The Feng Shui of Virtual Environments


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, 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.

1. Introduction

Flow is a smooth, unimpeded movement through space-time. It is an aesthetic quality of spatial movement and occurs throughout the physical world. As conceived by Feng Shui (“Water and Wind” management), everything in the universe consists of subtle patterns of moving, flowing energy. Feng Shui sees the universe alive with yin-yang pulsations. Without flow, the universe would be dead. On micro and macro levels, energy currents continually balance and counter-balance one another. As a Taoist sage put it, “We may take things at the moment to be solid, but the universe is basically smoke and wind.”

Feng Shui is the art of arrangement, of placing things in such a way as to enhance the flow of energies and to minimize dissipation. Optimal flow for living organisms means that the atmosphere feels like a spring breeze -- neither fast and vehement, nor sluggish and stagnant. The quality of flow causes living beings to either flourish or deteriorate. This paper argues that the art of placement applies to the design of virtual environments just as it applies to the arrangement of the physical world. Because space-time differs from the physical to the virtual, the art of placement is not identical in both realms but the two branches of Feng Shui share much in common. This paper explores four specific ways in which flow applies to the aesthetic of virtual environments.

2. From Substances to Worlds

Studying flow in virtual environments requires an adjustment of thinking to a new way of looking at things. We tend to look for substances, things rather than processes supporting the substances. Software analysis often focuses on the user and the user’s software tools. This subject-object way of looking at interface design downplays the
Michael Heim, Ph.D.
Digital Media Faculty
Art Center College of Design
Pasadena, California
This was a keynote presentation at VRST 2000, the ACM Symposium on Virtual Reality Software & Technology on October 24, 2000 in Seoul, Korea.

study of flow. The distinction of “user” and “user’s tools” opens a split between subject and object, user and field of use. To study flow, the basic dichotomy of frontal subject staring at target object must be undercut by the ontology of worlds. The new way of looking is similar to the way in which scientists after Newton revised their approach to studying physical phenomena. Newtonian physicists could not see what we today call fluid dynamics and turbulence theory. It just did not appear on their “radar screens.” (Radar deals with energy fields.) For scientists to visualize and study fields of flow, there had to be an ontological shift. Traditional science, still influenced by Aristotle, focused mainly on substances or on the properties of substantial entities. The new sciences, on the contrary, turned attention from substantial entities toward fields of energy in which substances relate to one another. Theories of relationships and configurations took precedence over theories of substantial entities. The ontological paradigm of physical science had to shift so that new phenomena could come to the fore. The study of flow in virtual environments must likewise turn attention from the user-tools model or the content-delivery model and focus on the interactive context in which the user is immersed.

Philosophy in the 20th century underwent a similar change. The focus shifted from ego-subjects and object substances to the larger fields in which the individual egos and substances could arise. Subject-object philosophies gave way to broader understandings of the contexts in which substantial entities and psychological subjects could arise. The central “problem of world,” as Heidegger formulated it in 1927 (Being and Time), began to take precedence over studies of the epistemological subjects and its fixated target objects. The notion of “world” as a “context of relationships” (Heidegger’s Bewandniszusmmenhang) emphasized the subject’s involvement in constructing networks to connect entities, persons, and concrete projects. World is a construct that opens spaces for event-based interactions and for further constructions. Within the spaces of worlds arise activities that display various patterns of flow. Virtual worlds with their communities and object-building powers portray an existential understanding of reality, which was prepared several decades ago by 20th-century philosophy. Network technology provides a test bed for experimenting with these components of existence.

Another contribution of 20th century philosophy to virtual worlds is the central importance of process. Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) spearheaded process philosophy. Whitehead’s The Concept of Nature (1920) and Process and Reality (1929) placed ontological priority on “actual occasions.” Continuing the philosophy of Leibniz, who invented binary logic in 1666 and a prototype computer, Whitehead saw concrete reality as dynamic process and conceived static entities as abstractions, real only to the extent that static entities can embed themselves into actual occasions. The notion of world as event-based and occasion-centered is important for under

standing virtual worlds. Where interactivity sharpens the edge of telepresent realities, we locate the “substances” of virtual worlds in event-based interactions. As will be described, the CyberForum@ArtCenter takes process seriously in fashioning worlds as “aesthetic occasions.” The conclusion of this paper will draw further conclusions about the priority of event units over static storage.

This model of software as appropriated environment differs from the tool-user model. The tool-user model describes non-immersive software or immersive software that functions poorly. The difference between the two models parallels early twentieth-century philosophy where the subject-object relationship broke down. One of the strongest criticisms of the subject-object relationship appeared in Being and Time (Heidegger, 1927), but other philosophers also attacked the subject-object relationship (Dewey, James, Peirce). The critics attacked subject-object dualism with a holistic notion of “world,” Umwelt (“surrounding world”), or Life-World. The critics also attacked the passivity of the epistemological subject that underlay the conventional subject-object model. They noted the special abstract quality of passive observation, and they highlighted the sensory involvement typically used by humans to engage actively and pragmatically in daily processes. Philosophers like Whitehead argued that the atomic structures of the universe are better described by process events than by the substance ontology that underlies the subject-object relationship. Quantum physics suggests that observers become participants in an interactive process that constitutes the reality process (Whitehead). Attacks on the subject-object relationship apply equally well to the user-tool model of interface design. The attacks highlight two positive features: world and event. Both world and event belong to the phenomenon of flow. But before turning to examples of flow, let us look briefly at the reasons why the subject-object relationship remains stubbornly ensconced in the culture of computers.

Computer history since Leibniz conceived the computer / human connection as serving primarily cognitive needs. The material basis of computing was information, which, like numbers, has an abstract, non-material quality. Information, through the universal machine, could absorb everything, perhaps even quality, into the realm of numbers. Even where information is conceived as the rapid transmission of electrons, as in mathematical information theory (Shannon), the computational event remains essentially cognitive and its process essentially rational. The roots of information theory (Russell and Whitehead) go back to Leibniz. For Leibniz, the spatial realm belongs to the “lower” sensory functions, as was held generally by 18th-century Rationalists. The spatial-sensory realm, Rationalists believed, belongs to the affective-qualitative realm, which remains confused and vague in contrast to the numeric measurements of analytical reasoning. Leibniz borrowed a cognitive model from medieval theology where God’s knowledge provided instantaneous access (Heidegger). Leib

niz’s God sees “everything all at once simultaneously.” The universe exists on a fundamental level as a body of information that essentially dispenses with - at least in theory - any temporal unfolding. When the computer is regarded in this way as an exclusively informational device, the underlying ideal is to provide all-at-once knowledge without time lag, hesitation, or movement from one point to another. The human affective experiences of dwelling, community, and ritual remain outside the rationalist model, as do the experiences of hope, expectation, hesitation, and surprise. These qualitative experiences belong to finite beings who proceed step-by-step and who develop a spatial sense of where they are in a specific place at a specific time. Where affective-qualitative experience is regarded as secondary or non-essential to information design we see the rationalist ideal still persisting in computer culture.

Spatial awareness originates in early childhood and contains profound affective / qualitative associations. Notions like near / far, higher / lower carry primal qualitative information. This primal information became a highly sophisticated system when elaborated by the ancient Chinese civilization that developed Feng Shui. In fact, humans experience a “flow” of information and this flow has distinctive qualities. Fluid dynamics is a property of space and time. The active design of computer information space (virtual environments) is the design of spatial flow. Ancient civilization developed an art of placement for enhancing and improving the quality of energy flow through space. This art of Feng Shui (“Water & Clouds”) redresses the imbalance of cognitive systems theory. Qualitative associations stimulate a meta-informational feel that facilitates navigation through virtual environments.

The past ten years have seen the gradual projection of online 3-D “worlds” into the global network. The projection of human telepresence - whether working with spatial information or socializing in virtual communities - fits the model of “world.” Software environments exert an encompassing effect on both the subjects and the objects of activities. This concept of an encompassing horizon or world is the starting point for the aesthetics of virtual environments. It suggests that each single component of the virtual environment influences the overall field of activity in such a way that the whole becomes a play of forces, a mutually concomitant origination through a single dominant atmosphere. The interactivity of individual subjects arises within this environmental field of aesthetic forces.

The notion of atmosphere makes a good starting point for reflecting on the flow of virtual environments. The first-person movement through 3-D space is a natural starting point for studying flow. Most design considerations of virtual-worlds begin with navigation issues and how individual users move from point A to point B in virtual space. Let us look first at flow as the flow of navigation.

3. Navigation and Flow

Terms like “fly-through” or “walk-through” often describe the process of first-person navigation in 3-D software. The terms suggest rapid movement as passage from place to place, sometimes suggesting a feeling of optimal flow. The feeling depends on physical hand-eye coordination and the controls for adjusting dimensional viewpoints as the graphics are updated. Physical coordination can be heightened by high-end virtual reality gear that connects navigation with other organic processes, such as respiration (OSMOSE by Char Davies) or the flapping of arms like wings (Placeholder by Laurel and Strickland). As the organic process coordinates with the graphics, the sense of immersion in the 3-D scene deepens. Here the flow metaphor encompasses the user’s navigational tools. In a similar way, game software supports joystick, mouse, or keyboard maneuvering through 3-D space and the whole feedback process effects a tunnel-like flow. Navigational flow depends both on objective conditions inscribed in the software and hardware as well as on subjective conditions, such as acquired dexterity and the expectations aroused by pre-conditioning through narrative, documentation, booklets, movies, word-of-mouth, etcetera. Many issues arise for optimizing navigation, such as: avatar self-perception (first or third person), avatar movement speed related to hand speed, and the general viewpoints along the axes allowed by the software. Though these issues are important for virtual environments, our attempt here is to widen the awareness of flow rather than explore issues of navigation. The general feeling of “flow” is the starting point for observing other types of flow because navigational flow is an elementary, first-person experience of flow. We need to look beyond navigation for the deeper layers of flow.

4. Beyond Navigation

A deeper kind of flow in 3-D space is related to navigational flow but it goes beyond user maneuvers. This broader meaning for flow includes the atmospherics of 3-D space as well as the interactive events that charge space with affective qualities and collective meaning. Atmospherics and collective events can create the kind of flow denoted by the terms “spirit of place” and “ritual.” The atmospherics of interactive space relates to the aesthetics and psychological architecture of software. Both atmospherics and ritual flow pertain to navigation but they belong to a broader, deeper, and subtler dimension of experience than to the coordination of user’s body movements with on-screen maneuvers. This deeper dimension of flow appears only after lengthy study and experiment with interactive environments in their many variants. While the deeper dimensions of flow depends on functional navigation and on directly observable phenomena, the study of flow belongs to the qualitative aesthetics of interactive environments. To study this dimension is to enter the realm where

technology and art converge.

Virtual environments attach information to human perception, specifically to the human perception of multi-dimensional spaces. If the attachment is strong, then the human perceiver does not notice the environment as an external “thing” standing over against the perceiver. In other words, a successful virtual environment resembles actual physical environments insofar as the physical environment becomes a background field or surrounding context to support subconscious and conscious activities. “Environment” as a term comes from the notion of “surrounding” (environs) the perceiver rather than standing over against the perceiver as an “ob-ject” (Latin: “thrown in front of”). The term “environment” suggests a surrounding backdrop rather than a foreground object. A good virtual environment, therefore, is not an object seen in and for itself but the environment blends into the user’s activities. From the viewpoint of the user, the environment flows smoothly around the uses to which the participant puts it. Instead of the subject-object relationship, the successful virtual environment creates a relationship in which participants swim through information as skilled athletes move through the liquid element of water. The attention of the user is not focused on “this tool out here.” Rather, the attention is wrapped by a fluid medium that calls for participatory involvement. As the user configures and customizes software tools, the tools themselves cease to be “designed tools” and become increasingly “tools for designing.” The subject of knowledge (the user) and the object studied tend to merge through usage and customization. Through deepening involvement, the participant fades out as a “user” or detached tool-wielder and increasingly adapts to the environment as participant. The environment becomes “my own.”

5. Virtual Reality Laboratory

The deeper dimension of flow became apparent during the past few years in experiments by the virtual worlds team at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. The team began building and hosting online events in order to experiment with virtual world design. The team wanted to experiment with large-scale multi-user worlds that already enjoy flourishing communities. The three universes found most congenial for these experiments are: ActiveWorlds (www.activeworlds.com), CyberTown (www.cybertown.com), and Eduverse (www.activeworlds.com/edu). Two of these universes use the ActiveWorlds browser for displaying 3-D avatar worlds (based a subset of Criterion Software’s Renderware), while CyberTown uses a VRML browser (modified by Blaxxun, Inc.). These universes are “fish tank VR” or “worlds in windows.” What fosters community in these 3-D browsers is the ability users have to construct and then share their virtual environment with other avatars (graphic

representations of online visitors).

The two basic types of building in these worlds differ in the amount of skill and time required: additive building and authoring building. Additive building re-configures already-existing models and requires navigation skills and familiarity with the software. Good additive building also requires familiarity with community psychology and a grasp of avatar activities. Authoring building has further requirements, such as skill with 3-D modeling packages like 3-D Studio MAX (Kinetix), Truespace (Caligari), or Blender (NaN). Good authoring also requires basic knowledge of Renderware scripting (RWX format), inverse kinematics, and motion sequencing in LifeForms (Credo Interactive). Textures must be produced and modified in Photoshop and then applied as static textures or as animated frames. The authoring team must create object models, avatars, sounds, sequences, background textures and then compress them for importing into the world. The models are then organized in-world and configured as in additive building. The finished world can then be opened for further additive building or for other more restricted levels of interactive access.

Authoring worlds in these universes can be complex and daunting. The virtual worlds team at Art Center chose to author and host in these universes for two reasons: freedom and community. These universes offer a great deal of freedom with a minimum of interference (more interference in Cybertown than in Activeworlds). Besides freedom, the universes offer opportunities for hosting real-time interactive events accessible anywhere on the globe with a PC and Internet connection. The ease of access means that experiments can host public-access events to test experiences in fully interactive 3-D worlds. Unlike MOOs or MUDs, the designers can engage users in 3-D visual information with direct http links and web cams. Unlike the pseudo 3-D of The Palace, avatars can walk around and interact with objects or animations. Unlike rule-based games like HomeWorld or Quake, authors can enjoy a freedom of concept that opens the interactive tunnel of gaming into broader uses of imagination.

Art Center observations about flow in virtual worlds came after one year of additive building and two years of authoring and hosting events. Additive building began in 1997, and authoring building began in 1998. By the end of 1999, the team began hosting a series of interactive events, which came to be known as CyberForum@ArtCenter. The purpose of CyberForum is to explore virtual worlds as meeting places for the exchange of ideas. The ideas come from books under study by the team, and the invited CyberForum speakers are authors who have written books. Many of the books are about virtual reality and cyberspace theory. The following observations about flow spring from these chat interactions in avatar worlds where an author meets with a panel of five or six readers who ask questions about the ideas in the presence of another twenty or more avatars who also participate in the interactive

chat. While the five or six avatars on the panel arrive prepared for the discussion, the other participating avatars have open invitations to the events via email lists which spread rapidly through the Net. To date, the Forum has conducted seventeen events. Each event was planned weeks in advance, and each event was analyzed for weeks afterwards using chat logs, screen shots, and video captures. Two classes at Art Center revolve around the CyberForum: Virtual Worlds Design and Virtual Worlds Theory, both classes supported by the Digital Media Department. Graduate students in the classes write extensive analyses of the events, and at least one student has done an M.F.A. on virtual worlds.

6. Aspects of Flow

Many aspects of flow affect events in the CyberForum. Issues of flow first appeared when the Forum ran up against stops or blockages in the flow. These blocks became a problem to be solved by the team. Over time, the team found ways to re-establish flow in problem areas, which then confirmed the initial intuition that this or that aspect of virtual environments held important issues of flow. To manage this paper, we will look at four aspects of flow:

o flow of words with visuals
o flow of atmospherics
o flow of group dynamics
o flow of virtual with physical architecture (avatecture)

First comes the description of the blockage, then follows a strategy we tried for loosening the blockage and re-establishing flow. The strategies may not be the sole solutions for a particular aspect of flow, but each solution seemed to enhance the subsequent CyberForum activities. To illustrate aspects of flow, this paper uses images from actual CyberForum events. The images come from screen grabs that convey only static points in time, which fail to convey the flow of virtual environments. Log files from all CyberForum events exist online (www.mheim.com/cyberforum), and there are also some video files from our worlds and avatar interactions, but this paper will rely on words and images to suggest each aspect of the flow strategy.

7. Atmospheric Flow

The team first noticed the need to develop flow aesthetics during the online convention “Avatars 1999” in October of that year. “Avatars ‘99” was the first fully online world conference dedicated to avatar worlds, while Avatars 1998 was held partially









physical spaces. This second approach first arose in collaboration with architects at the Hollywood architectural firm PUSH (Christophe Cornubert). The collaboration involved designing a 40,000 square-foot theater performance center for Denmark. Suffice it to say that the physical structure is highly configurable, and the building has an online avatar component that endows rooms with significance through performance rituals. Besides establishing an Internet presence, the avatar worlds are focused inside the structure, including a Trimension Reality Room that projects Internet space onto a 24-foot concave screen. Theater becomes participatory through distributed computing. The “spirit of the places” is conjured and re-configured through avatar performances. The pools and eddies in the usage flow of physical spaces are either stirred or concentrated through electronic events.

Avatecture then creates the “smart building” - not in the sense of a domineering, data-gathering Big Brother but in the sense of a building interlaced with human spontaneity. The “smart building” keeps human intelligence in the loop. In conjunction with avatar worlds, human beings affect the building configuration through shaman-like invocations and performance. Too often a theology of the machine omits human beings in favor of automated cybernetic control. By their fantastical nature, avatar rituals inject playful human spontaneity into the ever-changing needs of dwelling in physical structures. The physical spaces are animated and re-animated as needs change. The animation projects the indwelling of human spirit, sharing the original breath that animates. The term avatar originally came from the Sanskrit word meaning “to come down into,” as when the god Krishna takes human form and appears to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita. Avatecture is the human descent into graphical worlds that connect physical structures to global networking and dynamic configurations.

11. Implications of Flow

We have examined several meanings of flow in virtual environments: atmospheric, textual-visual, group dynamism, and physical-virtual architecture. In practice, of course, these flows must themselves flow as one. They must create a single intense event. Flow is about energy fluctuations, and energy has degrees of intensity. The more intense the event, the more immersive is the occasion, and vice versa. Flow must be shaped so it leads to intensity. The intense event cannot be fully captured in a sequential script or in a log file with pictures. Log files are souvenirs of something that has already existed primarily as an occasion. Despite the Western predilection for substances and permanence, the virtual worlds team must accept the passing, changing, flowing nature of actual occasions. By accepting the flow, the virtual worlds team regains the power of actual experiences in a culture that increasingly receives

its realities in pre-packaged formulas. The gain of experiential intensity differs from but does not cancel out the more Apollonian written word with its lengthy books and literate thinking. In fact, CyberForum shows that the book is augmented and complemented by avatar occasions.

One of the implications of flow, then, is that the unit of intelligibility and of value shifts. Instead of the sacred book, the event comes to foreground. Instead of information, the event receives priority. We misconstrue the Internet if we think of it as a vast information library or system of information. The Internet is also a test bed of new life forms like avatars. And avatars come to life through interactive events. The event combines literacy and playful sociality in a series of meaning-conferring events that imprint themselves as memories through their visual strength and topical cogency.

In avatar worlds, aesthetics becomes indistinguishable from environment. Avatar environments are constructed worlds, constructed with varying degrees of critical and aesthetic self-awareness. Ontology here becomes inseparable from aesthetics, which is to say that we exist in avatar worlds according to the choices we make in conjunction with the choices of software designers. Because software is indeed soft, we exist online as fungible, malleable, dynamic forms. We are not simply “interface users” who are given “tools” that exist apart from what we do with them. Nor does the software designer wield complete control over what a virtual world is or can become. Instead, users and tools shape each other to make a holistic totality. Just as we arrange our “desktops” to suit tasks at hand, opening and changing windows, installing or deleting components, combining or moving digital elements of our work, so too virtual worlds fuse participation and creation. Once we grasp the dynamism of the flow between user, software, and programmer, we see another higher order of flow, a meta-condition that is extraordinary creative process evolving within us at this moment in history.


Members of the CyberForum team who have contributed over several academic terms to the Forum include: Tobey Crockett, Tom Mancuso, Simon Niedenthal, Matthew Sloly, and Christina Valentine. The team has developed worlds in accd-2 (Activeworlds), ACCD and VWD (Eduverse).

Bruce Damer, Director of the Contact Consortium organized Avatars ‘97, ‘98, ‘99, and 2000, Bonnie DeVarco at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Margaret Corbit at the Theory Center of Cornell University organized the VLearn 2000 conference.

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