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Designing Virtual Worlds – an emerging research field

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I am pleased to present an interview with Mary Lou Maher and Ning Gu, authors of “Designing Adaptive Virtual Worlds“, the Open Access book published recently by De Gruyter Open. Mary Lou Maher is Professor and Chair of the Department of Software and Information Systems, University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Ning Gu is Senior Lecturer at the School of Architecture and Built Environment, the University of Newcastle, Australia.

WK: What is ‘virtual world’ design?

Ning Gu: Virtual worlds are on-line places in which people communicate, learn, play and interact in ways that are similar to the physical world. In our book, we consider virtual worlds containing places visualized by 3D objects and people represented by avatars*. We discussed the virtual museum as an example of a virtual world. In these particular conditions, design means creating online places with 3D models that are to be used by avatars for specific purposes.

Mary Lou Maher: What architects, or city planners, or urban designers do when they design the physical world, we describe as design in virtual worlds.

What might virtual worlds be used for?

NG: Virtual worlds are used for very diverse and different purposes. For e-business, e-learning, research, artificial intelligence and artificial life. A lot of artists also use virtual worlds as gallery spaces and for electronic or interactive art. A lot of virtual worlds are used for gaming, for entertainment and many other social activities. A very popular virtual world platform is called ‘Second Life’. That platform allows people to purchase a virtual land and build on it, so it is a kind of alternative real estate market, but in the virtual worlds.

MLM: I like the word “might” in your question. Ning actually told us what people ARE doing right now with virtual worlds. When we establish that this way of being in a virtual world is similar to being in a physical world, then we can think about what we might be able to do in a virtual world that we cannot do in the physical world. And then virtual worlds might be used for projecting the future. What will happen when we run out of water? What would it be like to live in a world without water? Or what will happen if we run out of oil? Or fantasy: What if humans could fly? We are creating environments for almost everything you do in physical worlds. But in the future it will allow us to understand how things will be under different conditions.

What is the relationship between the concepts of ‘virtual world’ and ‘social media’?

NG: We use place as a metaphor to describe virtual worlds. Under this context, virtual worlds are visual and spatial on-line environments that can host and organize various activities. In the virtual world, people are aware of the presence of themselves and others in 3D places. Thus, a virtual world may be a “shelter” for supporting social media hosting on-line, social activities.

MLM: I think these concepts intersect. Second Life, World of Warcraft, etc. are 3D virtual worlds and kinds of social spaces. We also have examples of social media that are not virtual worlds, which are not places and will never be places. Virtual worlds will not subsume social media. We will continue to have traditional social websites. There are also virtual worlds that are not about social media. When we design virtual worlds to simulate the future it is not about social media but about science. It might be social science, but it also might consider simulating the physical world under different conditions.

Will future virtual worlds be more popular?

MLM: Until now technology has been a barrier to wide spread use of virtual worlds. Limited bandwidth and speed of processing was a barrier for creating 3D environments that would be popular and available for a broad range of users. Now bandwidth is wider, processing is faster, thus I think there will be more virtual worlds that are used as a kind of social media.

Generally, what does the future hold for virtual worlds?

NG: I think virtual worlds are important platforms for improving users’ wide range of experiences on the Internet. The place metaphor is an important concept in our approach to designing 3D virtual worlds. With the place metaphor, we relate designing these online environments to designing places in the physical world. Virtual worlds may mimic physical places but they might also go beyond them. A virtual world might be a dynamic, adaptive and interactive place. These features are currently not available in many physical, build environments and virtual worlds may play a very important role in inspiring designers to explore these kinds of features, not only in a virtual world, but also in our everyday environment.

MLM: In our book, we compare virtual worlds and the world wide web (WWW). At the beginning the WWW was based on a metaphor of document and printed paper. Now the WWW is able to adapt to our very specific needs and preferences. It remembers things that we have done before, it recommends things to us based on what we have looked at before, based on things that people similar to us have looked at, etc. The future of virtual worlds might go in a similar direction. They might adapt to the people who are in them. Thus if you are in a virtual museum and you are interested in particular kind of art, it could populate the walls around you with what you are interested in. If there are multiple avatars it might grow and adopt its size according to the number of avatars. One of the futures that we present in our book is that virtual worlds will become adaptive and will do things that physical places will never do. They will change size, they will understand what we like and what we do not like, they will connect to our world outside the virtual world. Some observations about rules and the language on virtual world design – included in our book – are there to show that the future of virtual worlds will be much more adaptive and interactive than current virtual worlds are. Current virtual worlds mostly mimic physical worlds, and our book proposes a different approach to designing them.


Can ‘Designing Adaptive Virtual Worlds’ be considered as a handbook? For whom was it written and what is its main goal?

NG: The book might be of interests of students, researchers and designers interested in fields such as game design, architectural design and computing, human-computer interactions and multimedia. I think it can be considered as a handbook. We described a framework that helps to understand the steps of designing adaptive, virtual places because there is a lack of theories and principles for this emerging academic topic. The aim of the book is to advance the state of art of designing virtual worlds by describing the elements of the design of virtual worlds with the focus on place design. The book proposes design grammar, as a formal design language for describing the design of places in 3D virtual worlds. Thus you can use it as a handbook.

MLM: Let me use the example of physical building design. For a long time buildings in physical worlds were not really designed, they were just built. These buildings are called vernacular architecture. And then architecture become something that people studied, and then it became something that people started to make theories about and develop formal languages for, etc. In virtual world design we are still in the vernacular stage. This is one of the first books that tries to go beyond a vernacular description and beyond a handbook. Handbooks are about crafts. There are a lot of books about how to design virtual worlds and they give you instructions on how to create 3D models and how to place them in 3D spheres. The book that we wrote is more about the rules of design. And it is not about physical architecture design transplanted into virtual space. It is about its own design rules. I think the book will be more useful for people who have tried to design virtual worlds already. People who have not tried to do it might be more inspired by the book rather than use it as a reference. I think that the book could be understood by a high school student, as it does not require any academic background.

Let’s talk a little bit about Open Access. Why did you choose to publish your book in an Open Access model?

NG: Thanks to Open Access our work might reach a broader group of readers. Many scholarly books published in the conventional model are overpriced and this reduces readership. That was the main reason.

MLM: I have published many books in the traditional model, and one thing that was quite discouraging was that prices of my books were too high even for me.

What are the main differences for you as an author between the traditional and OA model?

MLM: I haven’t noticed any difference with respect to peer review, the final editing, typesetting etc. In fact I wish there were more differences. I wish the review process could be more open. I wish the layout was much more open and we could have more to say about it. One thing that has been changed in a very positive way is the price for the reader, but I think a lot of other things should be opened up.

In Open Access, the feedback from readers continues, thus you could imagine modifying the book continuously, so it is improving over time. The future of Open Access is full of potential, like the future of virtual worlds!

NG: I wish too, to see more differences. I am very interested in the open peer review system. I would have liked to receive more comments from various sources when we were developing the manuscripts. Although I think that Open Access gives even more interesting possibilities. The majority of our readers will access the on-line version of our book and this could give us a lot of flexibility in the way we present our content. Especially since it offers the possibility of embedding multimedia into the book, and other forms of materials, which could supplement the text.

How did you choose your publisher?

NG: We saw a call for book proposals by De Gruyter Open through the Computer-Aided Architectural Design Research in Asia (CAADRIA) network and we have decided that Open Access will be appropriate for our book, thus we submitted a proposal and one year later our book was published. And we are very satisfied with the outcome.

MLM: I think we did not have so many alternatives. There were traditional publishers, but the initial readership of this book was hard to determine, because virtual world design is a new field. And it is very hard to publish a book with a traditional publisher on such an emerging topic, because they have to print and sell a certain number of copies to gain profit. Traditional publishers need very recognizable authors with very high sale records to engage in risky topics. Open Access publishers can publish more risky books. At the same time they offer peer review and other editorial services in contrary to vanity presses.

What piece of advice would you give to authors who are new to book publishing?

MLM: Most people in academia, and especially in computer sciences, write papers not books, and a book is very different, a book is not just a longer paper. It needs more time and more consideration. I do not know if it is necessary to take 10 years as we did, but it is a lot of work and it is different. Choosing a publisher is also a big hurdle for authors, to understand the choices and what different publishers offer.

What are your current plans in terms of research?

NG: Both of us are interested in collective design. It is an emerging application of collective intelligence that enables a very large crowd to design processes. In traditional design, the creative process is limited to an expert or a small team of experts and in collective design this is open to a massive design group. I see 3D virtual worlds as social media and one of the very promising open source design environments that can support collective design processes.

MLM: I am interested also in creativity and how people can be educated in creativity and how environment can make it easy to become creative and finally in designing technologies that make it easier to be creative. Virtual worlds make it easier for people to interact and create. It is like Open Access, which made it easier for people to comment and improve the quality of our publications. This collective intelligence mentioned by Ning is a way of encouraging people to participate in creative thinking without the barriers.

Ok, then, Thank you very much!

* – Avatar is the graphical representation of the user or the user’s alter ego or character.

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  1. Its interesting to note the text addresses “issues of design” and “in the future it will allow us to understand how things will be under different conditions.” – but the images presented seem (on the surface) designed as simple simulations.

    Are there better example images of what’s possible – or hints at the authors design approach?
    Would love a pictorial update to this article.

    As a side note, there’s 20+ years of interesting work that’s been done.
    My favorites include:

    Also, on a theory and language side, there’s a host of interesting parallels to virtual worlds and early cinema (who’s goal was an immersive “total cinema”, not narrative storytelling.) What’s emerging (slowly) now seems to be a language of editing reality – not for narrative, but for interaction.

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