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The Chicago Blaxxun Five pose at the Adler Planetarium

The Chicago Five

The Chicago Five (pictured in the previous figure) are Dave Maloney (nicknamed Guy) and his wife Debbie, nicknamed Gal, and their friends Wild Bill, Pegasus, and Jedi (their avatar nicknames). They are posing in front of the Planetarium in Chicago where they all journeyed to meet in the flesh after knowing each other in Blaxxun worlds. Their stories, which are recounted below, are about human contact through the new medium of digital space, and how new friendships can blossom. Let us now hear from Guy, Pegasus, WildBill, and Jedi, in their own words.

Guy, avatar ring leader of the Chicago Five, and his gal Gal

by David Maloney (a.k.a. Guy)

Hello World Those were the first words that I typed into the keyboard. Before me on my computer screen was a world totally new to me, and unlike anything I had ever seen before on the World Wide Web. A three-dimensional world filled with color and light that I could walk and fly through in real time.

I had been rummaging around on the Internet since November 1995, and had seen my share of Web sites and chat rooms. In early March of 1996 I was paging through a copy of Computer Graphics World magazine, and came across a small article announcing that a company called Blaxxun Interactive had released a product called CyberGate. Reading that it was a beta version of a multi-user virtual reality chat room really did not mean much to me, until I went to their Web site, downloaded the program, and installed it on my computer. I soon understood what they meant.

This is a virtual space that allows people to communicate and interact from anywhere in the world as if they were in the same room. I could see other people that were also logged into the world that I was inhabiting, and communicate with them though a chat box below the 3D window. They appeared in the form of avatars, three-dimensional shapes that could move and fly just as I could. Blaxxun had provided an avatar room filled with interesting and bizarre creatures that would allow you to change how you appeared to others simply by clicking on the avatar you wanted. At first, all we could say to each other was, ìThis is incredible!î and, ìWhen did you find this?î

It was Blaxxun Avatar #12 that I first crawled inside to inhabit the 3D spaces, and took the nickname of Guy. To this day, I am not sure why I took this name, except that Avatar #12 was a kind of generic-looking robotic shape, and I felt that I would start out simple and hopefully transform over time, as I learned more about these virtual reality worlds.

After reading the Help-Me files, and asking a few questions of those who had been using this since its release in February 1996, I soon felt at home here, and started to investigate this world. I was in the main meeting room called PointWorld, which had links to many other 3D spaces or worlds categorized by topic, such as Entertainment, Sports, Computers, etc. Inside these subworlds were links to Web sites pertaining to the topics. Simply double-clicking on the subject would bring up your browser and take you to the 2D site on the Web.

Although this new approach to surfing the Web was interesting, it was the interaction with the people in these worlds that really caught my interest. I spent the next couple of months popping in as time allowed, and I began to learn more and more about some of the people who kept returning. Slowly, I began to think of some of these people as true friends that I saw almost daily, much more often than I was able to see good friends in the real world. An incredible dynamic was being created here. People linked through the Web alone, and never actually met.

What made the conversation so dynamic was the diversity of the people there. There were housewives, computer system managers, Web developers, graphic designers, programmers, kids in high school, just to name a few. All connected though one thing: words. And it was through the use of these words that we got to know each other. Not by how we looked, or how we were dressed, or where we lived, or even the expression on our faces, just words. Some of the conversations that took place were incredible. Subjects ranged from books, movies, new hardware, new software, to a new Baywatch episode. I guess we could get blamed for abusing this great new technology, but we also used this place to amuse and delight each other with our wit (or lack of it) and humor after a hard day at work, school, or home.

My wife, Debbie, soon became interested in these strange shapes moving across the screen, and was wondering why I was sometimes laughing hysterically at the computer. After she began to see some of these shapes start to emerge as real characters and real people, she decided to beam in and join our little community. Guy and Gal soon became part of the virtual landscape of PointWorld and beyond, sometimes causing friendly races to the computer terminal after work, as only one person could log in at a time.

As with any community, there can be problems. And we had our share in cyberspace. Because we were using only typed words to communicate, there was always the chance to misinterpret what someone said. This caused problems more than once. We had to learn to be careful of what we said. As Blaxxun states on their site: ìDon't forget that there is a living, breathing, thinking, feeling person on the other side of that computer screen communicating through their keyboard, just as you are.î

As with any chat room, there is always the problem of people who enter only to cause trouble and ruin the experience for others. We came to call these people ìrudies,î not to be confused with newbies, who were new arrivals, and had not yet learned all the rules associated with these VR spaces. We even had set up meetings to discuss the behavior of these people and how to deal with them. These meetings were not pretty, as this was a decisive issue for some. Some believed that it was an issue of free speech, while others believed that the rooms should be patrolled for such people, and their right to be there revoked. Blaxxun eventually created an elegant solution to this problem by installing an Ignore button into a new release of their software. This allowed those who did not want to hear someone to block them out, while others would not have this censorship forced on them. Peace reigned again in cyberspaceÖ. for the time being.

Besides all the new friends we were talking to from around the world, we also had a chance to talk to, and learn from, the people at Blaxxun, who were very helpful in explaining some of the technology behind the CyberGate product. Their browser is based on VRML 1.0 specifications with some additions that allow users to view the worlds created with any number of VRML builders. The worlds are loaded into the browser and then connected to a main server that transmits all the information about the chat and location of other avatars. It then transits this information back to each user.

Figure 11.25 ch6ba.jpg
Avatars made by Guy, Gal, and Pegasus of the Chicago Five

One of the most fascinating things for me was to first learn that we could create our own avatars, put them on the Web, and use them for our own avatars. Blaxxun soon added this feature to their product, which let us quickly change into whatever avatar we could create. My first project was to create custom avatars for Guy and Gal. I had experience working with computer models in the engineering field that I work in, so I began to investigate VRML, and how to create for it. It wasn't long before we were using the avatars shown here. Gal also took on the alter-ego of the evil penguin, Feathers MacGraw, from the British claymation movies, Wallace & Grommet by Nick Park. I would change my avatar depending on the location from which I was logging in.

Currently, I have over 80 different avatars posted on my Web site for use by the VR community. (see Guy's site at http://www.execpc.com/~dmaloney/wrls.html). Many of these are created from 3D models in other file formats made available on the Web, then converted into VRML using tools such as Pioneer from Caligari (http://www.caligari.com). As the number of people increased in the VR worlds, I always thought that everyone should be able to have their own individual avatar. It is my belief that as the Web expands, it is becoming more democratic. We see this in the sheer number of people building their own Web sites. The next logical step will be people creating their own avatars and worlds to inhabit in cyberspace. This is a basic need of humankind, to change and manipulate the surroundings to suit them. This applies to the virtual worlds as well as the real one.

Another great feature of the Blaxxun browser is that, as well as adding your own avatars, you can also build your own worlds for yourself and others to inhabit. Blaxxun supplies information on how to make them multi-user, just like PointWorld, at their Web site (http://www.blaxxun.com). Another great place for information about world building can be found at Gerry's Inner Sanctum (http://www2.magmacom.com/~gerryp/howtowrl.html). The people at Blaxxun were also a lot of help with my early VR worlds. I learned much from reviewing their code and asking them questions via e-mail and inside the VR worlds. (I never really met any of them; I'm in the Midwest and they are in San Francisco and Munich.) I can't tell you how incredible it was to get the help from their programmers while inside one of my multi-user worlds, as they would go over the code that we were in to help me debug a problem.

Recently, Blaxxun has added another amazing browser as a plug-in to Netscape, using a combination of HTML, VRML, and Java. This is called Passport client. It has many of the same features as CyberGate, plus some additional features requested by users, such as the ability to see yourself as you appear to others. It was interesting to partake in the beta testing program for this product; to watch as the design process unfolded, and as they finalized the code. It took several months, but the end results speak for themselves. This new browser has brought in many new faces into VR land, and I'm sure it will continue to, as more people find out about this amazing new form of communication and connection.

As I write this, we are planning the one-year anniversary party for PointWorld. It first opened on February 13, 1996. As part of the celebration, we are going to try to set a record for the number of people in a virtual world at one time. The unofficial record is 44, I believe. We tried once before, and made it up to around 36 avatars in one world, but I know we can make it up to 50. Blaxxun says that their server can take up to 100, but we'll see. At 36, it was pretty slow going for a while. (See Guy's Pile-in report at http://www.execpc.com/~dmaloney/pilein/).

Last summer, several of the regulars had an opportunity to actually meet for the first time. The meeting place was in Chicago, where some lived, but others traveled all the way from North Carolina. One even rode his motorcycle all the way from New Jersey to be there. I think we were all a little nervous meeting for the first time, but it did not take long for us all to get talking, just as we did on the Web. We are also planning to make this a yearly meeting out in the real world, each year adding new people that we have met. (Later on, maybe we could branch out to different locations in the states, and possibly in different locations in other countries.)

Worldly words from Pegasus

By Jody Christensen (who is the woman on the right in the famed Chicago Picture).
January 29, 1997

I think of myself as being a member of the last generation to have gone through secondary school without ever having to sit before a computer. Never having known the sensation of touching fingers to a keyboard, never acquiring the basic technical knowledge of how to format a disk, never contemplating the mysteries of cyberspace. Growing up in rural Ohio during the 70s was not conducive to such thought, and beyond the reach of most, myself included. So, here I am, a generation later, sharing with you some of my experiences in the virtual world. Simply amazing!

My first introduction into the world of computers came in 1981, while patiently sitting in the computer lab at the University of Wisconsin. I was keeping my husband-to-be company while he painstaking typed out punch cards in order to run his FORTAN programs. I remember groaning to myself every time I heard him exclaim, ìShoot!î I knew what this utterance meant; that the entire card would have to re-punched, but more importantly, that dinner wasn't going to be anytime soon. I think this was the beginning of my indifference to the world of technology. In my eyes, computers were only a nuisance, thus they held no real interest in my life. Computers were simply machines that other people used, not me. Even though computers have been an indirect part of my life for the past 15 years (due solely to the fact that my husband, Carl, has chosen his career in the field of computers), my only interest in them was how they affected our family's lifestyle. Also, while there has been a PC of some sort or another in the household during this time, I had very little interest or working knowledge of computers past the occasional need to write a letter. For me, the computer was only a means to an end; a fancy (and expensive) typewriter. I had virtually no clue as to how to operate our home computer past actually having to push the On button. Just the sound of the computer warming up, with all its grinding and whirling sounds, would nearly send me into a panic, causing me to conjure up all sorts of very imaginative excuses to tell. For each time the computer made these noises, I believed my worst fear had been realized, that I had broken the computer. In short, I was deathly afraid of this machine; it was a menace and should avoided like a plague. The only time I showed that hunk of machinery any interest was when it required dusting, and even then, very begrudgingly.

In 1996, all of this suddenly changed, and it's now rare that a day goes by that my fingertips don't touch the keyboard. There are two things that led to this incredible (as my husband calls it) metamorphosis. The first is simple enough; the purchase of a new home computer, complete with all sorts of bells and whistles (at Carl's insistence), in addition to being more ìJody-friendlyî (at my insistence). The second, and probably most life-altering reason came about in March of that year. One afternoon, my daughter had been trying to run a program on the computer without much success. Unfortunately, she was left with no other option than to ask Mom for help. I worked valiantly for over 15 minutes, trying desperately to solve her woes. Making no progress whatsoever, I threw my hands up in the air and cried, ìUncle!î. I'm sure there was a look of disgust on my face as I told her that she would have to wait until her father came home. ìStupid computer!î I thought. Evil thoughts of drop-kicking the computer flashed before me. It was at this moment that my seven-year-old son entered the room. There was a look of compassion on his face for his (obviously computer illiterate) mother, as he sat down in front of the computer. Taking the mouse in hand, he left-clicked this and that, and within four steps, had the program fully operational. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I made a promise to myself right then and there; As God is my witness, I will never go mouseless again! I vowed that I would never again be intimidated or bested by a piece of machinery. I knew that I would have to change my ways.

The family had been eager to test the capabilities of our new ìtoyî once the computer became fully functional in early April. It was a natural progression to seek out the mysteries of the Internet, and we signed on with a local Internet service provider. The first night, we were connected to the Net, my husband and I were like a couple of kids that had just been given the keys to the candy store. We did what most people do when they first have access to the Internet; we checked out various links, signed on with a few newsgroups, and even ventured as far as a brief visit to the Playboy Home Page (a right of passage). All was going well, so we decided to strive for the ultimateóa chat room. I don't remember the name of the chat room we first visited, but it did leave a lasting impression, nonetheless. I remember being excited to finally experience something that I had only heard about on television. However, it didn't take long for this naivetÈ to quickly turn into disappointment. I remember entering the chat room, and Carl and I were suddenly staring at a simple box that had line after line of text flying across the monitor. It was very confusing. There was no easy way to identify who was talking, thus making a response difficult, and holding a conversation impossible. It was a very cold and impersonal place. The only analogy I can think of to describe what it felt like, would be as if a person had just walked into a room with 100 people, all of whom were talking out loud to no one in particular, and about nothing of importance. Though confusion reigned, it was not difficult to discern the topic du jour of this chat room. It seemed as if sex was on the minds of many around the world on this particular evening. I have to laugh when I think of the image the two of us must have made during that first visit to a chat room. Here were two adults sitting before a monitor, frantically trying to read every message that flashed across the screen, before it would scroll off the screen and into obscurity. When we were able to peel our eyes away from the monitor for a moment, we would sneak a glance at the other and make comments like, ìEww!ÖNo Way!ÖYuck!ÖInteresting!ÖDo you think that is humanly possible?!î It was when Carl turned to me and asked the meaning of an obviously sexual comment that I knew we were out of our element. (You see, I didn't know either, and to this day, that term still remains an unsolved mystery.) It was then that I realized that neither one of us had anything ìnew or interestingî to contribute to the conversation. It was definitely time to move on to greener pastures, or rather, cleaner chat rooms.

It was during a Lycos search for chat rooms that Carl noticed an advertisement for Blaxxun's CyberGate. The idea of a 3D VRML browser intrigued him, so he downloaded it that evening. I sat by his side as he installed the program, and then began to enter the user information. One of the first things required before you can enter PointWorld for the first time is to choose a nickname. We were at a total loss as to what to call ourselves. Nothing came to us, no bolt of lightening nor clap of thunder. Looking at each other for inspiration, the family dog decided to make her ignored presence known by jumping onto my husband's lap. ìSadie!î we said simultaneously. ìHmm,î I thought to myself as we preceded to the next step, the selection of an avatar. We decided on an avatar, provided by Blaxxun, that was not only unique, but more importantly unisex. With a name and avatar in hand, we were now ready to hit the virtual world.

Hello was the first word uttered by a pointy headed, green and purple striped avatar by the name of Sadie. Thinking back on this, I'm sure this one simple word instantly branded us as a newbie (though it didn't seem to make a difference in this virtual world). I was amazed at the immediate response we received from our first tentative hello. Every one of the people in attendance that evening returned a welcoming greeting to us. The second word said by Sadie was as memorable as the first. The meek cry for help was met with some humor, many encouraging words, and a lot of helpful suggestions. All of which made our first visit to PointWorld an enjoyable experience. We had found a nicheÖa home.

Over the next several weeks, Sadie would pop into Point from time to time. With each visit, the names became more familiar, maneuvering the avatar became commonplace, and a rapport was being established with several people. It was refreshing to know that there were indeed living, breathing people just like me on the other end, many of whom shared common interests. We became familiar with each others' likes and dislikes, began to learn about our hopes and dreams, and started to share laughter. It was then that I realized each avatar had its own distinct persona, not only befitting its chosen nickname, but closely matching who they were in real life. I knew then that I would never comfortably fit into Sadie's clothes, for they did not sufficiently depict me as a person. I racked my brain for a nickname that could adequately sum up who I am. From that moment on, I have been known in the virtual community as Pegasus. It was also at this point that my husband became bored with the idea of chatting, and I began to fly solo.

However, it wasn't until July that Pegasus truly became personified. This amazing transformation came about quite unexpectedly. One day, much to my surprise, I discovered a message sitting in my e-mail box from Prince Charming, Gerry Paquette (well known to those who inhabited Point). Previously, we had had a conversation about the importance and implications of choosing a nickname and avatar wisely, for this was indeed the first impression you presented to the rest of the world. I was astonished to discover a few days after this discussion that I was now the proud owner of a custom avatar. I was amazed at the generosity of such a gift, and was in awe of the incredible amount of creativity that goes into each of these creations. Gerry recognized the characteristics that I most wanted to present to the world, and put them all together to create an avatar in the form of Pegasus. I was stunned by the fact that from only a few brief conversations, he was able to capture the essence of who I am. When I first viewed the avatar, a strange but welcoming sensation washed over me, for it was like looking at something familiar. It was as if the missing piece had just been found. From the moment I took that first flight over PointWorld, I felt that I was complete, both in name and form. Finally, what I presented to the virtual community was also who I was as a person.

I would anticipate each visit to PointWorld. The opportunity to exchange ideas with people from all over the world was thrilling for me. Some encounters would be brief, thus these people would remain strangers; there were some I would see from time to time, and they became known as acquaintances; then there are a select few who have become close friends. It started with Webbum, Guy, Gal, and Jedi, soon to be followed by Imagica, Sleeper (also known as Wild Bill) and Synben. Although there are several more people who have also become friends and deserve mention, I'll limit my comments to those connected with the meeting in Chicago. Over the ensuing months, a strong and lasting relationship was established with these people. By using only the written word, we shared our life experiences, our opinions, our humor. There was a genuine sense of caring for each other from the startÖI can't explain it, it was just there.

As we became familiar with one another, it was time to take it to the next level, voice! It was at about this time that Onlive! Traveler was discovered, and we all rushed to download it. Wow! The thought of being able to add a voice (other than our own) to the words that we had been reading for so many months was indeed exciting. I believe it was Jedi's voice that I first heard, followed by Bill, and then Webbum. I still smile to myself when I think back on this moment. This was virgin territory; none of us really knew what to expect, or what would be expected of us. You see, it was a tremendous leap of faith; it was exposing another part of your self, and it was a commitment of sorts. Things became more personal...real. The funniest thing is that each one of them sounded similar to what I had imagined. Their voices fit the mental image I had of each of them, and the reaction from everyone was very positive. There had been little in the way of surprises, and I took comfort in that fact. We didn't limited ourselves to Onlive! but experimented with other voice programs such as Intelphone, NetMeeting, CoolTalk, and finally settled with Powwow (which has become a constant in our lives, and a common way for us to quickly contact one another).

Having taken the big step of adding voice to the relationship, it was inevitable that the next step was to meet in personósomething we all anticipated, but not without some trepidation. One day, while visiting PointWorld, Jedi mentioned that he was scheduled to take a business trip to Chicago in late August. There was a flurry of comments to the effect that this would be a great opportunity for us to meet, as Imagica lives in Chicago, Guy and Gal just an hour up the road, and me only a mere five hours away. A meeting place was decided on and an invitation went out to the greater CyberGate community. Many of the regulars were very excited about the prospect of meeting, and tried to fit it into their schedules. Disappointment was expressed by those who could not attend. It was going to be interesting to see who indeed would make it.

It was decided that the first place we met should be somewhere fun, easygoing, and very public. Six Flags Great America, an amusement park, was an excellent choice. On the appointed day, August 30, a 10 a.m. rendezvous was scheduled. I walked up to the main gate at the strike of 10 a.m. wondering to myself how in the world I was going to recognize people that I had never set eyes on before. I had never seen a picture of either Gal or Jedi (two people that I knew would be there), but recalled from past conversations several snippets of descriptions of themselves. I knew that Deb was of medium height with long black hair, and Jeff's description of himself reminded me of my brother. So there I was, in a crush of people, looking for a dark-haired woman shorter than I am and someone who looked like a younger version of my brother. Not much to go on, I thought to myself. (LaughingÖOh ye of little faith!) As I walked up toward the main gate, I noticed two people starting to rise up from a bench. To this day, I don't know why, but I knew without a doubt that this was Jeff and Deb. I walked up to them, as they in turn walked across the pavement to meet me. There were a lot of smiles as we introduced ourselves. Letting the knowledge that we were finally face-to-face sink in, we anticipated the day that lay before us. A day that was filled with fun, friendly dares to see who was the bravest roller coaster rider among us, and above all else, a lot of laughter. It still amazes me how at ease we were with each other right from the get go. That wonderful day we spent together (we ended up closing the park) just reinforced my belief that it is possible to get to know a person, to become friends, over the Internet.

The next day, a meeting was planned at the planetarium along the lakefront in the heart of Chicago. I was the first to arrive, followed by Jeff and his friend, Sean. We were sitting on the steps of the building waiting for the others to arrive. The three of us were joking around when a tremendous roar caught our attention. We had front row seats as Bill roared up on his motorcycle. It was quite a sight! There was no doubt in either Jeff's or my mind that this could be anybody but Bill. What can I say, except Bill is Bill, and probably one of the most genuine people you would ever care to meet. There are no pretenses with Bill; he tells it like it is. What a breath of fresh air. I know I would have been disappointed if he had been any different in real life. We were able to chat for a little while before Gal and Guy arrived, and I was pleased to discover that Dave was everything I had expected. From that first hello, you felt that you had been friends for a lifetime. A feeling that sadly doesn't happen much in this world today. I was astonished at the immediate ease we all felt in each others' presence, and wanted to capture that moment for posterity. I handed my camera to Jeff's friend and asked him if he would take our picture. The rest is history.

These will always be cherished memories. It has been an extremely rewarding experience to have met in person the people who have become true friends via the Internet. In the months that have passed since our initial meeting, we have grown even closer. We continue to share with each other life's joys, its pains, and unselfishly bestow upon each the common thread that binds us; we share laughter.

Little did I know how my life would change that day I first visited PointWorld. From that first tentative one-word greeting, I have established lifetime friendships. I have been able to keep that promise I made, and I am no longer intimidated by technology. I feel that I have the world literally at my fingertips, and eagerly await the expansion of my horizons. I am a better person today.

Wild Bill's Cyberstory

By Bill DeVercelly
February 1997

My name is Bill DeVercelly and I'm known in VRML chat as WildBill. I am a denizen of Blaxxun's PointWorld, and other worlds, and actually met some of the others from PointWorld in Chicago and found lifelong friends. This is my story...to be continued.

I got my first PC in March of 1996...mainly to play Doom and to get my finances in order. I was living on Long Island in New York at the time. I had some PC experience on my cousin's PC, but no Internet experience at all. Little did I know what experiences awaited me there.

When I finally got on the Net, I naturally looked for shareware to abuse. One of my favorite stops was ZDNet. One day, I saw a promo for 3D worlds and ZDNet's terminal. In order to visit this site, I was forced to download and install CyberGate. Interactivity (chat) was mentioned, but I had no chat experiences and frankly thought it was silly.

I went to the ZDNet site and waited....and waited. It was a slow loader. Somehow, I don't know how, I connected to PointWorld. It loaded quickly and I was flying! All I was really there for was the 3D movement. Chat didn't interest me...but....I started to glance at the chat window and catch some of the conversation.

Hmm, said I. Why not jump in? I did and that, as they say, was that. Pretty soon, I stopped moving through 3D worlds except for looking at the other avatars! I was too busy chatting!

About the time this started, in April 1996, I was in trouble at work. I am a 41-year-old x-ray technician, and the hospital industry is going the way of the corporate world, downsizing to save money. My 15 years of experience and high pay made me a liability. As it turned out, I was the fourth middle-aged male technician to be terminated in the span of one year. There was no honest parlay, just harassment and a firm push out the door. Since other area hospitals were up to the same shenanigans, there were no other jobs in my field available, and I was forced onto unemployment. Needless to say, my position as a full-time technician with benefits was never refilled...per diem technicians filled it. Bad news.

I had, by this time, made a few regular friends in PointWorld. I found that chat provided me with a better idea of who a person was than a real-time meeting of that person. There were no superficial pressures, (How do I look? Is my hair right?) and for some reason, text allowed us to truly say who we were! I cannot explain it. Also, a person's choice of avatar said something about them to me, a further clarification about their self-image, something that you normally don't get to see. This was wonderful!

While conversing with Imagica (Pam Miller) one day, I overheard someone mention a get-together in Chicago. I was particularly close with an avatar named Pegasus (Jody Christensen) at the time; she seemed to understand me better than I did! I discovered that she, Imagica, Jedi (Jeff Wilson), Guy (Dave Maloney), and Gal (Deborah Maloney) were planning to be in Chicago for the weekend after Labor Day. I thought that since I was not obliged to be at work, I would try to attend too. Man...did the enthusiasm show when I mentioned this! I decided then and there to definitely attend.

I decided, since funds were limited and the weather was fair in September, that I would take my motorcycle. It would also help others to identify me since it's RED. I e-mailed a scanned map of downtown Chicago and placed an X on a spot at the Adler Planetarium as the meeting place. Everyone seemed to agree that it would be a good spot...on the lake (Michigan).

While all this was transpiring, CyberHub client (now called Passport) was released in beta form to the regulars at PointWorld. It was buggy....very buggy at first, and the participation rate was pathetic. I e-mailed Blaxxun and offered my services as a volunteer, and got enthusiastic responses from many there. One actually recommended that I apply for webmaster! It was a fine dream, but I really didn't and don't have a lot of coding experience (sigh). I applied, but got no response on the webmaster posting, but wasn't really disappointed...everyone was so nice that I just forgot it.

The time came, and I zipped to Chicago in a timely fashion. I arrived promptly at the agreed time and found Pegasus, Guy, Gal, Jedi and a friend of Jedi's there at the Planetarium. It was warm, humid, and sunny....nice for an outing.

As it turned out, the others had arrived a day or two earlier, and gone to Six Flags amusement park and had a great time together. Guy told me that his company was bidding on a job (new roof) for Adler Planetarium! Talk about coincidence! (I found out recently that his company actually won the contract! Naturally, I demanded my cut.)

As it turns out, the closest person geographically to Chicago couldn't make it...Pam Miller or Imagica. She and her family were holed up in a one-room apartment awaiting military housing, and she was just plain busy.

Guy, Gal, Jedi, Pegasus, and I met up with another avatar by coincidence....Stormbringer. It turns out that he lives in Chicago. He joined in, and we went out for a late lunch and drinks. It was a pleasant get-together.

Needless to say, as soon as I got home (and once at a cybercafe in London, Ontario, Canada), I e-mailed all concerned to let them know I had gotten home safely. We have been close ever since. I have since relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina, but have not yet settled. I would love to settle in a town built just for us cybergaters! Come to think of it, Imagica has built such a place! It's called Flamingo World, and it is a model of cyburbia, with custom homes! We each store the homes on our server, which are linked from her Flamingo World. What a concept! Passport has been put to good use!

We tentatively plan another get-together for this year.

Let me say that CyberGate and Passport are a lot bigger to us than anyone realized they would become. I dread the day that it all stops. My life has been irrevocably changed. I have gone through periods of extreme depression and despondency in my efforts to seek the security I lost when I was downsized, and I feel that my friends in cyberspace have literally saved my life. I confer with them in PointWorld and with other Net applications.

regularly, and their support gives me the strength and love I need to go on. We all strive to maintain a courteous atmosphere in all the worlds we frequent. It actually works! PointWorld has attracted a bunch of new people, and they are all treasured as true friends. Some have gone on to other things, but most stop in on occasion for a little nostalgia or a laugh.

Thanks Blaxxun...we would be strangers without you.

A Few Words from Jedi
February 1997

It was early March in 1996, and I was a student at a local community college during my evening hours after work. I first signed onto the Internet in August of 1995, mainly for research; and for a period of about six months, that was all I used it for. Late one Friday evening, I was doing a Lycos search, as I usually do whenever looking for information. I can't even remember what the topic was, but I was doing a research paper. The advertisement at the top of Lycos on this night was for a 3D VRML browser by the name of CyberGate. To this point, I'd never really paid any attention to the advertisements in the search engines, but on this night, I did. I went to the Web site, www.blaxxun.com, and ended up starting a download while I continued the search for my information. Little did I know about what I was downloading.

The next morning, I got up and found my computer right where I left it. I had left it turned on all night, going to bed with the download running. I began to install this program, still having no idea what it was or what it did. Them came the time when I was asked to enter the user information. Up to this point, in my experiences on the Internet, I had never once been in a chat room of any kind, and often made fun of people who were hooked on the sleazy chat rooms from AOL. I entered in my first name and last initial, along with interests. The time came to pick a nickname to be used on the screen, and I had absolutely no idea. I started glancing around the room, across the walls, and up at the ceiling like there would be some answer written there. Finally, my eyes caught sight of the Star Wars Trilogy sitting on the shelf to the left of the computer desk. ìReturn of the Jedi,î was in plain sight, and seemed like a simple enough name to use. I was still paranoid about giving out too much information on my cards, so I didn't even put my e-mail address in with my personal information. Now comes the time to pick an avatar, as soon as I figure out what an avatar is. After finding out the definition, I proceeded into the avatar room, looking around at all of the strange-looking figures along the wall. The one I ended up with was a slim shady figure, wearing a trench coat, sunglasses, and a hat. Now, all was set for a new chapter of my life to begin.

ìHello????î…my first inquisitive word to hit the screen of PointWorld. When I arrived in PointWorld, there was only one other figure in there, and I believe he was in the same situation as I, having just installed it. The feeling was incredible, with users actually being able to walk through this virtual world, exploring and taking in the scenery, just as though they were on a Sunday drive to a place they had never been to before. We talked as I made my way around the room, checking out some of the links as I went. Some of the links would take you to a simple HTML document, others would take you into other rooms, which were broken down into more specific HTML links. I continued to explore, still chatting some, but not letting it be the main point of my presence in PointWorld. My first visit only lasted for about 45 minutes at the most, but it was enough to get my attention. I turned the machine off for around an hour, but found myself back in PointWorld every time I walked past the computer for the rest of the weekend. During that first weekend, I made the acquaintance of seven or eight people at the most. One of the acquaintances I met noticed my nickname of Jedi, and started building the avatar that I have inhabited for most of the 11 months since then. Within the first week of my discovery of CyberGate, I was already wearing my first custom avatar. A VRML designer made me an x-wing, such as the one that young Luke Skywalker flew throughout the Star Wars Trilogy. It was a task getting the avatar information to me, considering that I didn't put my e-mail address on the card. After talking for awhile to the person that designed the x-wing, I listed my e-mail address, thus making the first contact with someone that I trusted enough to give that information to.

Over the next few months, the PointWorld community began to grow. Relationships began to develop between all of the regulars in the virtual world, and it did indeed become easy to see that there definitely was a living, breathing person behind each avatar. We all had built a certain persona, thinking we were leaving our real lives behind for PointWorld, but quite honestly, it was becoming our real lives. PointWorld had become a place for each of us to meet; to relax, and share what happened to us on any given day with our friends. Some days the tales would be good, others maybe not so good, but there was always someone there to listen. The population continued to grow, with a new bunch of newbies coming in every few days. People have always had the tendency to form groups of friends that they share more with than others. It isn't an insult to the rest of the friends who aren't in this group, but rather a compliment to the friends that are. Our particular group began to gel sometime around mid to late April.

One afternoon, while I was playing around in PointWorld, a lady by the name of Pegasus started talking about her e-mail problems. She and I went into a private chat session and started to work through her problems. Her e-mail address wasn't posted on her card yet either, but she trusted me enough by that time to give it to me in order to test her mail package. We worked through the settings in her mail package, which was a relatively easy task, considering we were 800 miles apart. The first e-mail I sent to her was plain and simple, ìthis is a test.î She noticed that my last name was the same as her maiden name, so we ended up addressing each other as ìcuzî thereafter when we met in PointWorld, joking about the slim chance that we may somewhere along the line be distant cousins. That was the beginning of one of the best friendships of my lifetime that continues to thrive today.

Guy and Gal were already established regulars in PointWorld. I had spoken with them on numerous occasions, and enjoyed each and every conversation. They were always so fun and energetic on their entry into PointWorld, and it was no problem whatsoever to become friends with them. One day, we were all in there playing around, with Guy and Gal both being logged in at the same time from two different locations, along with a few more close friends, and a friendly battle of the sexes began. The names of the forces in this battle were the Brudderhood and the Sisterhood. With each passing week, the battle became more and more interesting. Numerous HTML pages have been written to fight this battle, along with various e-mail postings, and other little friendly pranks. Although we look like we hate each other when we're going at it in PointWorld, each conversation ends with ìtake care,î or ìhave a great night,î and we all have a great deal of respect for each other, knowing where the boundaries are in the battle.

In early July of 1996, I found that a business trip to Chicago was in the works for me. Since one of my best friends from high school lives in Chicago, I decided to take a few extra days while I was up there to relax and enjoy myself. Well, we started talking about this trip in PointWorld, and it worked out that Guy and Gal could come down from Wisconsin, as well as Pegasus, and Bill wanted to make the trip from Long Island, New York on his motorcycle. Lots of time was spent talking about this trip, and the details of it, although we knew that it would only cover a short time span.

In the time since we all met on the Internet, I had seen pictures of Gal, Guy, and Pegasus, so I had a general idea of what I thought they would look like. On August 30, 1996, I got to put my idea to the test. Gal, Pegasus, and I arranged a meeting at Six Flags Great America just north of Chicago. We planned on meeting on one of the benches outside the main entrance. I arrived at the park about 30 minutes early and made my way to the gate. Walking up the sidewalk, I noticed a lady sitting on the bench, looking as though she were expecting someone. It looked nothing like the picture I had seen earlier of Gal, and she had never seen a picture of me. I walked past her once, back past her again, and once more before coming to a halt right beside her. After about five minutes of contemplation, I asked her, ìAre you looking for Jody?î The look of confusion on her face will remain etched in my memory forever. ìHi, I'm Jedi,î was my introduction. That sort of broke the ice, and we started up our conversation, although I feel like she was in shock for the first few minutes. I've never known Gal to be that quiet. After she and I talked for a few minutes, we both noticed a tall, slender woman walking up toward the gate, looking all around for us. From the picture I had of her, I could recognize Pegasus anywhere. Although she was quite a bit different from the picture, the similarities were enough to pick her out of a lineup. Finally, we were all together.

The day at Six Flags was one of the most incredible days of my life. Jody, Deb, and I rode every ride in the park over and over, from the time the park opened until the time it closed. Since the battle of the sexes had been raging for months at that point, naturally the Sisters were going to do everything in their power to put me in precarious situations at any chance. We rode every water ride in the park, and I believe I couldn't have been any wetter if I were scuba diving. Gal and Pegasus made sure I was seated to take the brunt of the water. On the non-water rides, I was conveniently seated so each of them would have an ear to scream in. We played, we socialized, and really got a feel for each other that day. In that one short day we covered a lifetime of experiences. I don't think it is humanly possible to have any more fun in one day than I had that day.

The next day, we all planned a get-together at the planetarium on the lakefront in Chicago. Pegasus was the first to arrive, with me and a friend showing up a short time later. After sitting there with Pegasus for 15 or 20 minutes, we noticed a red motorcycle coming our way. Before he even got within a hundred yards of us, Pegasus and I stopped talking and both said at the same time, ìThere's Bill.î It was indeed Bill, without a doubt. Bill came into our crowd in early June I believe, and it was nothing for him to fit right in with the rest of us. It was as if the rest of us were just paving the way, waiting on his arrival in PointWorld. Bill is one of the most genuine people you would ever want to meet, and we expected nothing less when we met him in person, which was exactly what we got. Bill's journey had taken him across three or four states, covering a time period of 16 hours. I think I'll stick with flying to these meetings in the future. After WildBill, Pegasus and I talked for a few more minutes, Gal showed up, and this time she had Guy with her. Guy was everything I expected. I had seen his picture posted on a page a few months earlier, and knew him well enough from our conversations in the preceding months. A firm handshake with a friendly Hello, and I felt like I had known him all my life. We all sat on the steps at the planetarium, waiting on our other friend from PointWorld who lives in the greater Chicago area to show up. Imagica never did show up that afternoon, and it wasn't until weeks later that we found out she had gotten lost (or busy) trying to find us. The meeting on Saturday only lasted about four hours, but out of it came two pictures that I will cherish forever. Much more than that came out of it, though. It was the contact with true friends that I would have never met had it not been for the creation of PointWorld.

In the time since then, we have all continued to grow closer. We've endured football season, had the friendly regional rivalries, and even managed to humiliate each other with friendly football wagers. In addition to this, I think we've all tried to adjust our schedules somewhat to accommodate for our international friends, who are some of the greatest people you could ever possibly want to meet. We've unleashed a series of HTML pages documenting the plight of the Brudderhood, and the plight of the Sisterhood. Each week brings another round of insults in our friendly rivalry, and each night always brings a ìgood night,î or even an occasional ìLove ya!î I'm not one to dwell in the tasks of building these worlds and their avatars. I'm simply a user, and try my best to express my utmost respect and admiration for their talents. We do indeed plan to try to make this a yearly occasion, and it would be great if we could bring other avatars in on this fun. I don't look at last year's meeting as a meeting of the avatars. To me, it was just a great group of friends doing what friends do best.

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