Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Second Life as a Development Tool for Interactive Builds

Hello all,

This is a post from the sonar website, but I think it is a bit more applicable to this blog. I'm trying to identify practical developmental characteristics of Second Life: particularly its role as a development tool to simulate interactive architectures and/or responsive environments. The following are some thoughts about how SL provides advantages over other 3D modelling tools for this purpose. The ideas are not fully developed so I'm looking for some additions to the list. Feel free to comment or criticize..

Recent advances in virtual gaming engines (specifically Second Life) make it an ideal platform for the study of interactive architectures and responsive environments. The unique characteristics of virtual space allows for 4D spatial processing of kinetic architectures as they respond to human (avatar) behaviors and, in turn, effect those behaviors in an ongoing feedback cycle. This facilitates observation, testing, and analysis of the interaction between humans and scripted objects (programmable elements) and the resultant behaviors and dynamics that emerge from those interactions.

In Tobi Schneidler's interactive architectural and media works, he identifies a critical precondition of the development of any responsive or interactive space: the need for a 1:1 prototype scale for usability testing. He goes on to stress the importance of such testing as there are behavioral patterns and outcomes that the designer cannot predict or account for until they are observed within the full context of the interaction. Current 3D modeling and animation tools allow for more flexibility in formal expression and kinetics, but the search continues for the proper digital tools to test and develop various types of interactive architectural environments. I believe that Second Life provides an ideal platform for this type of research/design development.

I am identifying 3 key qualities of Second Life virtual space and its ability to test and develop responsive/interactive environments. These ideas are explained briefly here but are part of a larger essay that will be released in the coming weeks. These include..
-Human factors engineering
-Physics and time
-Encoding objects and environments

Human Factors Engineering

A pre-inhabited environment provides the opportunity for chance social encounters and interactions. This more accurately reflects the way we 'happen upon' and engage space (and each other) while exploring the physical world. For this reason, the environment of Second Life places more demands upon the designer's ability to visually market a designed space to chance passerby. This holds true to the 'view from the street' effect which visually entices users to visit and engage a site as opposed to simply downloading an animation or being passed through a series of internet links to a website video. It requires a bit more commitment on the part of the user. The designer is now required to consider how a site or architectural installation will attract users through its physical appearance, siting, and behaviors. If the site/installation does not look appealing or engaging, avatars may simply walk by and make the choice not to engage it.

Social Interrelation and Cooperation
We bring our physical mannerisms and behavioral tendencies into Second Life and act these out through the representative avatar. For this reason, characteristics of Second Life tend to reproduce some aspects of social interaction within physical reality. This is true for qualities ranging from altruism and selfishness to embarrassment and self-esteem. Etiquette also plays a role: for example it is usually considered courteous to face an avatar when speaking with them and to maintain equal elevation when holding a conversation with another avatar or group of avatars (two avatars speaking will generally approach each other, hover to the same height, and face each other to speak). Second Life also allows for sociospatial physics: for example, an avatar must be within 'listening distance' of another avatar for a conversation to take place. These human behaviors and the nature of space which allows them to play out is crucial to take into account when attempting to model responsive environments which must react accurately and reliably to both predictable and unpredictable human behaviors.

Avatar-Human Proxy
Current 3D modeling and animation tools mostly place the user in the role of observer. In these cases the user is generally represented by a virtual camera that the user controls to adjust their position and orientation with respect to a given modeled structure or environment. Second Life, on the other hand, allows the user to adopt the role of participant which enables the user to interact with designed space. The user relates to and associates themselves with the avatar (their digital representation) and this generally results in the user acting through the avatar as opposed to perceiving the control of a separate entity. They begin to associate the avatar's actions with their own and thus there is an identity associated with every action. The user may also begin to feel that their actions have consequence or causality associated with them and this gives significance to those actions (be they virtual, physical, or both).

Recording Experience
Through the use of mouselook and machinima, we can actually record the experience of users in any given space. Second Life gives us the possibility of establishing cameras in any position or in multiple positions simultaneously. This gives designers the capability to record for analysis the interaction taking place from multiple perspectives including those from the 'eyes' of the users themselves. We also have the ability to visually track movement and positions in a given space or structure. When this data is compiled, we can begin to recognize trends and discover patterns of use unseen by the naked eye. This component will be utilized heavily in the coming experiments and more on this to come..

Physics and Time

Kinetics, Physics Modeling and Usability
Second Life allows for physics modeling such as mass, momentum, gravity, and a host of other characteristics. While physical construction is a necessity for any kinetic/dynamic object or structure, (due to scalar complications like friction, tensile strength, etc.) Second Life provides the opportunity to study the interaction taking place between individuals and environments which help to develop that particular aspect of a responsive/interactive space. This can then serve as the basis for further development of the physical build as it progresses through its stages of development.

'Real Time' and Co-Inhabitation
Second Life allows multiple users to interact with environments and each other in an interrupted singular temporal stream. There is no reversal or playback within the program itself (with the exception of exported video which is dissociated from the main program) therefore traits like embarrassment, mistakes, and other realistic human qualities become engineered into the overall interactive experience. As Second Life has developed over time, we also have the possibility of diurnal cycles (day and night) which provide opportunity for time based interactive works that utilize lighting for daytime or nighttime participation. This forces the designer to address such cycles and provides an additional element of realism which must be accounted for in any simulated interactive build.

Encoding Objects and Environments

Complete freedom to encode objects and environments
This opens the potential for surface, structural or environmental characteristics to contain an element of responsiveness. While many of these characteristics may not apply to a subsequent physical build, the point is the ease with which the designer can encode an environment. This allows the designer to explore different avenues of a particular idea not necessarily possible through physical exploration. This may present additional ideas and opportunities that will eventually inform another part of the project unforeseen in the original design.

Exchange of Information
The nature of Second Life's virtual environment allows information to be transmitted to and from this space in a bi-directional manner. While virtual space provides an excellent platform for the study of interactive works, it also allows the subsequent built physical work to communicate with its virtual simulation. This feature has been utilized in many projects best demonstrated in the
Muscle Project by Oosterhuis et al. A virtual simulation of the structure was initially built in Virtools for testing purposes. The eventual built form retained this virtual double allowing users to have an effect on the final build by manipulating both the virtual form as well as the physical build directly. This idea of the 'dual reality interface,' allows the interactive work to be effected from multiple locations as well as through multiple forms of media.

Quantifying Interaction and Inhabitation
Second Life provides unprecedented ability to record and quantify interactions. Cameras and script tracking provide for in-world real time data acquisition and analysis. All actions in Second Life are ultimately quantifiable: every discussion and action has the ability to be recorded and documented for review and study. Designers are able to track avatar movement through space, visual attention through mouselook recordings, textual conversations, or attendance for any given designed space. While this has sometime resulted in unwarranted and unethical surveillance in virtual environments, its responsible use can assist in testing variables such as a site's popularity, its use, and specific interactions between avatars and kinetic elements.

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