Jul 28, 2011

The Elegance of Subtlety

How the smallest details make the biggest impact. #SecondLife




Cinemagraph technique by Jamie Beck: @_frommetoyou on twitter


I’ve always been an advocate for the advancement of immersion in virtual environments and, despite appearances, this almost always entails an attention to detail which otherwise go unnoticed in the grand reveal. The question to me isn’t whether or not such subtleties go without recognition, but whether or not the prospect of attention for subconscious inclusions actually make a lasting impact on the user experience. Many times it is not what we see but what we construct within the confines of our own mind which create a total experience.


This also extends to the realm of what we do not see or experience as well, since the lack of certain expected details often give focus to what remains, and barring that, leave only the inadequate half-immersion which does more to destroy our immersion than to create it.


The subject of this article centers around a photographic technique known as Cinemagraph, in which only certain elements are given motion while the majority of the image remains frozen in time. The brilliance of this technique lay within the notion of selective subtlety in drawing attention to that which would engage the viewer the most in order to tell a deeper story. Remember this as you continue reading.


A virtual environment, then, is the construct of the mind in so much as what we experience is not entirely what is directly implied. The mind is a powerful tool, which when engaged will gladly fill in blanks which we did not notice were missing in order to create a more synergistic and harmonious environment of experience. It is when we, as the creators of these immersive environments, forget such large parts of the environment in our design that the mind of the person experiencing our creation falls short and creates a disconnect. One could say that when the expectations of the mind are not met, there becomes a cognitive dissidence whereby the mind, (instead of easily constructing), is instead focused on reconciling the elements which are either missing or out of harmony.


A simple example of this can be seen in the way that we handle audio in a virtual environment, wherein the majority of constructs simply do not, instead opting to forego the details in this area with the inclusion of streaming music. While streaming music has a place within a virtual environment, it should never be implemented as a designer’s crutch as many of us already do. As such, we begin with a realistic notion of where to begin for the creation of our virtual environments in that when we are bringing our imagination to fruition, we should be willing to adequately deconstruct all of the elements of immersion for our benefit.


While there are quite a lot of examples wherein the concept of complete cognitive immersion has been taken into account, such as the wonderful works of Bryn Oh, we must come to terms with the idea that these examples are shining exceptions to the rule. Too often we create our environments without any further thought into the complexity of immersion or what longer lasting effects the lack thereof will have on our audience. This, to me, is very disconcerting in that what we continually create happens to invoke an experience of repetition or disconnect for the sake of focusing only on one aspect of our environment.


If we were to take into account the idea of virtual environment nightclubs, there are few and far between which offer any experience above and beyond that of a cardboard box which happens to have a shoutcast stream. In what can only be construed as a further misunderstanding of the circumstances involved, our notion of what constitutes an “event” has become so horribly warped that there becomes little difference in simply attending versus an evening elsewhere on the grid.


Should this be by design or intention matters little in the bigger picture because what we are left with in the long tail are categories of events which are about as exciting as spending a night alone. There are only so many times one can participate in a “hunt” before it becomes old hat, and the same holds true for clubs which promote a contest board, which hardly qualifies as a contest by any means – by which I will say “Best In [Insert Clothes Style]” became overplayed a month after the first club owner decided it was a good idea.


An event is much more than this, but we’ve become so accustomed to these lowered expectations that raising the bar at this point would simply be a matter of sitting up from the metaphorical floor.


Qualitative Deconstruction


At best, one can express our current situation as one by which within the early domain of initial design we make smaller mistakes and assumptions which later culminate into larger disconnects within our end-results. It is our own undoing through bad assumptions early in the process which later become issues that likely contribute to the nonexistence of the venue as a whole. Much like a snowball, what looks and seems inconsequential on the onset quickly forms an avalanche which later becomes unwieldy.


Let us focus, then, on the simplicity of audio. For all intents and purposes, this should be the easiest aspect of our environments to master, yet time and again we find that the concept is easier said than done. As a result, most choose to forego the detail of audio immersion altogether and focus on ways to drown out or distract from this glaring metaphor shear. So, too, we see actual environment design without any consideration for the actual environment or the participants within it – focusing only on the predefined goals of the environment intention while giving no second thought, if a first thought at all was given, to what brings it all together.


The elegance of simplicity is what drives the virtual environment, not in the aspect of less is more (though this is certainly true), but in choosing what that “less” will be for the highest impact and immersion. The goal of any virtual environment designer should be, from the beginning, to create a space in which your visitors will feel compelled to not only remain but to bring others with them. In order to accomplish this, you must understand immersion.


Again, in the aspect of audio, we think of things such as ambient audio. Can we close our eyes and not be taken from your environment? There are, arguably, only two real aspects of immersion available to us in virtual environments, two senses which are the foundation – sight and sound. Very few are capable of uniting both in immersion, and fewer still are capable of doing so convincingly.


To elaborate, a shoutcast stream is not your audio immersion - it is supplementary to the audio immersion underlying.


If you turn off the music and the world becomes dead silent, you have failed. Furthermore, automated gestures are not a qualifier for your audio immersion either, just in case you were thinking about using that as your crutch as well. The point is this: If you neglect the ambient audio (the simplicity aspects) you are omitting half of your environment up front. Why on earth would you willingly cut out half of your immersion advantage before you bother to start?


In the area of design, there are countless items I could focus on for immersion, much of which ask exceedingly dumb questions which should not have to be asked, yet it seems nobody has bothered to actually ask them in the first place. For instance, if you force your visitors to traverse a mall at length prior to actually reaching their intended destination, you have failed to grasp many important things about both design and human nature (Blackhearts Café comes to mind).


blackhearts cafe_001

Blackhearts Café : ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ | How the mighty have fallen… into a pile of spam.



I can easily think of hundreds of ways to avoid that scenario while drastically improving the return and visitor satisfaction levels. Conversely, does the actual experience itself (your venue) extend past the doors in a believable manner? A lot of times that answer is no. In the case of Blackhearts Café they really don’t have an excuse since the entire sim is under their control. I can give other, smaller, venues a pass simply because they have no control over the rest of the sim they reside on. However, I point the finger at the actual sim owners for not planning and enforcing a total design plan. Something so simple and subtle when ignored turns into a clusterfsk later on. Ask Blackhearts Café.


I’d like to point out, however, that while Blackhearts Café seems to have taken a nosedive in quality, (I used to hang out there all the time), there is another club in SecondLife that just goes overboard in the attention to detail. I Love the 80’s wins this hands down and is my new favorite place for the 80’s in SecondLife.



I Love the 80s_001

I Love The 80’s: ★ ★ ★ ★ | Clearly they love the 80’s and you.



In much the same manner, if people are only attending your location for short periods of time, and those times happen to be when you are essentially bribing them with contests or prizes, then you are entirely missing the point. It also means that you have absolutely no idea how to create a long term engagement in a virtual environment, unless you count creating a Pavlovian response mechanism of people expecting free money or prizes every time you ring a bell.


I will give a pass to a handful of venues where this is concerned, because they do manage to continually draw a crowd and a DJ in and of itself is not a cause for concern or scorn if you have taken care to actually put thought into the rest of your environment design. Locations such as Fogbound Blues and I Love the 80’s in SecondLife come to mind as an example of design and immersion, although there isn’t much more to be experienced than the staple of dancing, listening to music, and chatting.


If we were to break that down further to base components, we’d find that even those are lowering the bar of expectation to something unrecognizable in that chatting isn’t a novel idea, nor is listening to music, and even the notion of “dancing” in SecondLife is really just an excuse to loop an animation and go AFK for awhile. Not terribly exciting. While I’m not entirely against these things, I’d like to point out that certainly we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard than even this. I’m sure I could point out the audio immersion portion and apply it to in-world clubs, and while internally I actually do, externally I am giving them a pass with just a heads up that there needs to be more.



fogbound blues


Fogbound Blues: ★ ★ ★ ★ | Excellent Design, Great Staff, Definitely Worth a Visit




The question then becomes: “What else is there?”


Is the simulation in synergy? That is to say, are there many elements which are unrelated through the simulation space which are tied together in order to create a wider immersive offering? Once again, we are focusing on the overall design aspects as well as attention to the simplicity of certain details which we often overlook.


If you own a storefront in the virtual world, the question becomes whether or not you have thought about the totality of the experience that you are creating or if you are relying purely on a DIY experience of automation. If your store has little differentiation to the counterpart available on Marketplace, then we must ask the obvious question of why anyone would bother to visit your store. In limited cases, I have experienced a viable answer to this question in that the customer service aspect becomes the reason for in-world participation, by providing something that the automated catalog online cannot – human interaction.


When I visit a storefront, my immediate criteria is usually whether there is an in-store representative during reasonable business hours of operation. Think about your store for a moment and ask yourself that same question realistically. If you were to walk into a store and find that there was a representative but that representative was nonresponsive, or in the case of our beloved SecondLife an automated bot with a canned greeting, does this somehow devalue the experience? The answer is of course, absolutely. It says to your patrons that you cannot be bothered to spend time in your own store, yet somehow expect your customers to do so.


Whether you are a busy designer or not isn’t part of the debate, because if you are actually that busy, then you would also understand the concept of micro-management and hiring a staff in order to split the workload appropriately and free up your time personally to focus on the things that only you are capable of doing.





Bax Coen: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★  | Well Designed, Good Products, and Customer Representatives



For this, I give stores such as Bax Coen my appreciation in that the owner definitely understands the merit of attention to elegant subtlety and provides application of the theory. When you arrive there, not only are you greeted by a well designed store, but you are often times actually greeted by an in-store representative whose sole purpose is to help customers. This is one of those elegant subtleties which often is overlooked when taking into account an entire environment.


To a lesser extent, Lapointe and Bastchild offers similar treatment in that there are representatives on duty to help you with your shopping or questions sometimes. I am not certain if this is ongoing or whether the times I happened to be there that there were representatives, but the idea is sound. Revisiting the main store, I found it to be completely devoid, so I can only assume it was a fluke.


On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, we see large name such as Blacklace and Alphamale wherein, while the store and selection are top notch, offer nothing in the manner of differentiation for why using an automated DIY Marketplace to shop for their products would be less beneficial to actually attending their in-world store.


The same can be stated concerning [hoorenbeek] with the exception that the sole benefit seems to be that the marketplace offering is limited compared to the in-world store, although the product displays in-world are excellent, I find the lack of actual customer service representatives in a large brand name store like [hoorenbeek] to be somewhat disturbing. There is definitely room for improvement, despite their products being great.




Alphamale & Blacklace: ★ ★ ★ ★ | Excellent design, clothing is top notch. No staff.




Generally speaking, we can focus on any number of things having to do with our virtual environments, but the biggest game changers are often the smallest and most subtle ones. Ambient audio changes everything around you, attention to details when designing and building shows a level of caring usually not given, and actually thinking in advance how to make your environment work in synergy goes a long way to a successful virtual space.


You’ll know you’ve gotten it right when you can take away the contest boards and stupid gimmicks only to find that people continue to stick around for many hours – even when you aren’t there to watch over your own place.


If you have to force people to do something or invoke gimmicks or bribery to attract a crowd, you’re going down the wrong path.


Just remember… The Elegance of Subtlety.







  1. ahhh ty for pointing out the importance of sound in virtual worlds and that at this time, we really only have two senses to work with in those worlds.

    I compose soundscapes for most of my pieces and environments. One of my constants is that I like to have a base and then parts which are touch-activated for on/off and volume, so that a curious visitor is rewarded with the opportunity to have a hand in creating their own unique soundscape by blending and choosing which additional elements to add or subtract to the main base.

    Unfortunately, I find so many people either are incurious or have the idea from RL that "art is not to touch" and end up either missing half my work or having to read 50 signs saying "please touch things!!!" littering the builds *sigh*

  2. I would say then that a subtle highlight of items which are interactive in that case would be a happy medium. Along with an initial sign in the beginning stating that such space is an interactive art piece, with the intention that visitors touch and explore at will.