Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland

Placeholder, 1993

It depends where on earth one goes. Experiences are said to take place. The environment records our presence and actions and the marks that we place there­—this is a reciprocal affair.


Placeholder was an experiment that explored potentials for narrative action on the part of players in a simulated landscape. The work incorporated elements of aboriginal mythologies and actual locations in the Canadian Rockies. Three-dimensional videographic scene elements, spatialized sounds and voices, and simple character animation were employed to construct places in a virtual environment that could be visited concurrently by two physically remote participants wearing head-mounted displays.


Travelers in the physical world sometimes leave petroglyphs, graffiti, and trail signs to mark their comings and goings. In Placeholder they created Voicemarks that might be listened to and rearranged by subsequent visitors. The virtual landscape accumulated definition through these messages and storylines that people placed along the way.


A VR headset version of Placeholder no longer exists. Surviving documentation includes video, digital images, illustrations, and working papers.


Placeholder: Landscape and Narrative In Virtual Environments by Brenda LaurelRachel Strickland, and Rob Tow was published in the ACM Computer Graphics Quarterly (Volume 28 Number 2 May 1994).


Directed by Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland. Produced at the Banff Centre for the Arts, with support of Interval Research Corporation.


Additional credits:

Software design and engineering: John Harrison with Glen Fraser, Graham Lindgren, Rob Tow & Sean White

Sudio design & engineering: Dorota Blaszczak with Rob Tow

Camera originated scenes produced in collaboration with Michael Naimark

Illustration and graphic design: Russell Zeidner

Mythology and folklore: Lucinda deLorimier

Landscape modelling: Raonull Conover & Cathy McGinnis

Grippee design and engineering: Steve Saunders

Improvisation and voices: Precipice Theatre Society

Production crew: Rebecca Fuson, Jennifer Lewis, Mark Richardson, Chris Segnitz, Douglas Smith, Kerry Stauffer, Gordon Tait, Gilles Tassé, Lucas Van Dyk

3D audio technology: Crystal River Engineering

Executive producers: Douglas MacLeod, Banff Centre for the Arts & David Liddle, Interval Research Corporation

Interactive installation employing available technology including the Silicon Graphics Reality Engine with twelve additional computers and a fair bit of duct tape.


A documentation of this artwork can also be found on ADA:


Image captions (left to right, top to bottom):



To become embodied in this virtual environment, a human player must select to identify with one of its spirit characters. Fish, Spider, Snake, and Crow were “Smart Costumes” that altered the voice, appearance, and sensory-motor characteristics of the wearer.



System diagram.



On the physical soundstage, circles of action for two simultaneous players were defined by two rings of local river rock. Their 10 foot radius corresponded to the reliable tracking range of the electromagnetic position sensors.



“Voiceholders” were virtual recording devices that could store participants’ voices and play back their contents when touched. This sketch illustrates the device’s four discrete states of activation.



One place featured the group of hoodoos that command a promontory overlooking the Bow River. At left are computer models texture-mapped with location-recorded video. At right are frames from the live video feed to a head-mounted display.



The stories told about a place become part of the character of the place. This schematic map of Placeholder imagines an environment that could be experienced, elaborated, and revealed through narrative actions.



With a PhD in theater and a focus on interactive narratives, Brenda Laurel has played a role in several revolutions that have shaped human-computer interaction since 1976. A writer, scholar, design consultant, and public speaker, she is an advocate for diversity and inclusiveness in video games. She serves on boards of the Communication Research Institute (Australia), the Virtual World Society, and IxDA. She was founder and chair of the Graduate Design program at California College of the Arts (2006–2012) and the Graduate Media Design program at Art Center College of Design (2000–2006). She worked at Atari and Interval Research Corporation, and co-founded the girls’ media company Purple Moon. Laurel is author of Computers as Theatre and Utopian Entrepreneur.


Rachel Strickland works as an independent filmmaker, documentary videographer, interaction designer/inventor, and media artist. Since making documentary films with cinéma vérité pioneers Richard Leacock and Ed Pincus in the 1970’s, her research and art have focused on cinematic dimensions of the sense of place, the animate and ephemeral dimensions of architectural space, and new paradigms for narrative construction in digital media. She has taught film production at MIT, UC Santa Cruz, SCIARC, and CCA, and pursued a vision of spontaneous cinema while employed as research videographer at Atari, Apple, and Interval Research Corporation. She has received awards from the NEA, Banff Centre for the Arts, and Rockefeller Foundation's Program for Media Artists.


Strickland and Laurel have been colleagues and collaborators since 1983.

Brenda Laurel’s website:

Rachel Strickland’s website:

If you are interested in exhibiting or viewing this artistic VR experience, please send an email to us.