Period in residence at UC Santa Barbara:
April 2-April 27th, 2001
Summary of Michael Heim's Residency

The Digital Cultures Project, the Multi-Campus Research Group based at UC Santa Barbara that brings together individuals from across the UC system who are actively engaged with the impact of the new digital technologies on humanistic studies and the arts, recently hosted its first research fellow, Michael Heim. Heim teaches graduate seminars on Virtual Reality (VR) for the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California, for the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and for the Science & Technology Program at California State University - Long Beach Extension. Trained in classical philosophy with a focus on technology, Heim spent the month of April in residence at UC Santa Barbara researching and conducting a number of public events aimed at sharing his current work on VR with members of the UC Santa Barbara community.

Heim's work considers the philosophical issues we face as we undergo the digital mutation. In Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing (Yale Univ Pr; 1987; reprinted 1999), Heim discusses the impact of word processing on our use of and ideas about language. His next work, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (1993), asks how our increasing immersion in computer-generated worlds will alter the ways in which we perceive our world. He explores the concepts of cyberspace, virtual reality, as well as the effect of word-processing on the English language, and literacy in the age of hypertext. Most recently, his book Virtual Realism (1997) offers a comprehensive introduction to VR and comments on its potential impact upon society. He contends "we must balance the idealist's enthusiasm for computerized life with the need to ground ourselves more deeply in primary reality." This "uneasy balance" he calls virtual realism.

Heim used part of his time at UC Santa Barbara to work on a chapter for his latest project, a book on the aesthetics of 3-D avatar worlds on the Internet. The project developed out of a keynote paper presented on October 24, 2000 in Seoul, Korea, for the international conference "Virtual Reality Software Technology 2000" (VRST 2000) sponsored by the ACM Siggraph organization. According to Heim, the paper ("The Feng Shui of Virtual Environments," available online) "bridges engineering with aesthetics and was presented in an art museum in Media City, Korea. The software engineers at VRST recognized the need to develop aesthetic principles for future VR developments. My presentation explained four discoveries made during productions of the online 3-D CyberForum series from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where I have led the virtual worlds team in designing avatar worlds since 1997." These CyberForums consist of real-time online chats with authors and artists in 3D avatar worlds. While in residence, Heim conducted two of his CyberForums. Discussing the topic "Working in Web 3-D," participants met in ActiveWorlds with Miltos Manetas, 3-D web artist and nominee for the 2001 World Technology Award for the Arts. For the second CyberForum, the venue changed to Heim's self-designed CyberPlatform, and participants met with Thomas B. Sheridan, Professor of Engineering and Applied Psychology (Mechanical Engineering), MIT, and founder of MIT Virtual Reality journal Presence, the first journal for serious investigators of teleoperators and virtual environments. Sheridan's topic, "Descartes, Heidegger, Gibson, and God: Toward and Eclectic Ontology of Presence," provided a few interesting wrinkles for those in attendance. For participants new to the forum, the discussions were both disorienting because of the lack of real world content, but oddly exhilarating because of the way to bring participants together.

Heim was exceptionally generous with his time and conducted three other public events, as well as making himself available to both faculty and students for informal conversations. He began his residency with a Transcriptions colloquium entitled "The Classic Book and Avatar Chat": A Research Overview with Hands-On Involvement, which served as a VR primer. He also hosted an all day workshop on designing Virtual Reality for avatar worlds. Participants in this workshop spent the morning exploring avatar communities in "ActiveWorlds" and "Blaxxun." That afternoon, Heim gave a hands-on demonstration of Spazz3-D, a Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) modeling tool that allows users to build virtual reality universes. Finally, and undoubtedly the highlight of his residency, Heim held a conversation on VR organized around a joint meeting of Digitalizing Culture, William Warner's undergraduate and graduate seminar. The discussion concerned a number of readings, including Heim's "VR 101" and "From Interface to Cyberspace," and William J. Mitchell's "Architectonics." Knowing that the pieces would produce many different frequencies in the seminar, and in order to pick up those frequencies, Heim asked each member of the group to contribute something, either a question on the reading or a general concern about VR. A spirited dialogue ensued, and a number of thoughtful questions arose from what one might call Heim's idealism about the possibility of "spontaneous" and "human" encounters in the VR world.

One of Heim's contributions to discussions about VR is his commitment to developing a humane ethos for VR; however, he does not make this project a somber one, but playful and affirmative. He is against a slavish mimicry of the real world, and instead advocates VR environments that are more artistic and inventive.

Schedule of Events for Michael Heim's residency:
Friday, April 6 Transcription Colloquium

Transcription Studio (South Hall 2509)

Michael Heim will lead an interactive discussion entitled "The Classic Book and Avatar Chat": A Research Overview with Hands-On Involvement.
Monday, April 9 Workshop on designing Virtual Reality for avatar worlds
10AM-4PM (with a break for lunch) Transcription Studio (South Hall 2509) This workshop will allow faculty and students to learn how to create in virtual environments, using 3-D modeling tools associated with building avatar communities in "ActiveWorlds" and "Blaxxun" virtual reality "universes." [It has taken digitization to pluralize "universe."]

Cyberforums: Heim will conduct three virtual lecture/discussions with major figures from digital arts and digital cultural studies.  Please Note: All three Cyberforums will be from 1:00-3:00 PM in the Transcription Studio (SH 2509).

Become familiar with Forum events by Browsing through the CyberForum archive of past events at: http//www.mheim.com/cyberforum/.

Wednesday, April 11 Miltos Manetas:
  3-D web artist and nominee for the 2001 World Technology Award for the Arts. Topic: "Working in Web 3-D" (Meet in accd-2 of AW)
Wednesday, April 18 Thomas B. Sheridan:
  Professor of Engineering and Applied Psychology (Mechanical Engineering), MIT, and founder of MIT Virtual Reality journal Presence, the first journal for serious investigators of teleoperators and virtual environments. Topic: "Descartes, Heidegger, Gibson, and God: Toward and Eclectic Ontology of Presence" (Meet on CyberPlatform: www.mheim.com/vr)
Wednesday, April 25 Tom Morawetz:
  Tapping Reeve Professor of Law & Ethics at the University of Connecticut, author of Making Faces, Playing God. Topic: "Making Faces, Playing God: Fantasies of Transformation." Topoi: avatar parade, avatar switch
Tuesday, April 24th  
South Hall 2635
Heim will visit William Warner's graduate seminar Digitalizing Culture (Course Description)
For information and resources related to Michael Heim's DCP events, click here:

The Michael Heim essay most pertinent to the current project:
"The Feng Shui of Virtual Environments":

Abstract: Flow is a subtle but important feature of virtual worlds design. Flow or blockage of flow belongs to the aesthetic dimension of online virtual worlds. The study of flow goes beyond the usual dichotomies of user / tool and subject / object. Examples from the CyberForum series highlight four different aspects of flow in 3-D avatar worlds currently deployed for online learning and conferencing. The implications of flow suggest strategies for enhancing immersion in virtual worlds.


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