For Rhizome (

Date: 7.20.98
Joseph Nechvatal

1-3 July 1998, Paris

Jean-Claude Heudin, the VIRTUAL WORLDS 98 conference's chair and
academic researcher inquiring into the sciences of complexity, opened
the conference VIRTUAL WORLDS 98 (attended by about 150 people) with a
stimulating talk on the conference's goals, which, succinctly stated,
were to bring the discourse around Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial
Life (A-Life) together.

He noted that in the last few years there had been a surge of interest
in the design of artificial worlds, image synthesis, modeling,
multimedia and VR developing parallel to, but unconnected with, the
field of Artificial Life. Citing Tom Ray's Tierra, an Artificial Life
environment which produces synthetic organisms based on computer
metaphors of organic life, Heudin outlined the Artificial Life field, a
field which addresses principles of self-organization, reproduction,
mutation, development and emergence of intelligent organization out of
complex (life-like) systems. Heudin then went on to lament the fact that
there had been little in the way of combining Artificial Life concerns
with those of Virtual Reality and noted that the advances in these two
fields, catalyzed by the development of the Internet, seems to invite a
unified approach. This approach Heudin termed in the Preface to the
book Virtual Worlds (the conference proceedings which he edited) one
of the most promising trends for the synthesis of realistic and
imaginary virtual worlds, and indeed I find only agreement with his

Regrettably the structure of the conference all but prevented this
synthesis from occurring, as the conference was structured to run in
mutually exclusive parallel tracks, one based around Virtual Reality and
the other around Artificial Life. But happily, this synthesis' potential
is recognized within the English language proceedings book Virtual
Worlds published as part of Springer-Verlag's Notes in Computer
Science: Artificial Intelligence series. I would encourage its
dissemination. The Virtual Worlds proceedings are available from the
publisher Springer-Verlag Berlin

Nadia Thalmann, the first invited lecturer, spoke on her work with the
MIRA Lab at the University of Geneva; work which concentrates on the
simulation of realistic computer clones (avatars) using non-invasive
capturing and rendering technologies. I had seen her speak at the
CADE'97 conference in Derby, UK last year, so her update on the MIRA
Lab's work was appreciated. One fascinating point was an increased
interest in simulated clothing for clones. Also, documentation of a
telematic tennis match in immersive VR space was presented along with
the documentation of a cyber dance concert. However, from a fine arts
perspective, I must say that the work going on at MIRA Lab lacks
sophistication. Indeed adherence to mimetic values inherent in the naive
realistic representationalism unproblematically inherent in pop
culture dominated the aesthetic approach.

Indeed in all cases the technical achievements of the presenters at
VIRTUAL WORLDS 98 outweighed their aesthetic rewards. Under questioning, Ms.
Thalmann's plea that it was too early to evaluate the aesthetic
merits of such digital creations seemed to evade the issue of their
featured presentation. However, given the aesthetic paradigm which
informs her lab's work, I cannot imagine the work ever achieving
aesthetic sophistication, as it seems entirely fixated on appeasing
rather banal appetites.

Given the obligation to chose one of these dual tracks over the
other--Artificial Life or Virtual Reality--I pretty much stayed on the
Virtual Reality track, catching first Can We Define Virtual Reality?
by Didier Verna and Alain Grumbach. Here Verna and Grumbach proposed a
reasoning model aimed at helping us to decide the virtual status of a
given situation from a non-technological standpoint. To do so, they
described how a human in the environment interacts. They then proclaimed
that the notion of reality could be seen through this description. To
do this they proposed a set of possible cognitive deviations. This
cognitive model was intended to provide a general definition of VR and a
systematic means for categorizing related situations. It ostensibly
fashioned the ability to discuss the virtual status of real situations,
and not only synthetic, computer-generated ones. What disappointed me
here was the radically non-philosophical approach taken towards an
intensely philosophical subject. As a result the presentation appeared
to me to be conspicuously inexact.

The following day began with the second invited speaker, Jeffrey
Ventrella's fascinating presentation, delivered to the undivided
conference, called Emergence in Animated Artificial Life Worlds in
which he described a methodology for designing real-time animated
Artificial Life VR worlds which contain evolving stalk-like creatures.
With Ventrella's presentation, Heudin's objectives for the conference
advanced exponentially. A visit to Ventrella's web site at is advised.

What interested me most however were those presentations which addressed
comprehensive cultural approaches within this unaccustomed area of human
activity, and in this regard I was rewarded most fully here by reading
Lev Manovich's Zeuxis vs. Reality Engine: Digital Realism and Virtual
Worlds which is contained in the Virtual Worlds proceedings book,
even though he did not present it live. Manovich is known to me as a
highly critical Russian cultural thinker from his C-Theory
( essay The Aesthetics of Virtual Worlds: Report
from Los Angeles. Zeuxis vs. Reality Engine: Digital Realism and Virtual
Worlds covers a wide range of cyber-cultural themes
(including commodification, realism, fetishism, and romanticism)
connected with cultural figures of world importance ranging from Brecht,
Gombrich, Barthes, Benjamin, Panofsky, Rigel to WÒlfflin, among others.