San Francisco
Oct 26 and 27, 1996

Review by David Duberman
Earth to Avatars 1996 Conference

Daily Spectrum: Interactive Media & Online Developer News

29 October 1996 Reported, written and edited by David Duberman
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Editor’s note: We interrupt regular Daily Spectrum programming to bring you a report on a truly portentous event that just took place in San Francisco.

Report from Earth to Avatars Conference

by David Duberman

Something really momentous happened last weekend. Not many people knew it was happening, but those that attended the Earth to Avatars (E2A) conference felt it deeply. Subtitled Contact, Culture and Community in Digital Space, the conference could also have been called the Online Community conference, because that was the basic theme. Of course, a lot of other stuff was covered, including artificial life, 3D graphics, theater and gaming, but it all centered around connecting and living with other people in cyberspace: Can it be done? If so, how? 2D or 3D? And much, much more.

Organized by Bruce Damer of the Contact Consortium, with yeomanlike assistance from Lynn Macias and a host of others, the conference was a tremendously exciting and inspiring convocation of bright, imaginative and forward-thinking individuals and enterprises involved in shaping the future of how we will interact with each other in cyberspace. Below you’ll find a collection of descriptions of and sound bites from the various sessions I attended, followed by brief descriptions of some of the products on exhibit at the conference. I apologize in advance for any misquotations and disconnectedness; I was writing as fast as I could, but the speakers were even faster.

In the opening keynote, VRML co-founders Mark Pesce and Tony Parisi traded places at the podium every few minutes to provide their takes on recent history and the present.

Pesce then talked about the work of Michel Foucault, whose book The Birth of the Clinic records the process of how a patient, in the course of his journey through a clinic, is supplanted by his dossier. The relevance to today’s situation is that as designers contruct avatar protocols, they build us all into a conceptual prison that must inevitably trap us. He described about Foucault’s design of the panopticon, which was an octagonal prison with a central guard post from which vantage point one could see into all the cells. Foucault also envisioned that this type of structure could be used for workhouses and schools. Mark sees cyberspace as the ultimate panoptic environment, in which any point can see the whole, and the whole can see/be any point. As we construct our selves in cyberspace, we can exchange ego identities as easily as avatar bodies.

Obviously, Mark’s been doing a lot of deep thinking on this topic, and my sketchy notes don’t begin to do justice to how well he expressed himself at the conference, but hopefully this will inspire you to read some of his writings and attend his talks.

Applications for Virtual Environments

The next panel, What in the World Do You Do with a World?, covered applications of virtual environments. Panelist Zara Houshmand of Worlds Inc. talked about how we’re so overwhelmed with text today, and that text is not the way to communicate in cyberspace. She also cited MSN’s Comic Chat, a 2D online world, as an example of a failed concept, because its randomization of body language undermines the chat experience. She stated that the multi-user experience in 3D space with role playing enhances educational possibilities, and cited the Starbright project, which links hospital wards containing seriously ill children via high-bandwidth links. This project was mentioned several times in various sessions as a shining example of the benevolent possibilities of cyberspace applications. Starbright helps these children overcome isolation at a critical stage in their social development, letting them communicate with each other, not just doctors and parents. It also helps by giving kids a choice: If they’re relatively healthy-looking, they can use videoconferencing, but if they’ve been ravaged by chemotherapy or other treatments, they can use avatars.

She went on to talk about Eastern culture, in which face-to-face encounters are more highly valued than in the West, and how 3D virtual environments could facilitate such meetings, citing as an example the use of such technology in Japanese dating clubs, where couples meet as avatars first. Another interesting application would be business meetings, in which workers’ avatars could be dressed casually as perceived by each other, but in business clothing as perceived by a client. Houshmand quoted a Worlds Inc. marketing slogan which states that "Reality is the best metaphor." This was disputed by a number of other speakers throughout the conference. The Palace’s Jim Bumgardner offered as an example of taking advantage of the possibilities of cyberspace the ability to turn into a carrot to make a point. The consensus opinion, though, seemed to be that people are most comfortable in familiar surroundings (e.g., sitting in chairs). Another interesting point Houshmand made was that VR is currently closer to theater than to film or interactive multimedia; in fact, the latter remains painfully close to its roots in computer-based training.

Also in the "What in the World …" panel, Hollywood director Brett Leonard offered thoughts on his particular area of interest, which is how to address the mass audience. This is a crucial issue that is not considered by many in the industry, but I’m not sure if Leonard’s going about it the right way. He cited as proof of his qualification to opine on this topic the fact that over a billion people worldwide have seen his film "Lawnmower Man." For better or worse, this was the first introduction to VR, albeit a passive one, for millions of people. He claims to be working as a viral infiltrator, introducing this technology into mass culture via passive media. Leonard made a couple of interesting observations. First, he repeatedly used the phrase "connect the dots," in connection with the idea that to draw people in, you must exceed a certain production level. He also said, "Chat is chaotic. It doesn’t empower me to do much. It’s like going into the middle of a busy street and screaming." This struck a chord with some attendees, and was cited on other panels. Finally, Leonard stated the importance of giving people the tools for directing their own movies, claiming that "Everybody wants to be a director."

Living Worlds

Another panel included participants in a consortium that’s developing Living Worlds, an technical initiative to define a conceptual framework and specify a set of interfaces to support the creation and evolution of multi-user applications in VRML 2.0. The LW effort aims at a single, narrow, well-defined goal: to extend VRML 2.0 to support applications that are both interpersonal and interoperable. For example, if you visit Art, Betty and Chuck in their virtual living room, and bring a virtual Monopoly board, and you’re all using different systems, how do you know if they’ll be able to see the board, game pieces and money, much less be able to play and follow the rules?

If you’re interested in learning more about this, visit the Living Worlds Proposal. For now, I include some excerpts from the Living Worlds documentation as of October 25, 1996.

In its startup phase, work on Living Worlds has concentrated on three questions:

  1. What new conceptual components (if any) will a distributed VRML
  2. architecture require?
  3. Between which components are standard interfaces needed?
  4. How can we achieve an optimal mix of standardization (to ensure
  5. interoperability) and openness (to leave room for innovation)?

Work on Living Worlds is governed by these principles: build on VRML 2.0; standards, not designs; architectural agnosticism (the central server is not necessarily god); respect the role of the market; and require running code. The requirements fundamental to any interpersonal/interoperable VRML environment include the ability to:

Among the advantages of supporting interoperability among features lets users take avatars and objects to different worlds and lets developers focus their efforts on building single components (e.g., avatars, portable interactive games) as well as combine best-of-breed components to yield richer results with less effort.

Many big names are involved in the Living Worlds initiative, including Black Sun, IBM, Fujitsu, SGI, Sony, as well as just about every supplier of 3D models, and if you have any interest in setting standards and/or getting in on the next big thing, you’d do well to check it out.

Interface Design

Several interesting questions and ideas came up at a panel on Designing Interfaces for Virtual Worlds, including: Which is better for communicating in groups; 2D or 3D spaces? Many 3D spaces are antisocial, in that they follow the Doom model, which is essentially an office-type environment redesigned for killing. 3D spaces are more compelling. AlphaWorld is better than Worlds Inc. because you have the ability to stake out your own territory and build your own space. Textual communication can be more freeing than voice, which in turn can be more freeing than face-to-face. In inventing a new language for communicating in cyberspace, we need to let users define their own gestures rather than selecting from a limited preset menu. A general theme during this panel was: "How much control over the interface design do you give the user?," and the consensus was that that users must be allowed to fail in order to learn how to build the best interface. One important task of cyberspace builders is giving people tools to create interaction. It’s also important to provide more versatile interface devices than the two-dimensional mouse and joystick. One possible solution was provided by exhibitor ITU Research of Cupertino, Calif., which showed a prototype of the TouchCube. The cube-shaped controller consists of five 2D position and force sensitive panels, which provides 3D position and orientation input commands, plus a sixth sensor on the base for conventional 2D (mouse-type) input. Contact ITU at 408-446-4597; fax 408-446-1493; email taizoy@aol.com.

Virtual Worlds as Theater

One of the liveliest panels was Virtual Worlds as Theater, hosted by Mark "Spoonman" Petrakis. After a theatrical opening invocation of sound and movement by a self-professed "wild woman" (sorry, didn’t get her name), Petrakis spoke about how good avatars can enhance the ability to communicate. Also, the intent of true characters is to guide us to self-discovery. Analogies were made between the theatrical possibilities of cyberspace and movies, which are giant puzzles in which each piece has been created by a different person, and the novel, which presents a landscape of the imagination that’s missing from virtual worlds, as in the reader’s thinking, "What happens next? What if …?" Also, comic books provide a sense of time in the transition between panels that virtual worlds designers could learn from, and they define their rudimentary realities in quick strokes. Well-known designer Brenda Laurel spoke about how we’ve been robbed of ritual, spirituality and humanity, and how using avatars may allow us to get them back. Finally, we can, believe it or not, learn from TV shows and advertising such powerful capabilities as selling social attitude and providing cultural resonance.

There were many other terrific panels, including Worlds for Gaming and Fantasy Role Playing; Kids in Digital Space; Virtual Worlds in Marketing and Electronic Commerce; and Digital Communities and Culture. In fact, many of the best conflicted with each other, which leads us to believe that cyberspace would be a great venue for a future such conference. Of course, there’ll never be a substitute for real-world interfacing.

Sculley Closing Keynote

One "famous" participant in E2A was John Sculley, who is scorned in the industry as a former sugar-water salesman who ran Apple for a few years, but never bothered to learn much about computers. Thus it was perhaps surprising to some that he gave one of the conference’s best talks, at the closing keynote. Admittedly, there’s a need for the blue-sky dreaming that comprised much of the conference proceedings. But for 45 minutes, Sculley held the audience spellbound as he professed his lack of technical orientation, but nevertheless provided a brilliant summation of the conference’s events and concepts in practical, down-to-earth terms. He started out by describing the conference as a "seminal moment," and our current status as "one of those important discontinuous changing times," in which the defining metaphor shifts from the empowerment of the individual (i.e., the personal computer) to looking at the environment created when people network together. He recalled how, shortly before he died, Jonas Salk spoke of the metabiological revolution, which leverages the socializing experience of connecting minds.

Sculley further defined the nature of the discontinuity by talking about the ongoing reinvention of marketing, which has transformed from selling to the art of owning the customer relationship (e.g., branding etc.). He described the Internet as the information supermarket, not superhighway, and gave us the new three C’s: community, commerce and customization. Are you tired of hearing about intranets yet? Get ready for Sculley’s extranet, which is made up of different companies’ intranets, connected for secure business-to-business transactions. What’s left after this transformation (e.g., plain old HTML Web pages) looks like CB radio, while the current banner-type advertising looks like junk mail. The Web is in great need of reinvention, and that’s where members of organizations like Contact Consortium can offer greater value. Giant media companies are moving onto the Web with great vigor, not trying to make money directly from a Web presence, but leveraging it into their total marketing pictures. And the phone companies have given up the idea of being content providers, having figured out that the ISP business is where they belong. In the new Web model, the big money goes to those who offer big bandwidth as well as quality experiences, and the latter is where cyberspace developers, many of whom are moving over from the CD-ROM world, can profit. The online socialization experience might integrate intelligent agents with humans, and chat communities can become increasing important as forces that drive and shape economies.

Sculley finished his talk by describing the four companies he’s currently involved with. First, and to my mind, foremost, there’s RealSpace, founded by QuickTime VR creator Eric Chen. RealSpace has created a new extension to VRML 2.0 for adding photographic environments and objects to virtual worlds. In a nutshell, it combines QuickTime VR-type technology with VRML. The extension, called Image Worlds, allows panoramic (and spherical) images, video and image based objects (IMobs) to be used in the creation of virtual scenes and avatars. Currently RealSpace offers its spec and the free RealVR IRC browser at its Web site. The company also sells a Mac or PC CD-ROM for $299 with the RealVR Xtra for Director 5.0 with panoramic viewing and VRML 2.0 real-time rendering, plus utilities to convert QTVR to RealVR, as well as a wonderful tool called Vistagrapher that stitches multiple images into a panorama. Sculley has also bought into his son’s Seismic Entertainment of San Francisco, which creates virtual exploration/adventure experiences (e.g., a trip under the polar icecap or through Mayan ruins), also described as "neat content." Sculley’s Live Picture demo’ed its FlashPix technology, in which zooming in on an image shows greater detail instead of blocky pixels, and LiveWorld’s mission is to create and operate high-quality original programming with a focus on community, audience participation, time and events. The latter’s first service, called Talk City, is now online at .

Also present at the conference in one form or another were the following:

Universal Worlds is an open Java/VRML 2.0 API developed jointly by Misubishi, Chaco Communications, Velocity Games and Worlds, Inc. to provide a complete distributed multiuser communications infrastructure for complex virtual worlds. Find out more at .

Microsoft showed two virtual worlds, both available on its MSN commercial online service. The 2D Comic Chat is notable for cute graphics, but more so for the clever Emotion Wheel interface element, in which you determine your character’s expression by moving the pointer towards the edge of the wheel to choose increasingly intense degrees of coyness, happiness, laughing, shouting, angry, sad, scared and bored gestures. And V-Chat lets people communicate online from within a 2D or 3D multimedia environment using bitmapped avatars. Users can make their own avatars and express themselves with preset gestures. Microsoft offers developers the V-Chat building kit, which enables the creation of a new 2D or 3D space from a template, or via any program that can output VRML.

Much smaller than Microsoft, but promising some impressive technology, was Princeton, New Jersey-based KATrix, which is developing what it calls NeurRule Intelligent Agent technology. An outgrowth of research in robotic control theory and artificial intelligence, it attempts to copy key features of human motor control and skill acquisition. The core components consist of Limb Coordination, based on inverse kinematics; neural networks for human-like learning characteristics; rule-based control based on a goal-directed inference engine and knowledge base; and agent class libraries, which provide an object-oriented framework for building intelligent agents. Contact KATrix at 609-921-7544; fax 609-921-7547; email lane@katrix.com.

Sven Technologies showed off its Windows-based SurfaceSuite of 3D editing tools by digitizing attendee faces and quickly applying them to a 3D model’s head without distortion, thanks to the company’s original algorithm. Sven is also working on a low-cost 3D digitizer, a tool for splicing surfaces, and more. Find out more by phoning 415-852-9242; fax 415-813-1775; email hello@sven-tech.com.

OZ Interactive demonstrated technology that enables "agents with attitude" which inhabit 3D communities, interacting with and offering help to human visitors. The agents incorporate mood parameters, giving them distinct personalities which let them reply to users based not only on the content of what they say, but also on moods evoked by key words. The company also showed OZ Virtual, multi-user VRML software that lets participants interact socially in any VRML world on the Internet as their own Persona (OZ avatar).

3D Web (415-956-9730; mike@3dweb.com) showed Spinner, a $99 VRML 2.0 tool for adding animation (i.e., spinning motion) to any 3D scene. Scheduled for available in Q4 is Spinner Pro, described as a professional-level authoring tool for 3D animation development.

CONTACT: cultures of the imagination is billed as an interdisciplinary conference that brings together social and space scientists, science fiction writers and artists to exchange ideas, stimulate new perspectives and encourage serious, creative speculation about humanity’s future, on-world and off-world. It takes place March 7-9, 1997 at the Sunnyvale (Calif.) Hilton.

Integrated Data Systems of Savannah, Georgia (hotline@ids-net.com) offers V-Realm Builder, a Windows-based VRML authoring tool with drag-and-drop functionality, multiple editors, object/texture/material libraries, integrated video links and more. The company also has a server and a free multi-user VRML browser.

Intel Distributed MOO 2.0 is a Java-based software framework for building extensible virtual environments.

Coming in March, 1997 is a book by conference organizer Bruce Damer entitled Avatars! Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet. It’s a step-by-step guide to the most popular virtual worlds including The Palace, WorldsAway, OZ Virtual, Utiopia and others. Visit publisher Peachpit Press or call 800-283-9444.

This January in San Francisco, SGI and Seybold Seminars will present World Movers: The VRML 2.0 Developers’ Conference. Phone 800-488-2883 or 415-578-6900; fax 415-525-0199.

Last but not least, the full E2A conference proceedings are available on videotape and audiotape. Write to the Contact Consortium at 343 Soquel Ave, Suite 70, Santa Cruz CA 95062-2305. And next year, plan on attending this not-to-be-missed event, which will probably overtake SIGGRAPH as the industry’s coolest conference.

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