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TheU Architectural Discussion Paper - Stuart Gold

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Date:
05 Jul 1996

Project Background

The creation of a Virtual University in Alpha World is a project currently under development by the Contact Consortium. The idea was first mentioned to me on Bruce Damer's visit to London this month (June 96). As I understand it the concept is to create a Virtual Reality world dedicated to providing an academic space for various VR/Internet related learning and experiential activities. By using Alpha World technology it is envisioned that a navigable three-dimensional campus inhabited by avatars will provide a useful and compelling environment for the pursuit of these activities and serve as an on-going study of academic learning in virtual environments.

If possible an educational 'world' would be set up using Alpha World software supplied by Worlds Inc. to be hosted on a separate server. Control of this world would be given to those responsible for maintaining TheU. This control would extend to access rights, design and creation of components, building permissions and zoning etc..

Existing Virtual University Projects

There are many current and planned virtual or on-line universities. Information on some of these are linked from the Contact Consortium web site. Each project tackles the problem in different ways, based on their own particular requirements and available technology at the time of inception.

Purpose and Role of TheU

Although founding an academic institution specialising in studying the use and efficacy of virtual worlds is an important pursuit in itself, I feel that in order to gain support from enough influential sources to ensure its viability, it must offer much wider appeal. The problem is that three-dimensional virtual environments are not yet advanced enough to conduct viable instruction in subjects unrelated to the technology.

I suggest therefore, that it should also be offered as a complementary facility to all the existing virtual courses and universities. After all, the members of these communities are already well versed and comfortable with the concepts of remote communication. However, rather than providing an alternative to their current teaching methods it should offer merely an access hatch into a new, communal environment. To understand the access hatch metaphor, imagine students and teachers currently engaged in an existing on-line course. Even though they have access to each other across many miles using text based communications they probably feel quite isolated from their own campus and colleagues. Being able to pop their heads through an access hatch into a navigable three-dimensional world would immediately enable them to visualise their own campus and to communicate in a more tangible way with their fellow students and teachers. Furthermore it would provide an ideal forum for them to meet and exchange information with other on-line universities. Eventually other universities which currently do not have virtual courses would be encouraged to have a presence. TheU then becomes a campus of universities rather than just a campus of students.

In time, when the technology improves, it may be possible to conduct the teaching process on the actual campus itself rather than using the campus merely as an access hatch into an albeit, compelling social environment.

Virtual Campus Design

It is clear that TheU is a very different beast to Alpha World itself. Alpha World is essentially an anarchic environment where freedom of expression is the main ingredient. Whereas TheU, by definition a task oriented environment, requires a more rigid structure and overall management. I suggest therefore that building of the actual campus be tightly controlled and under the co-ordination of a committee of avatars who act as a town planning committee and who carry out the actual building process or can appoint a building team to do so.

It is essential however to ensure that there are other areas outside the campus that can be used by students to build their own virtual environments completely free from any controls otherwise one of the essential ingredients of Alpha World's success would be missing.

Architectural Competition

It is my opinion (but maybe I am biased!) that the best people to actually visualise and understand the use of architectural space are architects themselves. Furthermore, students of architecture who have been untainted by the practicalities of the real world, would be even more capable of applying themselves to the ethereal and imaginative approach required for building effective virtual spaces. In fact most of the schemes they work on during their time at university are often exercises in unreality!

An ideal vehicle for this approach would be to commission an international competition for students of architecture. I envisage that this would be offered to students individually via their universities and may be included in their curricula as a voluntary project to replace one of their set projects. A first prize (and possibly runner-up) would be an expenses paid trip to a conference on TheU, held presumably in California, where the winning student or team of students would be asked to present their scheme.

Clearly there are problems with this approach. Each school would require good Internet access. This is a reason for offering the competition to universities on a voluntary basis where only a small number of students would require Internet access from each university. Any university that wanted to make the competition the subject of one of their projects for a complete class would of course be welcome to do so but may have logistic problems with Internet access. Alternatively, if the Alpha World software can run on a LAN and if Worlds Inc. would be willing to donate some copies, it may be possible to facilitate designing and building of these schemes off-world. Either way, the schools would probably require their students to work using traditional drawing techniques in parallel in order to be able to critique their work.

An essential pre-requisite for this idea is the involvement of sponsors or preferably one large commercial sponsor. I feel that the possibility of this is quite high especially if the media are involved at an early stage and the idea can be 'sold' to them, as any large sponsor will be far easier to convince if the project gets good media coverage. I am convinced that the idea is novel enough to be extremely interesting to mainstream media including the television networks (especially in the UK).

Summary

I believe that TheU should be offered to existing virtual universities as a social and demonstration environment as well as a place for actual teaching on VR issues. A competition brief for students of architecture should be developed and offered internationally to universities with architectural schools. A concerted effort should be made to find commercial backing/sponsorship for the project and to forge links with the media.

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