Parallel worlds

The success of Second Life has created a need for a holistic approach from the design industry to satisfy the peculiar demands of this virtual world. Emma Rubach talks to designers and students to see how they are meeting this challenge

Do you have an avatar yet? As we speak, thousands of these virtual representatives of our real selves are busily toiling away in Second Life, building a new world, brick by digital brick.

Though it may sound sensationalist to suggest that virtual worlds will revolutionise our lives, individuals and businesses that ignore this new phenomenon may soon find themselves feeling as though they are missing a limb. Designers have a special role in the virtual realm, because it’s a place where everyone is involved in creation.

Major companies have been quick to exploit this phenomenon, and the past year has seen everybody from Coca-Cola and DaimlerChrysler to American Apparel buy and build on their own islands in Second Life, the most well known virtual world (others include Sims Online, Entropia Universe and Active Worlds).

The latest to join is Visa Europe, which hired a real-world designer, Rambir Lal, a consultant architect with Web and 3D design group Clusta, to work on a prototype building based on the shape of a spiralling pack of cards which may form the basis of Visa’s presence in the virtual reality game. It’s the first time Lal has designed a building for a virtual world. ‘It’s completely different – you don’t have to worry about things like environmental issues,’ he says. ‘You can explore space differently – the characters in Second Life can fly, for example.’ Lal’s observations highlight the intriguing intersection between design and virtual reality. So how will designers respond to the challenges it throws up?

One company that is interested in this question is Philips, which has carried out substantial research into the use of virtual reality to complement its designs. As a result, it is announcing the launch of a ‘co-creation’ facility, which will allow Second Life inhabitants to help the company design new products. ‘We believe that virtual worlds will be the future of the Internet because of the emotional and interactive element,’ explains Lorna Goulden, art director for Philips’ Second Life project. She is currently spending most of her time on-line in avatar form, watching the reaction of Second Life inhabitants to Philips’ plans. ‘This is different to building in real life,’ she explains. ‘In Second Life, everything is much more open. We have people dropping by and talking about what we are doing all the time.’ This has implications for the way designers in the future will communicate. ‘For example, if a designer was designing for a client, the client would be able to see what they are doing all the time,’ says Goulden, ‘And designers who are not together in real life can meet in this virtual space.’

If the world is about to go Second Life crazy, what competencies do designers need to develop? According to Goulden, real-world tools, like design software Rhino, don’t work on Second Life – the virtual world has its own software, while people across the globe are contributing to a mass of open-source software. ‘The difference is that designers will need a combination of skills,’ she points out. ‘Scripting, graphics and product design will have to work together simultaneously, not at different phases of the design.’

Any sceptics should visit the Goldsmiths design degree show in London when it opens on 6 June. They can choose to see it at the Truman Brewery in London – or get themselves an avatar and visit the virtual version (visit www.secondlife.com and search for ‘Annotations’). ‘Those who know about Second Life think it’s the future of the way we communicate,’ says Emily O’Dwyer, a fourth-year student who spearheaded the transfer of her class’s work to virtual reality. She argues that the greatest impact worlds like Second Life will have on design is the way in which they encourage people – who, as avatars, have complete anonymity – to openly transmit their thoughts. ‘Second Life is inspired by “first” life, but has a dimension of fantasy,’ she explains. ‘People can be who they want to be without baggage – it’s a good place to assess what people really want. It has the potential to generate ideas.’

The million dollar (and, so far, unanswered) question is, how will virtual designs feed back into real life? This is a topic that fascinates O’Dwyer, whose degree show work featured a restaurant that was a hybrid between a real-world and a Second Life experience. ‘On the one hand, I can see the merit of virtual reality,’ she says. ‘On the other, I feel screen-based interaction is having an extreme and disturbing effect on our lives. There must be a way to unite both worlds.’

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