GroupTrek: The Next Generation
by John H. Saunders, Ph.D.
 
avatar n. Hindu Mythology. the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate form or some manifest shape. 

Earth to Avatars, the first annual Contact Consortium Conference on Contact, Culture and Community in Digital Space, was
held on October 26 and 27, 1996 in San Francisco. This conference was attended largely by young people with colored hair
and strange clothing. Most of these same people have graduate degrees in computer science from schools such as Carnegie
Mellon and Stanford, and are employed by companies with names like Silicon Graphics, Microsoft, Sony, and Netscape. What are these individuals doing at this and other similar conferences such as VRML1 97?  Simple. They are creating the next generation of computing interface for working together.

What is this new interface for working together? It is populated with entities such as universal avatars, living worlds, universal
objects and 3D widgets. Likely what identifies the next generation the most is the concept of being and meeting inside the
computer, not outside it as we exist today with monitors, keyboards, mice, windows and videoteleconferencing. What does
being inside the computer mean? The following is a scenario that describes it utilizing technology that exists today, although not
yet integrated.

It is 9:00 am and time for the daily project meeting. You pull your lightweight I-O Glasses out of your case. These glasses have
miniature monitors built into them and a radio wave device for sending and receiving signals. You also pull your PowerGlove
out of your desk and put it on your hand. Through the glasses you see a control panel with buttons and gauges. You raise your
glove and with a flick of your finger you press a VCR-like button that says Record. You then press another button that says
Conference Room. Suddenly you are transported into a room that appears similar to a typical conference room.

Everything in the room is three dimensional. As you look around other people begin to "pop in." The other participants in your
conference are physically located in such diverse locations as New York, Los Angeles and London. But you are all "meeting" in
virtual reality through a Sony Community Place Internet server located in Kansas. The images or avatars of the other people
you see were all originally captured using Cyberwareís WB4 infrared digital scanning machine - basically a 3D camera. The
images were converted using a Silicon Graphics O2 workstation into the new Universal Avatar format.

The digital representations of the participantís avatars are downloaded into your computer memory at the start of the meeting.
The facial expressions and mouth movements you see are all computed and displayed using Digitalís DECFace add-in. This
software interprets the participantís real time voice input and utilizes the physiology of the human skull and its tissues to provide
the "true to form" illusion of a talking head. Using the Universal Object standard, you pass a piece of virtual paper containing
the agenda around to the others in the room.

The meeting commences. A discussion arises around whether the latest 3D Widget has a RK v. 2 option. As you watch, Jim
from LA drops the widget onto the center of the table and pulls up its option menu. No, there only appears to be a RK v. 1
capability. Make a note to have the programmerís build in RK v. 2. Jim starts up the widget and everyone laughs as the device
zooms around the room. The meeting proceeds for an hour and then as quickly as they came, the participants pop out. You
again bring up the control panel in your I-O Glasses and press the Stop button. You take off the glasses and sit back. Ahhh,
now itís time for a coffee break.

Sounds like science fiction? Itís not. You can see for yourself what already exists. Using Netscape go to http://www.onlive.com
and download the Onlive browser. Follow the Onlive instructions to install it on your computer. You will need to plug a
microphone into your sound card to talk with the others in the virtual reality space. This software acts as your interface to the
Onlive "Living Worlds."

Living Worlds is a new extension to current standards for Virtual Reality on the Internet. It is sometimes referred to as VRML
3.0. VRML 1.0 was the standard that created a common format for physical, static worlds such as buildings that you could
explore. VRML 2.0 added standards for Moving Worlds - the ability to see and interact with moving objects such as cars.
Now 3.0 will add standards for universal avatars - a physical likeness (or un-likeness as you prefer) of yourself that can move
among and be seen within all the thousands of virtual reality worlds out on the internet. Onlive now has living worlds where you
can go visit others in a sports bar or in a gambling casino. Now you wonít need to travel to Las Vegas to participate in the
action of sitting around a table playing blackjack with others. You can now lose your money while sitting at home.

1. VRML - Virtual Reality Modeling Language
 

ďThe desktop computer to me, at least since 1968, has been a passing phase. Itís not an aberration, but itís like Guttenberg in that you invent something new, but you donít know what it is, so you put it in the old case. Aldus [Mantius] is my hero. Heís the guy who wanted books that could fit into saddlebags, so he was forced not only to change the size of the book, but to also invent a lot of modern typography in order to make the books legible.Ē (Alan Kay, Byte, Feb. 1991) 
 

(c) 1998 John H. Saunders. Permission granted for unrestricted use in academic environments.