Mousing to
E-topia: Homesteading on the Digital Frontier

by Stevan Alburty

From The Net
January 1996

© 1996 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




In 360 B.C., the Greek philosopher Plato published his best-selling "Republic," in which he pitched his vision of a utopian society: all children would be taken from their parents at birth, no food should be served with sauces and there was not to be, under any circumstance, any loud laughter. (This from a man who wore tablecloths in public.)

Philosophers throughout the ages have attempted to inspire the world with their own blueprints for the perfect society. Sir Thomas More, Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Newt Gingrich - all have taken their person whack at writing prescriptions for a world without faults. These days, with the planet nearly poisoned from pollution, over-crowding and the Fox Television network's primetime schedule, the time seems ripe for us to simply abandon the mess we've created on this earth and start looking for some new place to trash. NASA budget cuts would seem to preclude the galaxy as a likely candidate for colonization. Which leaves us with the cheapest real estate this side of downtown Sarajevo: cyberspace.

A few plucky pioneers are starting to create electronic communities on the Internet or on the commercial online services. By "community," I specifically refer to software which uses places users in some sort of spatial or architectural context and/or enables communication in which faces, as well as words, are employed.

Suddenly, our online world is becoming just that: a world, one with landscapes, buildings and, most importantly, people. Like the first homesteads of the Old West, these electronic utopias are often crude, cracker-box affairs. But unlike our pioneer ancestors, you don't have to spend three months picking Conestoga splinters out of your backside to get there. All it takes is a few minutes and a mouse.

Fantasy Island

WorldsAway on Compuserve is historically related to an experimental online environment developed by LucasFilm in the late-1980's. Eventually licensed by Fujitsu and launched in Japan as "Habitat," WorldsAway is a beefy 30-megabytes of Mac or Windows client software which runs on top of Compuserve's network.

In WorldsAway, users assign themselves electronic shapes or "avatars." (For those unfamiliar with Hindu mythology, an "avatar" is a deity who has descended to earth and assumed a human, incarnate form.) These avatars can be made to gesture and walk. Entire avatar bodies, or just heads, can be swapped out on demand. If you're feeling particularly whimsical, male and female bodies can be mismatched with male or female heads. (The heads of a variety of animals - cats, unicorns, chipmunks - are also available, presumably in case your identity confusion transcends genders and embraces something generically mammalian.)

Avatars enter WorldsAway aboard the good ship Argo, bound for an island on which a variety of prefabricated buildings have already been constructed, including a temple, a library and a visitors center. Teleport booths whisk users between locales, a form of travel requiring the payment of "tokens," which avatars acquire from treasure chests sprinkled conveniently throughout the site.

There is the distinct odor of Roquefort surrounding the graphics. If Hanna-Barbera ever does a cartoon version of the old Elvis Presley-Ann Margaret film classic, "Viva Las Vegas," it might look something like this. The avatar I chose for my maiden voyage resembled a genetic splice between Dagwood's wife and Suzanne Pleshette. Avatars may turn in one of four directions - left, right, back or front - and arms can be jerked to an extended position. It's as if it's 1939 again and Pinocchio has joined the Nazi party.

WorldsAway is best suited to those enamored with role-playing video-games. Conversations between avatars are strictly elevator-class: Hey, Whatcha Doing, Hanging Out, Gotta Go, See Ya. No discussions on Bosnia or how to fund Medicare here. The garishness of the graphics and the complexity of the navigation, both of which have been designed to augment the traditional "chat" experience, tend to be more interference than interface.

I'll Be Seeing You

Adding an additional dimension to the online experience is the similarly-named, but radically different, Worlds Chat.

This Windows-based client uses the Internet as its transportation backbone and presents users with a disorientingly-naturalistic 3D environment. The corridors and architectural forms users through which users navigate have that slightly sterile, mathematical look frequently found in virtual-reality, but there are compensations in experience for what may be lacking in aesthetics.

There are avatars here as well, but they tend to look like people rather than cartoons. Although you chose an avatar to represent you, you can only see yourself in an digitally-created mirror. Otherwise, the entire perspective as you navigate the space is through your own eyes. This permits you to have "eye contact" with other users, adding a heightened sense of reality.

As you encounter and then pass in front of another user, you become almost disquieted by the realization that, since they are now behind you, they are no longer in your plane of vision, but you are now in theirs. Small but significant touches such as these begin to give you the twin sensations of orientation and awareness.

Worlds Chat's present architectural metaphor is that of a space station. By the time this article is published, they plan to have a spin-off environment released called "Alphaworld."

Alphaworld is, quite literally, a new world: an empty, limitless green plain surrounded by perpetually distant mountains on which users are invited to build their own structures. Streets, houses, buildings, mailboxes, lawns and other signs of civilization can all be erected through external tools. There are few zoning rules. You cannot "erase" property which doesn't belong to you. And if you do not live alone on a street, your neighbors must agree on anything you want to build. Other than that's, it's Oklahoma at the time of the Great Land Rush: anything goes.

Worlds hopes its technology will eventually be used to enable merchants to build 3D "stores" through which customers can stroll and shop. Their software will also be used to build the first Internet World's Fair in 1996. Jointly sponsored by trade-show operator Softbank Expos and such backers as MCI and Sun, this digital exposition is scheduled to feature a number of online "pavilions," including ones dedicated to schools, reinventing government, small business, the future of media and, in a nod to stupid Net tricks, a ToasterNet pavilion, which will feature new and unusual devices on the Internet.

Come To the Cabaret

Wildpark ( is an energetic web site in Germany dedicated to keeping its users up-to-date with information on cultural events taking place throughout the republic. Tucked away deep inside the site is a funky electronic "e-bar" with a twisted, forced perspective faintly reminiscent of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Before entering the e-bar, you compose a brief bio and select a facial persona, the choices ranging from an assortment of space aliens to the characters from "Peanuts."

Once inside, you can sidle up to the digital bartender or strike up a conversation with anyone you happen to see lounging around who looks mildly interesting by clicking on their "face" and typing in a suitable pick-up line. ("Hi, browse here often?")

Typing a phrase without clicking on a specific face broadcasts your message to the entire e-bar - a dangerous proposition, for if you say something to offend another user, they can place an electronic Band-Aid over your digital mouth. You can type until your fingers are blue and nothing you say can be seen on their screen. You also know they're ignoring you, as their electronic persona now shows up wearing miniature headphones. If enough people ignore you, you are automatically silenced for the rest of your session. Nobody can "hear you" until you sign off and return, presumably with a better attitude. There are no sysops here - the community itself is the law.

The programmers behind Wildpark's e-bar plan to package this technology and offer it to other web sites interested in incorporating an electronic community into their environments as well. The graphics are easily customizable - the metaphor might just as easily be a department store, a hotel lobby, a health clinic or a church.

Despite the fact that Wildpark's on-screen instructions are in German (an English translation should be available by now), the interface is easy enough to understand intuitively. And although the graphics are two-dimensional and the technique of using miniature faces rather than fully-formed bodies is simplistic, these minor enhancements to the "chat" process at least elevate it beyond the boring rigidity of the line-by-line scrolling transcriptions employed in traditional online conversations.

Breathing Room

These software systems all endeavor to enwrap the user in a realistic or pseudo-realistic representation of a physical space - digital bodies navigate through streets, past buildings, along corridors and into rooms - all the while encountering other digital bodies during the journey.

It is the goal of these products to immerse us in an alternative environment, but it is, although limited, still a replication of structures and forms we all inhabit. Doors may be called portals, bodies may be called avatars, but these are narrative substitutes - the cast of characters is familiar, if sometimes exotic. In order to provide users with a more engaging means of communicating with each other, it is necessary to fully recreate all of the same devices which surround us in our present world? Although the cloying, cartoon island of WorldsAway looks more interesting and diverting than - oh, say, New Jersey - is all this duplication of physical context necessary to enable meaningful contact between users?

An effort which dispenses with the conventions of physical representations of architectural spaces is a project called "Oxygen" developed by Boston's Art Technology Group for use by Chiat/Day Advertising for its "Virtual Office." [The reader is advised, in the name of journalistic disclosure, that the author was director of technology for Chiat/Day and occasionally consults with Art Technology Group.]

Chiat/Day built its reputation as a creative shop with an energetic, almost obsessively egalitarian culture. "We're the pirates, not the navy" and "Good enough is not enough" are alternating mantras of rebellion and excellence.

In 1993, Jay Chiat, founder and chief visionary, decided that traditional office architecture had become an anachronism in this age of information. Having eliminated doors during the 1980's in his quest to create a non-hierarchical enterprise, he decided it was now time to toss out desks. And so the company's physical plant was reŽngineered to abolish all individual workspace. Desks and offices were replaced with project rooms, where teams would work collaboratively to generate that most ephemeral of products: ideas.

Telecommuting was actively encouraged, but a distributed workforce could pose tremendous difficulties for a firm which is almost as much a cult as it is a company. How do you preserve a unique corporate culture in a mobile world? And if you have eliminated everyone's individual offices, with all those family pictures, sporting trophies and personal memorabilia, how could Chiat/Day still provide each employee with some means of expressing their individual identities?

Chiat/Day turned to Art Technology Group, a software design company predominantly staffed by graduates of MIT's Media Lab, to create a new category of groupware which would foster both communication and collaboration.

The software, dubbed "Oxygen," permits the creation of any number of "rooms," which open and, at first, appear much like a traditional computer program windows. There are rooms for each client, as well as for important projects. Each department, as well as each employee, has their own room. Users decorate the room's background by dragging in any canned or scanned graphic image and can place objects such as files and electronic notes inside. A user who is an art director might choose an off-the-wall image to decorate her room, while someone in the accounting department might select something more conservative. Each employee therefore has an opportunity to express something unique to their own personality.

As users sign on, their digitized face appears and, as they navigate from room to room in the system, their face goes with them. If two users enter the same room, both faces appear and typed messages turn into cartoon "talk bubbles" over each user's head, accompanied by a soft "pop" which adds a minimalist touch of sound to the experience. There are no limitations, other than those imposed by sanity, on the number of users who can be in a room simultaneously.

Rather than such up valuable CPU times by attempting to render complex physical spaces or having users manipulate full-formed avatars, Oxygen distills the communications process down to its core ingredients: real faces and talk, placed in the context of the files and projects on which everyone works.

Since the software is being used by people within a company who already know each other, the conversations quickly evolve past the "Hi How Are You Good To See You" stage and begin to have some substance regarding specific projects or events.

People Talking Without Speaking

The computer's forefather was the adding machine, not the camera or the telephone, and so its mother tongue is text. Since the birth of the ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946, we have been feeding our computers a steady diet of text and numbers. Just as decades of radio had to precede television in the evolution of broadcasting, imagery has come late to computing as well. When the graphical user interface was introduced commercially in 1984 with the advent of the Macintosh, its mission was to aid the creation and manipulation of data, not to provide us with a new means of visual communication with each other. The physical connection of computers, across an office or across a planet, has been a late-blooming invention as well.

"The Age of Information," that self-referential aphorism we use to describe the exciting times in which we live, perhaps limits our mental model. We are only now discovering that these devices, the computer and the network, perhaps have a use and destiny which is about context as well as content. But do these new tool improve the quality of our conversations themselves? Are we truly creating an electronic community, an etopia?

Communities are messy and gritty affairs, filled with relationships which demand mutual responsibility. Does electronic "chat," even chat enhanced by a new, intriguing awareness of physical presence, enable true communication? Or does my ability to transport my avatar out of a discussion, to quit the society at the click of a mouse at the first sign of discomfort, create more diversion than discourse?

Conversation is not necessarily communication.

Mere architecture may not imply either the presence of a foundation nor the comforts and obligations of community.