Neal Stephenson’s 1994 science fiction novel Snow Crash is not as famous as William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk classic Neuromancer. But for many of us it was in Stephenson’s vision of the future that we first encountered the idea of ‘avatars’ – 3D computer generated fake ‘bodies’ that represent us in cyberspace. A glimpse into how near or far we are to leading parallel lives via avatars is the fascinating experiment in multi-user virtual environments performed by the BBC in the UK. Over seven weeks 2,250 people worldwide took part in ‘Inhabited TV,’ where six artificial worlds were created in conjunction with the BBC2 arts/computer program ‘The Net,’ and participants could interact and join in on-line communities.
By Gary Flood
The BBC was helped by researchers from British Telecommunications Plc’s Applied Research and Technologies laboratory in East Anglia, Sony Corp, and Illuminations Ltd, an independent British multimedia production company. The Mirror, as the virtual worlds were called overall, started development in September 1996, with the idea being launched to the public in a three minute broadcast on ‘The Net’ in January. There were 600 successful registrations the night of the broadcast. Though British Telecom and the others very much agree that the long term vision of the Metaverse will only really come through high-speed terrestrial and satellite networks linking into set-top boxes or network computers in the home, to form a possible global ‘virtual society,’ in current scenarios access over the Internet to a personal computer, which had to be Windows 95 supporting and at least 90MHz, was the best minimum configuration to get the experiment off the ground. Crucial to development was the Sony Community Place development tool, a VRML 2.0 browser, which is basically a file format for interactive 3D environments, working with a server to handle the messaging between browsers to maintain consistent distributed state, along with a facility for developers called the ‘application object’ to enable insertion of complex shared objects and behaviors into the worlds. Content amounted to 2.4Mb of VRML code, supported by 4.6Mb of textures and 29Mb of audio files. The CP Java interface and objects were controlled using Java program scripts; the CP browser and the VRML worlds were distributed to participants on CD to cut down risk of fatal bugs with the pressed code. The environment eventually ran on five Unix workstations and 3 personal computers which supported the six world servers, application objects, and support and monitoring services. There was also an extensive 2D HTML surround for things like registration, technical support and user feedback. An undeniably important aspect of this whole shared space experience was performance.
Detraction from a sense of immersion
Load time was also a problem, about two minutes per world per client machine. In British Telecom’s words, The slow frame rate detracted from a sense of immersion in the 3D scene, and made for a relatively weak link between the text chat and visual windows. It is suggested that full-screen frame rates faster than ten per second should be a minimum design goal for future [Interactive TV] services. But what of the actual experience? Though tests suggested The Mirror could have supported over 600 people simultaneously in the six worlds, it never hit that peak. The six worlds included Space, Power, Play, Identity, Memory and Spinner. To inhabit these worlds users could choose bodies from four avatars and color their clothes from a palette. The worlds were open 24 hours a day, but this size of community was just too small to ensure constant human presence in all six areas. Of particular importance were structured events, like the trial debate between British Telecom’s head of research Peter Cochrane and Douglas Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Adams, which attracted an audience of 45, with speakers able to respond to ‘heckling’ and ‘comments’ from their avatar brethren. A less successful experiment than events were auras, a way of clumping a number of avatars together so one could only ‘see’ a certain number of other ‘people’ at a time – a move that did result in problems, like people arranging to ‘meet’ friends and not ‘see’ them because they were in different auras. In comparison to Snow Crash’s Metaverse all very rudimentary but The Mirror must be praised as a highly innovative and daring experiment in virtual community.