Space, Place and 場.

Let’s start with 場.

If you’re seeing a little square instead of the kanji character for “ba” (as shown in the banner image up the top of this page), then Here’s a nickel, kid, go buy yourself a real computer.

In Japanese, 場 is pronounced “Ba”. Japanese/English dictionaries say it means “field”. However this is a very sparse translation. The character means the same thing in Chinese also; in Mandarin it is pronounced “Chang” using the third tone.

The true meaning of 場 is a little richer than that. It’s a dynamic, inhabited place; a place for doing something. Somewhere to hold a festival, or work on a project together. A collaborative place.

In architecture we say “a place is a space with a history”. However history is in the past. What about the present? What do we call a place where history is being created? A rich place full of interaction and possibility, a place for emerging relationships?

Ba.

I’m using the Japanese because this “Ba-principle” is beautifully enunciated in a paper by Hiroshi Shimizu entitled “Ba-Principle: New Logic for the Real-time Emergence of Information,” [Holonics, 5/1 (1995):67-69]. My colleague at CCS, Shigeki Amitani (blog, video) introduced me to the concept, and to Shimizu’s paper. The article is not available online as far as I can tell, even in the academic databases. Shigeki assecuted a copy through inter-library loan, which I treasure.

However there is a good website on ba.

I’m interested in Ba because my research is on collaborative virtual environments. There are plenty of good tools for synchronous and asynchronous communication between members of distributed teams. For asynchronous communication we have email, blogs, letters, grafitti and so on. For synchronous communication – phone, videoconferencing, instant messaging etc. This last (IM) is interesting because it also supports pervasive presence; you can see when your associates are online, and perhaps also something about their state. This affords opportunities for ad-hoc meetings, a key to creative collaboration. But chat is not collaboration – you can meet and talk, but you can’t do anything.

At the same time there is a flowering of asynchronous tools for distributed collaboration (the next step beyond communication). Google has bought a swathe of them recently. So, what about synchronous collaboration? Of course we now have Second Life; I would say that this is a 場. So is World of Warcraft and any other MMPOG. It is clear that millions of us are happy to switch on an immersive virtual world from time to time, and collaborate with others who are also telepresent in a shared space. There are also plenty of research papers showing that CVEs are effective as spaces for collaboration outside of games. Still, they’re not widely adopted for this purpose.

I have a few ideas about this lack of adoption and how to address it. As I’m a designer, they focus on things like user experience and task flow. Usability and accessibility are important; it doesn’t matter how pretty your virtual world is if your users can’t get their tasks done in it. However this sense of a living, dynamic place is the heart of the problem. Hence, 場.

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