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Multi-User VRML Environments
by Bruce Damer

Welcome to a tough, world by world review of multi-user VRML systems. We are going to cover it all, folks, every multi-user VRML browser out there. We are only reviewing pure VRML environments. Onlive Traveler and some other worlds can import VRML but use another format to display it. All of these worlds have problems folks. If we were rating them on a system, none would earn more than a couple of ‘readiness stars’ and some would earn many ‘user hostile bullets’. Hey, we’re all still in Beta, though, and we will get there!

Avatar Teleport

I am writing a book on all multi-user graphical virtual worlds so I can compare these VRML worlds with everything that has been tried on the net. You can get a preview of the book at the Avatar Teleport website. Remember, 95% of people using avatars in virtual worlds today are not using VRML avatars or worlds. VRML has some ways to go. If people are the next killer app of the net, VRML has a golden opportunity to be the greatest people meeting space of all time. If VRML and the companies and products reviewed below cannot rise to this challenge, VRML may be stuck as a tool to review engineering and scientific models (great applications, but not the Metaverse). If we all work together, we will get there!

OZ Virtual

OZ Virtual

OZ Virtual is a crisp, beautifully crafted VRML world brought to us by the good folks at OZ Inc. from distant Iceland. Rich textures, a wide variety of worlds with behaviors really push the envelope on VRML. OZ Virtual is an exploration of the possible, even though it has many shortcomings, as you will read below.

The Browser
The OZ Virtual browser is a strange beast. While it looks very cool, the interface is quite difficult to understand and use. OZ has departed from the Windows interface standards enough that after a while the cool look just becomes a plain pain in the neck. At the bottom of the browser, there are a series of popups for things like Navigation, and Audio controls. Unfortunately, these do not behave like popups and it is difficult to get them to pop back down. The circular controls variously rotate the world, or indicate whether files are loading or do nothing apparent. Other popups such as those controlling viewpoints go to normal 'un-cool' windows popup menus but work predictably.

OZ gives you no progress bar during loading of the world, a real no-no in the universe of large VRML. The fancy interface frame hides sizing controls and is occasionally covered by residues from Windows trying to paint itself (as you can see above). Another issue is apparent as soon as you enter: the ground zero entry plaza is so dark as to make it hard to see the features there. Icelandic winters are long, but this doesn't mean Cyberspace ones have to live in them!

A third, and most serious problem with OZ Virtual is navigation. Navigation in all VRML worlds, with no exception, is awkward and non-intuitive. VRML was built to browse objects, perhaps focusing in on them or rotating them. This type of navigation, often done quite acceptable by mousing with a button held down is completely unsuited for traveling through a virtual world and getting in front of avatars to talk with them. The first thing I always do on the OZ Virtual street is to fall off it. Until an OZ employee told me about holding down the ctrl key while mousing, I could not walk a straight line. Keyboard cursor keys, more commonly used for navigation, are not accelerated or given 'fly' or 'sink' commands using useful combinations like ctrl or alt or shift.

The avatar selector/editor is one of the best I have yet seen with numerous options to stretch and color body parts. Avatar selection was sparse although I expect with this skillset, the OZ folks could include an avatar editor in a snap.

Communication in OZ is awkward, breaking Bruce's second commandment of virtual world interfaces: thou shalt not put chat into a separate window. To switch between chat and motion you must click back and forth on different windows. Well designed chat interfaces always integrate the chat area and allow you to start chatting by merely typing (you should not have to stop moving, and you should not have to click in a text entry area). This allows for spontaneous and rapid communication and make the interface more transparent.


Sputnik Station and the neighboring Orion Station Disco

The World
All said and done about interface problems, OZ has created worlds that are visually without parallel in my experience. OZ artists are real masters in light (although they need more of it), texture, and mood. High quality sound and music also fills OZ worlds. I was visiting OZ space stations like Sputnik and Orion with my date (a guide from OZ) and we even boogied down at the Disco. Disco did not die in Iceland and OZ's rich arrangement of wonderful avatar moves and the ability to see yourself from the back or side (but not front) makes it possible to really dance!

Backing out of a bright and cheery world in OZ

Ah, what a relief, my date took me to the sunny landscape of a kind of kid's Farmer John world. It was a delight until I navigated outside Farmer John's cabin (why does this always happen to me?).

The Community
I rarely met anyone in OZ Virtual and then when I did it was by prior arrangement to meet OZ employees so I can't say there is much of a community developed. Of course, until OZ adds the ability for users to design their own worlds and avatars and make some mark on the environment, they will not attract much of a user base. While doing this review, I revisited OZ Virtual and over 4 hours one person came in. I asked him how he liked it and he said: "cool world but not enough people". During the whole time I spoke with him, I could not see his avatar, a frequent problem. OZ clearly has some work to do. Another mark of incomplete socialware was that no avatars had name badges or could be clicked on for profiles. Can't build community if you don't know who you are talking with in the world. Why am I being so hard on these new kids on the block? I suppose because they represent real potential to create killer VRML socialware and wonderware.

Black Sun's CyberHub

Black Sun

CyberHub by Black Sun Interactive is the result of long work on a powerful multi-user VRML server and a previous browser called CyberGate. CyberHub is one of two browsers (along with Sensemedia's The Sprawl) that walks the talk, which means that they integrate as a standard cross platform tool within Netscape. CyberHub runs within Netscape as a series of plug-ins and uses Java for its interface. This means that CyberHub can scale and improve as each plug-in improves and that in theory it can run on any platform supporting Java and the plug-ins.

You pay a price for this all-encompassing modern architecture, however, as CyberHub can be very unstable (size that window at your own risk). Cyberhub can be slow but this is related to network latency and large VRML wrls. CyberHub has been getting more stable and the user interface has been improving.

You must have Netscape 3.0 as CyberHub runs as a series of plug-ins to Netscape. Minimum requirements: Pentium PC, Win95/NT. Note as CyberHub uses Netscape and standard VRML plug-ins such as Live3D or Cosmo Player, once these are supported on the Power Macintosh, you will be able to run CyberHub on a Mac. Expect this some time by mid-year, I am told.

CyberHub Browser showing Plaza welcome area

The Browser
As the image above shows, the browser is organized as a series of frames within the Netscape window. The main window shows the world, with the navigation controls of the browser VRML plug-in you (in this case, Cosmo Player from SGI). The interfaces on the left allow you to move between private and public chat lines and reach other services such as the avatar selection web page. Clicking on Scenes will bring you a list of VRML worlds you can visit and Cards brings up your business card, a kind of avatar ident. Black Sun borrowed this from Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash (along with their company name). You can exchange cards with any user you meet and build a collection of cards. The bottom frame shows the chat areas and a list of users (by alias) currently in the Plaza area. You can message users, open private chat, or even start Cooltalk or Microsoft Netmeeting for voice conversations.

Obviously, this browser is a work in progress. Sometimes your chat is switched off when new people enter the world. Also, avatars have no name badges or other identifying marks so it is very difficult to associate the chat with the avatars in the scene. Lastly, the Java applets or the entire live-connected structure can freeze up and you have to shut the application down. Thank goodness for Win95/NT to be able to do this and I shudder to think how this will lock up poor old non-memory protected Macintoshes.

Getting a tour of PointWorld

The World
This image shows me getting a tour of the original PointWorld, the oldest space in the Blacksun universe. As you can see, the avatars are very geometric and could use more textures to add character and distinguish them from the background. Also, most avatars have no arms, so no hand waving gesticulations here. CyberHub has such a wide range of styles and designs because users are contributing their own content. I visited crude cylindrical worlds build by an 11 year old as well as professionally crafted spaces created by a company named Simberon (see below).

Simberon's Beach World

The true power of Black Sun's approach is apparent when you see the large number of worlds which can be visited through CyberHub. This open approach allows users to build their own world and design their own avatar. Visiting a world is as easy as picking one out of the list in the CyberHub browser or entering a URL into Netscape's location window.

The Chicago CyberHub Five

The Community
The design and content of worlds are only interesting for a limited period of time. After that, it is the people who make it worth revisiting a world. The 11 year old's crude world had a big crowd because he had designed a clock which would count down new years'. I had more interesting conversations there and therefore have more memories of Emperor Pter and his clan and their crazy space. Now on to the 'Chicago Five' (you can see them pictured here). Dave 'Guy' Maloney and his gal 'Gal' and their friends Bill, Pegasus and Jedi in front of the Planetarium in Chicago, where they all journeyed to meet in the flesh after knowing each other for a very long time in PointWorld and CyberHub. Their story will be told in more detail in my upcoming book. This kind of dedication of virtual world fans will power the medium forward.

Avatars made by some of the Chicago Five

The Chicago Five have created some of their own avatars, shown here. The potential of user creativity in virtual worlds (as shown by the 12 million objects placed down in AlphaWorld) is vast. This will change our whole idea of content creation.

Chaco's Pueblo

Chaco

Pueblo from Chaco Communications is an interesting hybrid of a 3D world and a MUSH/MOO/MUD Telnet client. Like Sensemedia's The Sprawl, described later, Pueblo leverages the existing community of text based virtual worlds, giving them HTML and VRML graphics.

Common problem in Pueblo

The Browser
Pueblo installs as a Telnet client. Not be familiar with MUD interfaces it took me a while to figure out that I could enter commands or click on links to find some worlds. This is a very challenging environment and presented the most roadblocks to users of any multi-user VRML world reviewed. VRML-enhanced text chat worlds were hard to find. For the most part you would just click down a set of menus (which would beep when selected with the same sound Windows uses to tell you: you can't select there). If you clicked on a new selection before the current page was loaded you would get a rude dialogue like the one in the image above and be forced to shut down and restart Pueblo. Looks like a web page, but it is not and is very user intolerant.


PuebloMUSH running with avatar selection gallery

Once you find a world which has VRML support, like PuebloMUSH, shown above, you must sign in as a user. I entered the name guest and guest as a password and was let in. Some MUD sign-ins involve a whole mess of ASCII text trying to be an image of some kind and then all sorts of requirements to define your character. This is of course a good community builder but be forewarned that it is coming. Pueblo is quite unstable, and, after shutting it down while I was a guest in PuebloMUSH, I was unable to log back in as guest, seems like the server did not drop that handle. I was in PuebloMUSH just long enough to get some VRML up and navigate into an avatar selection gallery to chose my avatar. Before crashing I was in a gallery which had nice artwork displayed but it was almost impossible to travel through and see them. The cursor keys moved you so grossly that you would shoot past paintings. The click and hold mousing solution (also terrible for navigating worlds) would just propel you across the gallery (and eventually crashed the browser). Warning: there is cheesy music, get ready to switch those speakers off!


Shot from VRML enhanced Pueblo World

The World
It is hard to judge Pueblo worlds because so many of them are not built for Pueblo but are actually existing text-based communities using Pueblo's fancier Telnet interface. The few VRML worlds I visited seemed very rudimentary, a whole generation behind the other VRML environments. I could not say much more about Pueblo's worlds. The image above shows a scene in Pueblo which I could never find. There is just not enough VRML in Pueblo yet to consider it a multi-user VRML environment.

The Community
Apart from several MUSHs and MOOs I logged into, which have their own variously rich communities, I found no other users in Pueblo VRML enhanced areas. Repeated requests of Chaco for a tour turned up a blank. The best I can say: MUDs have incredibly rich communities, if you are a MUDder and dig an all-text interface. Pueblo certainly is not going to convince them that a VRML graphical interface is more than just window dressing on what they already have. An Pueblo on its own cannot compete with other fully designed multi-user VRML spaces.

Intel's IDMOO

Intel's IDMOO

IDMOO or Intel Distributed MOO is a text and voice chat supported VRML avatar world. IDMOO is a test bed for some of Intel's exciting work on Java enable behaviors. We expect to see some of this work enter the IDMOO 2.0 client browser soon.

IDMOO 1.0 Browser Client

The Browser
IDMOO is worth downloading to try out some of the basic technologies and tricks, including:

  • Personally created VRML avatars and rooms.
  • Queued audio and text chat.
  • Multiple views of the virtual environment.
  • URL-based browsing of Intel Distributed MOO servers world wide.
As the figure above shows, I was engaged in both text and voice chat (note the read speaking man icon) with a gentleman from Montreal named Rocky. The sound was clear when it came in but rather difficult to tell when you should speak or hold. As you can see from the text, Rocky was having a hard time also. This points out the value of having more than one mode of communication!

Another feature of the Intel browser is the Views Window with its avatar mannequin and 'pegs'. I had selected the 'peg' on the lower left and changed my view from my own eyes so that I could see myself from the side and Rocky (facing me). Clicking on the mannequin will bring the view back into my own eyes.

The World
I did not do much exploring beyond the pavilion as I found navigation to be very difficult. I did back out of the pavilion once by accident and found myself in space and unable to get back in. IDMOO

IDMOO consists of a client and a server. As Intel says "the client is designed to visit Intel Distributed MOO rooms served up by others; the server is designed to serve up rooms for others to visit". I was told about some IDMOO users who had built their own rooms out of VRML 1 but never managed to meet any.

Custom avatars built by IDMOO citizenry

The Community
The times I have been in IDMOO, I have met one or two people, all using the default 'dummytar' avatar you saw in the first image in this section. The above shot was provided to me to show custom avatars built by users. I did not meet enough people to get a sense for community here. Even though its name contains the world MOO (meaning MUD-multi user domain, Object Oriented), IDMOO is neither based on an actual MOO (as are Pueblo and The Sprawl) nor has the community structures designed into all MUDs. My feeling is that IDMOO is very much an experimental test bed.

Late Breaking News: IDMOO 2.0!

IDMOO 2.0

IDMOO 2.0 is here! IdMoo is written entirely in Java and loads its VRML worlds dynamically from web (HTTP) servers. The first world is a fishtank with avatar fish controlled by users with realistic swimming behaviors. The shark in the scene is a biot, an autonomous agent acting like a piece of biology. The shark can eat fish (but not user-embodied avatar fish). Users can communicate with text chat. IDMOO is extensible by users. I suggest you check out the just posted IDMOO 2.0 web site.

IDS's V-Realm Multi-user Browser

IDS

Integrated Data Systems of Savannah, Georgia has a powerful set of VRML 2.0 authoring and server tools that includes integrated voice streaming. I have been following them for 3 years so was interested in seeing their multi-user browser. Unfortunately, technical problems prevented me from being in the world more than a few minutes. I thought it would be worth sharing some information with you in the hopes the you, dear readers, will have better luck than I did!

V-Realm Browser

The Browser
This is the shot of the browser looking into the entry plaza. It seemed bright and the browser controls were clear and well designed, almost if they were borrowed from flight simulators. Unfortunately you have to go through a menu step (Start Multiuser on the Multiuser menu) to connect to a multi-user server, it is not automatic. Navigation controls were effective, although in the bad-old VRML way. Movement was not smooth or intuitive and I found myself sitting under the world many times. A virtual world should not be treated as a model and motion should be as easy as in popular 3D games like Nintendo 64 or Doom or it just is not worth building multi-user VRML. To top it off, I could not use the cursor keys to navigate.

The World
The world seemed cheery and the plaza design is always effective as an entry area. I could not get through doors or find a list of all viewpoints. The sad fact was that V-Realm never stayed running long enough to do any serious exploring. Win95 would dutifully shut it down or it would simply freeze or take so long to repaint (on my 133MHz Pentium) that I thought it was frozen.

The Community
Never met a single soul in V-Realm so I can't say anything about community there.

Sony's Community Place Browser

Sony

This a small and simple application, although there is almost 5 megabytes to download. This is clearly a beta world. I had to try several times before I was able to connect to a multi-user server. But when I finally did, three helpful Sony people were there to give me a tour.

Avatars in the Sony ChatRoom

The Browser
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. The row of emoticons (smiley faces) will send funny sounds into the world and make your avatar gesture. Avatar aliases (your name) are shown in color along with your chat, making it easy to trace conversational threads.

The MultiUser Window and its emoticon gestures

The speaker/microphone icon combination at the bottom are controls to allow you to use your PC's microphone to speak in the world. My microphone was grey, 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!). Presumably, like Onlive! Traveler, CPB allows you to disguise your voice, a welcome feature for those who like to go incognito. I hope to try the voice features again, as voice done well gives you a great sense of 'presence' in the world and is a huge improvement over text chat. With voice, you can communicate a wider bandwidth of human emotion and culture (don't need those smiley emoticons so much).

The separate chat window is, as always, a problem. You have to click between the chat window and the browser to go from moving to talking, definitely not conducive to conversations on walks through the world.

VRML Moves!

Another nice feature of the browser is that 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, an undulating ceiling sculpture is entertaining and adds some element of discovery to the world (how do you make the ceiling sculpture undulate?).

Like all VRML environments, the navigation is difficult and based on yet another set of made up keyboard commands. Holding the mouse button down and pucking along is a sure recipe to shoot far past your destination. Hey, all of us know how to play Doom, why not make all the navigation that easy? On the plus side, a series of simple icons on the right and bottom sides of the browser window allow you to do common navigation (like float or turn 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. All in all, Sony's Community Place Browser is worth a look and worth coming back to as they implement more Java behaviors in VRML.

The World

BBC

The look of the initial Sony world is predictably plastic and either too dark to be inviting or too bright to seem natural. As more worlds are added, expect the artistic quality to improve. Some beautiful worlds built for the Mirror project (in conjunction with the BBC television programme The Net) by British Telecom and partners are adding a lot of excitement to the CPB universe. I recommend visiting them to find out more and order the free CD of worlds!

The Community

Models

Despite its name, Community Place Browser does not have much of a developed community yet. Some good design and interface improvements may well change that. Sony's CPB is an evolving avatar friendly browser conducive to social interaction.

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