Global CyberSpace and Personal MemeSpace

Virtual worlds populated by avatars of real people interacting with each other, bots, agents, and exotic life forms: is this the future face of cyberspace?

Bruce Damer
in-avatar at the 2000 Avvy Awards "cosmic experience"
by Bruce Damer
Co-founder, The Contact Consortium and Member, Digital Space Commons

Produced for The Screen Savers broadcast on TechTV, February 27, 2004.

What Is Virtual Reality, where did it come from and where is it today?

Dr. Hunter Hoffman treats a spider phobic at the HIT Lab
One of the few surviving successful uses of Virtual Reality technologies
Virtual Reality was born as a movement and a medium back in the late 80s and early 90s which sought to invent technologies that completely immerse people in 3D graphical spaces, usually with head-mounted displays or other devices. Apart from some serious medical issues with the approach (vertigo or nausea in 60% of those who tried it), VR suffered from another problem: it sought to really impress people by flashy virtual worlds totally devoid of social interactions (ie: for most part you were totally alone in these worlds). VR and those who supported it largely ignored the fact that human beings are social, communicative animals. Empty worlds are just not interesting enough for most of us to return to. To top it all off, much of the VR content was visually very unappealing.

Some notable exceptions include Placeholder by Brenda Laurel, Rachel Strickland and Rob Tow (1992) and Char Davies' Osmose (1995). Seminal work was also done by Scott Fisher et al. at NASA Ames Research Human Factors Lab in 1986-88 (for which Jaron Lanier's first Head Mounted Display was commissioned). And of course the precursor technologies pioneered by Myron Krueger and Vincent John Vincent are important for what they taught us. As early as 1980 the Architecture Machine Group (later the Media Lab) was doing experiments in remote presence and avatars with projection schemes. Again, Scott Fisher and Susan Brennan were important players (as well as Negroponte) in this early work. More recently, Rod Brooks of robot fame has done something interesting to tease out telepresence from VR and make the former another kind of reality (this section courtesy Brenda Laurel).

VR largely predated and was ill equipped to catch the boom of the Internet. Today VR survives in commercial use in location-based entertainment, as training systems, and in some truly innovative applications in art, and in medicine and psychology (see Galen Brandt's pages on Virtual Healing).

So where did virtual communities come from?

Emerging during the 1970s and even earlier social and game play experiments in online systems, a movement grew in the 80s involving thousands of people on text-based interfaces who were "building" virtual worlds out of words. These were the first true inhabited community spaces, called MUDs, MOOs and the like. These simple non-graphical spaces used the power of language to construct space. How can you build a world out of words? You are watching text like "you enter the room, there is a bot standing over there that says hello, I have a message for you, and you notice a shiny glass box on the floor.." and a narrative, a story forms in your head. It's as easy as that. These "text based Virtual Realities" had a profound impact on their citizenry and certainly produced more real immersion than was ever achieved by VR. Pavel Curtis, one of the leaders of this movement declared seven years ago that "people are the killer app of the Internet". He was right then and he is right today.

Related links: see Pavel Curtis on Mudding and his Social Phenomenon in Text-Based Virtual Realities (1992)

So what happened after VR, how could you get people into Cyberspace?

An amazing thing happens when you combine text based virtual communities like MUDs with powerful gaming engines (one of which astounded the world with Doom in 1994), you can create an compelling inhabited 3D space with the social and story power of language. And several visionaries did just this by 1995 creating some truly magic, that could be experienced by everyone. Lets look at their story next

Beam me in Scotty! An avatar materializes in the hub of the Worlds Chat Space Station in Spring 1995, and a whole new Cyberspace is born!

In the Spring of 1995, with little fanfare, Worlds Chat , a bona fide "avatar" virtual world was launched on the Internet. An avatar is a likeness of a person as seen in cyberspace, usually in a 2D or 3D visual space. No goggles or wrap around displays were needed to interact in Worlds Chat. Users on basic 486 PCs, could simply download software, connect on a 14.4 modem, and launch themselves into a space station in Cyberspace. Other people online live in Worlds Chat scooted around the station in avatars ranging from a fish to a kid in a tie-dyed T-shirt. I was personally amazed by Worlds Chat when I entered it for the first time on May 11, 1995 (see my piece Visions of Avatar Cyberspace for this recollection). I gingerly navigated into the hub, oh so careful to not bump into anyone, not knowing the local social mores. The design of the space and its soundscapes was attractive and, boy, was it fast and smooth to move around.

So where did the term "Avatar" come from?

Definition: Avatar, Chip Morningstar, 1985: "Originally the term avatar came from Hindu mythology and is the name for the temporary body a god inhabits while visiting Earth. Avatar can also denote an embodiment or concrete manifestation of an abstract concept. The ancient Sanskrit term avatara meant "a passing down". Avatar was first coined for use in describing users' visual embodiment in Cyberspace by Chip Morningstar in the early days of the first avatar environment Habitat back in 1985. In text-based virtual communities, the term avatar is not used, users are identified instead by handles, aliases or nicknames. Avatars are also called: characters, players, virtual actors, icons, or virtual humans in other virtual communities or gaming worlds. " From "Avatars!" glossary by Bruce Damer. See Chip and Randy Farmer's early work on the subject in From Habitat to Global Cyberspace.

Considering one's embodiment at the mirror in the Worlds Chat garden

But the biggest thing I was conscious of was that.. hey, there are real people here! I thought, "it is beginning, real Cyberspace" that we all have read about, in fiction from William Gibson's "Neuromancer" and Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" to the virtual worlds of Hollywood. After all, surfing web pages is hardly experiencing Cyberspace. In the 2D Web there is truly no "there" there, just a bunch of linked documents, highly practical, no doubt, and the dream of former generations of the readers of Vanevar Bush (see his As We May Think Atlantic Monthly article from July, 1945) and followers of Ted Nelson (see the Xanadu project pages) but hardly appealing to your average 14 year old today.

So what happened to these first virtual worlds when they went online?

High altitude view of the center of the original AlphaWorld a world touched by hundreds of thousands of people, with millions of objects put there by them since 1995. Explore AlphaWorld with this map from the good folks at ActiveWorlds

By 1996 avatar space was exploding. The birth of AlphaWorld, which became Active Worlds was a phenomenal explosion of architecture, where untold hundreds of thousands of users constructed a vast, unplanned cityscape on a pristine green digital plain. These 3D spaces were "colonized" and constructed by real people working at home on modems and their social networks and communal construction of the 3D content guided its evolution (see the AlphaWorld map here). In AlphaWorld, 3D was about creating new powerful ways to be together with people. 3D was at the service of "the person", not at the service of "the application".

Amazing Digital Space Traveler, featuring "floating head" avatars that lip synch live voice, in stereo, and working on ordinary PCs and modem connections

These social/creative virtual worlds were not limited to AlphaWorld and Worlds Chat. Avatar spaces of many species explored different ways of representing avatars (as in the 2D worlds of The Palace, Virtual Places and WorldsAway) and different means of communication, such as the voice and lipsynched worlds of Digital Space Traveler (see above). Recently Second Life from Linden Labs and's social cyberspaces have been launched. A whole galaxy of these worlds can be explored at the Avatar Teleport.

So, did this first generation worlds make any money? Are they still around?

So how did the first generation avatar virtual worlds companies do? Some have ceased to exist or are close to it. Virtual community and companies just don't mix well sometimes (more about that later). Surprisingly, often when the company that created a particular avatar technology goes dot-com bust, the communities keep the servers up and continue on, sometimes forming new companies. This happened with the citizens of the Palace, Traveler and Active Worlds. This is a testiment to how well loved these spaces have become.

What about massive, multi-player online games, we hear a lot about them these days?

Scene from America's Army

The real action in virtual worlds today is in the gaming worlds including: Id Software's networked Doom, then Quake, and more recent impressive multi player gaming worlds including Electonic Arts' Ultima Online, Sony's Everquest, Microsoft's Asheron's Call, EA's The Sims Online, the groundbreaking America's Army (from the US Army), and Sony's new Star Wars Galaxies. Each of these projects is like a feature film combined with a theme park, you need a lot of budget, a lot of creativity and a lot of staff to make these places worth people returning to (and paying a month-by-month entry fee).

So the Internet is about community and communications, so what kind of community is going to emerge next?

Burning Man festival, photo by the author, see other pictures of the festival here.

Well, the growth of avatar and multi player gaming virtual worlds on the Net since 1995 is now going beyond its dedicated early adopter community and is headed for the mainstream. The pioneering early citizen community and its experiences of life in a social, creative and spatial Cyberspace, is a bellweather for the future of interaction and their stories are powerful indicators of the coming dimensions of life online. Of course the old battle lines will reemerge here: you only live in a place if you can make it your own, but you have to pay for it, and someone is going to broker goods into your community for that privilege. Is it the future of Cyberspace to be more like the creative non-commercial instant city of Burning Man or the glittery pocketbook-evaporating casinos of nearby Reno? Can true community exist within or sponsored by companies? How about open source, Charodic or franchised virtual community economic systems, can they evolve and grow in the face of the two-headed Tyrannosaurus Rex of AOL/Time Warner?

Why don't you like to call all this Virtual Reality?

Well, in truth, these virtual worlds are not trying to be immersive, in fact, the graphics matter less than the quality of the communication between people. Embodiment of a person online comes through dialogue, with the scenery and dress taking second place. And, there is nothing "virtual" about the "reality" of people's interactions and lives in these worlds, where they meet people and experience events that touch them as deeply as anything in "RL" (Real Life).

What is the best way to jump into some of these worlds?

Virtual Playa
, an on-line 3D Burning Man world by Andrew Johnstone

Many of these worlds (like the Burning Man Virtual Playa world above) still require a download and installation but are still worth exploring. A great tour of the first generation of Internet virtual worlds can be had at the Avatar Teleport and a grande tour with stories, guides to life "in-world" a glossary, and history is available in the full unabridged online version of Bruce Damer's book "Avatars!" (PeachPit Press, 1998):Mbr

Some people claim that you would naturally want your own image represented on your avatar (a virtual You), is that something people will naturally gravitate toward?

To paraphrase Steve DiPaola (professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia Canada), attempts to achieve photorealism in virtual space or in the representation of people is subject to powerful laws of diminishing returns. The more realistic the attempt, the more open to criticism it becomes and the more costly the technology to reproduce it. For example, recently I have been contacted by a number of companies (or media reporting on them) who are yet again trying to create businesses riding on photorealistic talking heads. In 6 years I have seen every single one of these type of efforts fail to attract any user base. In fact, at our first conference on Avatars (Earth to Avatars 1996) there was such a company. I watched as they wrapped photographs of attendees around 3D models, eager to create a stampede to "put yourself in cyberspace". Without exception, every person presented with a wonderful rotatable version of their own visage blushed, laughed, was embarrassed or otherwise weirded out by the results.

Read Steve Dipaola's Siggraph 97 Panel commentary:

" physically based spiral of infinite betterment Given the natural emulation goal, one might assume that the design choice is to strive to make things more and more realistic, this is not so. A major truth in computer graphics and simulation (and well known for facial modeling) is the more realistic you make something, the more open to criticism it is for not being realistic enough. So we emulate natural paradigms just enough to achieve recognition of familiarness. Is 'just good enough for all practical purposes' just good enough?"
Steve DiPaola, April 1997
See his site at

Why were they so weirded out? For starters, most people don't like what they look like in photographs, or even mirrors. Our media and commercial culture has taught us that unless we are Britney Spears (, we don't measure up. Ordinariness is no longer OK-ness, especially for women. In 6 years of Avatar experience online, it is a rare sight indeed to see a real likeness of a citizen. That's the whole point and power of life behind the digital veil.. anonymity and being what you want to be today! Hey, nobody bought videophones in 1960, and nobody buys them today. The telephone provides a kind of glorious anonymity and freedom from having to be seen in the right visual social state.

The author as a photorealistic avatar model (courtesty Peter Huges at Live Picture), in a word.. yikes!

But it goes deeper than that, far into our evolutionary past. My anthropologist friends tell me that it is likely that the plains of Africa 2 to 5 million years ago saw may humanoid groups bashing each other's brains out. Therefore, for most of our time on this Earth we have been terrified of "the other", or "the stranger". From UFO believers, to horror flicks, the most frightening thing to a human is another human with a distorted face. On the African Veldt, the face was likely the best way to determine friend and foe, my subspecies or yours, and it was a matter of life or death. Presenting a digitally distorted human face.. now that is dangerous territory. Nothing weirds out a person faster. We will accept cartoons, masks, abstractions, even just straight old flat photos, but try to create a deformable, 3D head and that's where some seriously ancient social neurons kick in.

I wish the many ventures that try to do photorealistic avatars or bots and agents well in these efforts, but don't burn through too much of someone else's money before you do some focus groups, or enter real living avatar spaces and ask citizens what they prefer and why. Eventually we may become used to high resolution realism in our avatars or talking head webguides, but like the old VR field, it might not be too late to hire that primatologist!

So people are weirded out by photorealism in their own avatars, what about bots and agents, will these be accepted as substitutes for real personal interaction online like Ray claims?

Well your readers may ask here, "what is a bot"? The word bot is a shortened form of the term "robot" a Czech word coined by Karel Capek in a play in the early part of the last Century. Robot is derived from Rabotai, which means "to work" in Czech. In its fictional life, a robot is an artificial human brought into this world to perform work (most real robots don't look humanoid at all and labor out of sight in assembly lines). Bots on the net most often refer to little bits of code, running within a chat room, MUD or MOO, or embodied as a visual object in a virtual world. That code is likely to be designed to interact with real users in the community to provide services. For example, bots in textual MUD worlds were often designed remember a phrase told them by one user, to be repeated later to another when they entered the room inhabited by the bot. Bots in 3D virtual worlds frequented by real people in their avatars have blossomed in the past two years, doing everything from performance (marching bands) to building structures (speaker rooms at cyber-conferences). More on that later when we tell the story of Xelag and his life with bots.

So what is an Agent, how is that different from a Bot?

Agents on the other hand come from engineering traditions, and are most likely to be bits of code designed to interact with other bits of code. Agents, sometimes called daemons, run at the lower levels of operating systems, clean up trash on servers, engage in big scientific and industrial simulations, and do other machine to machine tasks. Lately there has been a move to bring agents into the realm of interaction with people online, most often occurring as a "talking head" conversational agent, and text-based question and answer interfaces. Agents are thus likely to be isolated on a web site and not within the interactive context of a living virtual world or text-based chat environment.

Digimask, your own face in cyberspace? Is this lady feeling flattered? Click on her and see what she says.
Televirtual, cuter talking head telling you how to navigate their website in a stilted synthesized voice, is it annoying? You be the judge!

Eyematic, a bit more entertaining.

I would say honestly that for me the "talking head" style agent that you see above may have as big a problem gaining acceptance as the photorealistic heads described earlier. You know what, people just hate those automated phone answering systems many "customer service" organizations subject us to. We are bombarded daily with impersonal interfaces, companies and governments trying to save money or who have lost touch with their businesses present us with cost saving, frustrating systems. Talking head agents come dangerously close to triggering the "damn it give me a real person" response we are now conditioned to. When it comes down to it, it is very very hard to create a convincing, entertaining synthetic character. If a talking head is meant to entertain us, then fine, we will sit back and watch the theater (see for some great examples of this). If however, we are trying to search for something, find an answer, or just get our work done, then I predict that these automated personalities better come with quick a "turn off" switch. Sorry I am being so harsh on well meaning, hard working technologists but does anyone remember (or use) Microsoft Bob, Open Sesame or Mr. Paperclip from Microsoft Office?

After all, younger minds engaged in multi player gaming we mentioned before (Everquest, Asheron's Call, Ultima Online, and Quake) treat "non player characters" to the sword, rail gun or other ignoble end. They are certainly going to have a "sub zero tolerance" for attention soaking, slow speaking, lowest common denominator talking heads. Hey, they get enough of this in the classroom!

Other people believe that humans will be able to "upload" their intelligence (even souls) into computers within 25 years and that synthetic characters (bots) will be so compelling as to be the indistiguishable from a living, breathing person, what is your view on that?

Well, yeah, so here is where I must diverge from the honorable Mr. Ray Kurzweil and other engineer's fascination with bots, agents, synthespians and the like. People go online primarily to interact with other people, and they are not easily fooled nor enticed to spend time with automated personalities (they in fact feel cheated of real interaction). I see in the current fascination with talking heads a return of the old dream of "Grand AI", powered by four generations of engineers' dreams to create the artificial human, the fully developed synthetic mind. Hey, we have only vague ideas of what consciousness is and how the brain works, and it is likely you could not code human intelligence in a bottle, separated from its total environment. Our best engineers also are not very good at creating software (more on this later) so only in Hollywood will we experience the enticing (or horrifying) visions of Grand AI.

What I think is coming down the pipe, is what I call Tiny AI which, in the form of bots and agents, are micro-intelligent prostheses that augment reality, and extend the capacity and reach of the human mind and community communications. The interview of XelaG and his bots illustrates perfectly the coming wave of personal Tiny AI. XelaG feels less present in a space without Delph, VBird and Pal and they provide him numerous services and support his presence in Cyberspace. I think an ethical issue will arise in which people will demand to know when a Tiny AI is talking and when a real person is interacting in real time. So my particular vision is that a person will exist in cyberspace (which includes the space of wireless devices) as an avatar embodying their real time presence surrounded by a cloud of Tiny AIs which proxy them into many processes and aspects of virtual community.

What, you mean we won't be creating "Grand AI" any time soon, why not?

Well, it turns out as Jaron Lanier (the guy who coined the term Virtual Reality) wrote recently in his Half a Manifesto that people are pretty bad at writing software. It took 25 years for a competent networked graphical workstation to make its way from Xerox PARC to my house. Just think about it, it took us decades to create one competent, stable PC operating system (have we done it yet?). I, like Jaron, doubt whether applications of any sophistication (that can truly learn or write their own extensions) will come about within 25 years. However, software, the Internet and Cyberspace holds tremendous power to extend the reach of human contact with the world, other people, and even out into the Solar System. Heck, it is 2001 and we don't have anything close to Kubrick and Clark's HAL 9000 (Grand AI) but we have email, which I reckon is a lot more significant. Humans in the loop, it was a good idea during the MAD days of the cold war, and it is a safer bet now. How about technology at the service of Humans (Tiny AI) and hopefully, to help us keep ourselves from destroying the biosphere and all that has been built over these four thousand millennia.

But will Bots and other Tiny-AIs exist? And how will they live with us in Cyberspace?

Delph, VBird and Pal following XelaG around the hub see the full Interview with XelaG and his bots here

Yes indeedy, Tiny AIs do in fact exist now. In virtual world spaces like Active Worlds, thousands of them are running around there 24/7. A wonderful example of the emerging bot-avatar-human synthesis is a fellow known as XelaG. XelaG lives in Holland, although he is originally from Uruguay in South America. He is a seasoned programmer and also something of a philosopher, a good story teller and a very interesting man. XelaG is also no young chicken in the chatroom, he is around fifty and has had a challenging life at times.

Several years ago, XelaG decided to create some alter egos, and picked up his toolset to craft [Delph] (the "[]" brackets are used to tell Delph from a real human), his first and most powerful uber-bot. Working in the Active Worlds environment, XelaG and [Delph] and other bot foundries set out to create something of a revolution. For before the rise of bots, to build in Active Worlds you had to stand in your avatar at the building site and copy and move around objects in a laborious lego-like process. XelaG, through untold hours of code-banging, trained [Delph] to erect structures and take them down, to run slide shows, to talk to big industrial strength databases, to put on a great game of trivia, and later, to direct a whole family of bots, that would follow XelaG and [Delph] around. When XelaG was unable to attend a virtual event in a certain world, he would dispatch [Delph] to listen in. [Delph] even orchestrated the grande finale performance of the largest event in virtual world Cyberspace, the annual Avatars cyberconference. For this, [Delph] dispatched a cloud of huge pac-men bots to consume a stage and entire ring of the giant Avatars2000 space station, leaving several hundred live attendees in their unsuspecting avatars to fall through a mile long vortex and into the "cosmic experience" (pictures and video can be provided). By all accounts, this event, held on October 15th of last year, was one of the most profound ever experienced by seasoned citizenry of these early adopter worlds.

So how does XelaG describe his relationship to [Delph] and his compadre bots? I interviewed Xelag recently about his Life with Bots.

From the interview: So do you feel as though there is a bit of you online even when you are not there, if [Delph] and co are holding the fort? XelaG: Yes, sort of... What I mostly feel is that there is a bit of me missing when they are not there :)

See the Avatars Book chapter on Bots, Agents, & Biota for a full treatment of this fascinating subject.

So what kind of things are you doing these days in Virtual World Cyberspace?

Cosmic Experience at the grande finale of Avatars2000

Virtual worlds and avatars allow you to hold huge (ie: 100,000 people or more) events in very exciting virtual venues online. I invite you to explore sites below that show some of the power of these events for 21st Century Cyberspace. The annual Avatars Conferences can be seen here.

See the upcoming AvaMars event at the Contact Consortium Homepage.

You can "Drive On Mars" at this new DigitalSpace site featuring virtual Mars Exploration Rovers moving about a digital Martian landscape.

At our company, DigitalSpace, we are currently engaged in several contracts with NASA to build virtual environments that will aid in the planning of future missions and in the management of the International Space Station.

Lastly, what groups are organizing to bring the medium of Virtual Worlds together?

One organization, The Contact Consortium, founded in March of 1995, is perhaps the earliest non profit community forum and R&D organization devoted to the creation of inhabited, spatial, social Cyberspace. Its special interest groups include VLearn3D, dedicated to learning in shared spaces,, the Digital Biology Project,, the open worlds project, SocioAnthro, sociology and anthropology in visual virtual communities, vw-theater for virtual worlds as performance spaces, and others. The Consortium has held a dozen conferences on topics of virtual worlds and has participated in hundreds of events since 1995. The Consortium has an open, free membership structure stressing bottom-up citizen involvement. Of course there are many more recent academic, and industry groups too including the Computer Game Developer's Conference and "game labs" at various universities.

DigitalSpace Commons, founded by the author in August of 1995, is a research and development company creating platforms, pioneering methods, and serving as a focal point to aggregate a member community around the coming next generation of virtual worlds and virtual communities.

Thanks for this tour through the medium of virtual worlds!

My pleasure!

Background on the author:

Brief Bio: Bruce Damer, community organizer, author, speaker, co-founder of the Contact Consortium and a Principal of Digital Space

Bruce Damer, personal pages on the DigiBarn Computer Museum, Weird Machines art, Burning Man, Rotary Rocket, birth of the Desktop User Interface, Southern African Journeys, and more:

[This article appeared on KurzweilAI in January 2001] (link to

Bruce Damer's aggregated online writings:

Have a cosmic Cyberspace future!

This article appeared on KurzweilAI in January 2001