When you consider that we live in a three-dimensional world, we are nonetheless pretty adept at representing a whole range of both actual and abstract constructs by employing fewer than the three dimensions that come more naturally to us.
We have little problem with expressing and employing two-dimensional concepts in everyday life – from maps and plans, to spreadsheets and crosswords, perceiving things in X and Y planes is something that few of us will struggle with. As for perceiving aspects of the world around us in a single dimension – whilst this may be more difficult for us to visualise mentally – it is something our brains do routinely and effortlessly. We are quite capable of appreciating the one-dimensional nature of a television picture, for example, without getting at all confused about its lack of depth; cats and dogs, on the other hand, are pretty clueless in this regard, and will happily chase a ball thrown into the distance on the screen, only to emerge puzzled at being unable to find it lying somewhere behind the TV.
Naturally, we are far more comfortable with three dimensional space – it is, after all, our natural state – and we take great pains to create the illusion, or capability, of 3D wherever this is perceived to be useful. Human beings have always depended on physical, three-dimensional, models to make sense of the world – whilst, for example a medical illustration of a body’s internal organs may be useful, a 3D physical model is a significantly more useful tool for a surgeon to understand where to make the crucial cut, and there is evidence of such models being employed as far back as medieval times.
With the advent of computers, we gained the means to create virtual models: 3-dimensional models on a 2-dimensional screen, viewed in one dimension… Crazy stuff! This is something that computers are extremely good at doing – because, although we are very good at comprehending three dimensions, human beings are not so well-equipped to undertake the crazily difficult and repetitive calculations that 3D modelling demands – even a simple virtual representation of a static 3-dimensional object is insanely complex because what we see will necessarily have to be completely redrawn every time our perceived position, relative to that object, alters. As the eye of the beholder moves through the X, Y and Z axes, so the object must change to reflect that changing viewpoint. Now throw in a complex 3D object that itself is moving through a 3-dimensional space, relative to a moving observer, and we are talking millions of calculations that need to be performed at ridiculously high speed, if anything is going to appear at all realistic! It’s no wonder that for many years computer games relied on wireframe graphics or the traditional platform format, rather than full-blown 3D!
3D however is now firmly established, and is far better than we might have ever imagined. With 3D headsets on the horizon we’re about to take another leap forward… But, has the death knell for 3D already sounded? Is the spectre of a fourth dimension already knocking on the virtual door?
There’s nothing new about pondering a fourth dimension, back in 1884 Edwin Abbott in his remarkable, (and for today’s audiences, insanely politically incorrect), story ‘Flatland’, competently posited and explained a theoretical additional dimension, and went further to suggest the existence of a possible fifth, sixth and even a seventh beyond that. We now know, of course, that there are actually eleven dimensions – ably explained by this bloke who lives just down the road from me, using an electric guitar, helium and bricks!
Most people, when asked to consider a fourth dimension will probably speak of ‘time’, and whilst that’s a perfectly respectable and arguably correct thesis, it’s also not strictly – mathematically speaking – a plane or dimension in the same sense as X,Y and Z. Competent though we humans may be at visualising data relating to one, two or three dimensions, when it comes to anything over and above that, our brains tend to nip off for a stiff drink, refusing to come back until we’ve come to our senses and returned to contemplating the real world instead. Computers however, relish such things, and it seems that we could soon start to see a new generation of virtual exploring that takes us into realms that previously we couldn’t even visualise. Whether or not they’ll achieve any measure of success is debatable, because frankly, the whole concept makes my head hurt! But, you decide – ladies, gentlemen, furries and others, I give you Miegakure!
If you’re a sucker for punishment, and your brain hasn’t yet turned to jelly, you might like to understand the process that lies behind this – clever, but it will turn you temporarily insane – check it out here.
Personally, I really don’t think we’re ready yet for 4D platforms: Let’s take an existing 3D platform that we know fairly well… SL, for example. Even in three dimensions, our virtual world can become ridiculously complex, perhaps more so than even RL – after all, most of us don’t really have to think about what’s happening in the sky in the real world, whereas inworld, we probably spend a fair amount of time poking around up there. Even if we stay on the ground it can be tricky – after nearly six years, I still manage to walk into doorposts, fall off stairs and get stuck underneath buildings – only last week, I managed to embed myself upside-down, gently spinning inside a wall, to the great amusement of those around me – and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who regularly has these experiences. Now, let’s imagine 4D SL: A world in which we can step outside the 3-dimensional box into a wholly different, but sort of familiar plane, take a jump to the left, and step back in to the more familiar world at a different point. Not only would that become completely and utterly confusing, but it would also require designers, builders and landscapers to think in four dimensions when putting together their parcels and content… Just imagine being given a plot of land and trying to design something that looks good, achieves what you want it to, but also allows anybody visiting to be able to step into another dimension of it at will and experience something completely different, but complementary to the original. That way, madness lies – and, if you did watch the second video, you may have noticed a key point that was made: The world of Miegakure is created procedurally, by computers, simply because human beings cannot do it.
So, any 4D virtual world could be user-conceived, but would have to be procedurally generated, and unlike a tightly-controlled and finite gaming environment, would have to be scaled up to encompass a much more diverse and massive world than what is envisaged. How many more server farms would that take? How much more processing power? How much more expense?
Even if those technical problems could be resolved, I still don’t think we’ll ever see a 4-dimensional virtual world of the SL kind ever coming to fruition – us human beings are just not conditioned to think in that way, and although it might be fun and challenging to dip into the occasional 4D foray, I think it would ultimately be a frustrating, unwieldy and disorienting experience.
I’ll stick to three dimensions.
(Or will I?…)
I’ll take your brain to another dimension.
I’m gonna send him to outer space,
to find another race.
The Prodigy – Out Of Space