Sense of Place

I think we normally speak of work being done “in Powerpoint,” “in Word,” and so forth. This morning I looked at a transcript of people discussing virtual worlds while in one. The words “Qwaq” and “Forums” appear once each. The word “here” appears 49 times. We are finally getting to the point of having discussion about the results, not the technology. The program itself disappears, in just the same same way as we usually discuss being “at a Web-site” rather than “in Firefox” or “in Safari.” (Internet Explorer users may indeed reflect their tool’s relative intrusion by thinking of their activity as being “in IE” more often.)

A few years ago, I noticed that I was trying to clean up a Croquet space before I exited. I turned off the radio. I went back to the home space before shutting it down. Why?

There was a feeling of persistence. That early version of Croquet was not actually persistent. And yet I felt that things would stay in the state in which I left them.

Now things really do work that way, and the spaces themselves take on an air of being “real.” One feels like one is entering a house, and that you leave by the front door, not from the bedroom.

I think this emergent property makes such spaces easier to use, but after three years, I still can’t explain why. I think the feeling of persistent “reality” lowers the cognitive load required to operate the applications. It feels more immediate than in today’s computer operating systems and I feel less disconnected from the computer – less like I have to think through how to beg/trick it into doing what I need.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. What a nice suprise to find your blog!

    This article reminds me of the quote:
    “I think in a very real sense cyberspace is the place where a long distance telephone call takes place” (Josefsson 1995).

    I’m not alone in feeling the need to put my World of Warcraft character ‘to bed’ after an evening of questing. And there are millions of people who like me, are prepared to fork out real money to have a ‘place’ of their own in Second Life.

    During Qwaq tests in my company, I saw this over and over again – people gathering in circles to have conversations – even though it made very little ‘real’ difference. It just seems natural to do so. ‘Natural’ isn’t seen in this context very often. Something must be going right.

  2. Hey, thanks for turning me on to that interview with Gibson ( It raises an interesting separate question: What is the dial tone of cyberspace?

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