1 Introduction – Designing Adaptive Virtual Worlds

1 Introduction

The boundary between our physical environment and the digital world is becoming increasingly blurred as we move more and more of our personal communication, health records, bank details, professional interactions, educational materials and records, and entertainment online. On one extreme, we have a physical world void of any digital content, an increasingly small part of the developed world, but still present. On the other extreme we have digital personas that exist only in virtual worlds such as Second Life1. These two extremes hardly characterize the complexity of the boundary between the two, but they allow us to think about what may be common in the extremes.

The boundary can be described as a sense of immersion or a focus of attention that is often crossed: for example, we may be interacting with a friend or colleague on Skype2 or World of Warcraft3 when someone walks into the physical room we are in and starts talking to us. The boundary can also be described in technical terms that distinguish the physical from the digital, however, these distinguishing features become less defining as new products are available that merge the two worlds, such as Google Glass4 where the digital is superimposed on the physical world and Sifteo Cubes5, where physical and gestural interaction affect digital content. This book explores one extreme, the intentional design of virtual worlds to accommodate our increasing presence in digital environments that extend our sense of place. This focus on place provides a basis for integrating our digital lives into our physical lives by building on our existence as physical beings. By focusing on the design of place in virtual worlds, we can better accommodate the myriad of technologies that lie between the extreme of a physical place void of digital content and a purely digital world void of physical existence.

1.1 Why Adaptive Virtual Worlds?

Virtual worlds provide immersive experiences in another world that is inhabited by other people represented as avatars. While this has been a popular arena for massive multiplayer online role-playing games6 such as World of Warcraft, the various ventures into developing virtual worlds for education, commerce, collaboration and entertainment have had a difficult time achieving recognition as a widely-used technology. We do not attempt to address the issue of the viability of virtual worlds, but instead present a focus on the design of adaptive virtual worlds as a basis for the future of virtual worlds. We present design principles that are based on how virtual worlds are similar yet distinct from the physical world. A virtual world can be familiar in its reference to the physical world, but can be different because it is not restricted by the physics of the physical world. In particular, we focus on how virtual worlds can be designed to adapt to the needs of their inhabitants.

In light of the rapid proliferation of technologies that enhance our physical existence with smart phones, smart clothing, smart homes, smart buildings, we see an opportunity to extend the design of physical environments beyond the digital enhancement of physical devices and places, to the design of virtual worlds that can extend our physical world using the metaphor of place. The early history of virtual worlds has shown that these new places can provide many of the affordances of the physical world that may be too expensive or not accessible to a large percentage of the population. As computing devices, including desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones, are becoming available to a significant percentage of the population in both first- and third-world countries, this emphasis on designing adaptive virtual worlds provides a forum for extending the ability for people to have meaningful experiences such as online education. Some online education models include MOOCs7, where the number of students in a single class be in the hundreds of thousands, and crowdsourcing initiatives, such as citizen science, where the number of participants can increase to millions. More generally, we are seeing the development of communities whose focus and interests are not based on their physical location, yet their personal existence and experiences are physical. By pursuing the design of adaptive virtual worlds, we hope to raise an awareness of the potential and importance of both the adaptive aspects and the need for design principles.

1.2 Why Design Places?

Designing places has a history significantly longer than the history of virtual worlds. We focus on the design of place in the context of virtual worlds in order to distinguish the content of this book from other books that focus on the design of the 3D models or the technology to support a virtual world. With a focus on place, we can merge the design principles that have evolved over a long history of architecture with the principles of new technology that make virtual worlds possible. Architectural design has often been considered to be essentially about place making for built environments. Through designing places, this book aims to build on the rich knowledge base of architectural design and extend and adapt it for virtual worlds.

We take into consideration the differences between designing with physical materials and designing with digital content. An example of a design domain that has principles similar to designing virtual worlds is the design of web sites. We separate the representation of the content of the virtual world from its dynamic, adaptive, and interactive characteristics, allowing us to represent place as something that changes over time as needed. In the design of a web site, the content is specified within the HTML tags, where the tags define the categories of content. The layout and design style of the web site is described by the CSS rules, where categories of content are given specific rules for their appearance and location on the web page. The interactivity and dynamics of the web site are specified in JavaScript, Ajax, JQuery or other scripting languages for client-side processing and in PHP, Ruby, Python or other languages for server-side processing. These distinctions are similar to the design of virtual worlds, where the content, style, and interaction/dynamics are defined as the materials of design. The difference is that web sites use the metaphor of documents as the basis for design, and we use the metaphor of place in designing virtual worlds. In this book, we define the materials for designing virtual worlds in terms of the content or objects in the world as 3D models; the layout of a 3D place as layout rules; the design and arrangement of the objects in the place as object design rules; the circulation and accessibility of the place as navigation rules; the dynamics of the objects and place as interaction rules in a grammar; and the ability to be adaptive by wrapping an agent model around the grammar that senses and responds to the needs of the users in the virtual world.

1.3 Overview of This Book

This book is divided into four parts. Chapter 2 (the remainder of Part I) provides the background for the book, which briefly discusses the evolution of virtual worlds and virtual world research. This chapter also highlights the concepts of metaphor and place making for virtual worlds that are fundamental for our approach to designing and representing virtual worlds.

Part II of the book presents the research and theoretical foundation for designing adaptive virtual worlds. Chapter 3 illustrates the generative design grammar framework that provides organizing principles for developing grammars that addresses both the syntactic (visualization: layout and object design), and semantic (navigation and interaction) considerations when designing places in 3D virtual worlds. Chapter 4 describes the Generative Design Agent (GDA) model that is wrapped around the generative design grammars, providing the mechanisms to sense and change in 3D virtual worlds. Designing adaptive virtual places is then realized through the GDA’s application of generative design grammars, adapting to the changing needs during real-time interactions in 3D virtual worlds.

Part III demonstrates the use and effectiveness of the generative design grammar framework and the GDA model for the design and realization of adaptive virtual worlds through the development of a specific generative design grammar (Chapter 5) in an adaptive virtual gallery scenario (Chapter 6). This demonstration also provides a context for exploring and discussing various practical issues in designing adaptive virtual worlds.

Part IV concludes the book by highlighting the future development of adaptive virtual worlds. This final chapter discusses various considerations for designing adaptive virtual places using design rules and agents in terms of technical environments, design generation and controls, design styles, and the impact on the built environments.