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The Design of Virtual Environments with particular reference to VRML


Two key points underpin this report. The first is that the construction of Virtual Realities should be seen as an intentional activity, based on thoughtful well-informed and inventive decision-making. It is a design process in the best and broadest sense of the term.

The second is that the decisions in that design process should ultimately be based on effectiveness. All the decisions made can be evaluated by asking: will this project, in this form, achieve the desired result?


For the purposes of this report, we consider Virtual Reality to be
a computer-based representation of a space in which users can move their viewpoint freely in real time

Worlds created in VRML-1 fulfil this definition (with a caveat about real-time movement in most cases).

Fuller definitions of VR are possible, and desirable. For example, many would expect users to have the ability to interact with objects in the space, not just to alter their view of it. Others would expect the objects to be capable of autonomous animation, without the user's intervention. VRML-2 provides these things. To avoid being tied to any one implementation, this report largely steps back from these contingent details and tries to address fundamental issues.

Some believe VR should be limited to those environments which mimic external realities but there are problems with this approach:

The challenges of VR are not only technical

There has been a tendency for VR to be hailed as an unproblematic answer to many problems in computing, from database, through educational technology, to virtual museums. The task of making virtual environments is seen as a technical oneĐessentially of reconstructing reality in the computer. Indeed this is seen by many as a sufficient definition of VR. However, there are clear problems.

Simulating reality is not enough

If we take as an example the idea of a virtual museum, are we to limit ourselves to placing objects in fixed locations in a building of a given appearance? What is the point? It could be argued that a straightforward visual database is a better 'virtual museum' since it allows works to be located within as many dimensions as there are fields in the record. What do we gain by making a virtual physical construction? Nothing, unless we abandon some of the simplistic assumptions about virtuality. We are faced with a rich variety of choices. What should inform those choices? Even supposing that the replication of reality were possible in VR, there would be many occasions when there was little to gain by doing so.

The aim of this report is to highlight those areas of promise and concern in relation to VR which have not been dealt with by others.

Virtual Reality requires design

It is possible to deal separately with some key characteristics of VR:
  1. Spatiality - the uses of space.
  2. Virtuality - directness, the feeling of 'being there'.
    By this distinction we may be able to usefully disentangle meaning within a space (spatiality) from the actual relationship of the user to that space (virtuality).

    Connecting the two themes is the issue of...

  3. Representation

    Even when we have decided what to model, there are still many choices available to us about how to model it. A representation is not the thing it represents. Even the most ambitious virtual reality will not be reality. It is clear that we are dealing with a representation: as creators of such environments we have both the obligations and the freedoms that any designer has in constructing a representation.

A note on the five senses

Virtual Reality almost always privileges vision. Sound may also be used, simply or in more sophisticated ways (for example using phasing). Where additional hardware is available, tactile feedback and the sense of body orientation may be possible. Smell and taste are currently rarely addressed. In this it follows the limitations of cinema.

The construction of meaning

It might be argued that a virtual reality is no more a representation of something else than a building is a representation of something elseĐit is simply a construction. Whether it is regarded as representation or construction, however, there should be no doubt that it has the ability to carry meaning, in the same way that a building can present the intentions of those who built it. There are many other constructions which also carry meaning, including theatre design, interface design and product design. In addition, interesting constructions are described and alluded to in various forms of literature, and some of these offer interesting ideas for the design of VR. This report attempts to draw out the lessons of these various approaches to designing with space.


VRML - the Virtual Reality Modelling Language, often pronounced 'vermal' - is the standard being developed for putting virtual realities onto the Internet. For many in Higher Education it will be with this set of technologies, rather than any other, that they will experience virtual reality. This report concludes with a snapshot of VRML now, some ideas about its future, and recommendations on how the whole concept of VR can best be harnessed for our needs.

We hope that this report helps to stimulate a wider debate about the design and use of VR. We would also like to think that it is useful in part as tutorial material for students, whose engagement with these issues should be actively encouraged.

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