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How can we think of virtual worlds without having our best companions there, our pets? Remember the movie "Planet of The Apes" where the people traveled through time to some future where apes ruled and thought of us Homo Saps as just great pets? The power of pets cannot be underestimated in their power to affect our everyday lives. When we start to tend litters of virtual pets living in our digital cityscapes, they may evolve so much that we will end up on the other end of the leash! You don't have to worry about that yet, so let's enter the world of v-pets.
Creatures from Cyberlife in the United Kingdom takes the v-pet phenomenon to new heights. Steve Grand, Creatures' inventor, worked for years to give these critters dramatic lives as they are hatched from eggs, learn how to eat, communicate, survive illness and attacks, breed and die all within ten to fifteen hours.
To run Creatures you have to have a Macintosh running System 7 or above or a minimum 75HMz Pentium PC running Windows 95 and with a sound card. You also must purchase the CD-ROM, which should be available from most computer stores. You can get a preview of Creatures by visiting Cyberlife's home page at: http://www.cyberlife.co.uk.
Figure 13.3.1: cr1a.jpg
Norn eggs ready for hatching
I spent hours using Creatures and hatched three individuals (called Norns) from their eggs. The figure above shows my starter set of six eggs which came on a floppy disk with the CD-ROM. My creatures are unique and would have different behaviors from any other Creature on the planet. After breeding, these Creatures can inherit traits and mutate to yield yet more unique generations. Cyberlife tells me there is no end to this and that they have seen some pretty strange creatures emerge. You can package up these 'eggs' and send them through the Internet to other Creatures users.
Figure 13.3.2: cr1b.jpg
My Norns watching their new sister being incubated
Here I am incubating an egg to get a quick new sibling for the two Norns (one male and one female) that I bred earlier.
Figure 13.3.3: cr1c.jpg
Training my Norns to eat, sometimes a futile task when they are obsessed with each other!
Teaching the first Norn to eat was a pretty easy task. I was picking up carrots, pots of honey and other things and dropping them in front of the Norn until one magic moment, I heard the Norn slurp down the honey. Norns have digestive systems, brains full of neural networks and complex physical and mental health patterns to go along with them. Norns can expire if they don't learn how to eat or become sick with bacteria which are inherent in their world. Cyberlife told me about a family in Australia which called them in a panic.. their Norn was not eating or responding and was in danger of dying on the spot. A hasty email later and Steve Grand was looking at the wiring in the poor Norn's brain. He discovered that through a mutation, this Norn had no sight or hearing so could not learn how to eat. A quick bit of neural network surgery later and the Norn was back in Australia leading a normal, if short ten hour life.
Figure 13.3.4: cr1d.jpg
Teaching my Norns to say something other than 'Goo'
If you can coax your Creatures to enter a teleporter, they will be transported to a special computer learning center (shown here) where you can prompt them to learn words. I finally did get my Norns to say other words than 'goo'. Their voices are quite endearing and provide the best indication of how they are doing, so make sure your speakers are turned on when you run Creatures. FinFin, which we will look at later in this section, is a v-pet to which you can actually talk back.
From Internet Worms to Feral Creatures?
It wasn't so many years ago that Robert Morris created the famous 'Internet Worm' that brought down thousands of servers. Will v-pets go feral and rampage across the Internet? When a million ten year olds become genetic or neural hackers, creating and exchanging critters, they may set off the proverbial 'Cambrian Explosion' of forms of digital biota. Will the Internet be overrun with these biota, consuming all the servers, and sucking in all the bandwidth? I don't think so, as most v-pets or other biota need to exist in carefully crafted environments, like the Creatures universe. It is an interesting possibility however..
Fujitsu Interactive's FinFin and TEO World
Figure 13.3.5: fin3.jpg
Fin Fin and some of his friends
In 1996, Fujitsu Interactive (working with inventors Macoto Tezca in Japan) introduced a virtual world called TEO (The Other Earth) which features a fantastic forested planet full of creatures, all living on a CD-ROM. TEO world may be a hint at the worlds and creatures to come inside the Internet. Of course you can also combine a CD-ROM with the Internet by delivering all the art and software on the CD-ROM and then sending only changes to the world and interaction through the Internet. This is known as the hybrid approach and should become a common way of delivering a great experience that is also shared with other people (author proudly notes: the CD-ROM in this book is an early hybrid and hopefully will save you a lot of downloading). One day who knows, maybe TEO world could become a giant connected biosphere.
The TEO world CD-ROM is available from most computer stores. More information on TEO can be found on the Web at: http://www.teo-world.com/. You need a minimum Pentium 75MHz PC with a CD-ROM and a sound card. The PC must also be running Windows 95 on 16MB of memory to experience TEO.
The main critter inside TEO is a little fellow named FinFin. FinFin is a sort of half dolphin half bird with quite a personality. The creators of FinFin describe his (or is it a her?) species in this way:
Initially a mammal that lived in the sea (comparable to a dolphin on Earth), it adapted to the land and then took to the skies. It doesn't form packs like dolphins, but moves around alone. It is very curious by nature and playful. It will "sing" (the mode of communication believed to be indigenous to the FinFin species) songs for you and even do "acrobats" for you. Smaller than a dolphin, it is about as large as a cat.
Figures: communicating with FinFin
Figure 13.3.6: fin4.jpg
Dome antenna device for communicating with FinFin
Figure 13.3.7: fin5.jpg
Waving and talking to FinFin through the dome
Interacting with FinFin is a new experience. You do not have to hammer away at the old keyboard or mouse but instead you use a domed device called the comlink antenna (see preceding figure). By speaking into the antenna (it has a microphone) you can address your FinFin virtual pet. By waving your hands in front of the antenna you can cause signal FinFin visually. Over time you can learn what kinds of things FinFin will respond positively to and what actions will cause him to fly away in a fluster. You can even try whistling (there is a special whistle provided), playing an instrument or even cranking up the stereo (which will probably drive FinFin off over the horizon). FinFin will adjust to you over time and will remember previous experiences. Remember when you closed the door on your pet cat's tail or paw? Well, I did and my pet cat held her paw up in the air every time she waited by that door from that time forward, for twelve years!
FinFin spends his days much like your pet or you would, wandering around aimlessly, singing, flying acrobatics, sleeping, or eating something called Elmo fruit or Tsubu seeds.
Other TEO Creatures
A wide variety of other creatures inhabit TEO world along with FinFin. None of them will respond to you like FinFin. I guess you could say that FinFin is the only sentient race on TEO. Other TEO creatures are described at: http://www.teo-world.com/teo_hp_sw_e/Animal/frame.html.
Figures: Scenes from TEO world
Figure 13.3.8.: fin6.jpg
Savannah in Teo World
Figure 13.3.9.: fin7.jpg
Jungle in Teo World
The world, the background
Japan has a fascination with "artificial life" (as witnessed by the current Tamagotchi craze, those little portable devices with a pixel creature painted on a tiny screen). Read about them at: http://www.bandai.com/tamagotchi.html. So it is not surprising that FinFin should come from Japan. A lot of home grown Japanese technology embodies FinFin and TEO, including recognition and learning engines, fast computer graphics, and life like character animation and sound generation. The folks behind all this have been working since 1989, creating various creatures from jellyfish to sharks which would recognize gestures or voice.
PF Magic's Dogz, Catz and other web pets
In the mid 90s, the famous "Bad Dog" screen saver from Berkeley Systems' "After Dark" series of screen savers featured a pretty ingenious proto v-pet that would take over your desktop, sniff around the windows and your trash can and create havoc with your screen by tearing holes in the wallpaper.
PF Magic has taken all this a step further and brought us a whole litter of virtual pets (or petz as they call them) right through the Internet. You can download "adoption kits" for Catz and Dogz right from their website and begin to play with your digital critters. Once you bond with your critters (or they bond with you?) you might be so inclined to get out that credit card and adopt the fully featured pet. I went for the adoption kits to find out and downloaded both Catz and Dogz from PF Magic's home page http://www.pfmagic.com/
Its Rainin' Catz and Dogz!
Figure 13.3.10: catzdogz.jpg
A wild selection of Catz and Dogz on the loose
I played with both Catz and Dogz for a couple of hours and took snapshots with the conveniently provided "pet cam" then put my favorite photos together into this Catz Dogz photoshoot you see in the preceding figure. These petz do everything from responding to being scratched with your mouse cursor, to chasing you around (the screen) and playing with balls, mice, and other toys. More goodies come when you adopt. If you buy the full version of Catz, you get to use the infamous water sprayer bottle which you can use to show your v-cat who is really the boss. I don't know if they provide Kitty Litter or pooper scoopers to clean up after your petz.
Oddbalz, now that's more my style
Oddballz are a third kind of petz from PF Magic, which can mutate and be trained to perform tricks. You can even craft and exchange your own oddbalz. PF Magic describes these creatures as the wackiest of their stable of "digital life".
More Virtual Pets on the Way
What you have seen in this section is just a tiny sampling of the virtual pets coming to a Web page or a virtual world near you. When I was finishing this chapter I heard rumors of "v-pets" projects being started inside several of the avatar worlds. With Oddbalz we see the beginnings of a pet making toolkit. Another great example is Awesome Animated Monster Maker from ImaginEngine Corp. Check out their mini Monster Maker character builder kit at: http://www.imaginengine.com/.
Will v-pets be the true beginnings of artificial life on the net? Silly as they may seem sometimes, these spunky little chunks of software face the toughest survival tasks: they have to satisfy human desires and keep our attention. They also are free to wander inside our virtual cities, knocking over our garbage cans and poking their noses into everything. Like trying to design a rover that will travel on its own on the Martian surface, v-pets also face a great unknown. Put in a genetics system to allow them to breed and pass on traits and you could be faced with a bona fide artificial life colony on your hands.