The Intersection of Place and Interface

Not a day goes by, it seems, that I don’t click through to a breathtaking new Papervision3D site (I think Dusan Writer ‘s blog is where I first saw samples). They’re so fresh and crisp, and they each seem to have their own unique navigation method. No log-in, no massive download, just click and… behold, the 3D experience.

Despite my persistent Second Life evangelism, I’ll admit that as I scan through my blog reader I’m far more likely to hop into a new Papervision experience than I am to log into Second Life and follow a SLurl someone recommends. Of course, I follow interesting SLurls every day, but Papervision is so much quicker, and so much easier… one click and bingo, you’re ‘there,’ ‘inside’ a 3D space.

Plus, I’m a sucker for holistic environments that bring together elements of music, sound effects, fine art, graphic design, web interface with a common thread (e.g. Chouchou via New World Notes ), and the best of these new Papervision sites walk the line like no other. More interesting still, is that these are almost exclusively marketing and advertising-driven 3D experiences. For some reason, we don’t put up with marketing in Second Life, but the latest Papervision-based corporate marketing site will spread through the blogosphere like wildfire.

Oddly enough, I also find that Papervision often delivers a far more rich and compelling experience, with a clear sense of ‘place’ than most builds in Second Life offer. Even though I’m not embodied in an avatar that exists’ inside’ the virtual environment, the experience is often more shallow and referential in Second Life than these zippy new Papervision sites offer. How can that be?

I think the causal force has to be the verbiage Second Life carries with it (land, sky, buildings, landscaping, walking, flying). These references establish an expectation that virtual spaces are closer related to video games than they are to web sites. After all, Second Life is, in its default state, a digital representation of the physical world. So, when we set out to build something, it only makes sense that we create buildings, streets, signs, etc. We take great care in developing carefully manicured ‘landscapes’, and go to great lengths to accurately convey wild realms of digital flora and fauna.

Sure, with enough effort we can create remarkable experiences this way, and we’re designing within the technological context, but lets be honest… its a reaction to default, instead of proactive consideration of the right experience for the project.

Now in contrast, consider the process of Papervision3D development. They start with a blank slate. A totally empty space with very little in the way of pre-established rules and assumptions. There is no ground, or sky, or humanoid avatars. Even though they could, if they wanted to, create those elements, and build a place with streets, walls, doors, windows, they rarely do. Why not?

Maybe its because the ‘you’ who occupies that space isn’t embodied in a humanoid avatar. ‘You’ in a Papervision site, are just a cursor. It reminds me of an experiment Steve Nelson at Clear Ink did once, where he created an invisible avatar with nothing exposed but the cross-hairs of a cursor. One of our colleagues, at the time, had suggested that he might spend more time in Second Life if he could be invisible. He didn’t want to socialize, but still wanted to experience the world and explore great builds. Would some people be less inhibited or more playful with the 3D experience if they didn’t have the responsibility of an avatar?

Is there something about losing the humanoid avatar that frees the mind to design and create a more adventurous interface?

Maybe there is something virtual world developers can learn from the way Papervision development plays out. Perhaps, as multi-user sites emerge, it will go the way of the avatar, and lean toward physical replication, and familiar spaces with doors and windows and digital landscaping. Or, maybe it will be the best chance we have at discovering a new language of virtual interface.

For the longest time, I’ve been calling for a new language of virtual architecture, that transcends physical replication and finds new opportunities based on the inherent or native characteristics of this new virtual frontier, but maybe the term ‘architecture’ itself carries that same limiting baggage of physical replication. Maybe the reinvention of the interface requires a reinvention of the lexicon, and a fresh look at the new realm of web-based 3D experience.

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