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The Aesthetics of Virtual Worlds


One example of a highly detailed virtual world, complete with
landscapes and human beings, is provided by Disney's 1995 "Toy Story," the first completely computer-animated feature length film. Frighteningly sterile, this is the world in which the toys and the humans look absolutely alike, the later appearing as macabre automatons.

If you want to experience cyberspace of the future today, visit the place where "Toy Story" was made - Los Angeles. The city offers a precise model for the virtual world. There is no center, no hint of any kind of centralized organization, no traces of the hierarchy essential to traditional cities. One drives to particular locations defined strictly by their street addresses rather than by spatial landmarks. A trendy restaurant or club can be found in the middle of nowhere, among the miles of completely unremarkable buildings. The whole city feels like a set of particular points suspended in a vacuum, similar to a bookmark file of Web pages. You are immediately charged on arrival to any worthwhile location, again like on the Web (mandatory valet parking).

There you discover the trendy inhabitants (actors, singers, models, producers) who look like some new race, a result of successful mutation: unbelievably beautiful skin and faces; fixed smiles; and bodies whose perfect shapes surely can't be the result of human evolution. They probably come from the Viewpoint catalog of 3D models. These are not people but avatars: beautifully rendered with no polygons spared; shaped to the latest fashion; their faces switching between a limited number of expressions. Given the potential importance of any communicative contact, subtlety is not tolerated: avatars are designed to release stimuli the moment you notice them, before you have time to click to the next scene.

The best place to experience the whole gestalt is in one of the outdoor cafes on Sunset Plaza in West Hollywood. The avatars sip cappuccino amidst the illusion of 3D space. The space is clearly the result of a quick compositing job: billboards and airbrushed cafe interior in the foreground against a detailed matte painting of Los Angeles with the perspective exaggerated by haze. The avatars strike poses, waiting for their agents (yes, just like in cyberspace) to bring valuable information. Older customers look even more computer generated, their faces bearing traces of extensive face-lifts. You can enjoy the scene while feeding the parking meter every twenty minutes. A virtual world is waiting for you; all we need is your credit card number.

Article  1996