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The IrishSpace Project
Len Bullard interviews himself

Q: What is the IrishSpace Project?

A: It is an online collaboration among a group of VRMLers to build a space adventure exhibit for the first space exhibition in Ireland.

Q: How did this project come about?

Hard left rudder?? Actually, in early January of this year, Shel Kimen at SGI relayed a request from John Griffin, manager of the Ashe Memorial Hall Museum in Tralee, SW Ireland. It was a request for space related VRML for their exhibition. Shel tagged it with "looks like some fun for someone", and that is irresistable bait on the Internet.

A: You are the project coordinator. Why?

I raised my hand first, that's all. When Shel posted, I replied on the list and said it looked like something one person could do but that a team could do better. Justin Couch, Robert St John, and others replied quickly they would help out. So I asked for a sponsor for a mail list so we wouldn't crowd the www-vrml maillist with the work. Shel volunteered a list from SGI. More folks signed up and it went from there. I proposed a main project page with each team leader maintaining a prototype or protopage as we called them. We could work semi-independently and still help each other. That works very nicely.

Q: What did you think this was about?

A: I didn't know, really. I wrote to John Griffin and told him I thought we could help and would let him know as soon as we had some volunteers. I asked that John sign on to the list as well so he could monitor requests. Having John and his friend Ciaran McGoldrick on the list was vital to the success. They gave us the insight into Ireland we didn't have. He told me they wanted a solar system exhibit for their children. That seemed easy enough and could be built from spare parts.

Q: But you said this was a space adventure? That is certainly more than a guided tour of the solar system.

A: True. Like most adventures, real or imagined, it got more intriguing as we got into it. I thought it would be more interesting for the children if we provided them a ship to fly to the planets. So I asked for names for the ship. John asked that we name it the Jeanie Johnston as that is the name of a replica of a famine ship they are building in Tralee. John mailed me brochures from Ireland. I had been insisting that if we were to do this for the children of Ireland, that we should use as much Irish cultural material as possible. Only when I began to read the material he sent did I realize the depth of what was going on.

Once I understood, I knew we had a heckuva story to tell and proposed that we use the potato famine and this ship's story to write our own story in a future setting. The rest was just a matter of parallels between the famine and a future emigration from earth to the stars.

Q: What inspired you in the original events?

The deep tragedy of the famine and the way in which the Irish picked themselves up and survived it. The fellow who was captain of the original Jeanie Johnston sailed her for ten years and never lost a soul or crew to the sea or disease. In a time in which these ships were called "coffin ships" because they left on anything that would float, that was an incredible feat.

The Jeanie Johnston project is bringing kids down from the conflicts in Belfast to teach them to work together. Furthermore, it emphasizes a period when Ireland faced their greatest tragedy: the potato famine. Imagine two thirds of the population of California all leaving over a ten year period and never coming back. They call it "the disapora" and it was a cruel hard time. So, unwittingly, we had stumbled into the opportunity to create something not only fun to do, but of some real value to the Irish people. That is, in my opinion, the opportunity of a lifetime.

Q: Has it been fun?

A: Lord yes! We have been amazingly successful with an online collaboration. Like VRML itself, very talented people got on a list and cooperated until the thing came into being. Many people don't believe that kind of work can be done, and VRML and IrishSpace are proof at both ends of the tools/content continuum that it can be.

Q: Others have tried this with limited success. Why do you think IrishSpace is succeeding?

Maturity. The tools are more capable, the people are more capable, and we were ready to tackle this. There is an element of luck, but moreover, it simply comes down to the chops of the people doing the work. Some of them, Paul Hoffman, for example, are simply incredibly gifted and hard working people with enormous background in both computer science and the arts. But I think what drove us forward was the cause of the Irish children and the incredible story we were working with. Then of course, the competition to see who could build the neatest stuff. That is really healthy when everyone understands the game.

Q: Most artistic types are temperamental. Did it become a flame-ridden list?

A: Never. Not once. That may sound unbelievable, but I have never worked with a better and more serene group of people. The closest they got was one day when a fellow proposed we arm the JJ with guns so the kids could play with those. Every list member to a person signed on that morning and said they would resign if we did. Then John told us that "getting the guns out of Irish politics" was a goal for many in Ireland and he would be happier if we didn't, but we could do what we thought was best. So, the JJ has no guns.

It turns out the original didn't either; they painted guns on the portholes. I told the list that I could not arbitrate moral disputes among three generations from across the world, but that I was as proud of them that day as I had ever been of any group. They showed they considered our work not just fun, but something of themselves. That was an awesome moment; the humanity behind the screen emerged.

Q: So, what does this project prove, or mean to VRML?

A: Well, it proves that with some care and experience, online collaboration can be done and produces very good results. For VRML, it mainly stretched our thinking and improved our chops as we worked out ways to do what we envisioned. We went through some pretty complex proposals and experiments, but over time, we winnowed it down to a good working model that still was more complex than most of what I have seen attempted using vanilla web technology with VRML.

Q: Do you see more of this kind of project in the future?

A: Certainly. I expect VRML-centric adventures to start popping up as people see how to do it. IrishSpace is sort of a proof-of-concept. People will do it better too, but first, someone or some group has to do it. Where communities of folks who share similar visions pick projects and execute them, we should see some very neat content. Working together to a common end is not that tough as long as one knows that at some point, how the game ends.

Q: So IrishSpace was another exercise in deomocratic consensus?

A Ummm... no. IrishSpace has been consensual, but I daresay, it wasn't democratic. I think that is one valuable lesson. We tried on the TerraVista list to do this and we had mixed results. It is one thing to attempt to build a community on line; it is quite another to build a piece of art and let that build the community. The short duration and the focused effort is vital to getting it done. This was more like a software design and implementation project.

There wasn't time to vote on everything. Luckily, the folks working on it understood the game. Let one or two people be in charge for a round. Then next time something like this is done, someone else can be in charge, and so it goes. That is the way most successful bands work in studios and as I told them, "this is a band without the smell". My only advice to anyone else that wants to lead an effort like this is "keep a light hand on the tiller and a map in your pocket".

In other words, know where you are going, and let the people working with you do their thing without too much interference. The talent will sort itself out and the results will be much more spectacular than if one tries to plan everything and be the absolute boss and grab for the credit. If it is to work at all, then every person working on the piece contributes, and they deserve the credit. Duh!

Q: Tell me about the actual piece.

A: It is called "The Voyage of the Jeanie Johnston II - Outward from Earth". It is sort of a story set to music and moving animation. As I've maintained since VRML began, cinematic technique mixed with feedback-mediated behaviors. It is something of a challenge to figure out where one starts and the other ends, though.

The actual challenge is working within the limits of what one can do with the VRML and HTML browser technology in its current state. The compromise we made was to let the narrative carry most of the story elements. The VRML illustrates that and gives the user a lot of interactive options to play with. The music soundtrack is there for mood. So, it is a loosely coupled multimedia production.

Q: When will it be available on the Web?

A: Good question. The current work is focused on a local disk version and a CD-ROM version. There are plans to provide a Web-lite version soon after we deliver the product to Ireland. Hopefully, we can do that by May or early June. Since we wanted to push the envelope, we have used techniques that may not work as well on the Web, particularly the use of wav file audio. While we can strip that out, the narration is a fundamental part of it, so there are some decisions to make.

Q: Where will that be hosted?


Len Bullard is a systems analyst and a married father of two children. He splits his consciousness between his job as a hypermedia consultant and his rock band of ten years, Ground Level Sound. His interests in VRML spawned from a conviction that this was the technology that would rejoin his divorced psyches and help him fight a lifelong addiction to endorphins. He spends his copious spare time recording original music with his band at their studio, Blind Dillo, performing in the southeast region with GLS, beta testing and answering email.

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