Figure 1 - Microsoft Chat (Comic Chat). Life in a Comic Strip
Figure 2 - VPchat
Figure 3 - VZones. One year anniversary celebration.
Figure 4 - DigitalSpace Traveler. Launch of the new Digital Space Traveler client.
Figure 5 - Active Worlds. Virtual wedding.
Figure 6a - Worlds.com. Trying to attract attention of the two girls.
Figure 6b - Worlds.com. CyberVenice.
Figure 7 - Microsoft V-Chat.
Figure 8 - Blaxxun. Virtual Municpal Hall in Prague with virtual visitors.
Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace. [from The Virtual Community, book by Howard Rheingold]
It has not been so long, when computers were able to display only alphabet characters and we could only dream about 3D graphics. However, in these past days we can locate origins of virtual communities. Users with modems connected over a phone line to a BBS (bulletin-board system), where they could discuss with other users in message boards, publish articles, download software or play games (1970 - 1990). One BBS could also be connected with other BBSs to form a network that enabled users to communicate with geographically distant users.
A younger alternative to BBS that exists up to this day is called Usenet. Its principle is very similar to BBS network: users post messages to hierarchical categories called "newsgroups". The message is sent to a news server that is interconnected with other servers that occasionally exchange the messages among themselves. Any user can subscribe and read messages posted by other users.
With the rise of Internet (since 1990), new possibilities opened. Internet network, which spans the entire globe, serves as a very powerful base for mediating communication and creation of virtual communities. IRC (internet relay chat) was the first wide spread communication tool that enabled users to exchange instant messages. Communities form around IRC channels that join users discussing on the same channel topic.
Bulletin boards, newsgroups in Usenet, channels in IRC: they all provide a common meeting point for users to share textual information and build virtual community around such a meeting point. As the available network bandwidth increases hand in hand with speed of home personal computers, new means of communication emerge. Textual communication is not rich enough to mediate emotions and other aspects of the real world. Some enhancements were achieved by emoticons and graphical smileys, but capabilities of up-to-date computers offer more: real-time 2D and even 3D graphics.
The idea to replace shared textual information by complex shared virtual worlds (2D or 3D) started new era of virtual communities on the Internet, where users are no more limited to exchange only simple text messages. In virtual worlds, user is represented by its "avatar", that could be anything from a flying geometrical objects to a nice animated articulated character. Users navigate through the virtual world by walking, flying, jumping or simply teleporting. Communication among users usually takes form of text messages like in IRC, but virtual worlds provide much more to it: avatar's gestures, facial animation or body language. However, the most important thing about virtual worlds on the Internet is that they can be customized by users or directly built by them from scratch. Users build their houses, gardens, playgrounds and compose large virtual cities. Other possible activities in shared virtual worlds include social events (party, wedding), public meetings and presentation (conference), performances (theatre), sports (skiing), playing games (golf) etc.
Microsoft Chat is basically an IRC client that enhances pure textual communication by converting it to interactive comic strip that unfolds in real time. Comic style balloons display your conversation, and gestures generated by conversation semantics give your character a variety of emotions and movements (see Figure 1). The character you have selected, along with other comic characters, comes alive panel by panel. The Microsoft Chat program interprets key words and symbols to draw your character and integrate it into each panel. Microsoft Chat offers a variety of original comic characters and backgrounds, created by comic artist Jim Woodring. List of IRC servers specialized for Comic Chat and other useful information can be found on Mermeliz website.
In VPchat, each chat room is actually a web page, so members can make a chat room out of any page they find on the web. Users are represented by avatars that take form of small pictures. Customizable mini-animations serve like gestures. Users can also play one of the available games: Spades, Acey Deucy, Backgammon, Yahtzee, Checkers, Chess or Battleship.
VZones introduce 2D virtual worlds, where users can talk, gesture, walk around or play group games (see Figure 3). VZones users form a virtual society with its own economy; users can earn virtual tokens, buy from vending machines or rent an apartment.
DigitalSpace Traveler (launched in 1996) supports communities of users using their own voices to speak through 3D avatars which lip synch and blend sound together. Traveler creates the experience of a “cocktail party in Cyberspace” and permits up to 16 people in one virtual space to talk or even share music (see Figure 4). Because avatars make body contact (you can hear and feel someone bumping you), avatar sports such as sumo wrestling, football and basketball have been created.
Active Worlds allows users to build virtual worlds, where they can meet, chat, shop and play games. The Active Worlds Universe is a community of hundreds of thousands of users that inhabit millions of square kilometers of virtual territory. Satellite maps show how the community has grown over the years. Figure 5 shows virtual wedding in Active Worlds.
Web: Active Worlds
In Worlds.com, users are represented by articulated avatars that they choose in Avatar Gallery. After signing up, users can explore many worlds, where they meet and chat or whisper (private chat) with others (see Figure 6a). Articulated avatars can replay pre-prepared gestures that include dancing, expressing a mood or performing a sport. Information about other users is accessible in their Personal Info.
In the other hand, citizens have no means to change objects or build the world. Another disadvantage is that the client application is written in pure Java without use of Java 3D. Thus, 3D hardware acceleration is available only for small set of legacy video cards (since the application was written in 2000). Detailed information can be found on Worlds.com help page.
Microsoft V-Chat is a multimedia, multi-user, social environment that lets people communicate online from within a 2D or 3D environment using graphical representations of themselves, known as avatars (see Figure 7). V-Chat was originally released on the Microsoft Network (MSN) v1.0 in December of 1995.
In V-Chat, avatars have a full range of gestures that allow users to express themselves online. V-Chat users can select from a wide variety of existing avatars, or create and publish their own custom avatars using the V-Chat Avatar Creation Wizard. Sounds, animation, and visual imagery create mood and context for these social environments. V-Chat is a front-end user interface to IRC, and users can also view conversations in a text-only mode.
Description: Microsoft Research, Social Computing Group, V-Chat
Blaxxun provides complex solution called Blaxxun platform (version 7) that enables to build a virtual community from scratch. Blaxxun platform supports:
Blaxxun’s virtual worlds are based on VRML standard. Blaxxun Contact VRML browser is used to connect to the platform server and enter the virtual community (see Figure 8). Alternatively, users can install BS Contact 6.2 from Bitmanagement that seceded from Blaxxun and keeps improving its VRML browser to catch up with the latest advances in computer graphics (animated avatars, particles, DirectX shaders, etc.).
Blaxxun’s Web: Blaxxun
Bitmanagement’s Web: Bitmanagement
Figure 8: Blaxxun. Virtual Municpal Hall in
The Virtual Community, book by Howard Rheingold, 1993.
Avatars!, book by Bruce Damer, 1998
Michal Masa, 2005
Agents Autonomy, Art, Artificial, Arts / Concept, Association, Collaboration the Community, Collective Intelligence, Identity, Interaction, Models Realities mixed, Numerical, Science, Sciences, Social, Structures, Symbolic system, Virtual, Virtuality