Why on earth should women be interested in Virtual Reality? The very name conjures up images of boys sitting in dimly lit rooms with bizarre headgear and gloves on. But I believe the technology will actually be appropriated largely by women in the near future.
Not long ago everybody thought the next generation of telephone would be the videophone. Much more useful, in my opinion, is VR.
You have just got out of the shower to answer the phone. You stand there -- naked, and dripping wet -- talking on the phone, glad it does not transmit pictures. It sends a description of your gestures and expressions so that the computer at the other end is able to reflect your actions in a 3D image of your choice. The other person sees you as you would have them see you. You can have any shape, whether you are wheelchair-bound or able-bodied, regardless of your appearance, and whatever your skin colour.
At the moment most VR is just seen as a picture on a computer screen and viewed without any special devices. Many people do not think of this as VR, but it is, and it is the most rapidly growing form.
One of my avatars.
The sense of smell is an odd one. There have already been Smellorama movies and you may have seen (smelled?) a scratchit book. In the 1960's Morton Heilig designed and built the Sensorama, an arcade size virtual reality machine which included smell with 3D vision, stereo sound, and vibration to give a sense of movement, but he was never able to get financial backing. Apparently there are only 7 distinct odours that mix to produce the spectrum of smells -- it should be easy to mechanize...
Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) was developed by a small number of people during 1994/1995. VRML is a major milestone because it is a simple way of creating complex virtual worlds with nothing more than a text editor. For the first time, VR was open to any person interested enough to invest a small amount of time in learning it. The specifications are freely available to anyone on the World Wide Web, and the program used to display your worlds inside your Web Browser is free also. In fact if you obtained your Web Browser recently, and it is a full version (not a "cut-down" version), chances are that it already has the ability to display virtual worlds because the major browsers now include world-viewing capabilities as standard.
The development of such a simple and effective standard attracted a lot of people, and the development during 1997 of VRML97 (also called VRML2.0) was a much bigger affair. It was conducted almost entirely over the internet by several thousand individuals (though less than a hundred were active participants at a time), and extends greatly the functionality of VRML because now VRML has become interactive and dynamic.
Now the next generation of VRML is under development. Great things are afoot. This is an enormous co-operative effort by people all over the world. Development of VRML and discussion of its directions takes place almost entirely over the internet via email.
Around the same time as the initial development efforts for VRML, the appropriately named AlphaWorld was created. In 1997 it was purchased by Circle Of Fire, a small team of artists and programmers who were responsible for much of the content of AlphaWorld. They renamed it ActiveWorlds. The original AlphaWorld still exists and is enormous, but there are now over four hundred worlds in the ActiveWorlds universe, which is certainly the biggest multi-user system on the internet. You can become a citizen of ActiveWorlds by subscribing -- and there are hundreds of thousands of citizens. An annual subscription of just under US$20 gets you the ability to stake a claim to any plot of "land" not already owned and build whatever you want there. Citizens also get to use custom avatars, whereas visitors may use only standard male or female "tourist" avatars. There are some utterly gorgeous worlds in the ActiveWorlds universe. Each time I have been there I have met people from dozens of different countries. And in late 1998 the awesome Avatars98 was held in there... but more of that below. ActiveWorlds does not use VRML.
In 1995, and hot on the heels of AlphaWorld/ActiveWorlds was Blaxxun (back then, they were called Black Sun in honour of a place in a virtual world in Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash). They hoped for their worlds to be of more use than simply places for people to meet, and they adopted the new VRML standard to make their worlds more open-ended. They have made shopping worlds and places for corporate clients to hold international staff meetings, and conferences. But it seems that in spite of all their success at commercializing them, socializing is still what their worlds are mostly used for. And they are impressive worlds.
Sony started up their own group of multi-user worlds as Community Place. It never seemed to get the attention that the others did outside Japan. It uses a slightly altered variant of VRML, extended to give more capabilities.
On the 8th of September 1997 Kathy Rae Huffman had arranged a conference at the Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. She and I had earlier talked about the possibility of putting a virtual world on the internet for women to meet in during the conference; this way even women who were unable to physically attend due to financial or other reasons could still take part in the event in some (small) way. I built a small world and some of us met in there from time to time over those few days using a few simple avatars I had built.
The world's first live performance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream inside a virtual world was broadcast to the world over the internet on the 26th of April 1998. It was the pet project of Bernie Roehl and Stephen Matsuba at the University of Waterloo in Canada and they named it VRML Dream. The performers operated avatars representing the characters in the play. Often more than one person was required to operate each avatar so that the performers were more like puppeteers than actors. The audience was able to point their web browsers at the address where this landmark performance was taking place and watch the play by moving around within the action. Members of the audience didn't have avatars -- they were invisible. VR presents some very interesting possibilities for an audience. They could wander freely around the action or even ignore it completely. They could take on the viewpoint of any of the characters, or see the play from the director's "camera". There were also many preset positions around the scene that the viewer could jump to.
A meeting in Jeff's VNet world. There are 5 avatars in this picture. The glowing yellow point in front of the dog avatar is a firefly avatar being used by Sherrie. The OOBE button activates Out Of Body Experience mode. That is how I managed to take the picture with my avatar in the shot.
As soon as Stephen White released his code several people put VNet worlds up on the net. The best known and most used of these is Jeff Sonstein's Town Square. Since his world has opened there have been many special meetings held in there.
Steve Guynup has been experimenting with virtual poetry readings in Jeff's VNet world. He was able to do things there that are totally impossible in reality. To illustrate and accompany his poetry he metamorphosed his avatar at several points during the reading. He started with a title page which simply stood there for a little while before the reading began, then changed to a couple of photographic pictures, then an enormous, dizzily spinning avatar larger than the main part of the world we were in, then a little ball-like object which bounced randomly around. These meshed perfectly with the sense of his poem and enhanced it in a way which is difficult to describe.
Picture reproduced courtesy of Bruce DamerThe view from near the front of the audience at the climax of the Avatars98 Awards ceremony. The more distant avatars in this picture appear to have the standard tourist avatar here but actually had various avatars. Near top, centre, MyTwoKeys (Victoria D'Onofrio) was actually wearing her winning avatar, a rather distorted picture of which can be seen on the main screen.
Picture reproduced courtesy of Millennium Interactive Co.VR Avatars™ "Summer and George the bunny". (C)1998-99 Millennium Interactive Co.
"Most people think that I have had a long history of training and design experience using 3D modelers but Rody and I started with RWX [Renderware text file format] scripting about 2 1/2 years ago, making models for our projects. Jasmine (the runner up best humanoid, last year) was my first true experience using a 3D modeler, so I have about 1 1/2 years experience in this area.
The Renderware scripts contain the geometry definition of the model. Basically it's a list of vertices (x, y and z co-ordinates) and a list of polygons (connecting the vertices and containing the surface settings). We use a 3d modeler for the design and then convert the model to RWX. After the conversion, some text editing is always needed.
I animated Summer and George (as a single model), using Life Forms [a 3D animation program]. The animations took me a full 6 days, and that was working almost around the clock on them. I was making animations up to the day of the avvys! :)
Rody was responsible for fixing all the technical problems that cropped up... The conversion process is always a pain... You have polys [polygons] missing and sometimes I have to redesign the model because the 'camera' in ActiveWorlds has a tendency to exaggerate the bust line (as was the case with summer :) And we had problems getting the textures to download correctly.
Summer was supposed to be part of a series of avatars (spring, summer, fall, winter).. but when I started designing her, I kept throwing in other 'aspects' that I felt meshed better with one of the other seasons or something that wasn't my idea of 'summer'. I almost gave up on the seasons concept, but I'm stubborn when I have one of my "inspirations" :)) So, I remade her costume almost into a greek Diana.. The Diana came about because I wanted to add young animals (at that point, there was no "George").. great design, but wasn't 'summer' enough :)) so I threw the whole thing out again and went back to the seasons.. and a naked model :)) I finally achieved what was in my mind when I started.. although I still cannot say she is a "true expression of summer" :)
Technically, once I had the direction, modeling her was not hard for me. I do have to say though that the joints, especially the knees, were quite difficult. I spent days perfecting the knee joint, so that when she sits, walks, kicks, or bends them, they look natural. Summer's knees can be rotated 90 degrees and they will still look natural. When you are restricted to a very low poly count it's extremely difficult to do.
Rody and I fought about George :)) One of his jobs is to make sure that the model stays low poly count.. but I wanted to incorporate all the tags. I wanted Summer to look young, innocent.. a part of nature... but I wanted to show off the body design, I WANTED (I felt she desperately needed) a fawn, or a bunny (they are so cute!).
Summer was finished for all intents and purposes in TrueSpace [a 3d modeling program in which objects are 'sculpted']... It was 2 weeks before the Avvys, and I still hadn't done her animation sequences. I kept telling Rody "I want to add an animal" and he kept saying "no, no, the poly count!... you don't have time to animate her now!! :))"
Well, I'm stubborn, and I modeled George without telling him, in one day... made the textures the next... stuck him in the crook of her arm... and then showed Rody :)) George was so cute, he almost couldn't refuse but he did! Same argument, told me I was crazy, and couldn't possibly animate the combination of Summer/George before the avvys... I still didn't listen and made him convert the Summer/George combination for animation in Life Forms. I did the "wait" sequence (the animation she assumes repeatedly, when the user is not initiating a sequence). Summer petting George and George enjoying it sometimes, struggling in her arms at others... It was SO CUTE he couldn't refuse any longer and George stayed :)
Winning the Avvys was overwhelming.. My goal was to win, of course, but I never really could convince myself that I had a chance to win the "most realistic humanoid" category, let alone the "Grand Prize". When they displayed Summer on the big screen, Grand Prize Winner.. I started jumping up and down, and then broke down and cried. :)) I can't describe that feeling, all I can say is that winning the Avvys for an avatar designer is like winning the Oscar!"
Using computer generated VR for socializing and interacting extends what the telephone, low cost travel, and the postal service have done before it. The present telephone system uses incredibly complex computer networks which even make use of space technology to link people via satellites in orbit around our little planet. With the advent of mobile phones it has become even more complex, with small, handheld computers communicating via radio with various base stations, automatically selecting the best one to send your voice message through. But how many people think of all this when they phone a loved one for a chat? In the same way, as the newness of the technology wears off and people come to take it for granted, they will see it less as something to do with computers and more as just another way of socializing.
My favourite avatar.
For many people, their only exposure to VR is the shooting and racing games in game parlours. My only answer to critics of VR who point to the violent nature of these games, is to ask if they condemn all books for a few which glorify battle. Do they dismiss the value of film and theatre because of the many violent shows? Most VR is as distant from these parlour games as Rambo is from Fantasia.
There is the problem that only a minority of people in the world have access to this wonderful new technology -- the information-rich. But if previous technologies are anything to go by, this is something which will change fairly rapidly as VR shows its usefulness and as the equipment becomes more affordable. Currently the speed and power of computers roughly doubles about every 18 months while the price halves. "Old" computers, unwanted in the information rich worlds, find their way to developing nations giving them low-cost access.
There has been some criticism of the Kyoko Date project to create a virtual pop star. (see the links at the end of this document) The worry seems to be that people will be misled by an idealized humanoid. Leaving aside the fact that the Kyoko Date project never tried to palm their creation off as real ('date' is Japanese for 'fake' or 'for show'), such concerns seem to underestimate people's good sense and need for complex, real humans. Kyoko created a sensation for a few weeks in Japan, then people just lost interest in it. We won't have to worry about virtual humans till computers manage to pass the Turing Test, and then our main worry is going to be how to extend our definitions of human rights, and citizenship to include them... but that will be decades, perhaps even centuries off yet.
The criticism of such creations as Kyoko could be extended to include avatars such as Summer: the argument being that a veneer of beauty hides the true nature of the human flaws underneath and makes people more intolerant of physical defects. But I would argue exactly the opposite. We already have an incredibly powerful culture of physical beauty which marginalizes, and is terribly oppressive of, those of us who "don't measure up". Using avatars as trojan horses we are able to meet people and befriend them before revealing our physical nature. This forces people to admit to themselves that people with different skin colours, different dress styles, different levels of capability (deaf, wheelchair-bound, blind, etc.) are worthwhile human beings. You can try to reason with someone who is racist or bigoted until you are blue in the face, but the only way to actually convince them is to have one of "the despised" become their friend. VR manages this in a way few other media have. True, it would be much better if we could simply have more public images of good and worthwhile ugly people, brilliant people in wheelchairs, great people of all races -- and I believe that day is coming... gradually. But in the meantime we have to work around our petty human failings any way we can.
Why haven't I mentioned the problem of children becoming "hooked" on VR and losing touch with reality? Because I don't see it as a problem. I don't think VR will be realistic enough to be much of an escape for perhaps another few decades at least -- perhaps never -- reality is just so very much better! In fact using VR always makes me realize how incredible the real world is. My appreciation of everyday things is magnified: small weeds growing through cracks in the concrete, the dust motes in a sunbeam from the window, a bird outside my window feeding on nectar from a flower. And computer generated VR just pales in comparison to the escape value of a good book. (I chuckle when I remember being warned by some people when I was a child that I spent too much time reading books.) Books are the ultimate in VR! Films, stage plays, and computer VR experiences have great difficulty conveying what a person thinks and feels, or what their motivation is. These are easily, economically conveyed through the printed word. With a good book you are able to omnisciently feel the emotions of perhaps several characters and understand what drives them.
The astonishing thing about online VR communities is that they exist largely in spite of the need to earn their owners an income. There have been a number of extraordinary universes which have imploded under the pressure of finance (OzVirtual, OnliveTraveller, the early AlphaWorld, are three prominent examples). The simple fact is that most virtual worlds are not run by large faceless corporations, but by small groups of visionaries who love to meet and socialize with people, and sculpt 3D artforms.
Using VR to see the unseeable is bound to make some large impacts in research at some points in the future. Things which have always been impossible to visualise will become open to understanding in new ways. Nobody can forsee what this will illuminate. It could finally lead to an understanding of protein folding, or how the brain organizes itself, or how room-temperature superconductivity might be achieved. It could open new windows onto understanding the weather, or the operation of the immune system. It is conceivable it could spark whole new industries. Few things have this kind of potential.
Most air pollution is produced by the common motor car, usually driven by one person to and from work each day. Virtual reality holds out the prospect that many people may be able avoid this costly waste of time and money each day. This would free up the roads for those who still need them making them less dangerous as well as less frustrating. At the moment it is not unusual for people to spend 3 or 4 hours each day just travelling to and from work! The cost of petrol and wear and tear on vehicles must be an incredible weight on the economy, not even mentioning the tragedy of death and injury from road accidents. Funds currently spent building giant arterial roads would find other uses too.
National borders will become immaterial when interacting with other people. It won't matter if the people in your conference room are from the same city as yourself or whether they're talking with you from points scattered all over the Earth; it is all the same to someone in VR. The familiarity with other cultures that this brings will make it very difficult to support the insanity that is racism, and will help to heal the intolerance that springs from xenophobia.
Epidemics spread extremely easily through any large society where there is a lot of personal contact. The telephone has begun the technological trend to facilitate interpersonal communication without requiring physical contact. VR can only enhance this. Human contact is a necessary part of society and will never be replaced by VR, but unwanted or unnecessary contact is a waste of time and as the threat of new infections grows, it may become an avoidable risk.
Most disabled people are as capable of performing work inside VR as anybody else. This makes possible the integration of a very marginalised group into the mainstream of productive society. For people whose ability to move is severely restricted, new work on getting signals direct from the brain offers the prospect of minimising their dependence on other people and enhancing their lifestyle. For people who have one or more senses missing or severely diminished there is hope of receiving direct input to their brains -- replacing or augmenting those senses. If you find this a gruesome thought, consider how you would feel if you fell tomorrow and broke your neck, or if you lost your sight due to glaucoma as do thousands of people every year. If you were offered the ability to resume your social and working life, through use of a computer in this way instead of being reliant on somebody else for much of the rest of your life, would you consider it perverse? ...or liberating?
The structure of cities will undergo some change as most office work will take place at home instead of in the city. People will go to the city specifically to meet people and for entertainment. The cities will become more service-industry-based. Manufacturing will change later when telepresence becomes common. After that people will be able to control factory machines from home.
Some of us will always be the pioneers, with a desperate need to search for new horizons, but as the planet comes more and more under the influence of civilization, what little that remains of wilderness becomes too valuable to intrude upon. As space travel recedes ever further into the future, where can the pioneers go? VR offers an infinite multitude of universes.
Rheingold, Howard. 1991,1992. Virtual Reality. London: Mandarin Paperbacks Still the best for an entertaining and down-to-earth, backgrounder on the concepts and major developments in VR, though with the sudden rise of multi-user virtual worlds and VRML in the last couple of years it is getting a little dated.
Hartman, Jed & Wernecke, Josie. 1996. VRML 2.0 Handbook. Addison-Wesley. The ultimate resource for those interested in learning how to build worlds using VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language).
Wilcox, Sue Ki. 1998. Web Developer.com Guide to 3D Avatars. John Wiley & Sons, Wiley Computer Publishing. A guide to the main software available for building avatars. It has a practical and a commercial approach. Comes with a CD-ROM containing demo software and avatar models. There is also a web site with updates.
Roehl, Bernie; Couch, Justin; Reed-Ballreich, Cindy; Rohaly, Tim; Brown, Geoff. 1997. Late Night VRML 2.0 with Java. Ziff-Davis Press. This enormous tome covers tutorials on textures and sound in VRML worlds, the Living Worlds and Humanoid Animation standards, and using the Java programming language to make multi-user worlds.
On the Internet
(These sites are all current as of this writing, but the web changes constantly so don't expect all to still be current years later.)
The Web3D Consortium
This is the nerve centre for VRML.
This is a complete specification of VRML 97 (Virtual Reality Modeling Language version 2). It enables you to build virtual worlds using just a text editor.
The VRML Mining Company
Sandy Ressler has made this a central clearing-house for all manner of news and information relating to VRML.
Texture Mapping in VRML
Written by Cindy Reed-Ballreich, this is the ultimate reference on using textures in VRML.
Maureen Stone's tutorial on lighting in VRML worlds.
Tracey Bezesky's cute pond world.
Jeff Sonstein's list of VNet Worlds
Information about VNet, including a list of current VNet worlds on the web that you can visit. Remember that a VNet world requires no special software other than a standard VRML viewer in your web browser.
The most-used VRML viewer for the internet. It is freely downloadable, and plugs in to become a part of your Web browser which may be Netscape Navigator (or Communicator), or Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
Summer's page at Millennium Co
Summer is the avatar by Victoria D'0nofrio (MyTwoKeys) and Rodolfo Galeano (Netropolis) which won the Avatars98 grand prize.
Lisa Goldman is the president of this amazing company in USA. They have a lot of useful information online.
Out Of The Blue
Linda Hahner is president and CEO of this, the company to make the world's first VR banner ads. They also have been doing a lot of work on educational stuff for kids in VRML.
This phenomenal universe of worlds has the fastest, and most feature-packed interface to date. The also have by far the greatest number of worlds and the greatest number of inhabitants.
Japanese project to create a virtual pop star.
You can see pictures and reports of what went on during the day.
Blaxxun Interactive Virtual Worlds
This is probably the best known multi-user virtual world on the internet. You will need to download a fairly large (free) program to enter the world though.
DeepMatrix is a multi-user virtual world system which, like VNet doesn't require any special download. It improves upon VNet, however in two main areas: it offers shared objects, and the ability to have more people in a world simultaneously than VNet.
Sony Community Place
This is another well known multi-user world on the net, but with a very large (freely downloadable) program required to gain entry.
This is a working group -- a bunch of volunteers who do this purely as an interest, trying to develop standards and new artforms (and lifeforms).
This is the main VRML mailing list. To subscribe (it costs nothing), send an email with "info" in the main part of the text (without the quotes).
Miriam's Home Page
My pages contain some VRML avatars and worlds and many lists of links. Take the Virtual Reality link to find more links to things VR.