The Unreal World

Manufacturers and designers experiment with virtual retailing, synthetic materials, and other simulations and imitations of reality.

The late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously observed that, in contemporary society, individuals have come to prefer the “hyperreal” experience of computer and media worlds to actual everyday reality. Lately, this phenomenon has become so pronounced that Baudrillard’s theory seems almost quaint. In the 3-D virtual world Second Life, for example, people can create online avatars that interact in digital societies and even spend and earn real money in a virtual economy. Naturally, savvy manufacturers and retailers are capitalizing on the promotional opportunities of this new marketplace. Herman Miller is offering Second Life res­idents virtual authorized editions of some of its best-known pieces (because God forbid you should buy a virtual knockoff Eames Lounge Chair). A similar dynamic is at work in Electronic Arts’ video game The Sims: a recently released H&M Fashion Stuff Pack lets gamers dress their doll-like Sims in replicas of ­garments from the Swedish clothing giant’s summer collection.

Fortunately, not all virtual worlds encourage mere consumerism. The latest edition of Sim City Societies challenges players to ­create a green society by using alternative energy sources. Meanwhile, in the, um, actual real world (some folks have taken to calling it “meatspace”) designers are simulating reality with synthetic materials or, conversely, creating real-world representations of virtual-world objects through computer modeling. Here’s our guide to the latest design developments that are blurring the boundaries between the real, the hyperreal, and the just really weird.

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: January 2008

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