DigitalSpace Commons
A Virtual Walk on the Moon
Cyberspace meets Outerspace: Experimental Design Research in a New Medium
DigitalSpace Commons Virtual Walk on the Moon event is described on the Web at:
http://www.digitalspace.com/worlds/apollo/index.html

A Virtual Walk on the Moon

When a new medium is born, there is a period of ad-hoc research carried out as a series of experiments that fill the medium’s available creative envelope. Following the invention of the movie camera for example, the group of experimentalists in that medium included entrepreneurs, artists, hobbyists, industrialists, and scientists [Robinson 1997]. When we look back on the film projects of the 1890s to early 1900s we are surprised by the variety and often the naïveté of the efforts.

In the 1970s through to the 1990s successive generations of computer workstations brought the concept of real time 2D and then 3D graphical interfaces to reality [Damer, 2001]. Then, in May 1992, the game Wolfenstein 3D showed that 3D real time graphics could bring immersive spaces to an ordinary consumer computer. In May of 1995 a San Francisco startup company, Worlds Incorporated, introduced a networked 3D world featuring a space station with players moving about in digital personae called “avatars” [Damer 1997]. Thus began a veritable “Cambrian explosion” of experimentation within the medium of networked virtual worlds. Around this time I co-founded a not-for-profit community organization called the Contact Consortium to be a home for that experimentation.

A prime directive of the Consortium was to establish a series of best practices for the creation of successful and engaging online events in graphical cyberspaces. A full recounting of the Consortium members’ experiments can be found at the organization’s web site (www.ccon.org) but here we will recount the tale of just one of these events, the Virtual Walk on the Moon, held on July 20th, 1999, precisely thirty years after Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. The reason that this particular event merits a book chapter is that I felt that for the first time we had achieved a truly engaging online event and finally understood the best practices behind that success. Given the popularity of multiplayer online gaming and other virtual worlds in Cyberspace these practices are increasingly important to understand.

Computers as low-resolution theater, virtual worlds in the 1990s

Question: how do you re-create one of the most inspiring events in human history within the rough-hewn medium of polygonal low-resolution worlds delivered through tenuous net connections onto a small screen? The answer: make up for all the shortcomings by having a powerful actor tell a good story.  Of course, there is more to it than that, as Brenda Laurel points out in Computers as Theater [Laurel 1991]. In the keyhole reality of the first online virtual worlds, how can a true sense of “being there” be achieved? Read on!

Seeking the perfect actor

It is March 1st, 1999 and I rose at dawn from my sleeping spot amongst the scrub in the desert of the Rosamond Dry Lake near Edwards Air Force Base, the legendary proving grounds of the first supersonic jets. I had made it to the rollout of the Rotary Rocket, a private enterprise effort to create an affordable pathway to space. I had come to the desert to find an astronaut to be an actor in a pioneering online event, a synthesis of Cyberspace and Outerspace, a Virtual Walk on the Moon.

I was brought here through the hard work of University of Cincinnati professor Benjamin Britton and his team who built the Moon world, an online “mutual reality” art installation, which is fully described at the CERHAS Moon web site [Britton 1999]. Ben needed an event to be held in his virtual world installation at the exact moment of the anniversary, July 20th 1999 and I had taken up his challenge.


Rollout of the Rotary Rocket, in Mojave, CA

Crowds gather around the Rocket

Now back to the desert, where speeches were made and the prototype rocket rolled out of the hanger to the sounds of Also Sprach Zarathustra. In the crowd I was introduced to Lee Weaver and just as he was telling me how he worked with Pete Conrad to effect the rescue of the Skylab space station in 1973 up walked the very man, Pete Conrad.


Pete Conrad prior to Apollo IX mission, Photo courtesy NASA

Pete’s handshake held the strength and sureness of a man who had piloted Apollo XII’s Lunar Module (LM) to a pinpoint landing in late 1969. After he finished describing how he had set down the Apollo XII LM “like a baby” I interjected that a group of us hoped to reenact the moon landing come July 20th – in Cyberspace - and did he know of anyone from the Apollo corps who would like to be the guiding figure for the event? Pete was quick to beg off the job, claiming a low level of nerdy-ness, while saying “Neil probably wouldn’t do that, he’s too private”. He thought for a second more and then said “Rusty, Rusty Schweickart, he would do that kind of thing”. I thanked Pete and he moved off into the crowd.


Apollo IX astronaut Russell Schweickart during the Apollo IX flight, March 1969, photo courtesy NASA

Russell Schweickart, was born in 1935 in Neptune, New Jersey and had a career as a fighter pilot, and research scientist before being selected by NASA in 1963. Rusty, as he was known all his life (his name fitting well his shock of red hair), served as lunar module pilot for Apollo IX, logging 241 hours in space on March 3-13, 1969. Rusty’s job on this flight was to help validate the Lunar Module, and life support backpack that was to be used in the exploration of the Moon’s surface. Rusty tested the suit by exiting the LM hatch on a 46 minute EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) while orbiting high above the Earth.


Russell Schweickart emerging from the Lunar Module “Spider on the Apollo IX flight, photo courtesy NASA

After a brief meeting Rusty agreed to be our guide for the July 20th event, we had our actor!

Training an astronaut to fly in Cyberspace

The Moon world team had re-created an Apollo IX mission, complete with red-helmeted Rusty coming out of a hatch. They had also set up a reconstruction of an Apollo Lunar Module sitting on the surface of the moon. With these props I scripted a simple three-act play.


Map of the Moon Museum virtual world and its environs. Image by Ben Britton and Troy Gerth

True to Pete’s word, Rusty was adept at the keyboard, and highly versed in the subtle protocols of chat-room dialogue. I pushed his envelope by giving him training in navigation within a 3D online space. We worked entirely remotely during the training and the event.


Bruce Damer and Rusty Schweickart floating their avatars by the Saturn V in Booster Park.

One poignant moment came when we were out in Booster Park at the top of the model of the Saturn V and where Rusty, Jim McDivitt and Dave Scot had sat in their seats awaiting launch. Suddenly Rusty jumped off and let the virtual worlds’ artificial gravity carry his avatar down the side of the Rocket. He said: “look, this is like seeing the liftoff of the vehicle”. It was then apparent that Rusty had internalized the aspects of the medium applying his pilot’s Einsteinian way of viewing the world: everything is relative.


Rusty viewing the Apollo IX reconstruction in the Moon Museum upstairs gallery


Rusty in his avatar navigating toward a hatch in the virtual Apollo IX spacecraft.

Next I introduced Rusty to the reconstruction of his Apollo IX mission and beckoned him to follow me into the spacecraft testing his ability to accurately navigate his avatar. He kept using astronaut and pilot terms, asking for example, if his “attitude” was correct. I then proclaimed that he was Cyberspace-flight certified and commented with some irony: “Hey Rusty, do you realize how strange this is, I am training you to navigate through space, but you did this for real in orbit thirty years ago?”

Lastly, the choreography was worked out: “we will start in the lobby of the museum, greet people, then float up to your mission area, where you will float by the Apollo IX reconstruction and talk about your mission, then we will go out to the Lunar Landing site”.


Rusty contemplating the virtual Lunar Module

At one point I came up behind his avatar and noted he was floating and looking at the LM below. Rusty had been the first person to experience a real debilitating case of space sickness. I can only conjecture that this affected his selection for the Apollo lunar landing missions.

I frankly didn’t have a plan for what we would do at the Lunar Landing site, only that Troy and Ben had requested us to be there to somehow re-enact the first walk on the moon at the precise minute 30 years to the day after it happened.

Dressing the set, training the staff

With the event only days away, it was time to begin finalizing the set and training staff. As the space built by Ben and his team was so superbly constructed and navigational aids, such as maps, signage and “teleporters” (kind of “phantom tollbooths” which allow you to move your avatar some distance to a set spot in the world) already present, we did not have much set dressing to attend to. I found an image of Rusty on the web and we had that placed inside the world on a prominent surface. This personalization of the space would help to orient the online guests as they “teleported” into the DigitalSpace.

A volunteer staff calling themselves “gatekeepers” agreed to help train guests as they first arrived and another group known as “the Peacekeepers” agreed to help deal with the usual set of disruptive users who might show up. Staff assigned private whisper channels and granted bold-text public speaker rights to Rusty to help us get above the textual din of a typical online chat event.

Promoting the Event

Ben and his team had already produced a full website [Britton 1999] and to add to this I documented both the Apollo IX and XI missions and my training time with Rusty. We then built awareness and excitement with mass emailing promoting the event to a wide public the fashion of a movie studio using a trailer to publicize a film.

Participants only, no spectators through Avatar fashion fun

Ben and his team had developed a number of “stock” avatars for the event to evoke the times, including costumed bodies resembling such 60s notables as Richard Nixon, John Lennon, General Secretary Khrushchev, Yoko Ono, Dalek and Robbie the Robot. Like any great costume party, dressing up enhances guests feelings of involvement.

All systems go.. nervously launching a new medium

At the cusp of the emergence of the Internet as a medium for human expression we had just enough technology, art and design in place to create a compelling experience re-enacting the cusp of space flight 30 years before. Rusty Schweickart’s Apollo IX mission in March of 1969 was all about testing and proving brand new systems: kicking the tires on the Saturn V, and operating Command/Service Module and Lunar Module (LM) all as a single package on-orbit. At the same time, three decades on, this online event would test the four-year-old medium of online virtual world platforms under the load of an open, public event within a space conceived as both art and accurate historical reconstructions of perhaps the boldest human.

Before the curtain rises, amazing historic convergences

Just before we opened, Rusty typed that he had just returned from attending Pete Conrad’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC. Pete had lost his life two months after I had shook his hand in the Mojave Desert. In another twist of historic fate, Gus Grissom’s sunken Mercury capsule had been recovered from three miles below the Atlantic Ocean. Both men were contemporaries of Rusty and gave us the sense that we were blessed to have the presence of this man from the dwindling corps of 60s pioneers of space travel.

And let the show begin!

With the curtains about to go up, I positioned myself, Rusty and our staff in the Moon museum foyer to greet the early arrivals.


Guests of the event accumulating in the Moon museum foyer

Warming up the audience

One very important component of any online event where the focus is a “celebrity” or other central actor is for that person to quickly establish his or her authenticity and authority. Rusty set the stage by introducing himself (“.. yes.. I was the Apollo 9 Lunar Module Pilot”) and telling a few stories. Story is a key to immersion and Rusty’s “immersion” story centered around riding the Saturn V, then the most powerful vehicle ever to carry human beings:

Rusty1: Actually riding the Saturn V was quite a thrill It was noisy right after lift off. but smoothed out within a few seconds and you couldn't hear the rocket at all after that. The main surprise was the first stage cutoff... it threw us forward almost to the instrument panel, no one knew about the impact of the sudden cutoff.. and we aggravated it by loosening our shoulder harnesses to give more mobility.


Rusty guides the attendees to the mockup of his mission where he describes what happened to him 30 years before

Next we did a set change by “floating” the crowd upstairs into the more open missions gallery. Once there, our rehearsal and choreography with Rusty paid off. Rusty positioned himself close to the reconstruction of Apollo IX in flight and talked about the mission.


Rusty and his virtual reconstructed self on EVA from the hatch of the Apollo IX Command Module

Final Act: and now to the Moon


Event attendees move over to the Lunar Landing site for the finale

We arrived at the Lunar landing site, close to the exact time of the 30th anniversary of the Apollo XI’s moon walk. Then, spontaneously, a guest who said she was a ten year old named “Julie” sent me a private message asking if she could actually try to re-enact the walk on the moon herself. Rusty then instructed her that if she piloted her avatar up to and then inside the LM its polygons would simply “melt away” and she would then find herself inside a gray, boxy space with the hatch on one side. Moving forward through that hatch, Rusty said she could then look down and she would be at the top of the ladder and then could simply slide down to the surface until making contact.


Re-enactment of avatar attendee Julie’s view from the top of the Lunar Module ladder

When Julie’s avatar started to emerge from the LM when Rusty messaged “stop, Julie, you are doing it wrong you have to come out backwards, you see, with the moon suit, we couldn’t come out head first, we came out rear-end first”. At this moment Rusty made a wry comment to me about something to do with the fact it was a good thing that the camera broadcasting the moonwalk was pointed at the ladder and not the hatch.


Sliding down the ladder to the surface of the virtual moon

Having gotten into the correct “attitude” Julie then slid down the ladder to the surface of the virtual moon and was witnessed by the group with one attendee declaring “one small step for.. an avatar!”


Contact made! With the group’s chat comments

After witnessing this, many of the attendees also wanted to re-enact the first steps on the moon, and so ensued a rush on the LM. Rusty and the organizers moved to have folks line up and experience their own re-enactments in an orderly fashion. At this point, Julie had her avatar parked right at the LM and so when Rusty moved forward to aid in directing the crowd, he came right up to her and then his avatar passed through hers, his polygons melting away on-screen in front of her. At this instant I received a private message from Julie proclaiming:

“I have been touched by an Apollo astronaut!”

I responded:

“No you haven’t Julie, his avatar just passed through your avatar.”

And she came back to me with:

“No, you are wrong, I feel it in my body, I have been touched by an Apollo astronaut and I will never forget this!”

It was at this point that I caught myself and realized that in this moment after years of experimentation we had finally achieved what we had sought... a profound sense of contact and presence experienced in an online virtual space. All of the work of the Moon world team, Rusty’s training and skills in telling the story, the magical mix of attendees and their actions, and historical events had come together to give us one of the first truly engaging events held in a virtual world on the Internet.

Moon walk re-enactment by another member of the cast

Mining the best practices

To create a compelling event in this space you must borrow heavily from other media and employ the following practices:

The performers

You need one or more good actors, otherwise online events are about as interesting as bus stop conversations (Forrest Gump excepted). As in improve theater or stand-up comedy the actors must convince the audience of their authenticity and merit. These actors must be skilled in the new medium, wordsmithing on their feet to accommodate the intense two-way dialogue and accommodating audience members as they become visible actors.

The set

You must build an attention-grabbing visual virtual world setting while understanding that everyone will be freely walking around and create their own moving point of view within your installation. Unlike a museum or theme park, overly realistic or animated visuals will distract from the focus of the event, which is people and their dialogue. Code enough realism, even cartoon representations are good enough, and leave something to the imagination.

The story

The story is implied by the set of the virtual world, but carried by the words (and to a limited extent avatar “body” movement and gesture). A long lecture will fall victim to the Internet user’s notoriously short attention span so story is best presented in a multi-way, interruptible stream with the audience. In order to create online theater of the long attention span variety, dialogue must be inclusive. In Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, skeptical audience members injected their own dialogue into the script and even joined the actors on the stage.

Social engineering

Virtual world events require the careful training of event staff in the conversational skills of a carnival barker or bouncer, and use many other techniques to herd the crowd around and keep them listening

Crowd flow design and control

Like the imagineer designing a theme park ride, very visible wayfinding techniques (teleporters, signage) should allow guests to self-guide through the event space.

Event choreography

Moving the audience between locations (3-5 maximum) accomplishes a theater-style set change. Things for the audience to do at each location will sustain their engagement (but don’t include that virtual waterslide ride if you want to keep them in your event). Rehearsals with actors and staff are extremely important to constantly tell the audience where they are and what they are doing. A school field trip of sixth graders is a good analogy here.

Making room for improvisational or spontaneous acts

Permitting a spontaneous volunteer actor to “steal the show” is very important. Like Burning Man, the best virtual events promote the idea of audience as participants over passive spectators.

Recounting the story

Assigning someone to capture screen images and event chat logs and share these like “trip reports” helps to cement the meaning and memory of the event which likely was perceived very differently from each participants’ point of view. The Moon event was captured in this way and is presented on the web at [Damer 1999].

The curtain falls


Final view of the Virtual Walk on the Moon

The Virtual Walk on the Moon event helped us to understand that by skillfully applying the practices above, compelling audience participation theater can be created inside virtual world Cyberspace. As with the birth of film a century ago, I sense that we can now look forward with anticipation to some blockbusters virtual events in the near future.

Acknowledgements

I would like to gratefully acknowledge the following people for their creation of the Moon project and for allowing us to use their virtual worlds for our event: Benjamin and Lisa Britton, Troy Gerth, Derrick Woodham, Ken Rhee, and the members of the Contact Consortium.

References

Robinson, D. From Peepshow to Palace, The Birth of American Film, Columbia University Press, New York, 1997.

Damer, B. F. DigiBarn Computer Museum, A History of the Graphical User Interface, on the Web at: http://www.digibarn.com, 2001

Damer, B. F. Avatars! Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet.  Berkeley: Peach Pit Press, 1997.

Laurel, B. Computers as Theater, Addison Wesley, Reading, Mass, 1991.

Britton, B. CERHAS Moon Project Home Page on the Web at: http://www.moon.uc.edu/, 1999

Damer, B. F. DigitalSpace Commons Virtual Walk on the Moon on the Web at: http://www.digitalspace.com/worlds/apollo/index.html, 1999

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