Exploring and Building
Virtual Worlds on the Internet
This book is dedicated to my parents Enid and Warren Damer
to the loving memory of my sister Renee Williams
Welcome to a New World
Just Where is All this Going?
Just Where Did All this Come From?
How this Book Was Made
What this Book is Not About
"As Hiro approaches the Street, he sees two young couples, probably using their parents' computers for a double date in the Metaverse, climbing down out of Port Zero, which is the local port of entry and monorail stop.
He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all a part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer according to the specifications coming down the fiber-optic cable. The people are pieces of software called avatars."
-Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, page 35.
Welcome to a New World
Avatars talking in the Utopia Gateway using Onlive Traveler
Just like me, you probably spent your first few hours on the Internet "visiting" sites on the World Wide Web. Apart from being a very useful source of information, the Web is really just a big pile of documents, and a pretty lonely place in fact. Web surfing is like going to going to someone's house only to find that it is just a billboard and there is nobody home. As was once said about the Internet: "there is no there there". All of that is now changing; the Internet is about to become a place for people, and it will be the biggest place in the world. With your copy of Avatars, you have booked a trip to Cyberspace with a human face. You will be getting a glimpse at what might become a whole new way we will communicate, learn, play, and work together in the 21st Century.
In the back cover of this book you will find a CD-ROM disk. On that disk is a collection of software, which will change the way you see and use the Internet. Each software program is a doorway into a virtual world. Some virtual worlds contain large three dimensional cities, others are space stations, marketplaces, stages and weird places that don't look like anything in the real world. The best part about these virtual worlds is that when you visit them, you are not alone! Hundreds or even thousands of people are there with you, exploring, communicating, and creating. Every one of these people has chosen a digital body you can see, a kind of virtual persona called an Avatar.
Avatar is a very old word from the Sanskrit language which is roughly translated as "God's appearance on Earth". The quotation at the beginning of this introduction is from Neal Stephenson's 1992 hit novel Snow Crash, one of the first books to popularize the idea of avatars. I don't think Neal or any of us could have predicted that avatar virtual worlds would appear on the Internet only three years later.
People seen on the Internet!
When you don your avatar and join thousands of other people who are trying out life in virtual worlds you are joining in a great new experiment in human contact. As you will see in the following pages, this contact goes far beyond simple chat to become a whole new way of being with people.
This book is your guide to life as an avatar in virtual worlds. First, we will start out with a Grand Tour through some of the most fascinating virtual worlds on the Internet. For each world, I will help you to install the special software it needs, give you lessons on how to move around and talk with people, and clue you in to the hot activities in the world. But there is much, much more. In this book you will find tools and guides to building your own world and designing your own avatar, good etiquette and manners in avatar life, a glossary of new lingo heard on the digital street, and a directory of people and projects finding new things to do with avatar Cyberspace.
In the adventure that follows, you will become a true "Cybernaut" and embark on multiple missions of discovery into digital space. If you want to know a little bit more about avatar Cyberspace, this book and some of my thoughts on where this is going, read on. If you want to get started, skip right to Chapter 1: The Grand Tour of Worlds.
Welcome to a whole new world!
Just Where is All this Going?
This new medium raises so many questions. While writing this book I was struck by how almost everyone seems to have a strong opinion about avatars and the people who use them. I have presented live demonstrations of avatar virtual worlds all over this real rock Earth and always get a crowd of people coming up afterwards. Some say "let me try that!", a few demand "why are we doing this?", some ponder "wow, what could this become?" while others have told me they were downright disturbed by what they saw! My hasty answers are usually something like "it's too new to know where this is going", or "try it out and see for yourself", or "yes it is scary but so was the telephone to many people".
There is something exciting about such a large unknown, and to be around at the birth of a new medium. The first radio programs tried to be like lectures or live theater, the first television tried to be like radio or newsreels. So it is probably futile to try to predict what virtual worlds will eventually become. There is one big difference between radio, the movies, TV and this new medium: avatar Cyberspace is constantly created and recreated by the people who use it. Every company that has produced and hosted a virtual world has expressed to me their amazement about what ordinary users manage to do in the world and how they change it. In a successful virtual world, the citizens are in the driver's seat. This is not a revolution that comes out of university labs or large companies, it is being made by ordinary people at home.
But, hey, is this for real?
You might be saying to yourself: this is not "real" life and playing around online with other people is not a "real" form of community in a "real" place. The last time you lost yourself in a good film or book, did you feel the power of the reality the story created inside your mind? Have you ever recovered from an illness only to find that your "reality" had somehow changed? I find when I am driving, especially on a fast highway, that my sense of the world becomes very different. Our sense of reality is a creation of our conscious minds in the particular circumstances we find ourselves. One of the great talents of the Human species seems to be our ability to accept and digest new realities. Virtual worlds on the Internet are yet another way for us to experience a flavor of reality.
Yes, but it isn't a virtual reality!
One of the reasons I and many other people refer to this new medium virtual worlds and not virtual reality is that the worlds we visit are virtual (they exist nowhere else but Cyberspace and in our minds) but we go there to meet and interact with real people. There is nothing virtual about the reality of your interactions and relationships with other people in these spaces. You can feel just as thrilled, offended, titillated, intrigued or bewildered by your remote conversations in an avatar community as you do on the telephone. A last point is that virtual reality conjures up images of people thrashing around in those funny helmets and body suits. Virtual worlds run on ordinary computers without any exotic hardware and tie into the Internet through a regular phone line. Many of the virtual worlds are not even three dimensional, a hallmark of virtual reality. People visit virtual worlds for the other people, not just to be immersed in fantastic landscapes. Some of the most engaging conversations and activities I have experienced took place on pretty boring two dimensional landscapes.
Hey, I know a community when I feel it!
So, would you agree that avatars represent yet another experience of reality? But would you also agree that the people using these worlds are part of bona fide communities? Let's tackle this one next.
Back in the late 1980s, one of the first experiments in 'virtual community' was underway in an online text chat and conferencing system called the WELL. At this time, the WELL was under attack one of its members who was systematically harassing (through text messages and by telephone) many other participants. A definitive moment for the WELL came at a point during the months of dialogue on how to deal with the crisis created by this one member when other members began saying that she was destroying their community! The hard pressed operators of the WELL (one of them was Cliff Figallo, who went on to run the community in Virtual Places, covered in Chapter 7) read these message and remarked to themselves that the members were calling it a community! The WELL survived that test and was strengthened into a real community of people who began to meet frequently.
Like the WELL, many people using avatar virtual worlds describe the people in their world (or often just a certain group) as a community. There is also the fact that avatar users often get together in person, wherever this can be arranged. New friendships, marriages and long histories of personal experience can develop through the medium of avatar Cyberspace. Strong relationships rarely stay just in Cyberspace. I was flying through the AlphaWorld cityscape one day looking at the buildings people had put up. I was trying to recruit builders for a virtual town and spied a building that told me its creator really knew what he was doing. I landed on the street right next to the mailbox the person had placed to allow people to send him email. What I did not know when I clicked on that box to send mail to Mr. 'San Marco' was that I would be initiating a friendship with a London architect and software engineer, Stuart Gold and his wife Danielle. Within a few months I was on a plane to London. Within six months, he and Danielle were on a plane to San Francisco to attend a conference I organized in San Francisco called Earth to Avatars where they felt very much a part of the "avatars community".
Avatar worlds seem to have great power to develop a new web of human relationships, many tenuous or temporary, some strong and likely to last a lifetime. In an era where we have less in common with our neighbors than our long distance telephone or email relationships, avatar Cyberspace may be an important binding force that allows us to build stronger personal communities. Using avatar worlds, I often find myself saying to someone by telephone or email who is separated by a continent.. "hey, lets meet in a world and I will show you what I have been up to". So, in summary, I use avatar worlds to build new friendships, to strengthen the ones I have, and build up my own personal community.
So are all those people milling around as avatars a real community? Building and maintaining a community takes a lot of work, as the members of the WELL discovered, regardless of whether it uses Cyberspace as the primary medium of contact. In avatar Cyberspace just as in the WELL, after all this work is done and a few tough tests have been survived, you can sometimes hear people exclaim "we made it, we are a community, we can feel it". If you want a good taste of avatar community to come, see the story of the Chicago Five in Meet Passport Citizens! (Chapter 8).
So, really, where is this going?
Satellite picture of AlphaWorld!
Click to get larger version
When I am asked this question I whip out a beautiful big color print of the image shown above and exclaim "outwards to infinity!". People zero in on the print and say something like "I think I know what this is but.."? With baited breath I reply "it is a three dimensional city in the Internet built by and inhabited by some number of 170,000 people and you are looking at a satellite view of only 8% of it". If their eyes don't immediately glaze over I continue.. "and you can sit on your PC at home and fly over all 4,000 square miles of it and wave to people (avatars) down below and build something yourself, have you read Snow Crash?". At this point, people think you are certifiable to the local funny farm or just stand there saying "I didn't know this was happening in the Net..".
I go on to tell them about the baby who sucked and screamed his way into avatar Cyberspace on his own (see Meet the Utopians in Chapter 6), about dancing up a storm with people in Iceland in a discotheque aboard a space station (see Hot OZ worlds in Chapter 10), about crime and theft of valuables in a private avatar apartment (see SeaJay's WorldsAway History Lesson in Chapter 5), and the weirdest thing of them all the emergence of robot avatars and artificial life growing and evolving in virtual worlds (see Chapter 13, Life in Digital Space).
Imagine virtual worlds beyond the year 2000
In short, there is no short answer to the question of where this is going. The explosion of human creativity that occurred in a mere 18 months in AlphaWorld is a portent of things to come. The surface area of virtual worlds (if an avatar's height is taken as a unit of measure) will probably exceed the surface area of the Earth within a couple of years. This vast digital space will be shot through with all that can issue from the human hand, mind, and soul. Take yourself into the virtual worlds of the early 21st Century where you might be traveling into fantastic landscapes housing utopian community experiments which rise and fall over periods of days, visiting soundscapes where you can fly in a symphonic avatar flock leaving contrails of music, entering pulsating visualizer machines where avatars follow light through translucent ducts represents all the currency flowing in the world economy, or boarding a thousand starship Enterprises hosting simultaneous and unique missions with eager Trekkie fans playing in the roles of crew members. For a glimpse at some of my more far-out visions, take a look at the Preface: The Internet in 2001, Way Beyond the Web earlier n this book.
Will we all be assimilated?
Will we be lost in digital space? Will our personal contact with friends, family and neighbors drain away as our brains borg to binary? Throughout the book in sections called Digi's Diary (found at the end of most chapters) I will consider some of these controversial questions. If you want to hear the opinions of some other thoughtful people, including Mark Pesce and Clifford Stoll, turn to Philosophers of Avatar Cyberspace in Appendix A.
And Just Where Did All this Come From?
Virtual worlds are the children of two humble parent technologies: the text-based virtual community and the computer game. Vibrant communities of interest have been built up around simple text messaging. The WELL, described earlier in this section, is just one example. Other virtual communities employ text systems called MUDs (Multi User Domains), IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and chat rooms in online services. Early experiments to put a graphical interface on text-based virtual communities started back in the mid 1980s with Habitat. See Predecessors to Avatar Cyberspace in Appendix A for a description of Habitat, a brief early history of virtual community and projects such as the WELL, SolSys Sim, and de Digitale Stad.
The other parent of virtual worlds is the computer game, designed to run efficiently and look good on minimal computer hardware. The speed of 3D games like Doom and Descent, a long line of trigger-finger-fast two dimensional gaming worlds, and the beauty and ambiance of CD-ROM games like Myst provided proof that a home computer could deliver a compelling virtual world. With the Spring 1995 launch of Worlds Chat, it all came together: a fast 3D space station world full of special effects hosting hundreds of real Internet users dressed up as avatars and having a great time chatting and chasing each other around.
Cool worlds for the rest of us
Contrary to what you might think, virtual worlds inherited almost nothing from more exotic technologies like immersive virtual reality, artificial intelligence and high bandwidth multimedia streaming. These high flying technologies cannot run on ordinary personal computers with 28.8K BPS modem Internet connections, which is where virtual worlds make their home. Most of us have not even seen or experienced these exotic technologies except through TV shows or pictures in magazines. Virtual worlds, however, can be visited through most of the computers sitting on our desktops.
Kudos to the world builders
The accomplishment of the people who made and host virtual worlds is anything but humble. Within two years of their introduction, home users had built more three dimensional virtual space than all the laboratory and university virtual reality environments combined. In 1996, through ordinary modems users were experiencing better networked voice audio (coming from 3D lip synchronizing avatars) than had I have ever seen or heard inside a company or university research group. Virtual world servers have been hosting thousands of users at the same time and managing crowds of avatars in conversation (and a large 3D world to boot) baffling network experts. It all comes down to good design, efficient use of resources and the increasing power of home computers to render complex worlds and use the network only to get avatar positions, stream conversation and make small updates to the world. If anything could characterize the design of virtual worlds, it is the philosophy think globally but cache locally. Virtual worlds connect to the whole Internet, but use the power of your computer to make the world compelling.
Who brought us these worlds?
Multi-user virtual worlds have been built and hosted by a variety of companies, large and small. Research divisions of large organizations such as Microsoft, Intel, Fujitsu, Sony, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone as well as small start-ups like Worlds Incorporated, Black Sun Interactive, Ubique, OZ Interactive, Onlive Technologies and The Palace. Eventually, tools to build and host avatar worlds will become so commonplace and easy to use so that you will be able to host your own homeworld almost as easily as you can have your own homepage on the World Wide Web. I would like to take this opportunity to applaud the individuals and companies who have made this all possible and invite you to visit their homepages or contact them. Appendix G: A Directory of Companies, Organizations, Projects and Conferences contains a listing of most of these companies and other people and organizations in the young avatar industry.
How this book was made
This book was a great personal challenge for me. Not only was it the first book I have written but the virtual worlds are a constantly moving target. Avatars are powered by a completely new breed of software. It is software that changes constantly. Some worlds update themselves every time you log on, so by the time you read this book, the software described in each chapter may have changed. I felt like the workmen who upon finishing painting the Golden Gate bridge have to then have to go back to the beginning and start again.Often when I finished a chapter I had to immediately go back to the beginning to start revising it. This constant change is why when we were planning the book, we decided to make a really great companion Web site to keep the readers up to date with changes in their software as well as events in the worlds. You can visit that Web site at: http://www.digitalspace.com/avatars.
Hey, that software is inhabited!
Another feature of virtual world software is that it is inhabited by its users and developers. It is very handy to be able to meet the developers in-avatar inside their own worlds. I have done this many times to get help with the software and asking questions for the book. One problem is that there are users there also, thousands of them, and they are often changing the world. This means that places I visited to take screen shots are often completely changed or gone the next day. On the upside, I interviewed hundreds of people in-world and was able to convince some of them to send my text and pictures describing their experiences in avatar living. You can read many of these stories in the book chapters on the worlds. These personal interest stories really spice up the book and bring it down to Earth. I guess I became one of the world's first virtual journalists!
Once I asked Ron Britvich, the creator of AlphaWorld (now called Active Worlds) what the most memorable thing was that happened to him inside his world. He said that it was when he first came into his world, only a few days old (and not even linked into the Internet), and was approached by some other users in-avatar. They said to him: "hey, come with us and see what we did". Ron was astonished. He had expected to be User Number One (he was beaten there by a four people actually) and he never expected what he saw. These users, without any help files or much of an interface, had figured out how to build with the few parts lying around, and had put together, piece by piece, a castle. This really set the stage for what was to happen later. In just over one year, citizens of AlphaWorld had placed down over ten million objects!
No paper changed hands!
I and my publisher realized that this book was going to be large, complex and have to be done with a lot of help from users and the creators of the virtual worlds. I built a huge Web site that contained the full contents of each chapter in HTML (with images and good formatting). As each chapter was finished, we pointed each company or community of users to it for review. I would often get feedback within hours and could turn around and update the pages within minutes. All copy editing and delivery of the images was done by the Peachpit staff simply clicking on links. We could update and deliver an image in minutes for everyone to see. Not a scrap of paper was used in the production of the book (although we produced paper galleys for review). The building of the website took some time but now that it is done, I will be able to produce the next book lickety split!.
And why not a world?
When planning the book, we thought: well, if it has a CD-ROM and a Web site, it might as well have a world! By the time you read this, we should have some sort of Book World up and running. We will post information about how to get there on the companion book Web site at: http://www.digitalspace.com/avatars. Who knows, you might even see me there in my avatar DigiGardener signing books.
What this book is not about
This book is not a comprehensive technical guide to avatar design, virtual world server and client architectures, or world building with VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) or any other technology. There are plenty of books on those subjects. Rather, it is a personal avatar starter kit, designed to serve as your travel guide as you become a citizen of many different kinds of virtual worlds on the Internet. We have some great tools on the CD-ROM for world building and avatar design and real Cyberspace technical gurus will find some great stuff in this book. Frankly, what I find makes these worlds so fascinating is not how they are built but what ordinary people are doing in there. This is why I designed the book for you, the general user of the Internet, whoever and wherever you are, for it is you who make these worlds worth visiting.
Welcome to the new worlds of avatar Cyberspace!