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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

THE WORLD INSIDE THE WORLD INSIDE

Or, the state of VR environments within VR environments...

And after I had made my way up the winding copper staircase to the entrance of the chamber itself (guided there all the while by a pulsing beam of green light), the woman in the wide-brimmed straw hat and the gray elf princess pulled me inside, and showed me many things. I saw a park in San Francisco on a sunny day; I saw a city of the future from a mile up; I saw a stream beside red Colorado cliffs; I saw a card game where the playing chits seemed a hundred meters high; I saw a blue sky full of athletic shoes; I saw a marble-tiled European museum; I saw the hostile surface of Mars; I saw the entire planet Earth, inverted at my feet; I saw a sense-distorting Escher print, from within the image itself; I saw a supernova from the blackness of space; I saw Da Vinci's "Last Supper" from a cool stone hallway in Italy; I saw a protest against war in Manhattan; I saw you.

Or I would, if I'd taken digital photos of you from all angles beforehand.

"This basically started as a joke," Jessica Qin tells me. "VR inside of VR. Kinda grew from there." (Jessica's the Drow elf with the glowing glyphs floating above her head.)

"[T]he SL portion is a glorified texture display," adds Aliasi Stonebender, the woman in the wide-brimmed hat. "Well, though at far larger sizes than usual for Second Life." Ms. Qin and Ms. Stonebender built it in Igbo (105,65), and it's actually much more profound than a mere image viewer. Experientially, with the six images spread around you so broad and encompassing, the effect feels like being inside the worlds they depict; it's not unlike the Cavern, the VR space described in Richard Powers' excellent Ploughing the Dark. (Only here, you're inside a VR cave that's already inside a VR environment.)

The trick to displaying the high resolution images is some tweaking of the Quicktime files they're processed in. "[T]he Quicktime cubic VR, despite the name, isn't a 'normal' Quicktime file," says Aliasi. "It's a separate format that Quicktime reads. And formating to make it work here." That done, it's just a matter of importing images that can be fit together and wrapped onto the surface of the viewing box in 720 degrees.

They sell the viewer to Residents, and so far, most of them have used it as a way of displaying images. But other applications occur to us while we stand there with a flurry of realities resolving around us.

"I occasionally run roleplaying games of the paper variety in Second Life," says Aliasi. "[I]f the characters are in a city, [I] load up a city. In a castle, load up a castle, etc... Not as nice as actually BUILDING it in SL," she allows, "but for quick scene changes, can't be beat."

"One thing Aliasi and I have only started to explore is putting real stuff in here with these environments," Jessica continues. "Like [an] airship, for instance-- above the water, or above a mountain scene, you'd be on deck or look out the windows, and it was quite realistic."

Since their viewer uses Quicktime, it can also stream movie clips to create an even more immersive effect. "I imagine if I had used some kind of 'flying' animation on the walls, it would have been something else," notes Aliasi.

Jessica envisions ways of modifying their viewer for educational use, and when we're standing in the inverted image of the globe, I can suddenly see how a particularly vivid geography lesson could take place here. ("A laser pointer is on my to-do list," she says.)

"There's a political angle, even," Jessica continues, as we seem to float above the parade of New York anti-war protesters. "When 9/11 rolls around, there are a number of Ground Zero VRs-- I'm not sure what, if anything, will be done in Second Life to commemorate that day." (Judging by last year's anniversary, much.) "But possibly, this could be used for that. I still haven't sorted out whether or not it would be in good taste, though. I envision something that might help people feel what it was like there, in the days in the immediate aftermath."

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