Review of Virtual Communities

This page was last updated April 19, 1997

This is a collection of pointers and commentary of various types of virtual worlds, with commentary by John Tang of Sun Microsystems, Inc. For a quick summary, jump to the summary table.

Virtual Communities

A good pointer to more information about a variety of virtual communities and related activities is maintained by the Contact Consortium.

The Web pages of the Electric Communities company is a great resource for the various incarnations of "Habitat" and related virtual communities. The folks who did the original Habitat (Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer) work here, and they provide some really good insights into their work. They talk about what they've learned from the various Habitat projects, and discuss where they're headed with their current products and services.

Habitat was essentially a virtual environment consisting of hundreds of defined regions where you could navigate through, manipulate objects in the regions, and interact with other people in the same region at the same time. Besides regions to visit, there were also objects that you could collect and interact with. You were represented as an avatar, a humanoid graphic with a customized head. The graphics were essentially flat 2-D graphics. You viewed the interaction from a third person perspective, seeing yourself and others in the region. A side effect of this choice is that everyone in the same locale sees activity from the same perspective as everyone else. You interacted with others in the same region by typing text (chat-like), which appeared in a word balloon over your avatar. You could also participate as a ghost, seeing what's happening in the region, but not being seen (other than having an icon indicating the presence of one or more ghosts). The number of participants in a region was limite

Habitat had an internal economy, both an institutionalized economy in tokens and an underground economy in unique objects (most notably, customized heads). They believed that an economy is central to a virtual community as a way for the community to evolve and express what they value and separate the good from the bad. They also believed that conflict is the essence of drama, so Habitat included weapons, allowed thievery (taking things from others), and killing others (all items carried in pockets disappeared, all items held in hands dropped to the ground, avatar was sent back to home region with head in hand). The paper The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat is an excellent review of the experiences with Habitat.

After the 18 month Habitat beta (1985-1988), Habitat became Club Caribe, a commercial service offered to Quantum Link users (but still using the Commodore 64) from 1989-1994. Quantum Link's conservatism led them to eliminate murder and conflict and left unanswered many of the issues of an evolving government that were arising in Habitat. Fujitsu licensed Habitat in 1988 and released Habitat in Japan in 1990, in part to promote a new line of multimedia PC's called FM Towns over a network service called NiftyServe. A paper studying the use of Fujitsu Habitat was published: Yoshida, A., and J. Kakuta, "People who live in a virtual world", Proceedings of the IEEE International Worskhop on Robot and Human Communication, Tokyo, September 1992, pp. 252-256.

In 1993, Fujitsu contracted with Electric Communities to bring Habitat back to the U.S. as WorldsAway. This version has enhanced graphics and is available to CompuServe subscribers running on Windows PC's and Macs. Some notable added features include thought balloons (a la MOO "emote") and ESP (whispering to a specified avatar), facial expressions (entered as text commands that altered the facial graphics), and more detailed avatar representations. While CompuServe has 1 year of exclusive rights, they are looking to license the technology to Hollywood interests. WorldsAway is currently experimenting with a version available over the Web.

Worlds Chat is a virtual community made by Worlds Inc. with some fundamental differences to the Habitat environments. Players navigate through a 3-D world with animation transitions (similar to Doom). In the default setting, you don't see yourself, meaning that you experience it from a first person perspective. A side effect of this choice is that you don't share your view on the locale with anyone else--everyone sees it from their own perspective. Worlds apparently uses a version of VRML that they call VRML + (enhanced to provide interaction with other people). There is a mode that you can set to provide a third person perspective from the right shoulder of your avatar. Although you can design your avatar to be any bitmap you want, you can't modify the avatar after you've picked it. Users chat via text with the 6 closest avatars in space, although you can selectively mute (ignore) other users. There are no objects in Worlds Chat, just pla

Alpha-World is a related 3-D virtual world made by Worlds Inc. (I'm not completely sure how Alpha-World is different from Worlds Chat, but it seems to be newer). Some current limitations have prompted some curious work arounds, like chatting over the internet for up to 7 people, rather than through the environment itself. Locations seem to be referred to by a coordinate system (8 South 24 East). In Randy Farmer's talk, he critiqued Alpha Worlds as being too vast, such that you don't really run into to people. Thus, the focus tends to be on the very intricate and exotic places people build in the world, rather than the interaction with others. Apparently, there is no distinction of avatars in Alpha World, they all look like stick figures wieh their name attached to it. There is no economy in Alpha World. Currently runs only on Windows PC's.

Starbright World is a related virtual world made by Worlds, Inc. for seriously ill kids. It is being pilot tested (starting November 1995) in Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford in Palo Alto, California; the Children's Hospital of Boston; and Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. It includes ProShare video conferencing, and is conected by Sprint fiber. Call (800)315-2580 for more information; the Starbright Foundation is chaired by Steven Spielberg.

The Palace is Time-Warner's virtual community. Perhaps its most distinguishing feature is its distributed architecture. There are many, wholly independent servers to connect to, rather than a single centralized server. This distributed nature helps avoid problems in scaling up in number of users. It also gives rise to the need for a directory service to help locate the virtual community of interest. Being distributed may make it less likely to run into great varieties of people. The Palace deliberately avoids 3-D graphics for better performance. Apparently it is 3rd person perspective, and you can change your bitmap representation at any time, leading to the potential for changing the bitmap in reaction to what's happening. In Randy Farmer's talk, he commented that the arbitrary bitmap representation of users can quickly lead to problems about using copyrighted or offensive images. It runs on Macs, Windows PCs, and UNIX workstations.

V-Chat is Microsoft's entry offered through MSN and the Net. It apparently offers both 2-D and 3-D worlds. Avatars can exhibit graphical gestures, and the text-based communication offers say, think (visible thought bubble), or emote (description of action or feeling) expression modes. Several themed chat areas are under development, including ones for movies, music, kids, comedy, and the gay and lesbian community. I assume that this is only available for Windows PCs.

InterSpace is NTT's version, which seems more like Alpha World. It uses joystick controlled movement to navigate through a 3-D world. A distinguishing feature is that it puts live video of the users into each computer monitor "head". They appear to be working on providing live video and mixed audio (working on mixing up to 1000 users). Thus, communication is via normal talking and gesturing as conveyed by video and audio, rather than typing. They also provide a graphic tablet object that can be used to draw and share graphics with others in the virtual world. They are exploring ways of encountering video information while navigating through the world. They are apparently conducting an experiment on tele-education in cooperation with some universities and businesses, called CyberCampus. CyberCampus does appear to include shops and guides. This runs on a PC platform running Windows 95, and the software is downloadable from the Web.

OnLive! Traveler by OnLive! Technologies (formerly known as Enter Television, Inc.) is essentially a VRML browser that enables real-time audio communication (not text) in a 3D VRML environment. It allows multiple people to speak at the same time, and makes those "closer" to you (as depicted on the screen) louder than those further. It also allows you to "disguise" your voice. Headphones are recommended, although they have a push to talk option (to reduce audio feedback, especially when not using headphones). You can change the graphical facial expression of your avatar using a menu of 4 choices. Requires Windows 95 on Pentium machine. There is apparently no in-world economy (incentives are through real-world gifts).

Summary Table of Virtual Communities

Name Presentation Interaction Features Platform
Habitat 2-D, 3rd person, custom heads text balloons economy, objects, conflict Commodore 64 over Q-link
Fujitsu Habitat 2-D, 3rd person, custom heads text balloons economy, objects FM Towns PCs over NiftyServe
WorldsAway 2-D, 3rd person, custom heads text balloons, thought balloons, ESP whisper economy, enhanced graphics, objects Windows PC's and Macs over CompuServe
Worlds Chat 3-D, animation (VRML), 1st person, custom constant bitmap w/label text chat (via internet) Windows PC's with Macs coming soon over TCP/IP
Alpha-World 3-D, animation (VRML), 1st person, generic stick figure w/label text chat lots of space, objects? Windows PC's over TCP/IP
The Palace 2-D, 3rd person?, custom changeable bitmaps text chat distributed architecture Windows PC's, Macs, UNIX
V-Chat 2-D or 3-D text say, think, or emote themed areas related to NBC TV shows Windows PC's over MSN
InterSpace 3-D, 1st person interactive audio and video joystick movement control, graphic tablet, video data Windows 95 PC
OnLive! Traveler 3-D, VRML interactive audio distance-filtered, disguisable audio, graphical facial expression Windows 95 Pentiums

Related Work

The Jupiter project at Xerox PARC augments a MOO environment with audio video connections among users. The audio-video connections make it easy to communicate while meeting people in a graphical virtual environment. The project is described in the latter part of a Wired article. A collection of papers from that group includes postcript copies of papers that describe the technical audio-video architecture and some background on MUDs growing up to be used in the real world.

ImagiNation Network is collection of network meeting areas that has an emphasis on games (as stated in their home page: "...where real people get together online for some friendly head-to-head competition"). ImagiNation Network (INN) was originally developed by Sierra On-Line Systems, and was acquired by AT&T in 1994. Games featured include checkers, backgammon, bridge, poker, trivia games, online football, "boogers battle (I don't want to know), and a daily word puzzle. They also had more complex adventure and role-playing games (Red Baron, Shadow of Yserbius, Ruins of Cawdor). They also offer a daily INNUniversity, which included instruction on some of the more complex games as well as general interest classes (e.g., gardening, cooking, plastic canvas art, studying NYPD: What kids learn from watching cop shows). Must have a PC-compatible computer running DOS or Windows, and the service is only offered over ImagiNation

They also talk about many topical chat rooms, although I wasn't able to find more information about that. They have recently announced a CyberPark 3D VR environment that will be available over a variety of internet service providers. It promises to provide a world populated by non-player inhabited characters, in addition to meeting up with 3D animated character personas representing other players.

Dimension X offers some chat rooms, and looks like they'll be adding graphical, Java-enhanced, VRML environments.

Gamelan contains a lot of interesting Java sites, including a section on chat areas.