Saturday, March 24, 2007

Space and Place

As I mentioned in an earlier post, virtual worlds such as Second Life are not new. As a matter of fact, around the turn of the century there was a blossoming field of research called CVE or Collaborative Virtual Environments (I even put in my two cents' worth [in Dutch] at the time). With its roots in Virtual Reality, CVE research introduced a new and important aspect to ICT: that of shared virtual spaces populated by avatars. That period also saw virtual worlds on the internet, with ActiveWorlds as the Second Life of that time, albeit with nowhere near the current media exposure. For more on that period, check out Bruce Damer's excellent history lesson over at Terra Nova.

And although most of the products, worlds and research projects from that period didn't last, it is important to take some of the lessons we learned with us. I see a tendency in current virtual world research to not be informed by important CVE discussions of the past. One of the most important discussions of the time focused on the concepts of space and place.

The obvious difference between using a virtual world such as Second Life and a normal website is the 3D aspect. A virtual world tries to create a sense of physical space. This space allows us to see ourselves (our avatars) in relation to others (their avatars), which means we can stand close or far away from somebody, face them when they speak or use rudimentary body language. This shared space also allows us to work together on or talk about objects that we can all see. This aspect of using " shared artifacts" was an important drive in CVE research. It is also presented as an important selling point for current virtual world tools such as Qwaq (see previous post and a discussion I had on Raph's website).

The lesson I draw from the CVE period is that too big a focus on space can make us forget the creation of a place. A place is a space invested with meaning. The easiest example is the home (as a place) compared to the house (as a space). How interesting is it for a company to have a space in Second Life when nobody visits it. Wouldn't it be more useful to create a Web 2.0 style website that actually draws visitors and creates a place to promote your brand?

The biggest impact a virtual world can have is when place and space are combined. A sense of community (a place that I like to go back to) combined with a shared space that makes it possible to " bump into" people and strike up opportunistic conversations [1]. That is were the true power of virtual worlds lies.

[1] Remy Evard, Elizabeth F. Churchill and Sara Bly, "Waterfall Glen: Social Virtual Reality at Work" , in: Elizabeth F. Churchill, David N. Snowdon and Alan J. Munro (Eds), Collaborative Virtual Environments: Digital Places and Spaces for Interaction, Springer-Verlag, London, 2001.

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