Exploring and Building
Virtual Worlds on the Internet
Projects, Groups, Events, Philosophers, News, and Predecessors in Avatar Cyberspace
This appendix is your guide to goings on in and around avatar cyberspace. All the projects, groups, and events listed here are open to your participation, so feel free to visit their websites and join right in! Find more news, interviews and history on the subject of virtual worlds on the book companion Website at http://www.digitalspace.com/avatars.
Projects in Avatar Cyberspace
- Starbright Pediatric Network and Starbright World
- Sherwood Forest Town: A Virtual Village On The Internet
- The Concept of Virtual/Physical Events
- The VOCE
- Avatar Teleport at the Digital Be-In
- Connective Intelligence: TheU Virtual University Experiment in Florence, Italy, May-June 1996
- Mark Pesce's WebEarth
- Van Gogh TV's Worlds Within
- Avvywood: Avatars and the Traditional Media
Groups in Avatar Cyberspace
- The Contact Consortium
- The VRML Consortium
- Living Worlds Standards Group
- Open Community Standards Group
Events in Avatar Cyberspace
- Earth to Avatars and the Annual Avatars Conferences
- The Virtual Humans Conference
- The annual VRML Symposium
- Ars Electronica
- Doors of Perception
Philosophers of Avatar Cyberspace
- An Interview with Mark Pesce, the Father of VRML
- Some Thoughts from Rob van der Haar, a de Digital Stad Pioneer
- Clifford Stoll, and Alternative Voice
- The Author's Own Writings and Projects
Discussion and News about Avatar Cyberspace
- The Contact Consortium Events, Mailing Lists and Special Interest Groups
- The VRML Mailing List at Wired
- VRML Consortium Working Group Lists
- The Vworlds-biz Mailing List
Predecessors to Avatar Cyberspace
- The WELL: Where Virtual Community All Began
- NAU SolSySim: First MUD for Learning and Living
- De Digitale Stad: Prototypical Webworld Virtual Community
- Habitat: The First Avatars
Projects in Avatar Cyberspace
Starbright Pediatric Network and Starbright World
In 1995, Worlds Incorporated, Sprint, UB Networks, Tandem, and Intel teamed up with Steven Spielberg's Starbright Foundation to create an avatar virtual world for kids confined to hospital. The worlds came online at five pediatric hospitals in the United States in late 1995.
Avatars in Starbright World
The many worlds of Starbright link seriously ill children from their hospital beds into an interactive community and a virtual-reality playspace. Children have requested their own avatars (designed by professional animators at Amblin entertainment). In Starbright, kids can play, explore and verbally and visually communicate with each other through avatars and voice or live video. Through the avatar virtual world, they can build a community of their peers and offer each other support. It is hoped that Starbright will be effective in reducing the isolation and fear of hospital confinement, reduce dependence on some medications, and extend the lives and quality of existence of some of these chronically ill children. These children are trapped by their condition within hospital technology. Avatar worlds gives them some freedom and hope. Starbright world is an early and a stellar example of the power of avatars for good in the world. See Starbright World at: http://www.starbright.org/projects/world/index.html.
Sherwood Forest Town: A Virtual Village On The Internet
Meeting in Sherwood Old Town
Sherwood Forest Community was an experiment in virtual community building and culture in the first constructivist Cyberspace environment: AlphaWorld. AlphaWorld is the public cityscape in the Active Worlds environment. Sherwood was built and populated by members of the Contact Consortium, an organization dedicated to studying, promoting and enriching Internet-based virtual worlds as a new space for human contact and culture. Consortium members include individuals working at home, specialists in industry, researchers from universities, and the staffs of companies and government institutions. Consortium members have years of experience in designing and running MUDs, MOOs and in computer graphics world building exercises and applied this to the Sherwood Forest Community Project.
The purpose of Sherwood was to design a very natural, attractive setting with woodlands, flowers and flowing water and then attract a community of users to build a village community in that space. A unique feature of Active Worlds is that it allows users all over the Internet with nothing more than a Windows PC and a modem connection to navigate and build in a large virtual space while interacting with others. Using this capability, Sherwood community planners recruited builders from some of the 100,000 registered citizens of AlphaWorld.
Why did we pick the theme of Sherwood Forest? Apart from the attractive fable of Robin Hood (which supplied some imaginative roles), it turns out that the Luddite movement against technology began in the Sherwood Forest region of Britain. We felt that if there was a rebellion against life in this new virtual worlds technology it might as well happen inside a virtual Sherwood Forest!
Every community needs some sort of charter or constitution or set of rules, whether formal or informal. Sherwood's charter was designed to support the following goal:
To create a viable community within this new medium of human interaction and to observe how this community is be built, and can grow and function.
The Spirit of our Community Underlying the Charter
- to learn how to work together in a new reality
- to interact with consideration for others
- to cherish individual creative independence while meeting the community needs
- to create a thing of beauty and function worthy of revisiting
- to have a way cool time
Basic Community Charter Rules
Be considerate to others and their land and property as you would wish them to be unto you.
(ye olde) Towne Services Mandated by the Charter
- the towne will provide you with newsworthy communication, administration, zoning, and dispute management,
- the towne will maintain your mailboxes and deliver your post to others in the community and beyond
- the towne will water the flowers and keep the grass trimmed
- townesfolk can give you building instruction
- the towne may condemn unused or misused sites
- the towne will clean up trash and provide recycling of objects and reclamation of land
- the towne will publish a free newspaper: the Sherwood Towne Crier
- the towne will tow illegally parked cars
Sherwood citizen co-creator (psychotherapist Steve Lankton) builds Therapies 'R' Us clinic to treat people with addiction to virtual worlds
When it went online in March of 1996, the Sherwood Forest community experiment was fun and very lively and deemed successful based on the richness of the experience and unexpected spontaneous occurances. Over sixty individuals participated, ranging from 9 year old children to a professional architect and database designer. The following timeline should give you an idea of the phases and events which characterized this experiment:
- August 1995: Consortium invited to enter AlphaWorld beta program.
- January 1996: Forest and 'ancient aqueduct' boundary defining town wall placed into the world.
- February 1996: Web site built, community recruitment begins.
- March 24, 1996: First big collaborative build day happens, the talking circle is used to hold an all avatar town meeting. Anthropologist makes first attempt to conduct ethnographic interviews in the town.
- May 1996: Second build day fills out incorporated area of town, Therapies R Us clinic is built, dispute over style of Bazaar built by teenaged citizens arises. Landscape architect goes to work on site.
- June 1996: Prototype virtual university is built in New Town during live exercises by students of Sophia-Antipolis University while at the MediArtech conference in Florence. This event was sponsored by the McLuhan Program of the University of Toronto. Sherwood is avacast between Italy and France and telecast to Italian media. Later that month, the third build day completes Old Town incorporated area and plans for New Town unincorporated areas where freeform building is allowed.
- July 13, 1996: Digital singles mixer and summer party gathering is held in Laurel's Herb Farm together with a large physical party in Boulder Creek, California. First every poetry reading held in Sherwood Redwood Grove. The first eviction of an AlphaWorld citizen was carried out during this event. Read about the event at: http://www.ccon.org/events/mixup1.html. Over 100 avatars participated in the event over an 11 hour period.
- Late July, 1996: Vandals struck unprotected west side properties outside the town walls. A protracted effort to get the vandalized areas cleared begins. Proof must be provided to the AlphaWorld city managers that this was not a creative act. Call boxes to the AlphaWorld Police Department and Help Patrols are considered for installation at Sherwood for rapid reporting of vandalism and avabuse (verbal harrassment of community members by outsiders).
- August 1996: More lots inside the New Town area are assigned and building continues. TheU virtual university, a separate virtual world, is created and a teleport transporter system between TheU and Sherwood is put into place.
- Fall 1996: Teleport directly to Sherwood is placed at Ground Zero in AlphaWorld. Resultant high traffic encourages vandalism and unplanned seizure of neighbor's land by unknown persons. Areas around Sherwood main gate are filled with teleports to other areas in AlphaWorld. This is likened to the development of low caliber commercial motel zones around Disneyland in the 1950s.
- March 1997: Attendees at ACM CHI 97 in Atlanta carry out collaborative building in the New Town area of Sherwood. Sherwood celebrates one year anniversary. Future of the site and the community is debated and a new land manager sought.
- July 1997: Sherwood awarded an honorable mention by Ars Electronica. Published in the Ars 1997 conference book.
- August 1997: Frontage road at Sherwood main gate is hacked and a booby trap teleporter is installed there, firing citizens' avatars far from the site as soon as they arrive. Application made to have the booby trap excised.
- Sherwood goes on, and a new round of building and land management is planned. Request to make a duplicate of the town is filed with city powers.
Come Visit Sherwood
Find the home of Sherwood Forest Town on the Contact Consortium Homepage at: http://www.ccon.org/events/sherwood.html. Visit the Sherwood Forest Community on the Internet by downloading and installing the Active Worlds Browser from http://www.activeworlds.com, entering AlphaWorld, and then teleporting to the coordinates: 105.4N 188.8E (turn around after you land to see the main gate). Note that you can also set up your web browser to teleport directly into various parts of Sherwood by clicking on teleports found throughout the Sherwood Forest Town Web pages.
The Concept of CyberPhysical Events
One of the most powerful and fun uses of avatar worlds is to mix virtual with physical events. Imagine a party where on the walls are projected life sized avatars you can walk up to and talk or dance with. Imagine a room in your home where you can walk in and be surrounded by virtual landscapes full of people and spaces you can visit. Ray Bradbury wrote a short story in his classic Illustrated Man over forty years ago about just such a room. Star Trek fans are familiar with the Holodeck featured aboard the Enterprise in The Next Generation series. This may become a reality in the 21st Century as avatar virtual worlds leap off the small screens of our computers and surround us, becoming an indispensible tool of communication and community.
The projects we will describe below all mix the physical with the virtual, producing their own kind of magic. They all involve projecting avatar realms out to a larger group of people. This kind of thing has been termed Avacasting or cyberphysical events.
The VOCE: CyberPhysical Event Number One
Avtars in Onlive Traveler
VOCE 3 at the Digital Be-In, January 9, 1997
Phil Harrington working with Paul Godwin, Kevin George and others produced one of the first cyberphysical events called VOCE, which means voice in Italian. Beginning at the 1996 SIGGRAPH conference in New Orleans, and continuing at the Earth to Avatars 1996 conference and the Ninth Annual Digital Be-In in San Francisco in January 1997. Phil Harrington is an Irish singer striving for a spiritual and cultural revolution by getting the world to sing. He teaches a technique of "releasing your voice in order to explore your inner self".
VOCE participants singing into a microphone and Utopia virtual world at the Avatars SIG, SIGGRAPH 1997, Los Angeles
The first incantations of VOCE used Onlive's Traveler to allow groups of VOCE participants to place their voice into a Traveler world where there others who are there to sing with you. Visit VOCE at: http://www.voce.com/.
Avatar Teleport at the Digital Be-In and Digital Mixer
The Be-In is an annual event celebrating digital culture. Usually held in the city of San Francisco, it showcases some of the latest in digital pop culture and has featured speakers such as Timothy Leary, R.U. Sirius and other Bay Area visionaries. As well as the third VOCE, the 1997 Be-In (Number Nine) also featured an Avatar Teleport. At the Teleport, Be-In partygoers could walk up to workstations and enter virtual worlds where they would find virtual partygoers. This Avatar Teleport was based on several earlier teleports tried in 1996, notable the July 13, 1996 Digital Mixer which was a large scale singles party hosted in three virtual worlds by a professional matchmaker (Wendy Sue Noah, then of Match.com). See the Be-In Avatar Teleport at: http://www.be-in.com/9/home/ and the first ever Digital Mixer at: http://www.ccon.org/events/mixup1.html
Connective Intelligence: TheU Virtual University Experiment in Florence, Italy, May-June 1996
The Lower Fortress in Florence, Italy
Birthplace of TheU Virtual University project
In late May of 1996, Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the Marshall McLuhan Program of the University of Toronto hosted another in his series of "Connective Intelligence" events. These were a series of workshops over five days held deep within the Lower Fortress in the heart of the exquisite Italian city of Florence. As a part of the program of MediARTech, Italy's first large web/multimedia show, de Kerckhove used his formidable connections, language and cultural skills to assemble a group of facilitators and students and pull together a remarkable experience for all involved.
I was fortunate enough to participate in this event with Mark Pesce. My job was to host two teams of students, one Italian and one largely French. The goal was to take students on a kind of digital odyssey and bring some of the culture of their region to the world through digital media and the Internet. The Italian team chose Pinnochio, and headed off to the Tuscan village where the author of this fable lived. They modeled Pinnocchio and scanned the mosaics of the town square, producing a 3D model into which they could place the wooden boy.
TheU Virtual University Student Team
The second team was comprised of undergraduates from the European American University (EAU) at Sophia-Antipolis, near Nice and a participant from the Netherlands. The vision of this team was to create a virtual university in 3D with avatars which would allow students to obtain "just in time" education. Their vision was that you could walk down 3D corridors and the interests you expressed in your profile would craft learning spaces on the fly. In this university, human and agent avatars would be there to assist in specific learning on topics such as using multimedia tools.
After hours of discussion and sketching, we decided to try and build a test campus and have it ready for a spacebridge demonstration within two days. Using the AlphaWorld environment of Active Worlds, the students constructed a beautiful glass complex including a greeting area and library full of web-linked 3D terminals. This came later to be called TheU Virtual University and is an ongoing project of the Contact Consortium and these students. Visit TheU Virtual University project at: http://www.ccon.org/theu/index.html.
Demonstrating TheU on a live Spacebridge between Florence and Nice, France
On the day of the presentation, two large projection systems with sound and video were hooked up so that the audience in Florence and in an auditorium at the EAU in Nice could watch the demonstration of the virtual university and the team that built it explaining their vision. We could see the faculty members in France while they could see avatars representing students in both their university and in Florence within the virtual campus.
Later on that same day I presented a demonstration on a huge screen in an old hall in the Fortress where we demonstrated Sherwood Forest and TheU to the Italian press. By prior arrangement, several participants in the Sherwood experiment showed up and even said some words in Italian (through the Master of Ceremonies reading their text) to the audience. All in all this was an exhilarating experience but pointed out the difficulties that lie ahead for the avatar medium: it was just difficult to communicate to observers what we were doing, exacerbated by the challenge of a language barrier.
Mark Pesce wrote a fine review of the Florence experience called And a Child Shall Lead Them: Getting an Education in the Virtual University at: href=http://www5.zdnet.com/zdwebcat/content/megasource/vrml/pesce/child.html. Find the McLuhan program home page at the University of Toronto at: http://www.fis.utoronto.ca/mcluhan/.
Mark Pesce's WebEarth
Have you ever wanted to see the Earth from space? With WebEarth you can rotate a model of earth with the real current weather superimposed. Conceived and designed by Mark Pesce with help from John Walker and others, WebEarth is a first glimpse of how virtual worlds could be used as a tool for better planetary stewardship. In Mark Pesce's words:
WebEarth builds a VRML model of Gaia (the living Earth) from space. Drawing from composite satellite photos created by John Walker, WebEarth employs a set of server-side scripts which build the model and maintain the current image database. Thanks to Neal Stephenson for the inspiration, ART+COM for proving it could be done, and Lou Stern for asking me if it can update itself automatically. (It does, every 60 minutes.)
Visit WebEarth at: http://tcc.iz.net/we/.
Van Gogh TV's Worlds Within
Worlds Within was built by Van Gogh TeleVision (VGTV), an Austrian - German joint venture that was established in 1986 as a research and development center for interactive media. For the past ten years VGTV has developed and installed experimental prototypes in order to find out how new interactive media affects the way people communicate and what changes this will cause in our society. When I was living in Europe in the early 1990s I remember seeing a fascinating project by VGTV: a satellite TV network where people in Scotland could be singing while other people in Italy played the guitar. All of this was fed through the satellite and mixed in real time. VGTV's network was one of the first large scale public shared virtual spaces. Sometimes the programs would be rather dull but other times they were magic. The key thing was that they were produced by ordinary people at home. If there is anything that characterizes the power and future of virtual worlds it is this fact: like VGTV, the content is be made collectively by thousands of ordinary people, not by a large studio creating something, putting it 'in a can' and pushing it out to a mass audience.
Worlds Within running during the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival
As a recognition of their work, VGTV (together with Ponton European Media Art Lab) was invited by the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival to develop and host a virtual world called 'Worlds Within' at the Centennial Olympic Games held in Atlanta in July 1996. The preceding figure shows a typical scene inside Worlds Within in July 1996. Other avatars (in this case, a bug) float over 3D scenes. You could build, chat, stream in music, images or video and generally do the avatar thing. Find out more about VGTV and Worlds Within at: http://www.vgtv.com/.
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, decades of immersion in TV and Film have provided most of humanity an 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 in Inhabited TV: 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.
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: http://vb.labs.bt.com/msss/IBTE_Mirror/index.htm.
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: http://vb.labs.bt.com/SharedSpaces/. See the actual Mirror homepage that was used by the public during the experiment at: http://vb.labs.bt.com/msss/the_mirror/index.html.
Groups in Avatar Cyberspace
The Contact Consortium
Contact Consortium Logo
The Contact Consortium is a forum for contact, culture and community in digital space. The Consortium was formed in early 1995 by the author with an anthropologist, Jim Funaro and a media executive and science fiction writer, Keith Ferrell. The Consortium is focused on the human experience in visual virtual environments. The Consortium hosts many events and an annual conference called Earth to Avatars. Consortium Special Interest Groups (SIGs) have been formed for topics as varied as: virtual architecture, women entering avatar virtual environments (WEAVE), digital biota, psychology of avatar virtual worlds, and the anthropology of virtual communities. The Consortium has engaged in other large scale projects in avatar virtual worlds including Sherwood Forest Town (described in the chapter on AlphaWorld and earlier in this appendix) and TheU Virtual University (described more in the section Connective Intelligence: TheU Virtual University Experiment in Florence, Italy, May-June 1996, below).
Visit the Contact Consortium at: http://www.ccon.org. Consortium membership is open to companies, universities, individuals, and there is even a category for students.
The VRML Consortium is a newly formed non-profit organization designed to make VRML into a key infrastructure of the Internet. The VRML Consortium replaces the VAG (VRML Architecture Group) and features over 40 member companies and several dozen working groups. The VRML Consortium is the source for VRML, visit it at: http://www.vrml.org.
Living Worlds Standards Project
Living Worlds is a complementary standards project to Universal Avatars. Living Worlds focuses on what is communicated between avatars and the world (or between users in-avatar). They feel that defining a standard 'protocol' or language will enable richer and more compatible worlds while not restricting all the ways that avatars will be implemented. For example, Living Worlds would define a set of objects to describe gesture (e.g. 'wave', 'bow', 'angry hand movement') and then let each maker of an avatar world implement their own designs for these gestures. If Living Worlds is widely adopted, I could wave to you from my virtual world and you could shout back "come over" from yours.
In their own words:
The charter of the LW group is to distill their experience with avatar-based interaction in VRML 1.0 into a proposed standard for distributed object interaction in VRML 2.0. In its startup phase, work has concentrated on three questions:
- what new conceptual components (if any) will a distributed VRML architecture require?
- between which components are standard interfaces needed?
- how can we achieve an optimal mix of standardization (to ensure interoperability) and openness (to leave room for innovation)?
Visit Living Worlds at: http://www.livingworlds.com/.
Open Community Standards Project
Open Community is a proposed open standard for avatar virtual worlds consisting of extensions to Java and VRML 2.0, and is designed to integrate with the Universal Avatars and Living Worlds specifications. The proposal is a combined effort of MERL - A Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab and members of the Universal Avatars development team. It is based on the Spline (Scalable Platform for Large Interactive Networked Environments) software architecture developed by MERL.
Open Community worlds will allow users to make changes to their environment while it is running (just like what is possible in AlphaWorld now). Open Community will be infinitely extensible as it will allow changes to the world to be made through a Java programming interface.
Visit Open Community at: http://atlantic.merl.com/opencom/.
Events in Avatar Cyberspace
Can't get enough of the virtual worlds medium? Want to meet the people who created it and continue to build it? Then come to a physical gathering and meet your community! There are many of these events throughout the year. Chances are your favorite virtual world has its own form of local citizen's gatherings. Users of WorldsAway, Virtual Places, Deuxieme Monde and Black Sun Passport have held regular real world get togethers. Check your favorite worlds' home pages for news of these events. If you have the time and budget, you might want to consider some of the following international conferences. I am lucky enough to be able to go to most of them every year and I hope to see you there some time!
Earth to Avatars and the Annual Avatars Conferences
Mark Meadows presenting at Earth to Avatars 1996 with digital street in the background
Earth to Avatars, held in October of 1996 in San Francisco, was the first conference about avatars. Visionary speeches, demonstrations, panels and parties brought the avatar community together for the first time. Many of the avatar standards efforts, such as Universal Avatars and Living Worlds (described in this appendix) were first fully presented at Earth to Avatars. There were even avatar cyberspace constitution talks (does someone have the right to take and wear your avatar?). For a review of Earth to Avatars, take a look at: http://www.ccon.org/events/conf96.html.
If you really get hooked on avatar living, you might consider coming in person to another annual Avatars conference such as Avatars 97 or Avatars 98. You will meet your author there as I created this conference and will be around helping organize it for some more years! See the Contact Consortium homepage at: http://www.ccon.org for this and other avatar events throughout the year.
The Virtual Humans Conference
The world's first conference focusing exclusively on virtual humans in virtual reality worlds was organized by VR News and held in Southern California in June of 1996. Humanoid technologies, or virtual humans, are digital representations of the human form used in military, industrial, and medical training and are increasingly appearing in motion pictures as both stars and digital extras. While not strictly avatars, virtual humans represent an important cross over to industrial applications and character animation. See the 1997 Virtual Humans Conference at: http://www.vrnews.com/vh2.html.
The Annual VRML Symposia
The VRML community comes together once per year to help move VRML forward as a standard for representing 3D cyberspace. This event is sponsored by the VRML Consortium, its members and working groups. Papers, courses, demos, speeches, a super demo SIG (special interest group showing cool VRML demos) and great late night conversations highlight this event. For details on any upcoming VRML symposium (usually held in late February), see the VRML Consortium's home page at: http://www.vrml.org.
This is a large annual conference for computer graphics professionals sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery. Tens of thousands of people crowd the large exhibit hall to see the latest FX (special effects) wizardry. Courses, panels and papers from some of the finest minds in the business make this one event not to miss. See http://www.siggraph.org for details about SIGGRAPH.
Another special interest group of the ACM, focuses its conference on computer human interface (CHI). Smaller than SIGGRAPH, this conference concentrates on user interface, agents, devices, and recently more on virtual communities and distance learning. See http://www.acm.org/sigchi/ for more about CHI and its local chapters.
This is an annual gathering of the digerati organized by Sandy Stone of U.T. Austin. Expect the cutting edge at this event, which is officially called the International Conference on Cyberspace and started in the early 1990s, before most of us knew what cyberspace meant. Read about Cyberconf at: http://www.cyberconf.org/.
Ars Electronic is a mainstay event in the arts and technology. Held annually at the Ars Electronica center in Linz, Austria, it is a cultural crossroads for both European and global wired culture. In 1997, Sherwood Forest Town, the Contact Consortium's virtual village in AlphaWorld, won an honorable mention, the first recognition of an Internet avatar virtual environment at Ars. Learn more about Ars at http://www.aec.at.
Doors of Perception
The Doors of Perception is cyber-edge event held in the Netherlands each November. Some of the original concepts for cyberspace were fashioned at this even in the early 1990s. It is hosted by the Netherlands Design Institute, see their Doors homepage at: http://www.design-inst.nl/act.html.
Philosophers of Avatar Cyberspace
An Interview with Mark Pesce, the Father of VRML
Mark Pesce is an Internet visionary and co-creator of VRML. What stared as a vision of 3D information on the Internet has blossomed into the reality of a true Cyberspace under his guidance. Mark created WebEarth, which creates a fully-interactive real-time VRML model of the planet from space, viewable on the desktop. He is also the author of several books, including VRML: Browsing and Building Cyberspace. Visit Mark's visionary home page at: http://www.hyperreal.com/~mpesce.
See the full conversation with Mark in the Interviews section on the book companion Web site. I asked Mark what motivated him to bring VRML to the world and this is what he said.
I am a radical ecologist. As I say on the first page of my book, Cyberspace is the preeminent environment for planetary management, it is the way that our children will tend the planet, because it gives them a reach that we did not have for our parents. I can stop you from polluting if I can see you doing it in Cyberspace, dammit! Which our parents could not do. PCBs get dumped into the environment because we cannot watch. This is interesting because on one side this is the panoptic mechanism of Jeremy Bentham which is a mechanism of totalitarianism. On the other side it is also a mechanism for tending. Our job lies in finding the balance.
Some thoughts from Rob van der Haar, a de Digital Stad Pioneer
Rob van der Haar is an Interaction Designer from the Netherlands. After being involved in many pioneering virtual community projects, he was part of the team that re-designed and implemented the Web interface of de Digitale Stad (the Digital City of Amsterdam), one of the first and most successful visual virtual communities (see our section on it in this appendix). When I met him he was working on the Electronic Communities project of Philips Research in England. His full interview is featured in the Interviews section on the book companion Web site. What follows are his final thoughts.
What I sometimes want to happen is that we get rid of all this technology and we just live more in the real world. The other theory I have is from the War of the Worlds, where aliens come to this earth and their technology is so advanced that they don't have their bodies anymore they just are this brain inside a machine. If these things continue that might actually happen.. we won't need our physical space anymore and will just end up as a brain inside a machine.
Clifford Stoll, an alternate voice
Clifford Stoll is an Astronomer and award winning author of such books as Cuckoo's Egg and Silicon Snake Oil. Clifford questions all of us as to why we forsake our real, vital communities of place for an escape into the virtual. In an early interview for the book on August 13, 1996, Clifford paints a picture we should all consider before stepping into digital space:
Avataring in a virtual world is a wonderfully addictive drug. I logged in for an hour once a few months ago and it was fun. But ask yourself, is it a substitute for a real community? Many people say it augments reality. I feel that for the people who invest so many hours online building avatars it becomes their reality. You only have a finite number of hours in a day, you can spend them watching TV for four hours, doing email or avataring or you could spend them with friends. There is an opportunity cost to everything you do and the net has a very high opportunity cost. Perhaps the net can convince you that you are doing something when you are not. Will we all be wandering around our communities with big, glassy eyes, not meeting each other?
The Author's Own Writings and Projects
You've heard enough from me in this book, so I won't include much here except a few web links. Most of my philosophy on the topic of avatar cyberspace is contained in the Preface, Introduction and Digi's Diary sections found in most chapters. My current projects, recent essays and interviews can be all reached through my company home page at: http://www.digitalspace.com/. If you really want to know about Bruce Damer as a person, and not just as his avatar, check out my own personal homepage at: http://www.damer.com.
Discussion and News about Avatar Cyberspace
Great news about avatars and their world can be found at your companion book Web site and at sites all over the Internet. The following mailing lists and threaded web discussions
The Contact Consortium Events, Mailing Lists and Special Interest Groups
The Contact Consortium is described earlier in this appendix. Through its home page http://www.ccon.org you can sign up for many special interest groups (SIGs), some of whom have their own mailing lists. The Consortium maintains a mailing list for those interested in news and updates about avatars and virtual worlds, including the annual Avatars conference. You can sign up for this by visiting http://www.ccon.org/conf97/list.html
SIGGRAPH Threaded Discussions on Avatars and their Worlds
In cooperation with SIGGRAPH, the Consortium is operating threaded Web-based discussions about avatars. To join the discussions, click on the "Join Online Discussion Now" link at http://www.ccon.org/sig97/index.htm.
The VRML Mailing List
To get signed up on the most technical mailing list about VRML, nodes and all, send mail to email@example.com with text "subscribe" in the body. For instructions, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org with text "info" in the message body.
VRML Consortium Working Group Lists
Working groups on the VRML Consortium home page http://www.vrml.org often have open mailing lists. The VRML Humanoid and the Living Worlds Avatar Standards working groups are ones to watch for.
The Vworlds-biz Mailing List
Vworlds-biz is a list that deals with the topic of Virtual Worlds (from text worlds to avatars) as a Business. Discussions on vworlds-biz are not limited to commercial uses; nonprofit and free worlds are also discussed. Detailed technical and philosophical threads are not encouraged. The vworlds-biz homepage and list signup instructions are at Maddog's Studio http://maddog.com/. If you have problems you can contact Frank Crowell at: email@example.com.
Predecessors to Avatar Cyberspace
For a great set of references to where virtual community came from, see Michael Powers book listed in our Bibliography. I have also included historical material in An Advanced Course at Avatar University on the companion Web site for this book. Four examples of key historical virtual communities are covered below, each providing an important foundation stone for the medium we now call avatar cyberspace.
The WELL: Where Virtual Community Began
Back in the late 1980s, the WELL (which stands for Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) was created in Sausalito California. The WELL was a text based dial-up conferencing system designed for thinking people. Teen BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems) and student UseNet conferences had been going for years, but the WELL was designed to craft and carefully moderate intelligent forums. The WELL went on to go through several transformations and was perhaps the most well documented (if you excuse the pun) and influetial virtual community of all time. Books such as Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier listed in our Bibliography detail the experience of the WELL. I recommend checking out the Netiquette guide in the Advanced Course at Avatar University on the book companion Web site for excellent materials written by community managers at the WELL. You can also check out the WELL on the Web, including a complete community host manual and extensive historical material which can be found at: http://www.well.com/.
NAU SolSySim: First MUD for Learning and Living
Reed Riner, professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, initiated an extraordinary experiment back in the spring of 1990. Reed had been working since 1981 with Jim Funaro and Joel Hagen who are all part of a forward looking group of anthropologists, space scientists, artists and fiction writers called CONTACT, Cultures of the Imagination. This group sought, among other things, to define a practical role for anthropology in the future. Reed and others initiated a project which would tie students together across multiple campuses in a text-based virtual society. He called it the NAU SolSySim. In the simulation, students conceive, design, and realize by role-playing distinct human communities housed in Martian cities, space colonies and moon bases in a future Solar System-wide human civilization. Reed goes on to give us more insight into the NAU SolSySim process:
Thanks to two students in that first year, John P. Jopsy Crane and John Theisen, we started building our model community in the MUD concurrently with the design and organizational activities going on in the classroom. This concurrency has been one of the distinctive features of the experience for all the participating classes. In the 4th year we moved out of Jopsy's DragonMUD, the oldest continuous MUD of it's kind in the Net, into our own clone of that program.
The negotiated scenario is another feature unique to NAU SolSySim. It's derived from the two scenario-building Bateson Projects done at the CONTACT IV and VII conferences (named in honor of the great thinker Gregory Bateson). Negotiation of the events in the time line begins immediately both within each group and among the several groups - and gets canonized by members of the plausibility police in a conference session at the CONTACT conference (the first week in March). After this, the students have to live out the consequences implicit in the scenario that they have negotiated among themselves.
A key component of SolSys is that the teams have no substantial knowledge of the others plans and designs before going live' in the MUD. Another touch is that there are experts on-line acting as plausibility police to make sure the student's actions do not stray into unscientific territory. SolSys teams create virtual economies, political intrigues, conflict and collaboration. Students become absorbed in SolSys and gain much more that the course credits it offers; they learn from direct, if virtual, experience how to manage human affairs.
More of these "social simulation for learning" environments need to be a part of education in the future. Avatar virtual worlds show great potential in this regard and I hope they can live up to the promise and practice of SolSySim. For more information about this unique experiment in networked learning, see Reed's SolSys page at: http://www.nau.edu/anthro/solsys. As a footnote, the Contact Consortium and my involvement in the whole avatar cyberspace movement spring directly from CONTACT and its SolSys Sim and Epona world building projects.
De Digitale Stad: The Prototypical Webworld Virtual Community
A project called De Digitale Stad (the Digital City in Dutch) was initiated in Amsterdam way back in 1993 and 1994. In that project, which was truly pioneering for its time, people created whole neighborhoods in a graphical interface on computers connected by modems. People even had avatars, and could place those avatars in homes in virtual neighborhoods. In 1995, De Digitale Stad moved to the World Wide Web and can now be found at http://www.dds.nl/. (note that this site is mostly in Dutch). This project could be considered the first Webworld, a virtual world constructed by its citizens using Web pages. Virtual Places and its Webtown both owe allegiance to De Digitale Stad.
The De Digitale Stad interface.
The preceding figure shows the Web interface to De Digitale Stad as it is today. Entry points to post offices, neighborhoods, town squares, cafes, and all other city services can be accessed here. See our interview with Rob van der Haar, who worked on De Digitale Stad, earlier in this appendix.
Habitat: the First Avatars
Typical view of Habitat in action
Habitat was the very first networked virtual world in which there were people represented as avatars and who were able to communicate and form a 'virtual community'. It started out running on Commodore 64 computers way back in 1985. A typical scene from Habitat can be seen in the preceding figure.
Rather than me trying to describe the extensive and fascinating history of Habitat, I will let Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer (the lead creators of Habitat) tell the story. The following was excerpted from the introduction of their The Lessons of LucasFilm's Habitat, first presented at The First Annual International Conference on Cyberspace in 1990 and published in Cyberspace: First Steps listed in our Bibliography. The complete paper can be found online at: http://www.communities.com/company/papers/lessons.html
Lucasfilm's Habitat was created by Lucasfilm Games, a division of LucasArts Entertainment Company, in association with Quantum Computer Services, Inc. It was arguably one of the first attempts to create a very large scale commercial multi-user virtual environment. A far cry from many laboratory research efforts based on sophisticated interface hardware and tens of thousands of dollars per user of dedicated compute power, Habitat is built on top of an ordinary commercial online service and uses an inexpensive -- some would say "toy" -- home computer to support user interaction. In spite of these somewhat plebeian underpinnings, Habitat is ambitious in its scope. The system we developed can support a population of thousands of users in a single shared Cyberspace. Habitat presents its users with a real-time animated view into an online simulated world in which users can communicate, play games, go on adventures, fall in love, get married, get divorced, start businesses, found religions, wage wars, protest against them, and experiment with self-government.
The Habitat project proved to be a rich source of insights into the nitty-gritty reality of actually implementing a serious, commercially viable Cyberspace environment. Our experiences developing the Habitat system, and managing the virtual world that resulted, offer a number of interesting and important lessons for prospective Cyberspace architects. The purpose of this paper is to discuss some of these lessons. We hope that the next generation of builders of virtual worlds can benefit from our experiences and (especially) from our mistakes.
The essential lesson that we have abstracted from our experiences with Habitat is that a Cyberspace is defined more by the interactions among the actors within it than by the technology with which it is implemented. While we find much of the work presently being done on elaborate interface technologies -- DataGloves, head-mounted displays, special-purpose rendering engines, and so on -- both exciting and promising, the almost mystical euphoria that currently seems to surround all this hardware is, in our opinion, both excessive and somewhat misplaced. We can't help having a nagging sense that it's all a bit of a distraction from the really pressing issues. At the core of our vision is the idea that Cyberspace is necessarily a multiple-participant environment. It seems to us that the things that are important to the inhabitants of such an environment are the capabilities available to them, the characteristics of the other people they encounter there, and the ways these various participants can affect one another. Beyond a foundation set of communications capabilities, the technology used to present this environment to its participants, while sexy and interesting, is a peripheral concern.
It is important to note that Chip coined the term avatar in 1985 and that the WorldsAway virtual environment described in a chapter earlier in this book is a direct descendant of Habitat, as is Fujitsu's Habitat II.
The original Habitat ran for 6 years in Japan and the US, but it is no longer on line. Plenty of excellent history has been assembled by Farmer, Morningstar, and others at Electric Communities. I recommend checking out the complete Lessons of LucasFilm's Habitat and other links on the Electric Communities White Papers at: http://www.communities.com/company/papers/index.html including:
- The Habitat Anecdotes by F. Randall Farmer at: http://www.communities.com/company/papers/anecdotes.html,
- Social Dimensions of Habitat Citizenry by F. Randall Farmer at: http://www.communities.com/company/papers/citizenry.html, and
- Oracle Layza's Tales as retold by F. Randall Farmer, Tomoko Tsuchiya (AKA 'Oracle Layza') collected stories from life in Japan Habitat over the years 1989-1990 at: http://www.communities.com/company/papers/layza.html