See Copyright and Usage Notice

Stepping Through the Star Gate

" the entire world there are only a couple of thousand people who can step over the line into The Black Sun. He [Hiro] turns and looks back at the ten thousand shrieking groupies. Now that he's all by himself in the entryway, no longer immersed in a flood of avatars, he can see all of the people in the front row of the crowd with perfect clarity. They are all done up in their wildest and fanciest avatars, hoping that Da5id-The Black Sun's owner and hacker-in-chief-will invite them inside."

óNeal Stephenson, Snow Crash, pages 40-41.

Starting your journey

Figure 11.2 ch1a.jpg
The Passport startup page.

The first step in your journey is to double-click on the shortcut to Black Sun Passport (or use the Start menu entry). This will start your Web browser, and bring you to the entry page for the worlds. On this page, you can enter your avatar name, click on another link to select your avatar, and then select the link to enter some of the worlds. (Note also that you can opt to use Passport to display only two-dimensional worlds (Web sites with only the text chat displayed). I will focus on 3D worlds in this chapter.

Figure 11.3 ch1b.jpg
Select an avatar for Passport.

The avatar selection page is a fun and easy place to test whether your 3D browser plug-in is working. Clicking on an avatar will bring the VRML file into a window frame. You can use the controls for the 3D plug-in to rotate the avatar and have a good look before you pick it. There are also buttons under the avatar for gestures. If your avatar has gestures, this will show you what they look like. Clicking on the Save button under the avatar will select it as your representation. You must then return to the entry page (press the back button), and then select Visit Our Worlds.

Note that VRML exists in two versions, 1.0 and 2.0. VRML 2.0 has a lot more features, and is starting to get more popular. Black Sun is starting to offer VRML 2.0 avatars. I chose to stick with the original VRML 1.0 avatars for this chapter, but you should feel free to explore VRML 2.0 avatars and worlds.

Into the Worlds

Figure 11.4 ch6ca.jpg
Passport is in full operation, complete with avatars.
Clcik to get print resolution version

After selecting an avatar and user name you will click on Visit Our Worlds and enter the Passport Entry Plaza world, your starting point in the universe of Black Sun VRML worlds. The preceding figure shows the Plaza with a couple of avatars having a conversation.

Passport is organized as a series of frames within the Netscape window. In fact, Passport is composed of plug-ins and Java applications running all at the same time within Netscape or Internet Explorer. With Passport, you don't need a separate application. Visiting worlds is as easy as pointing your Web browser to Web pages which are designed to work with Passport. The actual world, shown in the main window, is displayed with a VRML plug-in such as Netscape's Live3D or Silicon Graphics' Cosmo Player. The other frames provide all the controls you need to interact with other people in their own VRML avatars.

The main window (called the World Frame) shows the world, along with the navigation controls of the VRML browser plug-in (as in the previous figure, Cosmo Player from SGI). The interfaces on the left allow you to move between private and public chat lines, and to reach other services such as the avatar selection Web page. Clicking on Scenes will bring you a list of VRML worlds that you can visit, and Cards brings up your business card, a kind of avatar ident. Black Sun borrowed this (along with the company name) from Neal Stephenson's novel, Snow Crash. You can exchange cards with any user you meet, and build a collection of cards. The bottom frame shows the chat areas and a list of users (by their chosen names) who are currently in the Plaza area. You can send text messages to users, open a private chat, or even start CoolTalk or Microsoft NetMeeting for voice conversations.

You really need a powerful machine to run Passport, and I recommend a minimum of 32MB of RAM and plenty of free disk space. Sometimes Passport and all of its VRML and Java just gets tangled up, and sometimes you will have to shut down your Web browser and start again. Be patient, as Passport, like all virtual worlds, is a work in progress.

A closer look at the Passport interface

The Controls frame, on the upper left, displays the controls for the Passport client functions. Clicking on the icons will change the work frame (on the bottom of the window), and let you access chat lines, scenes, cards, help, and other features.

The controls

Figure 11.5 ch4b.jpg
The controls frame allows you to control everything in Passport.

Find list

Figure 11.6 ch4m.jpg
The scene finder lists other Black Sun VRML worlds that you can visit.

The Find button calls up a list of all the VRML scenes (worlds) served by the current Passport program. Clicking on a scene will bring up the number of avatars in each world. Often, the more people in the world, the more interesting the world (or the people). If you click on a scene and then press the button, Go to Scene, you will load a new world. This new world may have its own set of connected scenes. In this way, the Black Sun universe of worlds goes on and on. Note that you can also list the top ten scenes by user population, and list all the users in all the scenes who can be reached from within the world you are currently visiting. People finders are very important tools in virtual worlds.

You can use the Worldwide Search function to find users in various virtual worlds. Just type in their user name. You can enter the asterisk (*) symbol to ìfind any user matching this combination.î For example, entering a* will find anyone whose user name begins with an A. Just entering * by itself will find all the users in the worlds listed in Find directory. This user search function is very handy for finding where your friends might be in the various worlds at any given time.

Avatars list

Figure 11.7 ch4h.jpg
Go back to the avatar selector.

Selecting the Avatar button allows you to take another look at the avatar that you are using. You can try out the gestures and even select a new avatar. This is kind of like going backstage between scenes to change costumes.

Chat lines

Figure 11.8 ch4e.jpg
Opening the Public Chat line shows all the chat, and lists all the people, in the world.

Clicking on the Public Chat line will change the work frame to show you all the chat that is going on in the current world, and list everyone who is in the scene (as shown in the previous figure). In public chat, anything you type is "heard" by everyone else in the current world. The Home Chat line is a private party line for friends. Additionally, there are up to three one-on-one chat lines which you can set up. A red bar to the left of the list of chat lines indicates new activity on that line. Like a snoopy old-time telephone operator, you can monitor up to five simultaneous chat lines!


Clicking on people (which lists the total number of people in the current scene) will list all the people in the work frame.


The Passport client has a number of options you can adjust to your own preferences, including personal preferences, font sizes, and firewall access settings. See the section, ìFine-tuning Your World,î later in this chapter for more details about options.


Selecting Help will open your Web browser and display the Black Sun help documents for Passport.


Figure 11.9 ch4f.jpg
Here is the HTML Web page version of a chat log.

Public and private chat sessions can be logged. Black Sun has implemented these logs as streams flowing into Web pages. Very cool! Passport automatically keeps transcripts of all your chat sessions in chat log files (the default directory for these is C:\blacksun\passport\chatlog). These files can be accessed at any time directly from the chat controls, or since they are plain text files, they can be loaded into MS WordPad or any other ASCII editor or word processor. This feature could make Passport an excellent tool for remotely connected business meetings or interviews.

Optional controls

World builders can add their own controls for additional features. This is an advanced topic for those hosting their own community servers. (See the Black Sun Interactive home page at for more information on controls).

Getting Around with Passport


Figure 11.10 ch4g.jpg
You can fly over the plaza and select Viewpoints.

Right-clicking on the mouse brings up the controls for the VRML plug-in. One of the most important items on these pop-up menus is Viewpoints. Viewpoints are like camera locations in the scene. As you can see in the preceding figure, there are quite a few viewpoints defined for this scene, and we are currently in the one called Overhead, which places us over the Entry Plaza. Viewpoints are a handy way to move to the hot spots of the world (defined by the world's builders). You can also roll through these viewpoints by pressing Ctrl+Right Arrow. Viewpoints are a feature of any VRML world.

Basic Navigationóit's not easy folks!

You can navigate by clicking down on your left mouse button and rolling forward or backward. To navigate with the mouse, you will have to master the dashboard controls of the VRML plug-in you selected to run with Passport. The dashboard is the set of icons on the bottom of the 3D world window (as seen in the preceding figure). Chances are if you click and hold your mouse button, and move it on top of these control icons, you will move in the world (or move the world). Every interface is different, and I recommend that you just try them out to learn their tricks.

VRML plug-ins were built to look at simple 3D models, not to navigate in a large virtual world, so the navigation in Passport is difficult. Every VRML-based world (such as OZ, Sony's community place browser and others) has navigation problems. I hope that the makers of these worlds will soon learn how to make navigation as fast and easy as in 3D games like Doom or Descent. Black Sun has tried to make navigation possible through keyboard keys. This is definitely a better way to move, although it is still like swimming through a bowl of porridge.

Keyboard and mouse navigation controls

Arrow keys

Pressing the arrow keys on your keyboard will move you in the corresponding direction in the world, for example:

Make sure that you've clicked the mouse in the frame in which the world is displayed, or your keyboard keys will not move you.

Ctrl+Arrow keys

Pressing the right arrow while the Ctrl key is held down, will take you to the next viewpoint. Press it again to move to the next viewpoint and so forth. Correspondingly, pressing the left arrow while the Ctrl key is

held down, moves you backwards in the viewpoint sequences.

Mouse buttons

You can use your right mouse button to spin around the world. Just click and hold the right mouse button, and the world will spin. Holding down Ctrl while dragging the mouse with the left mouse button held down, will allow you to slide in any direction.

Learn to fly

You can fly up over the scene by pressing Ctrl on your keyboard, and then pressing and holding down the left mouse button as you roll the mouse forward (away from you). This will cause you to rise up. To sink back down, do the same thing, only move your mouse towards you.

Navigation bar and shortcuts

To have the navigation bar (sometimes called the dashboard) displayed on your screen, right-click, and select Options È Navigation Bar.

Traveling from one world to another

A number of worlds are accessible through the Passport client. You can list worlds to travel to by using Find List (described earlier in this chapter) or by finding a teleport to another world and double-clicking on it. You will see an example of teleporting in the section, ìTours of Passport Worlds,î later in this chapter.

© Copyright Bruce Damer, 1997, All rights reserved.