Meeting in Alphaworld .30, Summer 1995 - Avatars98 cyberconference, November 1998
In my last guest column (about some of the language that emerged in early social virtual worlds) there was pictured an early meeting in Alphaworld alpha .30 in the summer of 1995 (see above). This final column (and then I will get out of the way for three fine April columnists) is about how early groups, notably the Contact Consortium, established early designs of how people could create meaningful meetings and large scale events inworld. I will be missing out a lot of other fine work and happenings in other platforms from this period so please forgive me. I am offering the Virtual Worlds Timeline project to this community to capture a more complete recounting of innovations in early Internet worlds and invite contributions to that effort.
So this last column is about how the Consortium members first worked out basic methods to carry out projects and meetings in the nascent medium of user-built virtual worlds in 1996 and then stretched its efforts and moved its annual conference inworld and hosted thousands of attendees across multiple platforms by the end of 1998. What emerged was the series of Avatars cyberconferences which can serve as models for what is possible in today's second generation platforms.
And now on to the show...
The Contact Consortium
The Contact Consortium was founded by an Anthropologist (Jim Funaro), a science fiction writer and publisher (Keith Ferrel), myself and many others in the Winter of 1995. The concept for the Consortium was put together in Summer 1994 while I was on a long van trip with a friend. "CCON" as it is affectionately known, was birthed out of an august organization Contact, Cultures of the Imagination, which hosts a highly regarded annual conference and pioneered some of the first pedagogical MUDs (SolSys) and built a practice of creating imaginary worlds and cultures guided by some of the world's greatest science fiction writers. An all-night discussion at CONTACT XII with writer Larry Niven about combining MUDs with beautiful computer generated imagery of fictional worlds such as Ringworld led to the formation of the Contact Consortium.
First Baby Steps: Worlds Chat and Sherwood Forest Towne
Worlds Chat, hub of the space station where new users materialize (spring 1995)
After the organization was up and running by the Spring of 1995, we held frequent meetings where we dreamed of what virtual worlds might look like when they would one day appear on the Internet. Then the magic began to happen when in May 1995, Worlds Chat came online and we found ourselves wandering around a bona fide multi-user virtual space on the Internet. Worlds Chat was a beautifully crafted space station world with the high frame rate of Doom, a range of avatars and a lot of places to explore with a few tricks to discover (but no building or modifying by its users). Ironically, at the same time I was running around WC studiously trying to not pass through other users' avatars as I wasn't sure if that was socially acceptable so was Philip Rosedale, who was to go on to found Linden Lab and bring us Second Life in the early 21st Century. Meeting in WC was a pretty much ephemeral process as the main activity was zooming about exploring. There were several "meeting rooms" but they were so much like bland windowless office conference rooms that users studiously avoided them, preferring the chaotic hub or scenic pods and viewpoints.
Alphaworld seen from space at the end of 1996, Sherwood Forest Towne in inset
Alphaworld (AW) came online two months later and allowed users to build by simply picking and placing pre-built objects (a concept that contributed to the success of Second Life years later). With Alphaworld, CCON was then ready to carry out its first experiment: Sherwood Forest Towne.
"Welcome to the The Talking Circle" in Sherwood Forest Towne, Alphaworld, Spring 1996, the first inworld experiment hosted by the Contact Consortium
Sherwood Forest Towne was our first attempt to recruit a team of builders to create a purpose-built space in the "explosion of architecture" that Alphaworld represented (Philp Rosedale later referred to it as a "coral reef", with growth only happening at the edges). We wanted to build a town to a plan and with a theme (Olde English) and with roles (a Robin Hood, a prankster etc) and create something small scale with structures close together, in contrast to the huge complexes typical of Alphaworld. Sherwood was a fascinating first step for the organization and went on to win an award by Ars Electronica. Above you can see the purpose built space we conceived to hold project meetings, the "Talking Circle". As AW allowed both a first person and third person "bird's eye veiw" we used this second mode to be able to see the chat from every attendee's point of view. The pots provided a context and boundary and the central water pattern a point for the person "holding the talking stick". There was no separate chat buffer so this was the only way to guarantee that conversation was shared by all. This primitive meeting space, at the gates to Sherwood, was used frequently and led to a series of interesting experiments, more of which we will see below. See this book chapter for a more detailed look into the Sherwood project.
Garden Party and Virtual Poetry Reading (Summer 1996)
The first event, Mix it Up! Avatar Party in Digital Space, was held in July 1996 and featured a garden party in Sherwood Forest Towne, a first ever avatar poetry reading by noted Santa Cruz poet JJ Webb in a virtual redwood grove, and simultaneous bashes inside The Palace (a costume ball) and Black Sun's Pointworld. This set the stage for the much larger cross-platform Avatars Cyberconferences coming up next!
Meeting in the Ether: The Avatars Cyberconferences
The Contact Consortium hosted its first conference, Earth to Avatars, in October 1996, at a hotel in San Francisco, with over 500 attendees. Our second conference, Avatars 97, held at San Francisco State University, Multimedia Studies Program, drew 400 attendees. We realized that for the 1998 event it was going to be difficult to find an affordable venue and that we were missing our constituency, the citizens of virtual world cyberspace, so we opted to "walk our talk" as an organization and move the event fully inworld. Hence "Avatars 98: Inside Cyberspace" was born. On a trip to the UK to meet Consortium architect (yes, a real architect practicing inside virtual worlds) Stuart Gold, we conceived of the design of the Avatars98 conference space while sitting inside a Heathrow terminal building. We decided to create a large, open hall with areas to the north, south, east and west of the "ground zero" landing area. The sketch above shows my design for these spaces as well as the "discussion pods" and exhibit hall booths that Stuart's database interface would automatically build for speakers and exhibitors. Please note that Avatars98 also had parallel events in other popular platforms of the day including Blaxxun, Traveler, The Palace and WorldsAway. Our main efforts focused on the Active Worlds platform due to its flexibility in building and managing events.
Avatars98 Exhibit hall booths, all assembled from parts via a web-based database
The next month was packed with frantic activity as we recruited object modelers, built web interfaces and assembled the Avatars98 staff and spaces. By sticking with a simple, well understood metaphor of a single convention hall with exhibits in one direction, and the other activities in the other three, we felt we would guarantee attendees at least a cognitively simple landscape. Beyond that we were loading up the event with more than any virtual world had carried before: dozens of booths all built by a web page/database and bot interface (see images above), a wall of multiple webcams showing different "nodes" or physical event sites around the globe, an art gallery and "Avvy Awards" stage with images of contributions displayed by bot. The event would also probably break attendance records for users entering a single avatar space running on one server. So how did it all turn out?
Avatars98 Ground Zero as the conference opened, note the webcam in the web interface to the right broadcast from the Electronic Cafe in Santa Monica, California, and the webcam on a screen inworld broadcast from Ancient Oaks Farm in Northern California
Opening Day, November 21, 1998, was a tense moment. Avatars98 had been featured the night before on CNN which had brought a crush of additional users into the space. As this was in the era before broadband most of us were dialing in on modem connections on first or second generation Pentium machines. The entire event was run off a single Sun server hosted by Active Worlds in Newburyport Massachusetts. The Consortium ran an event node and "jacking in" location from Ancient Oaks Farm in Boulder Creek, California. There were two dozen other official "nodes" worldwide including the Electronic Cafe in Santa Monica, California, Michael Nesmith's Video Ranch in New Mexico and a big art museum in Helsinki, Finland. The event population started early in our morningtime here in California to climb to well over 300 people in the single space. As the image above shows, the entry space got crowded and we had to use the "public speaker" facility to reach beyond the two dozen or so closest user's avatars that could be rendered at a time. Taking cues from theme parks like Disneyland, we had built a series of clear walking paths and quicker "warpers" which would carry users away from the entry area to the four sectors, to help distribute the population and reduce crowding. Wandering the exhibit hall, users would be greeted by staff manning individual booths. Artists were well represented in the "Out of this World Art Gallery". A key activity was to attend talks. More on this next.
Avatars98 Speaker pods for VLearn3D session. Pods built by database and slide images displayed by bot command
Talks were presented in areas called "pods" that were "sound
isolated" from the main conference area by being located at specific
distances from the main conference area. Above we can see Margaret
Corbit of the Cornell Theory Center, presenting a session about her
projects in the "Vlearn3D" inaugural track on educational uses of
virtual worlds. Each pod was built and configured automatically for
each presenter by web database from pre-set assets such as slide
images, text, and an audio microphone to tie in live voice through the
Hearme service. Linking eight hours and six tracks of talks together
was the "big board" interface, a giant navigable program guide that
with a single click would "warp" users' avatars to the appropriate pods
throughout the hall (see below).
Avatars98 Big Board, one click warped users to speaker pods throughout the hall
The two prior in-person conferences had concluded with a "come as your favorite avatar" costume party which featured a stage show where the best avatars of the year in a number of categories were shown and selected. Bringing this event inworld allowed us to distribute judging and to create a "people's choice" award managed by a vote-bot. The scene below is from the 1998 Avvy Awards at the moment the overall winner was presented onscreen, in this case she was "Summer" an avatar clothed only in butterflies. Note that only the two dozen closest users' avatars are shown, there were over 450 people at the ceremony.
Avatars98 Avvy Awards ceremony, the Grande Finale
Avatars98 had its moments where users complained of very slow object
loading and "jerky" performance as their local area was overloaded with
avatars and other content. However, throughout the entire event not a
single problem occurred with the server and we ran our computers
nonstop for 20 hours, capturing chat logs and helping to run the event
with volunteers spread around the world. There were a number of stories
in the press about Avatars98 including coverage in Wired News and in the Red Herring as well as a number of academic papers.
By our estimates tracking the number of unique entries, Avatars98
served several thousand visitors and provided a new benchmark for what
a user-built large scale event could achieve in virtual world
cyberspace. We had come a long way from the modest Talking Circle in
Sherwood Forest Towne two and a half years before and hoped this would
help future generations create fun, educational and well structured
inworld events in the future.
Seven more years of Avatars 1999-2004
Badges from all eight Avatars conferences (six being held online as Cyberconferences)
Based on our positive experience with Avatars98, the Consortium decided to iterate the experience and produced five subsequent annual AVATARS cyberconferences. Each had a different theme and we experimented with many different layouts of virtual space, from a complex of interconnected domes, to a space station built with identical toroids, to scenes from a popular film and book to a virtual surface of Mars. Eventually the AVATARS events became referred to as a kind of "Burning Man of bits" (in reference to the annual user-built creative-nerd festival in the Nevada desert). A blog posting is the wrong place to give you all the full recounting of our experiences in these and the other events the Consortium and its members have hosted inworld and inperson over the years but you can do your own exploration at the organizational sites below:
- Earth to Avatars (1996) - Contact, Culture and Community in Digital Space, See Sue Wilcox's review of this first conference
- Avatars 97 - The Human Race in Cyberspace
- Avatars98 - Inside Cyberspace, See story in Wired News, and in the Red Herring
- Avatars99 - Colonizing Cyberspace
- Avatars 2000 - Cyberspace for a New Millennium with an interview by the BBC here
- Avatars 2001 - A Cyber Space Odyssey
- Avatars 2002-03 - A Merry Cyber Party
- Avamars 2004 - The Challenge of Mars Past, Present, Future...
- VLearn3D 1999-2002: Virtual Worlds and Learning Conference and Projects
- Biota.org - the Digital Biology Project and Digital Biota Conferences, Podcast, lead by Tom Barbalet and Bruce Damer
- Virtual UCSC, Virtual High School, BioLearn, and other projects lead by Bonnie DeVarco
- SciCentr science learning worlds, lead by Margaret Corbit
- Other special avatar events we have held over the years including: A Virtual Walk on the Moon with Apollo Astronaut Russell Schweickart (1999 and see the book chapter about this) and a virtual gathering with Terence McKenna (1999)
- Lastly, peruse twelve years of publications and other coverage on virtual worlds here at DigitalSpace.
And the Show Must Go On
Meetings in Second Life today, showing a kind of Talking Circle as well as an auditorium for interviews
Today, with the second coming of the avatar/social virtual worlds medium, predictably it is meetings and larger events from interviews on stage to fashion shows, that are a driving force behind the growth and attraction to life inworld (see images above). Recently I became involved with the planning for the Second Life Community Convention 2007 with a hope to bringing the full scope of online experience pioneered in Avatars98 to a new generation of cyberconferences.
And In Conclusion: Request for Academic Partners, Doctoral Research Home and Lecture Tour Venues
Thank you all for your insightful comments during my three prior postings as March guest columnist, and thanks GregL and the other Terra Novans for letting me get this last one in just a little bit past the Ides of March. And now for a little bit of a personal plug for the Virtual Worlds Timeline project, which I am seeking academic partners for. If you have artifacts including imagery, writing, video or audio that describes key moments in virtual worlds history from the past three decades, we would love to have it represented on the timeline. We need academic partners to help build the wiki or other database back-end to drive the timeline interface. We would love to support any student projects and research to work with the archives in the timeline.
I would like to apply this writing and analysis work on the origins, evolution and future of social virtual worlds to a doctoral thesis but need to find a home institution and advisory committee willing to allow me to perform the work nonresident as a research project. I am engaged in a worldwide lecture tour to present on the origins and evolution of social virtual worlds and you can invite me to give the talk at your institution, given time and funding for travel. You can see the powerpoint presentation from this lecture tour as well as the tour schedule here.
Please feel free to contact me via my personal site web form.
Thank you all again and see you inworld!
Bruce Damer (Digi Weaver in Second Life, Digigardener in Active Worlds and elsewhere)