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Lunar eclipse VeRGe meeting
by Sue Wilcox
The eclipse of the Harvest full moon marked the special anniversary meeting of VeRGe - the Virtual Reality Education Foundation. As usual, a packed McBean theater at the Exploratorium in SF was crowded with the VRML cognoscenti, at least those of them with the five dollar donation to spare for the non-profit cause. Linda Jacobson of SGI MC'd the event, going out by Webcast to those who'd rather be virtual than schmooze in person. This session was part two of the avatars and agents debate that started up before SIGGRAPH in August. But before the philosophy and tech talk there were the obligatory VeRGe announcements and demos to enjoy.
`Spontaneous', `seat-of-the-pants', and `community-effort' were the key words for the structure of the meeting. Hands popping up like mushrooms signaled people with something to announce.
Mark Mitchell, Director of Application Development and Don Griffin, CTO of ImagiNation Network, came forward to impress everyone with a pre-release demo of CyberPark, the interactive 3D virtual community. After five and a half years in online gaming, six and a half years of thought for some of the protagonists, and a month and a half as a subsidiary of AOL, they are nearly ready to go live. They brought the demo demons with them of course to amuse the audience with a variety of browser crashes (they call it the fast exit feature), but overall it was a smooth show. Underwear-clad avatars demonstrated what happens when financial considerations affect design; AOL wants to make money out of the 3D environment in addition to luring users into spending lots on connect time, so users will have to buy clothes for their avatars, too.
What attracted AOL to CyberPark was its support for huge numbers of simultaneous users. CyberPark can handle 25,000 users at once, although if they're all in the same area, the individual will see either the half a dozen users nearest him/her or those s/he has chosen to see.
At the moment, CyberPark is a proprietary creation, not VRML. It uses BRender and its own graphics handling to create dynamic actions, richly textured surroundings. Game play and chat features are intended to suck AOLers into the virtual life. Later on, CyberPark will swap in support for Direct Draw 3D and VRML 2.0 to create a more hybrid product. Look out for the launch in December.
Scott and Ray McClaine from 3RD Dimension Technologies came up from southern California to demonstrate their photo-textured models and avatars. Starting out as sellers of their own software, which converts photos to 3D models, they have moved with the times and are now targeting photorealistic avatars as the coming thing. They demonstrated (and gave away 90 copies of) their model collection, "CD-ROM: VRML 3D Models for Webmasters."
They say the advantage of their system over other photo modelers is that theirs map textures polygon by polygon onto the model. This prevents warping and distortion of the image. The coolest part of the demo was the moving textures used to animate the image; by swapping images of the face, it gives the illusion of lip movements or eye-blinks. If you'd like your own avatar head, you can mail in photos and pay $49 (see their web site for instructions) or catch them at Earth 2 Avatars Conference where they'll be giving away free "while-you-wait" avatars.
At the moment, avatar heads wear helmets as there is what Scott calls "a little problem with hair." But, as Ray says "anyone flying through cyberspace needs a helmet anyway".
The feeding trough was generously sponsored by IBM this time. Abbott Brush of the IBM Internet division was present to participate in the debate as well as receive thanks from well fed VeRGins.
Living Worlds partners are:
Apart from the usual components of the setup -- UI, VRML browser, and the applications being used in the worlds (white board, chat, transactions)-- there is the avatar itself which LW sees as consisting of two parts: pilot and drones; The pilot is what the user sees as herself and the drones are what others see as the representation of the user. The browser understands user input, sends a VRML event to the pilot, the pilot tells the multi-user technology how to make the drones behave, the drones have to communicate back to the pilot (using the VRML external API) and then the browser displays the changes.
The first draft of the specification is due out on October 18th (at the Power Friday event), after which LW will set up a web site and a mailing list to discuss the proposal. Their overall aim is to attain convergence with the other proposal coming from the Universal Avatar Group.
Universal Avatars partners are:
They define the components of the avatar as a user's public profile, the avatar geometry and behaviors (for all avatars be they text based, 2D, 3D, VRML 1.0, 2.0 whatever), authentication for the ID, ways to finger (to find or lose people) and talk to others, and vendor extensions --which would include a secure user history. Maclen says the benefits of this definition are that it facilitates congeniality online and provides helpful conventions to aid communication, not straitjackets to restrict possibilities. The benefits for developers are that it will enable them to create communities based on interests and, thus, lead to the development of `cottage industries' for avatar builders. It will also enable the creation of an infrastructure by which money can change hands safely.
The next steps for UAS are to produce a second draft specification by the E2A conference and to debate standards at that event. They will need to provide more concrete examples of code so developers can see how the theory works in practice. Again, the overall goal is convergence with the other specification. As Maclen put it, "we're amicable and smart; we can do it." Both groups will sit down together around October 20th to go through the specifications and see how they can be combined.
At this point, the debate widened to include everyone at the meeting and viewpoints from all over the spectrum, from techie to philosopher, were aired. Some points of convergence seemed to be that:
Points of divergence were:
The session ended with a call for input from anyone concerned about the future of avatars on the Web. Join the mailing lists and participate.
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