This chapter undertakes a methodological study of virtual environments (VEs), a specific subset of interactive systems. It takes as a central theme the tension between the engineering and aesthetic notions of VE design. First of all method is defined in terms of underlying model, language, process model, and heuristics. The underlying model is characterized as an integration of Interaction Machines and Semiotics with the intention to make the design tension work to the designer’s benefit rather than trying to eliminate it. The language is then developed as a juxtaposition of UML and the integration of a range of semiotics-based theories. This leads to a discussion of a process model and the activities that comprise it. The intention throughout is not to build a particular VE design method, but to investigate the methodological concerns and constraints such a method should address.
Introduction And Problem Statement
Interactive systems (ISs) are becoming ubiquitous to the extent that there is the very real possibility of their disappearing altogether, at least in the sense of users’ perceptions of them as entities worthy of conscious identification. This very ubiquity will largely be the result of effective design, which results in ISs becoming so embedded in our everyday lives that we use them without conscious thought. We can draw an analogy here with the electric motor, which pervades almost all everyday technologies and yet is hardly ever noticed. In the early twentieth century, it was possible to buy electric motors for the home along with a variety of attachments for food preparation, hair drying, vacuum cleaning, and so on. Today we buy specialized gadgets, many of which contain electric motors that go largely unnoticed by us. Even the mobile phone contains an electric motor that is weighted to spin off-centre in order to create the vibrations that can silently signify an incoming call.
Will this ever be the case with ISs? Will they ever be so effectively designed that they cease to attract conscious attention in their final ubiquity? Certainly, the theory of design for ISs is still in its infancy; hence the need for the present volume.
Before considering their design, we first need to make clear what we mean by ISs. Many systems are interactive but outside the remit of this book. Motor cars, power drills, electric kettles, and so on are all interactive systems that will not be the subject of this chapter. By ISs we surely mean interactive digital systems (IDSs) that make use of digital representations and operations on these in order to effectively perform their allotted tasks. IDSs will therefore identify everything from ATMs and remote controlled TV teletext systems to PC and game console applications to onboard computers in cars and fly-by-wire aircraft.
An interesting subset of IDSs are interactive digital environments (IDEs) by which we mean an IDS that creates a large-scale digital environment that takes time and effort to explore and otherwise interact with. Examples of IDEs are videogames and virtual environments (VEs) in general, computer-based learning applications, and large-scale sites on the World Wide Web. These are interesting because the scale and complexity of their content demands that their effective design transcend established user interface techniques. Indeed, for VEs the very term design is a problem because it has to be interpreted in two quite distinct ways. First of all there is the notion of designing something to create the desired perceptual and aesthetic responses: essential for computer games. Secondly, there is the engineering notion of design as the creation of plans and models from which to test and build the desired artefact and ensure its correct functioning. Both forms of design are of equal importance to the design of effective VEs. It is the tension between these two notions of design and the resolution of this ‘design tension’ that is the central problem addressed in this chapter.
The need to resolve or at least alleviate this tension leads to a consideration of methods for VE design. It is assumed by some that the design of effective VEs will necessitate a development methodology akin to those used (or not) by software engineers. This is not necessarily the case. A craft-based approach based on the application of good practice—perhaps acquired through some form of apprenticeship—might do equally well. The computer games industry seems to prosper on just such an approach. The approach taken in this chapter is that an appropriate form of development methodology for VEs is viable, but that that methodology needs to accommodate—and certainly not stifle—the creative flair that is at the heart of aesthetic design of such large and complex systems.
This chapter therefore concerns itself with the investigation of what form an appropriate design methodology for VEs would take and the obstacles to establishing such a methodology. It is thus primarily concerned with a methodology of design—in other words, the meta-study of VE design methods rather than the outline of a particular method, although this is an obvious objective.