Introduction to Active Worlds

written Nov 2001 being revised May 2006

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1   Prerequisites        

Before you read this section you should have visited geocities and either used its facilities, either by helping students set up their own webpages in one of the many communities, or by setting up your own, if only to familiarise yourself with the process so that you can understand what students do when they set up a website at geocities. Geocities is a complex community with a wide variety of services and it has an interesting history which would be a useful study for Y7-8 students. (Exercise - write a short history of geocities) However this section is not about geocities, because all the technology that makes geocities work is covered mainly in the Basic Chapter.

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.

Building in Active Worlds

Just as it is instructive to create your own webpage in geocities, in order to understand the skills that a child requires to accomplish this task, it is also useful to build your own place in Active Worlds.

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.


Having built a little something in say AlphaWorld, you may be looking at the lists of other worlds which you can visit, and being the adventurer that you are, go visit a few. Then you get to wondering how all this works. The answer is client/server architecture, but we are not now dealing with a simple concept like a web servcer and a webbrowser, although these too have larger servers that manage the traffic and connections around the Earth.

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.

Commercial Applications

This is not intended as an advertisement for Active Worlds but as an indication of the commercial nature of this venture. It is also an indication that the products are being used in commercially cost-justifiable situations. For instance a world might be used as a virtual shopping mall replica of a real shopping mall where you can buy stuff when the Northern US winter prevents you leaving the house. Yes, you may not be able to drive to the Mall, but you can get there by cyber and all the same stores are there and even the same people are there as avatars! You can browse the shops in public in the world where your avatar can be seen by others, but you can also browse each shop's webpages of products for sale in the accompanying webpge window and make your purchaces in private so that your snoopy friends cant see what you are looking at or buying.

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.

From the Portal world, visit the Tourist world which allows tourists to build permanent structures. You will also want to visit another world, The Yard, which is a huge yard of examples of every object available for you to build with in the standard library of objects. Its like a big department store. You will need to do some building yourself and familiarise yourself with these two worlds because the students will be asking questions. Learn about dimensions, sizes, scales, orientation of objects relative to each other. VR has a slightly different quality to building blocks in that you cannot simply try jamming one object in with others. The objects pass through each other, so they do not fit like physical objects. Also there is no sense of forcing something to fit or stay in place. Building in VR is less physical and as a result a more cerebral activity. You need to think about what you are trying to do before you attempt to do it. You can play around shifting objects nilly-nilly but you do not get the physical reward strokes that you would get by doing this physically. In addition there is no shortage of building material. In one way this is bad as it does not match the reality of building to resource constraints. On the other hand it does allow for ideas to be expressed without being hindered by practical constraints. And simply formulating ideas in the mind and expressing them in the VR medium is a hugely creative development for the mind.

3.3   Creating Animation and Textures Y7-        

ActiveWorlds is an environment in which it is easy to create new things by repainting the old. This does not require any new skills or concepts so it is an easy step for children to take. They build new animations and textures using familair tools such as GIF Animators, Photoshop etc and then apply them to their building objects. while nothing particularly "new" has been done something important has happened. Students have taken material from outside the AW environment and brought it into the environment and appied it. n fact they have created a loop of, need (wouldnt it be nice if it looked like so), to devise (I could use photoshop to create the texture I want) , to create the solution, import it and apply it.

3.4   Beyond        

Beyond this level of interaction and expertise, AW projects start to get complicated in the way they intereact with their environment, in their size and scope and in the mathematics and other knowledge bases required to make things happen. All this is left for the Advanced Chapter.

4   The Future of Virtual Reality        

It is perhaps appropriate at this point to look to the Future of Virtual Reality. We are familiar with the holodeck facility on the Starship Enterprise. It would be convenient if we could dismiss this as fanciful science fiction, away in the future, but it is already a reality.

Char Davies

Char Davies is a Canadian who started as an artist but developed interest in 3-D computer graphics. She did work on VR systems in the early 90's and from this setup a FX production company in Toronto which produced FX for the movies Jurassic Park and The Matrix which broke new ground in FX.

She then turned to developing VR worlds and produced two worlds, Osmose and Éphémère, which each employed 3 linked super-computers to transport the "immersant" through their spaces. The term immersant is used because you wear a vest which detects movement in your torso. Breathing in and expanding the vest causes you to rise in the world and breathing out causes you to sink. Leaning forwards slightly causes you to move forward and leaning to the side causes you to turn. The effect of this when wearing the stereoscopic headset with 24 track 3-D sound is similar to the sensation of diving - and thus the term "immersant" (and yes this word does have overtones).

Due to the high overheads of these worlds, only 30 people per day can experience the work, they have only been exhibited in a few places for limited times and so only several thousands of people have experienced these. You need to read their responses to these worlds to begin to form some idea of the power of this medium. Words like 'revelation', 'paradise', 'epiphany', 'rebirth', and 'near-death experience' are used in relation to these works. The last term in relation to having to leave Éphémère when your 15 minutes is up.

This review was written 1998 by Mark Pesce, a co-founder of VRML.

In this review the author, Mark J Jones, unwittingly writes poetry to describe his experience.

The bottom line is that there is no doubt that this is THE entertainment medium of the 21st Century.

In other words, the children entering school today with talents in Art and Computer Science will start work in this field when they leave school or University. This is the kind of industry that New Zealand can support. NZ now has Weta Workshop as a leading FX company in the world, an excellent base from which to start.

Question? Does NZ's education system meet the needs of a company like Weta?

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