Thursday, March 25, 2010

The “New” Medium of Space

In “Navigable Space”, Lev Manovich discusses the progression and development of space as a recurring theme throughout media’s history. Beginning as early as novels, space has been used as a way for different types of media to capture the user’s interest and imagination through the manipulation of perspective and trajectory. What is very interesting though is how new media has allowed for totally new ways of experimenting with the concept of space, allowing space to become a medium in and of itself. Furthermore, the power of space as a medium lies in its representation and the tension between the virtual and the real.

A primary concern of Manovich in his writing is to express how the concept of space in media is not unique to new media. In literature, many writers take advantage of the perspective of a character to allow the reader to explore and interact with his/her surroundings. For example, in Huckleberry Finn, “subjectivity is constructed through conflicts between the subject and nature, and between the subject and his enemies” (14L)[1]. We will see how navigation, exploration, and interaction are recurring themes for space as a medium. In a similar manner, other forms of media such as film and even painting achieve the development of space by the manipulation of perspective and the interaction with environment. However, as media has developed in modernity, the ability of space’s function as a medium has profoundly expanded.

In film, this new development can be readily seen. Because of the ability to have a moving perspective, space becomes a much more dynamic and interactive object. 2001: Space Odyssey and Star Wars as well as motion simulators are cited by Manovich as examples of how 3-D flythrough can visually create navigable space. With the advent of video games, navigable space takes on a whole new meaning. Games, such as Doom and Myst, allow the player to move through space, exploring and acting. This achievement is of great importance to Manovich because it helps define space as a medium. Space is important, he asserts, because it intimately links looking and acting, and makes exploration a goal in itself. Examples he provides for Doom and Myst include the connection between observing the character’s environment and interacting with it as well as the satisfaction obtained purely from exploring the virtual world. As put my Manovich, “movement through space allows the player to progress through the narrative, but it is also valuable in itself. It is a way for the player to explore the environment” (2R).

Once navigation and interaction are recognized as crucial features of space, the power of representation becomes apparent. The first aspect of representation that Manovich discusses is the dichotomy between space and objects. In early virtual spaces, Manovich saw the problem that “there [was] no space in cyberspace” (5R). Specifically, spaces were merely a collection of objects separated from a static background, typified by the Pacman video game. “What was missing from computer space is space in the sense of medium – and environment in which objects are embedded and the effect of these objects on each other” (6R). In this area, modern video games have reached full integration. However, Manovich suggests that other uses of space as representation have yet to fully reach their potential. For example, he compares navigation through a database and the search for information as an important navigable space in new media. Also, he recognizes navigable space as a functional new way to visualize and analyze data. However, Manovich asserts that these types of spaces have yet to integrate space and object effectively.

Another dichotomy that arises in space as representation (and the representation of space) is the tension between the real and the virtual. As Manovich illustrates with his example of the “Aspen Movie Map”, a virtual space can be a mode of a real representation. In this case, space is created by the aggregation of photographs mapping out the city and put into an interface. On the other hand, in the example of “Legible City”, the virtual can be a derivative of the real. In this case, the map is based on a physical city, but buildings are replaced by representative 3-D letters according to proportion, color, and location. Through navigation, the letters cumulate into text. Finally, in the example of “The Forest”, the virtual can resemble the real but function as a release from the constraints of the real, in this case through the freedom of movement. As these examples illustrate, the advancement of technology in new media has created a tension in the representation of space: on one hand, space can be isotropic, imaginative, and limitless; on the other hand, virtual space can effectively recall the space of human anthropology. We can make the real virtual (e.g. data representation), or we can make the virtual seem real (e.g. abstract film, games).

Within these tensions, the power of space in new media is really seen. One media object that we studied that demonstrates this potential is The Cave. In The Cave, the user wears special glasses that both work with the 3-D imaging and track the user’s position and direction of perspective. These glasses are an important part of The Cave because they made the experience totally immersive while still allowing freedom of movement. In addition, a controller was given to the user to manage the navigation through the virtual world. The virtual worlds we experienced demonstrated the freedom virtual space can have in integrating space and objects, and in blurring the distinction between real and virtual. For this reason, The Cave is an excellent indication of the experimentation with virtual space possible in the future.

[1] Because original page numbers are unavailable on the PDF of “Navigable Space”, pages will be designated by the PDF page and either L or R for the left or right hand side of the PDF page.

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