Alan Dix - research topics - [ in a strange land | my cyberspace papers | other related publications | web links ]

in a strange land

stepping into cyberspace

Definitions of cyberspace vary, but let's take anything that blends virtual with spatial understanding - we talk of 'visiting' or 'going' to web pages, email and electronic converstaion makes us feel 'closer', video conferences bring people 'together' as if they were in the 'same room'. However, as soon as we consider the more outlying examples of cyberspace it seems that the real distinction is perhaps between physical entities and information entities - as soon as we reduce physicality to information (video streams, ascii text), the constraints of physicality are broken down. Many of the defining features of cyberspace are present in the printing press and the telegraph - the former allowing the replication of information and the latter the transmission of information. Of course, the key difference in modern cyberspace is computation - cyberspace can be populated with agents and artefacts that are reactive, active and interactive.

why space?

If we look at virtual reality it is easy to see why analogies with space are important. By making the virtual world like the physical world people are able to use their familiar understanding of 3D space and apply it to the virtual world. If the virtual world is rich enough this also means that the affordances of physical objects (the knowledge that we can pick up, rotate, tip etc.) can be applied to virtual objects. A very simple example of this is the typical 'raised' button on a windows interface. Because the button appears rasied it says 'press me, press me' rather like the bottle in Alice.

We each have many years of experience with physical space and as a culture many thousands of years, so making analogies between physical space and virtual space, whether 'lifelike' or more abstract, makes them far more comprehensible. We are extremely adept at managing physical artefacts and they are endued with subtle significance well beyond their obvious purpose and content. Furthermore, the fact that electronic worlds lack some of these attributes means that we must be extremely careful in translating physical processes (filing, communication etc.) into the electronic for fear of losing these implicit structures.

why cyber?

If space is so good why bother with the electronic equivalents. Indeed, the last 15 years of user interface design have made such a virtue of physical 2D metaphors one wonders whether there is anything that the virtual world can offer us! However, the electronic world has its own virtues: the near instant replication and transmission of information and the ability to create 'active' computational artefacts. These are real advantages and the excessive desire to emulate the physical world in the electronic can, if taken to extreme, lead to electrinic systems that have none of the advantages of 'cyber' existence and are simply poor facimilies of reality.

cyberspatial studies

The design of electronic artefacts and environments must both harness the human psychological, physical and cultural understanding of physical space and also exploit the opportunities of the electronic world.

To this end we need to understand:

Furthermore, we are seeing an increasing overlap between physical and virtual worlds: mobile computing, wearable computers, ubiquitious computing, augmented reality, 'tangible' computing. An understanding of cyberspace is not just of individual virtual spaces, but multiple interacting spaces, physical and virtual.


Physical entities exist at a single location at any moment of time. Virtual entities may exist at several locations (copies of a file on different computers) and may even cease to exist for periods. Many of the attributes of a physical entity are fixed or continuously changing, whereas a virtual entity may change suddenly and totally (the file that was a letter last week is a memo this week). To see counter-exampels to this we need to look to the wolrd of magic - the frog prince, one moment a frog, the next, after a single kiss, a handsome prince! The virtual world often seems to bear closer resemblance to this than physical entities.

action at a distance

In simple, non-technologically-mediated activities, we have to pick things up, hold them, puch them. If we talk to someone, they need to be close. If we are standing close to someone then they can largely see and hear the same things. There is a simultanaeity both spatially and temporally about physical interaction. Apparent action at a distance has an almost magic feel about it - magnets hovering on an executive toy, even the TV remote control. Indeed, the thing that made Laplace feel able to make his famous declaration 'I have no need of that assumption' was the development of continuous field explanations of the forces of nature compared with Newton's action-at-a-distance model. To a modern conciousness, physical phenomena that break this have an almost eeiry reputation, in particular quantum entanglement which does apparently lead to instantaneous effects across space.

In cyberspace this is all different. Apparently distant things can be brought close: we can influence things apparently instantly (or at least at the speed of electrons) the other side of the earth. But apparently close things may be distant: we may feel close to two things, perhaps two web pages open, which are distant from one another; or in a virtual meeting we may have someone sitting next to us, but because of network delays they may not hear us talking until several seconds after our words have been spoken. The apparent familiarity and similarity to the real world makes these phenomena the more confusing.

topography of cyberspace

The Cartesian view of physical space allows a unique labelling of space and allows us to understand the relationships between locations in terms of their coordinates alone. Scientifically it has been of tremendous importance and practically it enables global navigation and the civil construction. In virtual reality it is this Cartesian 3D space that is emulated and in desktop interfaces Cartesian 2D space.

However, despite its influence and conceptual power, Cartesian geometery is not as universal in the physical world as first appears. Cartesian coordinates are themselves built upon Euclidean geometry which for almost 2 millenia was seen as self-evident. It was only comparatively recently (17C) that alternative regular geometries were discovered: spherical geometry (the surface of a sphere, where there is too little 'space' as one moves farther away) and hyperbolic geometry (where there is too much 'space' as one looks further away - cabbage leaf geometry!). Still more recently with general relativity it has become clear that large scale space is neither Euclidean not regular, but instead 'curves' as it is influenced by anything and everything that has mass or energy. Some intellectual control does reaoin as space is locally and approximately Euclidean. At the quaantum level things are still worse and it appears that space may become fractal.

In the real world we may use its Cartesian 2D structure, especially in some American or Australian cities, but, more commonly, we use a variety of navigation mechanisms: landmarks, topological models (this street connects to that one) and simple properties of 2D space such as the Poincare property that says if you keep on turning left you eventually cross your own path.

In cyberspace we need to exploit these navigation mechanisms as well as Cartesian representations.


Many aspects of cyberspace seem more like magic or science fiction. Indeed, we may establish a better expectation in our users if we use metaphors from faery tales or from Star Trek. (see magisoft).


[ in a strange land | my cyberspace papers | other related publications | web links ]

Some of my own relevant papers

[ in a strange land | my cyberspace papers | other related publications | web links ]

Other related publications

[ in a strange land | my cyberspace papers | other related publications | web links ]

Web Links

Alan Dix - research topics - [ in a strange land | my cyberspace papers | other related publications | web links ]