Almost Like Being There

If you ask most people what virtual reality is, they will probably think of something like the scene in the movie Disclosure where Michael Douglas interacts with documents in a virtual filing cabinet and gets help from a guardian angel. The hallmarks of this view of virtual reality are that the user wears special hardware that translates physical body movements into direct analogues in a computer-generated environment; conversely the hardware enables the user to experience sight, sound and (limited) touch from that environment.

Another view of virtual reality comes from online gaming, which is primarily the multi-player first-person shooters and the MUDs (multi-user dimensions). The user interacts with a regular game console or desktop computer and the simulated environment supports a stylised way for users to interact (either virtual combat or "role playing").

I'd like to offer an alternative to these limited worlds which I call the Adaptive Themed World. The internet hosts a practical infinity of documents and services that use a variety of technologies and styles to convey information. It is possible to adapt this information and the interactions that the internet supports (blogging, IM, e-mail, video-conferencing, shared photos, search engines, etc.) into a form that can be experienced within a virtual world; I call this medium transcoding as it reuses and adapts information (text, audio, video, multi-media) in one medium for use in another. This is in some ways the opposite of the concept of a game avatar; instead of translating the user's appearance into a form that suits a given virtual world, an Adaptive World translates portions of the "real" internet into a form that suits a particular virtual world theme.

As far as I know, no multi-player game has offered the experience of Imperial Rome as shown in the movie Gladiator but I'll use this as an example of how an Adaptive World using such a theme would work.

Walking in the Forum, you would have an opportunity to:
  • see and hear about goods for sale from traders (as usual, advertising would in part drive the revenue that would fun a free virtual world); the goods could be spoken about, shown on wall hangings, or have in-world 3D representations (the user could choose to have the representation shown in it's literal form (say a large flatscreen television) or translated into a form that suited the world (say a painting or an animated mural))
  • listen to public speakers on a variety of issues (blogs or journals, spoken by the author's avatar, either as text or using speech-to-text translation); the avatar could be chosen by the author or by the viewing public
  • engage in debates
  • go to the temple to request help  from the 'gods' (support or intervention by game administrators)
  • play games; board games such as Calculi (checkers), Terni Lapilli (tic-tac-toe), Tabula (backgammon), Latrunculi (chess)
  • listen to music (MP3 streams that are 'played' by a in-game band of musicians) or watch a play ( video stream rendered as a 2d plane on a stage, or as a cube in a forum)
Naturally the gladiatorial arena provides plenty of opportunities for those of martial orientation, and let's not forget chariot races (regular or armed), public executions (for users who in some way break the rules). There are similar analogues for other stimulating aspects of Roman life.

The key part of an adaptive world based in part on medium transcoding is that it reuses live or static information that is available on the "regular" internet (as html or RSS or multimedia streams), but it renders it into a form that suits a specific virtual world. The rendering is in part chosen by the world designers, and in part by the user.

What is the added value of this experience? All of the users who participate in a themed virtual reality share some common interest and choose to experience the internet in this form. Even while listening to music or watching a video stream, they have a sense of doing so with other people across the world. And it has the possibility to support advertising and existing internet content, which helps to fund the virtual world, perhaps even enabling it to be completely free.

Ancient Rome may be a boring environment for many (it doesn't do much for me, though it's an interesting thought experiment). But this is just one alternative; the options are literally endless:

  • experience the Internet from within an environment based on The Matrix; the internet competes with TV and movies, so this is a way to extend the movie association; such an environment would almost certainly be free (or perhaps require a subscription that gives other value, such as DVDs at a reduced price, or t-shirts, etc.); the opportunities for in-game advertising that matches the theme of the world are absolutely huge; this benefits both users (who get a custom experience in a virtual world they choose) and advertisers (who are looking for new media to reach a market with many more entertainment options; the movie does not need a technical or science fiction feel; it could equally be a rom-com or a soap or a thriller
  • it's possible to create such environments based around any brand or image; how about a virtual bar? You can appear to have a vodka martini (shaken naturally), while at home you drink say extra-cold Guinness poured from a can, or vice-versa. Now that would add a new dimension (oops, bad pun) to chat rooms. Naturally environments should have rating schemes to give users the right content to meet their age and accessibility needs.
  • you know those games that require dance mats? you could create a virtual disco, populated in part by (licensed) avatars of musicians or movie stars or just your friends. A dance mat also has some pretty interesting potential as a "virtual reality" tool. How about online kick-boxing? This requires a more advanced mat that can extrapolate the actual move from foot direction and changes in weight distribution, and it would be seriously enhanced by wearing simple sensors on your extremeties, maybe based on short-range RFID)
  • and as for existing online games - they are just begging to made into themed environments from which to experience and share the internet
  • the transition from users coding raw HTML to using HTML-editing tools and now to application-specific tools (blogging, photo-sharing, etc.) has already happened; MSN Spaces (now in beta) offers users a limited kind of portal for sharing content (blog, photos); now, what if you as a user could create a real personal space (a building, an apartment or a cabin say, in a virtual location you choose or build), not using a complex 3D tool, but by choosing much larger building blocks, with smart theme-aware surface matching and intelligent 3D interactive objects (like a major upgrade to Oop! in Douglas Coupland's Microserfs)

But wouldn't such a virtual environment be prohibitively expensive to create for a single movie or a brand? I don't think so. The trend towards movie sequels and more importantly the increased use of digital special effects (or even completely computer-generated scenes) will provide the necessary imagery and sounds to create the online environment. All that is required is the right kind of game/environment engine, and the publishing tools to enable existing digital assets to be re-purposed in an online virtual reality. What about open spaces, created and maintained by the intelligence and enthusiasm of individuals? Wikipedia and open-source software shows that this is not just possible but inevitable.

I enjoyed Tad Williams' Otherland, but do I think virtual reality will be created by big business? In part yes, but it will belong to everybody. Welcome to the Internet, reloaded.


>the MUDs (multi-user dimensions) Weeeeeeeell, just to note one minor but irritating issue, if stuff you are reading says MUD = Multi-User Dimension, I can categorically correct that. s/Dimension/Dungeon/ - if you are a traditionalist. I would hate for the original meaning to be lost in a wash of mediocre neologism. 8-) I first played Essex MUD in 1986, and can attest to the general correctness of and (more importantly) Re: your ideas, I presune you've read Neal Stephenson's "Snowcrash"? If not, I strongly recommend it...

Posted by alecm on December 02, 2004 at 06:30 AM PST #

Yes, MUD originally meant Multi-User Dungeon, but times change and it now means more than a textual Rogue or multi-user Adventure. Us old fogies can remember what it really means, but we need to converse in the present.

I've found it more enjoyable to program MUDs than to play them; my limited experience found only newbs (including myself) wandering around trying to identify a quest. That's why I think a MUD needs to bring more context from the real world and from well-known imaginary worlds, so that there is some 'reality' to allow anyone familiar with that context to define their own goals that fit the 'place'.

Snow Crash is on my long must-read list, but it's a future pleasure (I'm spoilt by an excellent local library which feeds my reading habit; it has everything Gibson ever wrote but not no Stephenson - thanks for the tip, it'll be my Christmas present to myself ;)

Posted by Colm Smyth on December 02, 2004 at 07:41 AM PST #

I've recently attended a presentation about technologies that enable artificial humans to be created in a VR world. It was really interesting. There are some practical uses already. For example in Hungary there are psychiatrists who are using Virtual Reality for patient treatments. People who are afraid of crowds face their fear in a virtual world, etc. The slides are available here, although they in Hungarian.

AFAIK they are building a virtual human software package utilizing open source technologies. It would be really interesting to get it integrated into Project Looking Glass: imagine an Instant Messaging application that animates the virtual representation of your contact's head, using Java text to speech software to read the messages you get... Just like some Hollywood movie:)

Posted by Janos Cserep on December 02, 2004 at 11:12 PM PST #

Janos, that is fascinating! I never considered the possible therapeutic aspects of virtual reality, but clearly it has a role in agoraphobia and a ton of other situations (for example, someone who is disfigured or suffering from anorexia may find meeting real people in a virtual setting helpful).

I agree with you that virtual reality has a role in existing online communications such as IM, and I mention also the possibility of it's use for blogging, news, etc. Imagine experiencing a news thread as a virtual reality meeting between multiple peoople; the interesting thing about virtual reality is that it does not have to be synchronous to the actual input data.

Posted by Colm Smyth on December 02, 2004 at 11:21 PM PST #

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