Introduction to Active Worldswritten Nov 2001 being revised May 2006
Before you read this section you should also be familiar with Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and web-based chat programs in general and know how to use them. You should also have used them to get some feel for the kinds of social interaction that they support. Both geocities and IRC have issues of moderating behaviour, and of censorship. You should also be familiar with the techniques that are used to perform this function and the kinds of actions which are employed. Actually being a moderator on IRC and in geocities would be a great help in understanding the way that these cybercultures work.
You should also have installed a VRML plugin on your browser, such as WebFX for Netscape and visited a few VR worlds and wandered around learning to navigate, getting a feel for the medium and learning how they function as a different kind of way of navigating the web, and the way that they link to other VRML worlds and ordinary webpages. Perhaps also form your opinions as to how convincing, and practical these worlds are in delivering information and maintaining interest compared to a website of HTML pages.
That is a lot of prerequisites for this section, but this is the last section in the Intermediate Chapter and in the next Advanced Chapter there is a long list of prerequisites for everything :-)
This section acts as a bridge between the Intermediate Chapter and the Advanced Chapter. It does not deal with detailed technical issues itself, but takes a look back at the technology that has been covered so far and examines its qualities from many criteria: social, intellectual, developmental, perceptual, commercial and more. It also looks forward to the Advanced Chapter and shows examples of many of the concepts that will be dealt with in detail in the Advanced Chapter such as objects, methods, animation, and client/server architecture.
This section is about Active Worlds (AW) which is a combination of these four components. Webpages (by now a familiar technology), Communities where you can own your own space, and chat programs, all in a virtual reality environment populated by avatars. An avatar is a 3D virtual animation of your persona.
By Y8, children on computers have discovered Virtual Reality, either by way of Nintendo games, or by accessing VR Worlds on their webbrowser using a VRML plugin. But perhaps the most telling introduction to Virtual Reality is Active Worlds proprietary version of Virtual Reality Chat. This is a chat program that operates in a 3D Virtual Reality.
Chat programs have not been covered before because they are essentially a social program and the text versions which are commonplace, have already been developed as far as is useful. Chat is a casual and ephemeral medium that does not support constructive creativity to any degree. Indeed the medium has come to be abused by so many to the extent that people now avoid it and stick to moderated email lists to ensure quality of information. However different types of program based on chat have been enormously popular. These include Mirabilis ICQ which in 6 years grew to a population of 30 million users. (au - I fondly recall the days when I had a 5 digit address- but it got lost). Another example is MS Netmeeting which includes a whiteboard for mutually sketching ideas and conference facilities. It will be around 2010 before live video conferencing between a group of people is a practical proposition due mainly to the bandwidth required.
There are also problems with visiting (browsing) VR Worlds. They have interesting architecture (sometimes) employing interesting ideas, sometimes quite poetic, but they are empty and the visitor feels like a ghost in ones own private ghost town. In VR action games the worlds are livened up with sprite objects which inhabit the world and move around, usually trying to devour you or blast you to pieces and since these games can also be networked for multiple real players you can have a limited number of real people fighting each other or fighting against a common enemy. Despite the limited social interaction, the illusion created by VR models is compelling and since DOOM first appeared about 1995, created by id Software, the world of VR has been a lure for children. They have sat for hours and days fighting demons and exploring new worlds. Regardless of all this action, the worlds are still "empty" and static, inhabited by a few people on the same game as you, fighting the same demons over and over.
The static quality of VR worlds gets to some children and they want to create their own worlds or at least build something in an existing world. Building a VR world is one thing, but then you discover there is no audience for your work, let alone remuneration. Younger teenagers are old enough to have learnt enough trigonometry to be able to build complex worlds. In order to reach an audience they build their worlds in games situations. They build levels for such games as DOOM, Quake and their antecedents using the games manufacturer's proprietary building tools. By their late teens some find themselves on a career as games designers.
The third problem with all three of these soft technologies is a commercial one. Chat programs developed in the freeware world of Bulletin Board Systems of the early 90's. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is still well used but has never had any commercial use. IRC servers have been hosted by internet service providers simply as a service. But this altruism is coming to an emd as hackers make the maintainance of continual service more difficult. At times the worldwide IRC network falls apart due to hacking. So internet service providers decide they cannot be bothered providing this service for nothing.
Community webpage projects such as geocities and tripod (which was absorded by geocities) began as free services which were sustainable when they were small by special interest groups. At those early stages there was no understanding of their possible commercial use. But then banner advertising was introduced to help fund the exponential growth in these projects. These projects were spectacularly successful in introducing people to the social aspects of the web and will continue to perform this function. The rewards of these projects are social, educational and intellectual in nature, but not economic either for the host such as geocities or for anyone in the communities.
The only commercially successful member of this trio is the games companies which make plenty of money out of selling the lastest development in 3D VR Games. These companies are now maturing with a history of development and investment in their proprietary software. They actively canvas for young people to design new worlds for their games using their proprietary VR languages. Teenagers can easily find themselves with a career if they pick up the challenge to learn to create VR worlds in any of these languages. But within the ambit of the games companies the commercial component is still closed, locked in a restricted product grouping in a restricted market although there are now merchandising spin-offs, including movies and TV programs.
2 Active Worlds
However, when the chat medium is combined with VR a special magic occurs. This is amplified when the free "page hosting" component is also added a la geocities. Geocities instantly became a huge success for creating a sense of social order on the net. But put all these ingrediants together and you get Active Worlds.
Active Worlds is all three of these things at once and in equal measure. Each of these three components created its own revolution in the way we see computers and the web - put all three together and you have a potent mix. Active Worlds really needs to be described from each of its three perspectives in turn, because to say it is a chat program with virtual communities built in VR is to make a linear concept of its function which belies its multifaceted power. But first lets start with the chat feature, because that is the first part of the program that people work with.
When you sign on to Active Worlds you arrive in a place somewhat like the entrance area to a Trade Show, called the Active Worlds Gateway. There are lots of avatars milling around under a large globe supported on a tripod with a lot of signs inviting you to visit this or that area. Most of these people are casual visitors who have not paid an annual fee to be citizens of Active Worlds, and most of them are youngsters milling around practising their slang, with an average age of perhaps 13. Unfortunately the chat does not improve in quality until you meet up with some particular person and visit their place or world that they are building and start discussing technical matters.
You can visit Active Worlds for free but to be an active part of it you must pay an annual fee, so here the commercial component is appearing. Active Worlds is such a compelling environment that they can charge people to become a part of it. There is a special reason for this. Can you guess it? (Active Worlds is proprietary software and so you cannot go elsewhere and create your own VR home in a chat world for free, the way you could get a website by getting an account with your ISP, and not have to put up with intrusive banner advertising on your website.)
However, the AW Gateway is perhaps the smallest world in the Active Worlds Universe of Worlds, since it would easily fit on a couple of playing fields in reality. The first stop for most visitors is AlphaWorld, which, if it were real would be 430,000 km2, or getting on for twice the size of New Zealand. It is too huge for anyone to find their way around and you use maps at 12 different scales to navigate this world. AlphaWorld is one of 750 worlds in the active world universe! In other words, the size of this project is mind-blowing, but here it is, it exists and it is growing at an expontential rate. Kids congregate in Alphworld with their friends and chat and wander or fly around various places in this huge space.
But there is something wrong. There are not many people in this world. The Gateway may have only 40 people in it, AlphaWorld 140, and the whole universe typically has 700 or so people in it. Compare this to IRC where the larger nets have 5000 to 10,000 people on-line at any time, and some of the chat websites which have 13,000 on-line at any time. Casual nonpaying visitors can go anywhere they like, so cost is not the reason that this world is not busy. It is possibly still a little new though it has existed since 1996. It is also pushing the envelope of your computer's capabilities. Your computer cannot do a lot else while the Alpha Worlds client is running, whereas people often run an IRC program simply in order to keep their line active so that their ISP does not disconnect them after 5 minutes of nonuse.
Having watched geocities develop from its early days when I could easily pick from 100's of "house sites" in the first 5000 of a community like Yosemite, when there were 25 communities, with 5000 sites,(thats 125,000 sites) and thinking that this was a huge concept, I have seen geocities grow to mind boggling proportions. Active Worlds is still in its initial stages with the prospect of becoming much larger even than geocities in terms of its real patronage.
In addition to this one is confronted by the fact that an ernormous amount of work has put into all the buildings in these worlds. In fact all the interest in these worlds is done behind the scenes. People do not actually live in the homes that they build in AlphaWorld but they do live in other worlds that they build for themselves. Many of the "homes" are mundane and of little interest, rather like walking thru a housing estate, so there is no focus for the casual visitor. In this regard the AlphaWorld models California all too accurately, except it is dead flat.
The third aspect to this strand is the VR part. Active Worlds have devised their own VR modelling language (VRML) which has active components for avatars, objects in the world and environments. There are also 'bots which manage each world, a little like the eggdrop 'bots that are used to manage IRC channels. However these bots can be used to alter the lighting in the world (day and night) and a host of other tasks. While it is not Standard VRML it is close to the new VRML being developed by Nintendo. The language has features which enhance the experience for visitors to these worlds rather than seeking to be an all-purpose language that can be used to simulate virtually anything. It gives more emphasis to texture and lighting and how things look, than to the detail of how objects may interact (touch, bounce etc).
Children and teenagers can see all sorts of wonderful structures being put up and can easily access the information required to build their own VR home. They learn about units, rectangles, triangles, making things fit, flexible grids, geodesic domes and so on. They also learn to use new design techniques to create textures and animations.
Once all this is done, something special happens that has an analogy with creating a geocities webpage. They bring their friends to see the home that they have created. But in this case, they can be there with their friends (avatars), and chat about the creation as they look at it. It is instant feedback of the castle in the sandpit variety.
The first thing you will note when you start building is that you are dealing with objects and actions (or methods). This is perhaps the major theme of the advanced section. It was the development of the basic ideas of object and method that enabled such complex systems as Active Worlds represents, to be written and maintained. Active Worlds give you hands on experience at playing with objects of various kinds and also some methods. They are all relatively simple and prepackaged ready for you to use, but nevertheless they show the principles of object and method at work very clearly. This is like playing with an inexhaustable Lego set.
Active Worlds has three different levels of server! A world server which operates on your own computer but which calls on Active Worlds for resources and is listed amongst AW's list of Worlds of which there are over 700! This costs as little as $10 US per year and up to $1000 US depending on size and usage.
Next up the scale is the Galaxy server (Galaxerver) which is able to host a world seperate from AW's own Universe of worlds at a cost of between $2000 US and $10,000 US.
Finally there is the Uniserver, which is the equivalent of AW's own server and able to host multiple worlds at a cost of $10,000 US and up, way up. Dreamworlds is one such galaxy and worth a visit.
And yes, you may have guessed it, another major career path is just opening up, hosting virtual malls and other large structures. Museums, art galleries, libraries, entertainment parks (like Auckland's Force Centre) where you can meet people and go off to see movies over the net, play games, browse shops or keep an eye on your favourite TV soap. Have you ever just got too overwhelmed by the crowds at an exhibition centre to go back to that interesting stand three halls back, and wished you could just snap your fingers and be there again? Yes, virtual copies of Trade Fairs are another application for VR Worlds.
These worlds provide access as a kind of service which we take for granted in the real world but which webpages do not really provide. It is location based and we group access to various things on our internal concept of location. Part of the secret is that webpages are somewhat linear in their operation, and also discrete and fragmentary. Worlds provide a more complex and integrated space in two dimensions, which we are used to using to locate things. This space flows as we move through it.
Of course, like all things, there are badly designed worlds, in which we easily get lost, just as there are badly designed shopping malls or exhibition centres.
3 Introduction to ActiveWorlds
AW does not now accept tourists at all but Dreamland Park, the second AW universe does. As a consequence, Dreamland is taking over from ActiveWorlds as the Universe of choice.
3.1 First Step Y3-
Children from the age of 7 use ActiveWorlds to play in. For them to get started just download the Dreamland Park client program install it and sign on as a tourist. read the help information on navigation and other features. This will require a bit of study and practice on your part to begin with. Learn and explain the key concepts to them and make sure they can navigate properly. The key concepts are avatar, object, facer, coordinate system in AW, navigation skills, walking, flying, passing thru walls, chatting in public and private, etiquette.
3.2 Building in AW Y5-
Children from age 9 on build in ActiveWorlds. This is a play activity in which they practise a lot of maths and spatial geometry. It is a very powerful brain building medium. It is like playing with the most fabulous set of building blocks that you can imagine and they are lifesize so you can walk amongst them. And it costs you nothing.