced by the 
representation can itself be related to a set of numbers.  
        For a 2D image, the crucial numbers are its spatial and color 
resolution: the number of pixels and the number of colors per pixel. For 
instance, a 640 x 480 image of an object contains more detail and 
therefore produces a stronger reality effect than a 120 x 160 image of the 
same object. For a 3D model, its level of detail, and consequently the 
reality effect, is specified by 3D resolution: the number of points the 
model is composed of. 
        Spatial, color, and 3D resolutions describe the realism of static 
representations: scanned photographs; painted backgrounds; renderings 
of 3D objects; and so on. Once the user begins to interact with a virtual 
world, navigating through a 3D space or inspecting the objects in it, 
other dimensions become crucial. One of them is temporal resolution. 
The more frames a computer can generate in a second, the smoother 
the resulting motion. Another is the speed of the system's response: if 
the user clicks on an image of a door to open it or asks a virtual 
character a question, a delay in response breaks the illusion. Yet another 
can be called consistency: if moving objects do not cast shadows (because 
the computer can't render them in real time) while the static 
background has them, the inconsistency affects the reality effect.      
        All these dimensions are quantifiable. The number of colors in 
an image, the temporal resolution the system is capable of and so on can 
be specified in exact numbers. 
         Not surprisingly, the advertisements for graphics software and 
hardware prominently display these numbers. Even more importantly, 
those in the business of visual realism -- the producers of special effects, 
military trainers, digital photographers, television designers -- now 
have definite measures for what they are buying and selling. For 
instance, the Federal Aviation Administration which creates the 
standards for simulators to be used in pilot training specifies the 
required realism in terms of 3D resolution. In 1991 it required that for 
daylight, a simulator must be able to produce a minimum of 1000 
surfaces or 4000 points. [17] Similarly, a description of the Compu-Scene 
IV simulator from GE Aerospace states that a pilot can fly over a 
geographically accurate 3D terrain that includes 6000 features per square 
mile. [18]     
        The numbers which characterize digital realism simultaneously 
reflect something else: the cost involved. More bandwidth, higher 
resolution, faster processing result in a stronger reality effect -- and cost 
more. 
        The bottom line: the reality effect of a digital representation can 
now be measured in dollars. Realism has became a commodity. It can be 
bought and sold like anything else.    
        This condition is likely to be explored by the designers of virtual 
worlds. If today users are charged for the connection time, in the future 
they can be charged for visual aesthetics and the quality of the overall 
experience: spatial resolution; number of colors; complexity of 
characters (both geometric and psychological); and so on. Since all these 
dimensions are specified in software, it becomes possible to 
automatically adjust the appearance of a virtual world on the fly, 
boosting it up if a customer is willing to pay more.      
        In this way, the logic of pornography will be extended to the 
culture at large. Peep shows and sex lines charge their customers by the 
minute, putting a precise cost on each bit of pleasure. In virtual worlds, 
all dimensions of reality will be quantified and priced separately. 
        Neal Stephenson's 1992 "Snow Crash" provides us with one 
possible scenario of such a future. Entering the Metaverse, the 
spatialized Net of the future, the hero sees "a liberal sprinkling of black-
and-white people -- persons who are accessing the Metaverse through 
cheap public terminals, and who are rendered in jerky, grainy black and 
white." [19] He also encounters couples who can't afford custom avatars 
and have to buy off-the-shelf models, poorly rendered and capable of 
just a few standard facial expressions -- virtual world equivalents of 
Barbie dolls. [20]  
        This scenario is gradually becoming a reality. A number of online 
stock photo services already provide their users with low resolution 
photographs for a small cost, charging more for higher resolution 
copies. A company called Viewpoint Datalabs International is selling 
thousands of ready-to-use 3D geometric models widely used by 
computer animators and designers. For most popular models you can 
choose between different versions, with more detailed versions costing 
more than less detailed ones. [21]   

2. Romanticism, Adorno, and Photoshop Filters: From Creation to 
Selection

Viewpoint Datalabs' models exemplify another characteristic of virtual 
worlds: they are not created from scratch but assembled from ready-
made parts. Put differently, in digital culture creation has been replaced 
by selection. 
          E. H. Gombrich's concept of a representational schema and 
Roland Barthes' "death of the author" helped to sway us from the 
romantic ideal of the artist creating totally from scratch, pulling images 
directly from his imagination. [22] As Barthes puts it, "The Text is a tissue 
of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture." [23] Yet, 
even though a modern artist may be only reproducing or, at best, 
combining in new ways preexistenting texts and idioms, the actual 
material process of art making supports the romantic ideal. An artist 
operates like God creating the Universe -- he starts with an empty 
canvas or a blank page. Gradually filling in the details, he brings a new 
world into existence. 
        Such a process of art making, manual and painstakingly slow, 
was appropriate for the age of pre-industrial artisan culture. In the 
twentieth century, as the rest of the culture moved to mass production 
and automation, literally becoming "culture industry," art continued to 
insist on its artisan model. Only in the 1910s when some artists began to 
assemble collages and montages from already existing cultural "parts," 
was art introduced to the industrial method of production.    
        In contrast, electronic art from its very beginning was based on a 
new principle: modification of an already existing signal. The first 
electronic instrument designed in 1920 by the legendary Russian 
scientist and musician Leon Theremin contained a generator producing 
a sine wave; the performer simply modified its frequency and 
amplitude. [24] In the 1960s video artists began to build video synthesizers 
based on the same principle. The artist was no longer a romantic genius 
generating a new world purely out of his imagination; he became a 
technician turning a knob here, pressing switch there -- an accessory to 
the machine.      
        Substitute a simple sine wave by a more complex signal (sounds, 
rhythms, melodies); add a whole bank of signal generators and you 
have arrived at a modern music synthesizer, the first instrument which 
embodies the logic of all new media: not creation but selection.    
        The first music synthesizers appeared in the 1950s, followed by 
video synthesizers in the 1960s, followed by DVE (Digital Video Effects) 
in the late 1970s -- the banks of effects used by video editors; followed by 
computer software such as 1984 MacDraw that already come with a 
repertoire of basic shapes. The process of art making has finally caught 
up with modern times. It has become synchronized with the rest of 
modern society where everything is assembled from ready-made parts; 
from objects to people's identities. The modern subject proceeds 
through life by selecting from numerous menus and catalogs of items -- 
be it assembling an outfit, decorating the apartment, choosing dishes 
from a restaurant menu, choosing which interest groups to join. With 
electronic and digital media, art making similarly entails choosing from 
ready-made elements: textures and icons supplied by a paint program; 
3D models which come with a 3D modeling program; melodies and 
rhythms built into a music program. 
         While previously the great text of culture from which the artist 
created his own unique "tissue of quotations" was bubbling and 
shimmering somewhere below the consciousness, now it has become 
externalized (and greatly reduced in the process) -- 2D objects, 3D 
models, textures, transitions, effects which are available as soon as the 
artist turns on the computer. The World Wide Web takes this process to 
the next level: it encourages the creation of texts that completely consist 
of pointers to other texts that are already on the Web. One does not 
have to add any new content; it is enough to select from what already 
exists.
        This shift from creation to selection is particularly apparent in 3D 
computer graphics -- the main technique for building virtual worlds. 
The amount of labor involved in constructing three-dimensional 
reality from scratch in a computer makes it hard to resist the temptation 
to utilize pre-assembled, standardized objects, characters, and behaviors 
readily provided by software manufacturers -- fractal landscapes, 
checkerboard floors, complete characters and so on. [25] Every program 
comes with libraries of ready-to-use models, effects or even complete 
animations. For instance, a user of the Dynamation program (a part of