The construction of an alternative reality as a context for drama might have something to teach us about the construction of virtual realities for education. Both seem to be about conveying meaning by constructing spaces which the viewer/user is invited to explore and interpret.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the art of the theatrical designer was little theorised. There was a general assumption that, in addition to providing the entrances and exits, the furniture and the props, specified by the script, it was the job of the theatre designer to represent as accurately as possible the architecture, furniture and so forth of the period described in the play. That the set should do something other than represent the surfaces of a real scene was no considered. However there was, for example in the productions of Irving, an insistence on unity in the overall conception which already might begin to guide our thoughts about VR (Bablet 1962). In particular, contemporaries praised Irving's use of electric lighting to pull together the disparate elements of the scene (and no doubt also to hide in shadow some of the mechanical aspects of the set). As VR systems become more capable of handling complex rendering including the effect of multiple light sources, we shall almost certainly want to use lighting more selectively, and perhaps under the user s control, to make the VR speak more effectively. A recent (non VR) project at the Centre for Electronic Arts made interesting use of darkness in which the user was enabled to shine a virtual torch, in an attempt to engage the user more fully in the scene.
Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) was a follower of Irving who took theatrical design in a direction of particular interest for this report, departing from the naturalism of his predecessors. Why did he do this? What was it about a wholly naturalistic set which he felt did not serve his purpose, and how might his thoughts guide us in our choices about virtual realities? Craig s reasons were based on a desire for what we might call media integration, concentration and consistency.
Also of importance to Craig, and included in the opening remarks of this report, was the question: is reality enough? One of Craig's problems with naturalism (at least, with unthinking naturalism), was its inadequacy to get beyond realism. There were several aspects to this. For example, in creating a scenario for Shakespeare, a naturalistic set could undermine the intentional non-realism of the words spoken (ibid, p45). Perhaps this seems an arcane problem, but in fact it is just a special case of the tension between symbolism and naturalism, and symbolism is by no means confined to the arts. When we consider something as simple as a graphical user interface, and consider how such a symbolic environment might be concretised as a virtual environment, it is clear that not all the advantages lie with a naturalistic solution. The non-natural symbolic nature of the GUI may actually be helpful, for example in making clear that this is only one of many possible metaphors for the operation of the computer, or in its ability to take liberties with scale so that all objects however near or distant have the same size.
Another Craigian idea valuable in thinking about virtual environments is the greater ability of non-naturalistic environments to suggest the unseen (ibid p134). In current practice, VR systems deal predominantly with surface appearances, and the systems in existence tend to emphasise the visual over the behavioural aspects of what they model - depiction rather than simulation. Craig's objection to naturalism in the theatre was partly based on his fear that it created a surface layer which distracts attention from the real messages of the play. The limitations of current VR technology have tended to enforce heavily simplified and stylised worlds upon us, so that we can not currently begin to create virtual worlds containing all the rich minutiae of the real world. A Craigian reduction to elementals has been forced on us by the technology! But when the naturalistic detail of the real world becomes more achievable in VR, we shall need to decide whether this is, for some purposes, both more and less than what we want: more because details may distract us from what is being said; less because we may need powerful symbols, and symbols normally work precisely by eliminating particularities of surface appearance. A historical example might be the work of the pre-Raphaelite painters, whose work seem now to lack any clarity of meaning but which preserves in minute detail the (irrelevant) surface characteristics of what the painter observed. Recent (non VR) projects in the Centre for Electronic Arts have tried to grapple with the problem of stripping away surface excrescence from multimedia products, resolving complex functionality into simple interfaces, while commercial software development by contrast has tended to grow extra buttons to deal with extra functions, so that the user feels s/he is interfacing with a layer of control devices, rather than with information itself. Reality is full of clutter, and we do not necessarily want our VRs to be the same.
For Craig, the emphasis on the set as a site for action led to his facilitating in his designs the process of change, often by the re-configuration of modules. He likened the set to a face, which always has the same parts laid out in a recognisable pattern, but which alters its expression with any change in one of its features (Bablet 1962, p 126). Given the potential flexibility and reconfigurability of computer models, this is something we may want to consider in making virtual environments, potentially achieving both the unity and security which a single virtual 'place' provides, at the same time as the flexibility and multiple functionality of many places. Commercially this will be important, since it is a way in which an identifiable 'brand' of place can have many uses. While real buildings and landscapes are not generally reconfigurable, virtual environments will surely want to reject adherence to this limitation of the real world.
It might be thought that this report is advocating an anti-naturalist approach to VR, such as Craig adopted in the theatre, but this is not the case. The point being made is that in deciding on the role of naturalism in Virtual Environments, some of the reasons that Craig had for (in his case) objecting to naturalism may be worth considering for our own purposes. Above all Craig was a functionalist, in that he saw the purpose of the design as to serve the idea (not the other way round).
The following quotation may cast an additional historical light on this issue:
There seems to be little doubt that there will be colour. When colour is perfected technically, the film will be an almost perfect copy of reality, almost 'the real thing.' With the perfection of the magnascope, the screen will be made to issue into the auditorium: the audience will be enveloped in the film. The approximation to reality will be still more convincing, the opportunity of imaginative creative work still more improbable, the cheap appeals to participate in a crude and unhealthy experience still more compelling.
William Hunter 1932 Scrutiny of Cinema p11
The gamut of literature covers the whole range of relationships between representation and reality, from the highly realistic to the fantastical. Literature provides a rich resource of ideas about space and spatiality, which we suspect is largely unresearched (exceptions include Barrell 1982). The essential idea is again to avoid assuming that space just 'is what it is', an inert and essentially irrelevant location for the action, and instead to arm ourselves with ideas about spaces with meanings, spaces which facilitate and augment the action as much as do the personalities of the characters.
All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home.
One of the most influential writers in this regard is Bachelard, whose 1958 book, the Poetics of Space, includes among others chapters entitled House and Universe, Shells, Corners, and The Dialectics of Outside and Inside. The great value of the book lies in its extensive coverage not of spatiality in general, but of the characteristics of particular kinds of spaces. While spatiality may be partly perceived in an a-cultural way, as we said before, clearly the characteristics of particular kinds of spaces are heavy-laden with cultural influences. For a space to be perceived as a house, makes a highly influential difference to the way it is 'read', compared with it being read as a public institution. In VR, where we have freedom to generate new space-types which evoke any existing genres of space, plus eventually completely new ones, what a space is perceived to be matters enormously. Both the thoughts and behaviours of users, their psychology and their actions, will be heavily influenced by whether a space is perceived as of the type normally thought of as public or private, intimate or challenging, large or small.
Graphics Multimedia Virtual Environments Visualisation Contents