Today, the new media of cyberspace and virtual reality (VR) allow us to extend our dominion over shared mental constructs of space and time, within the realm of information. The convergence of cyberspace and VR through the medium of augmented reality raises the possibility that we can extend our senses to hybrid environments that blend the physical and the virtual, and that encompass spatial/experiential components existing in the past and/or future, as well as the present. On Thursday May 30, 2002 (an actual date), the Society for Environmental Graphic Design met in Denver, Colorado (an actual place) for a virtual tour of the future of design.
Just as the media of cinema and television evolved from replacements for older media to free-standing media with their own form and content (see Media Background) the media of cyberspace and virtual reality are following a similar path. VR initially took as its content the "medium" of reality itself, or the human's direct experience of the world. The first cyberspace environments, such as multi-user domains (MUDs), used text-narrative as their content, now replaced by the "graphical interface" of metaphorical desktops and file cabinets for content. All that is about to change.
> Steven Feiner of Columbia University's Computer Science Department gave the SEGD audience a guided tour of his work on mobile augmented reality systems (MARS), essentially foreshadowing new forms and content unique to VR media (as opposed to mere replacement of existing physical reality).
> Designer, media theorist, and lapsed architect Peter Anders addressed the design process for emergent hybrids of cyberspace and physical environments, or cybrids. Anders argued that designers must learn to distinguish the outcome of their work along a continuum that extends from the creation of symbolic representations, such as plans and elevations that others will transform into physical realizations, to—at the other end of the continuum—symbolic representations that "embody" their own realization in virtuality.
> E-ink co-founder and MIT Media Lab alumnus JD Albert followed with a demonstration of his company's low-cost, low-power display technology that enables the embedding of information-rich surfaces anywhere in the built environment. By combining the best characteristics of paper and electronic displays, E-ink opens new and highly affordable/manufacturable opportunities for designers to add interactive content to anything they design.
> To close the day, Bill Buxton, chief scientist of Alias|Waverfront and its parent company SGI, took a spirited look at the deficiencies of technology-centric design, as contrasted with the potential benefits of truly user-centric design. As the underlying costs of processing power, bandwidth, and display/simulation technologies inexorably decline, Buxton envisions a world in which, for example, "window shopping" melds physical and virtual interactions into a new experience that involves literally shopping in the window.
Although these four presentations seemed to travel on separate vectors, they ultimately pointed toward compatible conclusions.
> Future design will add information to and extract information from the physical environment, whether it is the geographical and information navigation displays of a car interior or the superposition of wayfinding or interpretive information on views of campuses or buildings (Feiner).
> Designers of information environments, information-rich physical environments, and cybrid virtual/physical environments must adapt their design and representational processes to appropriately accommodate the form and content of their "end product" (Anders).
> New material technologies will facilitate the ubiquitous display of context-sensitive and perhaps user/viewer-specific, interactive information anywhere in a designed environment (Albert).
> User-centric design will yield what I call "environmental user interfaces," at both personal and public scales, that are at once simpler, richer, and more productive than today's techno-centrically passive, dumb, and annoyingly complex information display designs (Buxton).
Taken together, these presentations provided a challenging glimpse of the design potential that may be derived from cyberspace and VR media. Several speakers referred to or quoted "cyberpunk" science-fiction writer William Gibson, most notably Bill Buxton's choice Gibson quote, "The future has already arrived; it's just not uniformly distributed." For many in the SEGD audience on May 30, 2002, the future of design just became a little more evenly distributed.