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Exploring and Building
Virtual Worlds on the Internet

5) Applications of Virtual Worlds

Your Guide to the Applications


Avatars at Home

Worlds in the Classroom

The Virtual Workspace

Worlds for Commerce

Avvywood: Avatars and Traditional Media

The Virtual World as a Public Performance/Art Space


What can virtual worlds be useful for? This new medium represents a new way for people to share a common cognitive and information space. There are just about as many ideas for uses for virtual worlds as there are fields of endeavor. As a teleworker, I often consultant from an at-home office and find myself actually using avatar worlds to carry out meetings or coordinate projects. A good example is seen below. TheU Virtual University project has established a development center in which meetings can be held in-avatar. All over the walls are images of websites relevant to the project. Clicking on those images will bring up the web page within the Active Worlds browser, which hosts TheU.

TheU Virtual University development center.

One day this Spring, Stuart Gold, TheU chief architect, called a meeting to discuss the future of TheU. We decided to have the meeting outside and five or six key participants showed up from the USA, Japan and Britain. Discussion was lively and logged for later posting.

Meeting called to order by TheU chief architect Stuart Gold

Debating the future of TheU with members of the project from Britain, the USA and Japan

One could ask why we could not have carried out the same meeting using a text-only chat system. We felt that holding the meeting in a 3D virtual world created more of a sense of presence, a commitment to the conversation. Stuart's position on the steps identified him as the talk leader. Those closer in were expressing their intention to take the threads forward. Some visitors loitered in the background and we could see that they were merely observing. As we were discussing a virtual architecture competition, a tour of some of the structures stimulated conversation. In addition, we could have left behind the record of our conversation plus a few shots of the participants on the walls of the University Development Center as a record for the next meeting. As crude as all this might seem, I believe that it provides distinct advantages over just a straight text chat and is in fact an early example of a very powerful new medium of human contact.

We will now look at some of the early examples of the use of avatar Cyberspace in various fields, including the home, classroom, workplace and elsewhere. As this is a fledgling medium, we have taken the liberty to engage in some creative speculation for each section, a kind of view through a crystal ball.

Avatars at Home

The majority of use of avatar virtual worlds (and the innovation associated with the medium) is coming from homes, rather than universities or company laboratories. Millions of hours are being spent in chat rooms on-line. The extension of the personal homepage to the personal homeworld seems to be a logical next step as the tools become available to build and host spaces. The Palace is an example of an easy to use virtual world allowing people at home to host their own environments.

Some examples of homeworlds include:

Virtual Worlds as Home Entertainment

Home-based wctivities in virtual worlds range from city construction to body (avatar) contact sports. Users of the environments have done much of the innovation in this area. In the case of Onlive Traveler, users have designed sports areas where they use their avatars to bounce balls through goal posts and engage in avatar sumo wrestling. In Active Worlds, users have placed over ten million objects down on a digital plain to construct everything from forests to cities to Roman ruins. Users in WorldsAway have created a rich social tapestry with associations having elected heads, and a cyber-economy with haves and have nots.

Bingo gameplay in WorldsAway

Dancing in OZ Virtual's space discotheque

Skiing in Active Worlds

A Creative Speculation

Friends and Family Spaces, the 21st Century Telephone

All the relatives meet in baby's room. Like a combination kitchen and playroom, it is a virtual space custom built to experience the life and times of baby Bo. The room-length refrigerator door will one day be totally coated with baby's images, drawings, and mashed potato art. Fly over by the counters and the drawers sense your presence and automatically open up to let out Bo's baby musings and first words. And look up and there are all the relatives in giant head avatars coo coo-ing over Bo, who floats there like a pink balloon, grabbing for the relatives like baubles. Bo's Kitchen World is just one of hundreds that this family owns and operates from the house HoloDeck.

Dateline July 1996: on his own, baby Markee Kindrick grabs the microphone and sucks and screams his way into a the Utopia virtual world running on the family computer, becoming the youngest human being to use an avatar on the Internet. Winter 1997: the first marital picture gallery is built by newlyweds in Active Worlds.

Worlds In the Classroom

There are many types of Computer Mediated Learning, including:

Multi-user virtual worlds combine elements of many types of collaborative environments. A great deal of experimentation is being carried out by educators within avatar Cyberspace.

Mirthful moment while talking with Professor Sandy Stone of the University of Texas at Austin (tigress). We are having a conference with Captain, her trusty tech-op about setting up a community for the U.T. fall courses.

Some Case Studies

The following represents only a small slice of the projects being carried out in multi-user virtual environments:

SolSys a simulation environment built on top of MUD technology by Northern Arizona University has been used for credit courses since 1989. Topic areas: simulations for learning about social organization

See the NAU Solar System Simulation at SolSys inspired the creation of the Contact Consortium and was a factor in the stimulus of the avatar virtual worlds medium.

U.T. Austin ACTLab (under the direction of Sandy Stone) is developing Muq as a powerful new protocol to host virtual communities in the Internet. The ACTLab is also hosting and studying the Utopia community served by Onlive Traveler.

Sky City is a project headed by Brian Williams, 14, of Birmingham Alabama. Its goal is to collaboratively construct a floating city in the AlphaWorld landscape. Ten other participants of Brian's age are grappling with issues of planning, resource allocation, problem resolution and design. Brian's project is not sponsored by his school or directed by his parents. It is an entirely home grown collaborative exercise which will bring valuable experience about life to all the participants in Sky City.

TheU Virtual University global architecture competition described at the beginning of this section, is a global virtual architecture competition in Active Worlds. The purpose of this competition is to competitively design virtual structures for a variety of purposes

Iain Miller at the University of Cincinnati BioWorld is an Active Worlds community designed to tech freshman biology.

Derrick Woodham at the University of Cincinnati sculpture garden is an exercise in fine arts and architecture, creating sculpture in a public plaza and providing them to other virtual world builders.

Susan Mackey, the University of Victoria is developing language teaching areas in Active Worlds and experimenting with distance language education using the voice enabled Onlive Traveler environment.

WorldsAway Dreamscape is being used to teach elements of economics. As it support the accumulation of tokens and a market in objects, there is a viable virtual microeconomy at work

The Virtual Workspace

Numerous companies are attempting to extend or adapted shared virtual spaces for use in a business setting. Some recent applications of trials of virtual worlds with and without avatars in the workplace include:

Case Study: EDS

Lisa Neal at EDS ( is experimenting with 2D and 3D for corporate problem solving and training. Recently, Lisa conducted weekly classes for EDS employees worldwide in which they tried several computer mediated collaboration systems, including more traditional methods such as videoconferencing and NetMeeting. They also tried two avatar worlds: Virtual Places and WorldsAway. We reproduce a section of her upcoming paper for the GROUP 97 conference in Phoenix in November 1997.

CompuServe's WorldsAway was used for "class parties," so that the students could have casual encounters in a virtual class much like students in a face-to-face class would go out for beer together one evening during the class. WorldsAway is a graphical chat environment in which an avatar is constructed and can move around rooms and other virtual spaces and interact with the images of other members of a chat session. For most students, this was their first exposure to avatars, giving them a chance to have an experimental identity and representation [5]. It also was, in essence, a multi-player game for the class, for which the goals were: to get connected, to select an avatar and name, and to find the instructor and classmates.

The virtual world visits proved the most informal and humorous encounters for each class. For example, in one class, two students who worked at different sites in the same city shared a computer for the class party. They decided to share one avatar with two heads, and then would switch heads, pocketing the extra one, when the students switched who was at the keyboard. There were also occasions when avatars who were not class participants tried to join a class party. The students would discuss whether an invitation should be extended, or if the outsider should be told to leave, by whom, and with what degree of politeness. (This experience occurred with IRC and Virtual Places chats as well.) Descriptions of these and other experiences were posted by email for students who were not there; also some students spent time in WorldsAway following the class party and recounted their further experiences to their classmates. These types of experiences also proved to be pivotal moments in a class, following which there was a closeness and greater sense of community apparent amongst the students.

Virtual Places provides a chat capability and avatars that can be seen by all students at the same Web site. Students "met" at a site in the Virtual University, furthering the sense of being in a virtual classroom. In one class, we experimented with a "room" where avatars could be positioned to indicate the student was listening, was confused, had a question or comment, or needed a break. The students eventually made good use of this, although the instructor had to monitor where avatars were placed.

The use of Virtual Places differed from IRC or NetMeeting chats in that emotions and gestures extended the communication capabilities. The chats tended to be less multi-threaded since a balloon indicated that someone was typing a message, which in other chats it was only known that a contribution was being made when the message appeared. Many students used scanned photographs, which increased the students familiarity with each other, especially since these were usually the same pictures that were in students biographies on the class Web site. Due to the mix of photographs and graphics used for avatars, the chats often included joking about appearances, such as people asking someone represented by a green frog if their skin is green "in real life." An additional capability of Virtual Places was the ability to set up a tour bus that avatars could join; that capability proved very useful for students to travel to other Web sites as part of a lecture or project presentation.

The use of WorldsAway enhanced community-building in the class, even for students who did not participate in a class party but still found out about what happened. Virtual Places was more frequently used than WorldsAway, but casual conversation generally took place at the beginning or end of class, or during breaks. It might be difficult to have a class using only virtual worlds, since they so readily facilitate casual and humorous encounters and that might detract from a serious discussion, however their occasional use was greatly beneficial in a class of geographically-dispersed participants.

A Creative Speculation

Cyborgs at Work: Being There in the Virtual Workspace

Pop in that monocle and enter the world of Cyborg worker. Why take that red-eye flight when you can be teleported directly into offices and factories modeled for you in real time? Who is physically and who is virtually there will make less difference in the cyborgic virtual workspaces of 2010. Don a tiny Borg-like monocular viewer and deal with your avatar attendees and physical presences at the same time. Fly at high speed through every department and cubicle in the organization and sail off into the abstract dataspaces that bind them all together. Like the first true cyborgs coming out of the MIT Media Lab in the 1990s, the power worker will exist in many places at once and see many views of the world, both real and highly abstract.

Virtual workspaces will be expensive, so deep-pocket businesses will pay for their development. Lets take a look at two high buck candidates for the virtual workspace.

Ghosts in the New Machine: Flying Avatars in the Boeing Superjumbo Plant of 2010

Engineering teams move ghostlike, unseen except through the engineer's monocle which show the virtual plant and its virtual visitors. He leads a group toward the trouble spot in the airframe of the giant 800 seater Boeing-Airbus superjumbo problem resolution team members teleport in from all over the aerospace world, visible to the worker in the plant as phototextured avatars sailing down the length of the plant in seconds. The engineer stops in his tracks and watches as his virtual companions fly up from his spot on the floor and swarm about the giant airframe (also completely modeled inside the virtual plant). These avatars start to sprout cyborg appendages: hovering cameras give them an insect-eye's view of the finest details; micro electromechanical system sensors embedded in every object give them a touch and inner feeling of the entire airframe and its parts; robot manipulators catwalking the structure give them hands and feet. The problem holding up production of this billion dollar monster is resolved and the avatars disappear. The whole episode is stored 'holographically' so that managers can replay it standing in any position.

Dateline 10:00am, January 29th, 1997: Boeing researchers meet with the author in the AlphaWorld 3D cityscape inside a structure they had built at coordinates 1050 north, 197 west. The author did not have to fly to Seattle to attend this meeting.

Virtual combat with our greatest enemies

Beyond Boeing, out in surgeon's offices around the world, doctors don operating avatars and enter the tissues and vessels of patients. Paying strange homage to the late 20th Century film Fantastic Voyage doctors and interns congregate for consultation in a giant real time model of a patient's diseased lung. MEMS effectors piloted by surgeons through the body graft tissue and directly inject cells with nucleic gene-therapeutics. A thousand surgeons remotely jack into a patient lying in a 3D scanner and hunt down and destroy a systemic cancer. Nano-virologists don a cloak of molecules, becoming virtual antibodies to do battle in mock wars with mutations of the greatest enemy Human Beings have ever faced: the filovirus Ebola. The world at the level of the immune system all looks like Space Invaders. The video arcade of our youth may have trained the doctors and medical researchers of our old age.

Dateline January 1996: HITLab researchers from the University of Washington present a model of the Harborview Hospital Trauma Center (complete with patient) at the fourth Medicine Meets Virtual Reality Conference in San Diego. The researchers don VR headmounts and fly over the patient and through the pulse lines of his vital signs.

Worlds for Commerce

Outside Island Records in Active Worlds

Selecting records and hearing RealAudio music samples in Island Records

Visions of virtual shopping malls filled with avatars poking at merchandise fills the dreams of many virtual world developers. No commercially successful environment has yet to emerge, but plenty of experimentation is going on:

Avvywood: Avatars and the Traditional Media

It would seem that a major driving factor behind the development of virtual worlds will be Hollywood and traditional media. Of course, the decades of immersion TV and Film have provided most of humanity escape into a sort of virtual world. Recently, there have been some attempts to combine television and virtual worlds, as we will see in The Mirror project below.

Case Study: The Mirror

This project was called The Mirror - reflections on Inhabited TV and was a joint effort by British Telecom, working with Sony Corporation (they used Sony's Community Place Browser), Illuminations, and the British Broadcasting Corporation. This was perhaps the very first time that a prime time TV series was mirrored with live experiences in a virtual world. The figure below shows a scene from the Memory world, where viewers donned avatars to view and share commentary on the 1996 World Cup (of soccer) final match. The match is being beamed an image at a time onto a screen inside the virtual world.

The 1996 world cup final as experienced in the Memory world

The BT team that put this project together shares a vision I have had for years, that of making our favorite films, books, and TV media inhabitable. In fact, the Contact Consortium, an organization I co-founded, was formed back in early 1995 in a conversation with science fiction writer Larry Niven. After talking with Larry for some time about the possibilities of virtual worlds, he turned to me and said "you mean I could go into a virtual version of one of the worlds from my novels, like Ringworld, completely incognito and talk to fans who are role playing there?". He was fascinated by this possibility. We were excited by the prospects of the combination of text-based MUD communities and great 3D virtual worlds with avatars. We didn't have to wait long, as Worlds Chat came on-line the following month and launched us all into the era of avatar Cyberspace. See the section Digi's Diary at the end of this chapter for a bit more vision of what inhabited media might look like in the next century.

This excerpt from a paper by Graham Walker will give you an idea of the grander vision for inhabited media. Find the full paper at:

Imagine combining the proven pulling power of professional broadcast television with the enduring appeal of audience chat and participation, and you have a vision of "Inhabited TV". The producer defines a sophisticated audio-visual framework, but it is the audience interaction and participation which brings it to life. Professional content mixes with social conversation in a rich graphical environment. A community develops around celebrity characters, staged events and unscripted encounters.

The Mirror was an early experiment in Inhabited TV, which involved two thousand viewers of the BBC2 multimedia magazine series "The Net". A research project created by BT, the BBC, Sony Corporation and Illuminations, The Mirror comprised six multi-user on-line worlds which reflected the broadcast material. The worlds were launched on 13th January with the broadcast of the first program, and closed after seven weeks with an "End of the World" party. In this paper we expand on the background to the Inhabited TV vision and discuss some of the experiences, data and anecdotes from The Mirror.

You can find excellent papers and statistical documentation detailing how the Mirror experiment turned out by visiting the site put together by Tim Regan, Graham Walker, Charanjit Sidhu, Jason Morphett, Marco Fauth, Paul Rea, and others at: See the actual Mirror homepage that was used by the public during the experiment at:

A Creative Speculation

A HoloDeck in Every Home: In the 21st Century we all Go Back to the CAVEs

Texas hill country, suburban Austin, spring 2002, where no home would be complete without a C.A.V.E., a room whose every surface is coated in pixel paint, reverberating with Dolby Super Tri-X sound and capable of delivering almost any experience. Fiercely hyped HoloDeck media startups crank out total experiences for teenagers who cracked their first virtual teeth back in the 90's on old Nintendo 64s. Nintendo's current lineup: 'Decks of '02 feature a million Marios hacking their way through an infinite jungle inhabited by an ecosystem of digital biota. The jungle is in the Net and at least someone you know is one of those Marios. The walls radiate the visualstim, buried woofers shake your bones and body clasping haptics pump your blood. As your eyes dart about, total triangulation lasers play across your corneas and know just where your sight is falling. No sense in wasting net bandwidth on sending you what you won't see. If you are able to afford a high end TORUS 'Deck or even more phenomenally Saudi Oil Minister budget MOEBIUSTRIP 'Deck, your feet and heart will do the pounding as you run through corridors and open spaces in infinitely unveiling resolution.

Holodeck area in the Borg World, May 1997

Experimental Tottooine Star Wars world, May 1997

Avvywood MegaSims

These kids' aging Boomer parents and grandparents will occasionally decompress the 'Deck and throw out the kids to tune in and turn on to Turner Tri-D remastered experiences of their youth, like Woodstock World where they will relive the sights, sounds and smells of the 20th's greatest rockfest. Aged trekkies will role play every part in every episode of every version of Trek, with live 3D enterprises Other Trek crewmembers will beam in as gorgeous, articulated avatars barking commands about overloading warp drives. Every film, TV series, book or live newsworthy event of the 20th will have its remake by the Avvywood MegaSim studios and be showing at a HoloDeck near in your network neighborhood. No-one would have known it, those few teen Dungeons and Dragons addicts of the 70s would grow into hordes of MUDers in the 80s and then discover Avatars in their millions in the 90s. And they will go on to remake TV in their own image, for it is their one great common heritage.

The Virtual World as a Public Performance/Art Space

Recently I met inside the Onlive Traveler carousel world with a group of New York City performance artists. They were inside the world in a circle of avatars, trying to read poetry and bounce literary word associations around. Public performances and art spaces are being created every day inside avatar virtual environments. Every virtual world has its own art galleries, for displays of paintings, sculptures, photographs. Paul Klee build a gallery that hosted regular openings for artists. These events would be attended by a set of society avatars, big names in the Active Worlds cityscapes.

One of the more fascinating examples of the use of avatar virtual worlds for public performance and art is the VOCE, a cyberphysical event, meaning that a physical gathering takes place along with the gathering in cyberspace. Onlive Traveler's spoken word avatar environment has been used to host collective voice and song events. The following figure shows an in-world rehearsal for a VOCE to be held at the Digital Be-In 9 in San Francisco on January 9, 1997.

Avatars practicing to sing in a Voce exercise in Traveler

This image shows participants singing into a microphone to emanate song through the head of one avatar. A crowd of users from all over the world were in-world to share this song and their voices. Read more about VOCE at:

VOCE participants singing into a microphone and a virtual world at Earth to Avatars 1996

A Creative Speculation

Digital Be-Ins, Gathering Places of the Global Cybertribes

Pharohnic avatar head addressing the Be-In crowd from a 50 foot wall screen

It is December 31, 1999 and all over the planet, millions of people teleport into a huge digital Be-In. Sixty foot high avatars address the crowds from giant electronic billboards in New York's Times Square, Prague's Wenceslas Square, and Beijing's Tiennamin Square. Actors on the streets in body suits mime their way into virtual worlds. Millions of partygoers follow the rhythm and dance in and out of Cyberspace. Fireworks go off in Cyberspace as the zeros roll in across the time zones. Avatars go wild.

Dateline August 1996: the first Voce chant is held by Phil Harrington and Paul Godwin in the Onlive Traveler virtual world the with participation of audiences at SIGGRAPH 96 in New Orleans.

Dateline 7:00pm, January 9th, 1997: the first large avatar teleport opens at the Digital Be-in in San Francisco and runs for five hours, serving over 2,000 people.

© Copyright Bruce Damer, 1997-98, All rights reserved.