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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.

ANNOUNCEMENTS

  • Ben Delaney from CyberEdge Journal reminded everyone of the VR WorldWide 97 Conference coming up on 2nd through 4th April and organized by CyberEdge. They also have a new classifieds section in the Journal so check that out.

  • Robert Saint. John declared himself as having arrived from Cleveland, Ohio and as now being the West coast presence for Integrated Data Systems, makers of the V-Realm tools.

  • C. Scott Young, VRML knight, pre-announced the "Earth 2 Avatars" conference.

  • Oz announced they are now in SF and have offices at 525 Brannan - you're all invited to drop by and see what they're up to.

  • Mike Conduris announced that 3DWEB, the VRML 2.0 authoring tool, will be available by the beginning of October.

  • Linda Jacobson announced that everyone was invited to the Cyborganic Thursday night dinner at 651 Mission and Third.

  • Eli announced a new project about to go live: a VRML 1.0 store with a commerce server and using Black Sun avatars.

  • Dave Frerichs of SGI reminded all those who managed to be unaware of the fact that the Cosmo VRML 2.0 authoring tool is now available and that SGI is looking for content people and VRML browser programmers. He also reminded everyone of the World Movers conference, hosted by SGI and Seybold and being held on December 2nd through 4th in SF's Moscone center, and the VRML 97 Technical Forum being held in Monterey on 24th through 26th February under the auspices of the VRML Symposium.

  • Kirk Parson introduced himself as new to SF but not to avatars. He's the "avatar guy" at Black Sun and can be contacted at: kirk@blacksun.com Black Sun's software announcement was that their CyberHub client is now available for download and is compatible with Live3D and Cosmo Player - so get multi-user enabled now.

  • Gregory Slayton of ParaGraph announced that the ParaGraph site now has downloads available of its VHSB VRML 2.0 product and the new beta Internet Space Builder. If you like them a lot try applying as a product marketer, they're looking for good people now. For those in New York on October 18th there's another ParaGraph Power Friday. This one sounds like you'll definitely need to take the whole day off work. Any VRML company is invited to demo at the event.

  • Linda Jacobson announced that the DIS group is morphing into something more widely available in the hopes of convincing users of distributed networks to use the DIS protocols. Contact her for information. Contact her for information.

  • Bob Jacobson, no relation to Linda, announced that World Designs is coming to the Bay area from Seattle. These people are an outgrowth from the Human Interface Technology Laboratory and will be a welcome addition to the experts in the valley.

  • Bruce Damer got up on stage and made a ten minute pitch for the Contact Consortium and the Earth 2 Avatars Conference on 26th and 27th October at the ANA Hotel in SF. He invited all pioneers in Cyberspace to be there and participate in the tracks on avatar standards and the VeRGe special program.

DEMOS

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".

FOOD SCHMOOSE

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.

THE DEBATE

Living Worlds partners are:

  • Black Sun's Robert Rockwell and Peter Graf
  • ParaGraph's Mitra and Igor Bazdyrev
  • Sony's Yasuaki Honda and Rodger Lea.
Gregory Slayton, President of ParaGraph International, stated that the aim of the Living Worlds group is to keep VRML space interesting for "a long, long time". Gregory noted the natural progression of VRML from 1.0 to 2.0 and sees the LW proposal as the next step in deciding how objects within Moving Worlds will be shared and avatars will interact. The goals are to establish the minimum set of both system features required to enable shared environments and standard interfaces to this end. These features will then enable a `plug-and-play' avatar that can appear in any multi-user world and have understandable behaviors. This is good for everyone: users, world builders and avatar makers.

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:

  • IBM's Internet division's Abbott Brush
  • Chaco's Glenn Crocker and Dan Greening
  • Worlds Inc's Maclen Marvit
  • Velocity Games' Moses Ma
Maclen presented the case for UAS. He outlined at the group's underlying assumptions: that no one multi-user platform fits all, that the aim is to connect people together and to "let humanity leak through the medium", and that there is no community without trust. UAS believes that the persistence of avatars, objects and worlds is important and any specification must allow for a sense of permanence and accountability without being too restrictive. The goals of the group are, therefore, to enable the creation of an identity that persists across worlds and technologies-- an identity that can be personalized and customized readily.

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:

  1. A grammar for interactivity, meaning the evolution of a technique for handling multi-user worlds as film editing handles the movie, is needed (Moses),
  2. We need to take baby steps first and get something developers can use rather than talking about a pie in the sky (James Waldrop),
  3. We need to consider the philosophical possibilities of avatar's relationships with others in order to provide room for future developments that we can't envisage yet (philosophers on the floor)
  4. We must deal with avatars as a special case of shared objects. (LW)

Points of divergence were:

  1. How integrated should all this avatar work be with VRML?
  2. What scripting language should be used? (JavaScript, VRMLScript, Python, Java, etc. )
  3. Is VRML turning into a `super cartoon' because of the concentration on avatars?
  4. Why bother with standards when we could just dynamically download all we need? (Dave Frerichs)
  5. How do local and general behaviors interact?

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.


Related URLs


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


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