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Sony's Community Place Browser

Sony Corporation's various divisions, including Sony Research Laboratories in Japan and Sony Pictures Image Works (SPIW) in California, have been working on computer spaces to support what they call "virtual society". The latest incarnation of this work is Sony's Community Place Browser (CPB). Sorry for all the new acronyms, to people like me it is just an impulse, so please excuse us! Sony's challenge with CPB was to implement a full version of the second release of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML 2.0) complete with behaviors (i.e.: things move) driven by the Internet programming language Java.

With CPB you can explore some of the best VRML worlds inhabited by avatars. CPB is already being used to build large public trials of multi-user spaces, as we shall see later in this section.

Virtual Society on the Web

Sony states that the goal of the Virtual Society project is to create: a seamless integration of real society and electronic society, another kind of community, a virtual society that's fun, fast and free. To make your place in virtual society, download the Community Place Browser (CPB) from Sony Pictures Imageworks' site at: This a small and simple application (although the download is over 5MB) which can run as a plug-in to Netscape or stand-alone. If you are running it stand-alone, you can try the built-in voice chat.

The Interface

From the following figure we can see CPB in action, with a few avatars there (these were SPIW employees there to give me a tour).

Figure 14.5.1: cp1b.jpg
Avatars in the Sony ChatRoom

Text chat is shown above avatar heads in a translucent bar, a nice touch allowing you to look through someone else's chat to read another conversation. The main chat interface is a window which pops up by the browser window. The following figure shows the MultiUser Window. When you click on the row of emoticons (smiley faces) CPB will send funny sounds into the world and make your avatar gesture for everyone to see. In the text chat itself, all the avatar aliases (names people chose) are shown in color along with the chat, making it easy to trace conversational threads. Note that you have to click between the chat window and the browser to go from moving to talking. Hopefully Sony will improve this. Well designed worlds allow you to walk while you type.

Figure 14.5.2: cp4c.jpg
The MultiUser Window and its emoticon gestures

The speaker/microphone icon combination at the bottom of the MultiUser Window are controls enabling the use of your PC's microphone to speak to other people in the world. My microphone was gray, despite efforts to get sound working. I could not talk and the only thing I heard was the sound gestures emanating from my PC's speakers every time someone pressed one of the smiley faces (whoop dee-doo!).

I expect you will be able to get sound working and try it out. Voice done well gives you a great sense of 'presence' in the world. With voice, you can communicate a wider bandwidth of human emotion and culture (don't need those smiley emoticons so much).

Figure 14.5.3: cp3b.jpg
VRML Moves!

CPB is has support of VRML 2.0 behaviors, which are implemented not only in the worlds but in the avatar editor. As the preceding image shows, I found an undulating ceiling sculpture which was turned on by the proximity of another avatar. The addition of Java into the equation means that simple animations like this can grow to become very entertaining, including sound, textures and more shape shifting.

Navigation is somewhat tricky in CPB worlds. Holding the mouse button down and moving your mouse is one awkward way to move. Keyboard cursor keys can also control movement and a series of simple icons on the right and bottom sides of the browser window allow you to initiate some common motions like floating or turning around. Related to navigation is collision detection. Some objects you will collide with while others you pass right through. This is a source of confusion in all VRML environments and leads to frightening experiences like being buried in walls or falling out of the world.

The Worlds

The initial Sony world looks a little bit plastic but this is just a basic VRML space. CPB can load in a variety of VRML 2.0 worlds and models so you can use it to build your own world (see our chapter called Build your own World, design your own Avatar).

Some beautiful worlds built for The Mirror project (in conjunction with the BBC television programme The Net) by British Telecom and partners showed what could be done with the Sony tools. I recommend visiting to find out more about what went on in The Mirror when it was on-line between 13 January and 28 February, 1996. See more on The Mirror in the section Worlds That Were later in this chapter.

The Honjo Jidai Mura and Sapari Park worlds were built using CPB for Japanese speaking users. Honjo Jidai Mura is a model of an old Japanese city built showing how it looked about 200 years ago. It was captured from old Nishiki-e (Japanese polychrome woodblock prints of the Ukiyo-e). You can visit Honjo Jidai Mura through the English website at:

Sapari Park is a fun relaxation and play zone (in Japanese only) and can be found at:

The Community

As CPB worlds are pretty new, the community is still evolving. As I don't speak Japanese, I could not do much reporting on the Honjo Jidai Mura and Sapari Park worlds, which are very active places. Keep a close eye on Virtual Society on the Web as this exciting new social technology continues to evolve.

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Virtual Society Homepage (mostly in Japanese) is at:

Find VRML Models for use in constructing VRML 2.0 worlds for Community Places and other browsers at:

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© Copyright Bruce Damer, 1997, All rights reserved.