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SenseMedia's The Sprawl: Pan Pacific Worlds

From deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains and spreading out across the Pacific Rim comes this little known but fascinating group collaborative project. Modeled loosely on Gibson's Sprawl in Neuromancer, Sensemedia's Sprawl is a series of several dozen servers in a scaleable, hubless network located mostly in the US and Japan. A lot of hard work by SenseMedia's two principals and volunteers has layered 3D VRML 1.0 virtual worlds (VRML 2.0 by the time you read this book) on top of a Lambda MOO server (ChibaMOO).

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SenseMedia's VooDo browser can be accessed through Netscape 3.0 on a PC (Win95/NT) or a Power Macintosh (3D virtual worlds come to the Mac!). You must first download and install any capable VRML 1.0C or higher browser plug-in (live3D, WorldView or Cosmo Player recommended) and then contact SenseMedia for an account at: or emailing

To find a VRML plug-in visit one of the following sites and download and install the plug-in for Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer:

To try The Sprawl go to: and login as 'guest' with no password, you can look around.

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The Interface

Figure 14.6.1: sp1ca.jpg
SenseMedia's VooDo Browser interface
Click here to get print resolution version

This figure shows the VooDo client open within Netscape 3.0 with a second Netscape window on the right hand side for locations and a frame below for text and command entry. You navigate using your mouse or keyboard commands in the main window and type MOO instructions or text chat into the entry area at the bottom of the browser. It helps to be MOO-literate although there is a help system available. The interface is complex but easy once you have masters some basic commands.

One of the most powerful features is the ability to create your own VRML 'rooms' with a simple MOO command. The figure above shows an overview of the Sprawl where the buildings on this digital plain represent VRML areas on different servers.. This kind of virtual world is called hubless, which means that there is no central server and the overview of the world must be pulled together for display in real time (it can be slow).

I created and entered a room 'digigarden' in the Sprawl with these two commands:

@dig digigarden

@go #1935

which made a room on a server in Honolulu assigned the unique ID 1935. I then was able to plaster a texture map onto the walls of my room. The SenseMedia people imported some of our infamous 'biota' VRML (see the chapter in this book called Life in Digital Space) and placed it into the room (shown below). Would building VRML areas into other VRML multi-user worlds be so easy!

Figure 14.6.2: sp5d.jpg
Comunicating with an avatar in a homebuilt biota Sprawl VRML 1.0 room

Here I am visiting my completed room with Irradiate, an avatar from the SenseMedia team, to talk over this first ever biota area in a VRML world. Hundreds of other rooms have been created, even full art galleries, including one of the work of photographer Daniel Leighton..

The Worlds

The SenseMedia world, being a community creation, has a wide variety of styles and quality of content. From simple rooms like the one I constructed to Stonehenge monuments (every world seems to have its Stonehenge!) to large auditoriums for concerts, the Sprawl seems to have never ending content. If you are using the Sprawl with the Live3D 1.0 plug-in on the Windows platform, you can animations. In some versions, your avatar is merely a placeholder, announcing your presence in a room. This environment is really centered on the MOO dialogue and command structure and this is where a great deal of interface and attention is focused.

Note that you can use the Sprawl with Chaco's Pueblo (also discussed in this chapter). Avatars move in the Pueblo enhanced version. For a preview of Sprawl worlds and good screen shots, see:

The Community

I was not able to talk to more than a few people in the Sprawl on my guided tours but I did get a sense that this is a truly dedicated 'homebrew' VRML community, adept in stepping around the glitches and creating innovative fixes to keep the world going. The Sprawl reminds me of Terra Vista, another grassroots project in VRML community building (see

Kayla Block and Samuel Latt Epstein (developers of the Sprawl) tell me that they have about 3500 people who login at least once every 3 months across 5 nodes located in Fujisawa, Japan; Hokkaido, Japan; Sydney, Australia; and Honolulu, Hawaii. She says that the average number of people logged in at any one time across nodes is 50-70. A sense of the SenseMedia community can be gained by visiting their white papers collection at:

© Copyright Bruce Damer, 1997, All rights reserved.