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New VRML Special Interest Group from Software Forum:Creating Community in Cyberspace
by Sue Wilcox

The Cubberly Center in Palo Alto was host to over 150 software developers attending the first ever VRML SIG, organized by the Software Forum. Katherine Bretz put the event together and arranged for it to be sponsored by Fujitsu Software Corp. VRMLSite is supporting coverage of the events.

Software Forum

A packed lecture room indicated the VRML SIG was a good idea. Creating Community in Cyberspace was the evening’s topic and speakers were Maclen Marvit and Misty West from Worlds Inc., Chip Morningstar from Electric Communities and Janet McAndless from Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Worlds Inc.

Worlds Inc.
Worlds had brought a laptop to show some real-time, multiuser interaction, but had it stuck on a 16 color display, (demo demon strikes again) so Alphaworld looked pretty strange. The audience, over half of whom had not seen Alphaworld before, were given a quick walking tour of its main features accompanied by stories of what happens when virtual social engineering goes wrong. As Maclen said: "people bring with them a whole set of problems."

Alphaworld uses Worlds’ ActiveWorld technology to let people build for themselves on their own virtual land. Maclen said this has been shown to increase users’ commitment to and enjoyment of the world. The 110,000 registered ‘citizens’ of Alphaworld attest to its captivating power. There is now a Web of Worlds featuring a variety of Active World spaces, and forms of regulation of those spaces. You can try the Wild West where there is no such thing as protection of property or try a world where no user building is allowed so nothing can be wrecked.

Next on the tour was Worlds Chat, a space station with a variety of environments for those who just want to text-chat and explore new spaces. Originally set up as a proof of concept for a 3D multiuser space, Worlds Chat managed to attract 120,000 downloaders of its free beta version. It's now working on building up its visitors on a paid basis by selling Worlds Chat Gold on a CD-ROM. Even in a chat room, human perversity rules

Even in a chat room, human perversity rules

Even in a chat room, human perversity rules, and there were more stories of people pushing the limits of both the space and what their fellow visitors could take. The speakers told of stories both of verbal abuse suddenly becoming popular when a technical glitch made the mute button not work and of Schelling points - inexplicable places of convergence where people congregate even if there is nothing there. For example, one spot on an infinite green plane or a window sill outside the space station.

Both Worlds spaces are true 3D worlds, but Alphaworld has moving 3D figures while Worlds Chat has static sprite avatars. Both seem to facilitate communication, even with only text chat available, but the creative aspects of Alphaworld seem to encourage a greater sense of community. At first people find chat exhilarating but then they ask "now what?" Maclen said " this is the question everyone in the industry is trying to answer." Perhaps when the World Shaper tool is available (early in ’97), more would-be world authors will have a stab at answering it.

Electric Communities

Electric Communities
Chip is one of virtual space’s most experienced world builders. His motto is "I laugh at danger." His views on where online communities are going wrong should at least surround him with controversy.

He gave the audience a quick run through of some of his experiments with creating community - 90% of the audience had heard of Lucasfilm’s Habitat but Chip has also worked on Club Caribe, Fujitsu Software Corp.’s Habitat and WorldsAway, plus the American Information Exchange, AMiX, an online marketplace.

Having developed his own vision, in both the technical and social senses, he has specified an infrastructure for an online community. The elements of this infrastructure are:

  • it should be secure (protected against malicious behavior),
  • open (so anyone can participate),
  • distributed (spread out so it can move across the Net as it expands),
  • extensible (so can add new kinds of objects),
  • technically robust (so its safe to put a business or a lifestyle on top of it),
  • commercially capable (by providing sufficient contextual surround for transactions based on trust to be possible and desirable), and
  • socially viable (providing a good substrate to build on). Chip describes [VRML] as having taken "a wrong fork in the road"

Chip describes [VRML] as having taken "a wrong fork in the road"

Chip then described his three stage plan for achieving his ideal online community. First the foundation, the E programming language of extensions to Java has been in development for over a year and is freely available. Electric Communities is giving it away. Second, a distributed object system called Pluribus is in beta and will be available in ’97. This differs from CORBA and COM but he wasn’t giving away details at this session. The third and final components are a high level service framework, APIs to support transactions and other Net services such as contracts, judicial decisions, linguistic services, credit arrangements, certification validation and search directories. Electric Communities own product called Microcosm, is due out in ’97. This will allow users to host their own region of cyberspace on their own machine with their own avatar and interact with other users’ regions. Microcosm uses no VRML because Electric Communities have reservations about how VRML functions. Chip describes it as having taken "a wrong fork in the road" and as " going down the wrong path." He said that VRML is a 3D data representation language and a geometric model for 3D, NOT a user interface, a general object model, a general behavior model or a foundation for distributed systems.

He described VRML behaviors as being like "servo-mechanisms" and said VRML’s event routing is insecure. He also doesn’t like the current Living Worlds push to develop standards for avatars. He thinks it is premature, despite stating that "convergence to a standard is a Good Thing", and has a published critique available on Electric Communities Web site.

Sony Pictures Imageworks

Sony Pictures Imageworks
In contrast to the other speakers, who are primarily tool developers, Janet is a content creator using the Community Place VRML tools produced by Sony research. She does some ‘VRML experiments’ and as a result says "we used to laugh at danger, but then we got burnt". This doesn’t seem to have deterred her from continuing to work on Sony’s multiuser worlds. She said Sony had always looked at virtual worlds from a multiuser point of view.

The worlds she creates are often based on Sony movie properties, such as Jumanji, and that she tries to engage people in an immersive way. Her aim is "to enable a person to play a role and have it persist" so they can go back to the same place and role and carry on with their virtual life. Some of the innovations she has introduced include a ‘finder’ for locating other users in a world and a teleport system, a device over which the initial concern was that it would spoil the immersive illusion. However, it has proven to be such a time-saver and so much in-demand that now she says she can’t imagine a world like the one in Snowcrash existing without teleport facilities.

[Janet] is now tackling the problem of how to

She is now tackling the problem of how to engage people so they stay on a site, games work for a little while but intelligent agents may work better. Other people seem to be the best attraction discovered so far, so she is also exploring ways to ‘augment life’ online via a fantasy persona. Ultimately Janet sees the Internet filled with "online gaming, real-time simulations, and immersive worlds with no fancy VR equipment needed. A shared space irrespective of the computers people are using." But she warns, "we have to make the content applicable to the Net".

Question Time
Practicality reared its head at question time: How do you expect to make enough money to cover the costs of making these worlds? triggered a discussion that lasted the rest of the session. Chip’s answer is "empower people to create things for themselves". He cited Sturgeon’s Law, ‘90% of everything is crap’ but said "on the Web it's a larger number than that". Then he followed up with "we need to enable the creators so those with a talent can make a living" and produce good content for the Web. He is working on making tools that will reduce the cost of development and the cost of transactions on the Web. "Talk is cheap and content creators only need to create "really cool phone booths" to talk in."

"Talk is cheap and content creators only need to create "really cool phone booths" to talk in."

Maclen expanded this idea of personal creation by explaining that the medium is the application: "I am generating content by my talking". Talk is cheap and content creators only need to create "really cool phone booths" to talk in. The Web is the first many-to-many communications medium, so content creators need to add value to the experience of others. But this means the old ways of doing things from other media don’t apply. You can’t repurpose ad content and expect it to work on the Web.

Maclen said there is a lot of confusion about what the Web is good for. Just as Edison didn’t know what people would find to talk about when he invented the phone, so it is with the creators of the Web. Maclen said "we need to use the human laboratory to see what people want" - by watching how people use the Web we will discover what its good for. Making authoring tools available for VRML is an important part of the process. HTML has enabled individual creativity for the masses to define a new medium, now its time to discover what can be done with virtual reality. Everyone can be a producer and a consumer. This is just a tiny part of a wide-ranging discussion of the potential of the Web as a new medium which had speakers bobbing up from all over the room.

Predictions from the panel, endorsed from the floor, included: the radical ‘pay to have someone look at your ad’ approach that utilizes intelligent agents as a personal data filter and admission charges to virtual worlds as a way to make them self-financing.

Perhaps it was the assembled expertise on the panel or perhaps the possibilities of creating a virtual reality within the computer that attracted such an enthusiastic crowd – the two hours set for the discussion were not enough. An hour after the official end of the session clumps of heated debaters wandered off into the night still talking.

Next time: January 21st when the topic is Photorealistic Cyber Representation.

To find out more contact Katherine Bretz. Videos of the proceedings are available for $25 from Allan Lundell

Usually found online at inquiry.com as VRMLPro, Sue regularly writes on VRML and 3D graphics for Web publications. In her spare moments she is a game interface designer and co-author of a series of books on oriental game theory and Go.
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