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Mixing the real and the virtual

The second in a series of articles about the impact of IT on architecture examines uses of virtual reality for the architect BY NEIL SPILLER

Cyberspace has been around for a long time, in telephone voices, telegraph morse, Marconi's wireless and the televised fiction of Inspector Morse. If anything the twentieth century was characterised by the way we created an invisible environment in which we basked under a billion electro-magnetic suns.

These suns are the almost infinite number of electronic devices that populate our planet, each leaking radiation of some sort or another. The early interactivity of Cedric Price's generator project, discussed in February's Architech (AJ 24.2.00), has been superseded by the ubiquitousness of full-blown cyberspace.

Cyberspace is at once utopian and dystopian, it facilitates information flow, connectivity and speed yet it also records, traces and surveys. This is the paradox of our age; it both releases and confines us.

Cyberspace was nameless until as late as 1984. Orwell might have thought this an instructive clue to its down side.William Gibson coined the word as a perilous yet cathartic backdrop to his novel Neuromancer. Its famous first line, 'The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel' immediately made a connection between out here in reality and in there behind the screen. It also sets up the idea that no information is death. Gibson gave the 'cyberspace' name to the quasi-dimensions behind the computer screens after being inspired by video games in amusement arcades.Some ofus have even joined the world of bits behind the computer screen and a funny, magical world it is too.Like landing on the moon we have to don helmet and gloves, as on the moon we can stumble and fall, get dizzy and bump into things.Architecture is about conjuring atmospheres, being a master of nuance, clear navigation, and making the fictional seem real.

Virtual reality is an ally to architects and should not be feared, resisted or ignored - it is going to change our profession radically for the better.

But firstly, let me go back to the newborn virtual reality a decade ago. This is Howard Rheingold losing his virtual-reality virginity: 'I was standing in a carpeted room but I was also staring into microscopic space and directly manoeuvring two molecules with my hands. Perhaps someone in an earlier century experienced something similar looking through Galileo's telescope. It felt like a microscope for the mind, not just the eye.

'I don't know the rules of 'molecular docking'- a tool for helping chemists find molecules shaped like keys to specific proteins - the way chemists knows them, but I could feel them, though my hand and the force-reflective feedback mechanism built into the ARM, the Argonne Remote Manipulator. The metal grip felt like the handlebar of a gargantuan, well-lubricated Harley. I looked up at the million dollars' worth of articulated joints, encoiled in electrical cables. The entire apparatus was suspended from the ceiling a few feet above me. I wore light goggles connected by a wire to a computer.'

Putting aside the testosterone-soaked technological fetishism, one can feel the excitement of teetering on the edge of wonderful new spatial opportunities.

Many architects now understand that the virtual world is with us to stay, not just the simple e-mail, CAD or suppliers' websites but a more mixed, hybrid set of spatial conditions that can be manipulated architecturally. Virtual reality can spawn partial realities and mixed realities where spaces can be designed that have virtual and actual components which work with one another.Mixed-reality sites or objects might only be complete, if such an idea exists anymore, when two or more realities coalesce. Recently Ranulph Glanville, in a crit at the Bartlett, posited the idea that the creators of virtual reality were fifty years behind those of sound and music. This started me thinking of this as a way to get architects to realise the potential of virtual, mixed or partial realities.

Sound can be bounced off surfaces, mixed, modulated, contorted, relayed remotely, recorded, remixed, broken back down into components, created on different instruments that add a specific flavour to their sounds and collected from many sources simultaneously, to name but a few of the sound engineer's tactics of composition. No one I am sure will jump up and down and deny that soundscapes can be created in this way. The same and other tactics can be used to create hybrid space.

The architect's job will begin to have a very important component connected to the modulation of what has been called the 'virtuality continuum', that is mixing realities and choreographing space and surface.

Marcos Novak, an American cybertect, calls the casting of the virtual on to the actual 'eversion'. 'Eversion . . . predicts that the phenomena with which we are familiar in cyberspace will find, indeed are finding, their equivalent everted forms in ordinary space. Thus, phenomenologically, the nature of space itself, this space, our space is already undergoing significant changes into what I call 'newspace', the sum of the local, remote, virtual and interactivated space.'

The enlivening of surface is one of the most interesting potentials of virtual technology. If for a moment we consider the computer desktop as a surface - say a wall - then as you use the computer different areas of it become special. Do you want to keep this file? OK.The space of the virtual 'OK' button or the file icon becomes interactive.When the 'OK'is activated it is gone. So the desktop can create sensitive areas of specialism when necessary and these change accordingly in both location and use.This is a choreography of spatial contours. Architectural surfaces can be created that do just this, yet instead of allowing the user into another twodimensional window, they may be more spatial and multidimensional, letting the casual user into a whole variety of informational, virtual and mixed spaces. This new topology of surfaces and spaces blurs the boundary between objects and sites, one becomes the other and vice versa.

We have a great opportunity ahead reality mixing will rejuvenate our tired profession.

In the next issue of Architech Neil Spiller will explore the new objects and sites that can flip across realities and illustrate their architectural potential

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