Internet technology is rapidly changing adding additional features to the web that not only enhance but also inform the user. One emerging structure that promises to have many new applications is the 3D virtual reality format.
Ed. note: Virtual Reality = A computer simulation of a system, either real or metaphorical, that allows a user to perform operations on the simulated system and shows the effects in real time. ("Academy Press Dictionary of Science and Technology").
Black Sun Interactive has been a leader in its development. Along with the process have come a slew of new items, the most central of which is the avatar. Creators of resources for the process will be called upon to develop these avatars and bots.
Kirk Parsons is the Director of Avatar Technology for Black Sun Interactive. A visit to the website will give you an idea of what web 3D and avatars are all about. Kirk is here to give us some insight into where the industry is headed and what the creative artist's place is in all this.
Kirk agrees with other industry professionals that in the coming days, the demand will be for content, content, content...
Welcome, Kirk. Glad to have you here to tell us what Black Sun Interactive is doing.
GS: Depicting 3D on the web requires special elements to represent the user. Black Sun has been in the forefront creating those components making it possible to develop communication among multiusers.
KP: One such element is the avatar and the other is the world in which the avatar is placed. Let's define the terms for anyone who has not heard them before. At the center of that development are avatars, or intelligent agents.
GS: Just what are avatars? An avatar in Hindu mythology is the reincarnation of a diety in the form of a man or animal. What are they in webspeak? What have they to do with computer communications?
KP: An avatar is a visual representation of a person within a virtual world. I often describe the Hindu usage of the term as a personification of a deity on earth. You could describe this as the deity moving to another world, more limited than the heavens that the deity normally exists in. From this perspective, avatar is a very appropriate term for a "personification" of a human within a virtual world.
GS: The Internet enables people to form communities in new and unique relationships. How do avatars fit in? What place do they have in transmitting information?
KP: Avatars are another medium of communication, beyond verbal mediums such as speech or text. Avatars add body language to the mix. Avatars give people the ability to *act* within virtual worlds.
GS: Who or what can be an avatar?
KP: By definition, any person can be an avatar (or more precisely, be represented by an avatar). There have been some heated discussions on the Internet on whether "bots" (software programs visually represented by avatar-like figures) should be regarded as a type of avatar but the general consensus was that bots should be thought of as being distinct from avatars. The social implications of this distinction were a major factor in the discussion. We discovered that users wanted to know whether they were talking to a bot or to a person.
Ed. note: The term "bot" is derived from the word "robot" and has come to represent the site in a feature distinct from the avatar in dialogue with the user; one that gives instructions, provides a description or otherwise supplies a hint or direction to the user.
GS: Do avatars have distinct functions? What can they do? How are they used?
KP: Avatars, at the current state-of-the-art, have widely varying functionality depending on where the technology was developed. In the next year or two, I anticipate that there will be more commonality between avatars developed at different software houses. Since we all recognize that certain basic behaviors like waving, laughing, smiling, etc., are very important, we are working on standardization efforts to allow avatars and avatar behaviors to travel through a wide variety of products.
GS: How do avatars enhance communication?
KP: The primary design goal for giving avatars capabilities is to add functionality that helps to make avatars expressive. To this end, at Black Sun Interactive we are focusing on behaviors that will help people express themselves in interesting and entertaining ways. We have spent considerable thought on what behaviors will be most important to participants in virtual communities.
As mentioned above, an avatar's ability to act enhances communication by adding body language to verbal communication. I don't imagine that I have to convince this group of the importance of body language. In addition, the 2D or 3D graphical representation of the avatar itself communicates something about the person behind the avatar, from the moment the avatar joins the chat. Finally, in 3D virtual communities, avatars can communicate by how they position themselves within groups of avatars (just like in real life).
GS: You mention virtual communities. Avatars reside in virtual reality. Just what is VR and how does it relate to avatars and a social community?
KP: Personally, I believe that VR is any reality agreed upon by a group of one or more people. In other words, I do think that the text based MUDs that got a lot of this started off are legitimately regarded as VR.
Ed. Note: MUDS are multi-user dimensions, the keystone of Internet multiuser games.
KP: Avatars are the representations of participants in a VR world. In addition to the primary role that avatars play as an aid to expressiveness, they should also be key in helping to achieve suspension of disbelief. As any storyteller knows, suspension of disbelief is essential to the success of the story. Avatars aid in this by placing people in the virtual world, and by making it possible for the participant to interact with others in the world. Just as in traditional animation, this is achieved by a variety of visual tricks that help the participant to perceive more than is actually rendered by the computer.
GS: How do avatars and VR build community?
KP: Avatars aid in the building of social community by providing for a form in the virtual community, where a person's identity resides. Having some type of persistent identity is key to the building of community. If everytime someone returns to a chat they come back as someone new, then they have no motivation for being a positive member of the community. If, however, their avatar causes them to be recognized when they come back to the community, their fellow inhabitants might remember if they were a jerk last time...
GS: I have been excited about getting my personal avatar made. 3Dexpress has created this one for me. It runs on the client host. Actually, this is my official debut. What will I be able to do with it? Have avatar - will travel?
KP: In the current generation of avatar technology, you can go into a 3D multiuser world on the web, and interact with others in that world. In navigating through the world, the other participants in that world will see specific avatar that you have chosen to represent yourself, and they will see you in the position that you reside at in the world.
In coming months, in addition to being able to navigate through the world, you will be able to make your avatar act in a variety of ways. Perhaps, for example, you could walk into a virtual bar, sit at a table, and get a drink from the waiter bot that comes over to your table to ask for your order.
GS: So instead of choosing a site provided avatar, I can bring my customized representative? It can be made to visit a virtual mall, for example?
KP: Exactly. I believe that 3D representations for online stores will make for a great selling vehicle for retail stores. We can use bots as automated salesmen, customers can interact in the website, making the experience more interesting for them, as well.
GS: So avatars and bots can be used as surrogates for advertizing, as well? How will that be manifest?
KP: Advertising can be done in a similar manner to web pages, by putting up banners in the virtual world. This has the advantage of making the banner more natural, and can actually make the world itself more compelling. It also allows for a larger potential area for banners, without letting the banners overwhelm the content.
A very interesting type of advertising can be done with bots. A bot can be built that can go up to a user and talk about a particular product. This has the potential to be obnoxious, but in the right situation, can be effective.
GS: It seems that the uses for these elements are unlimited. I imagine they can serve in the process of education.
KP: Clearly, any situation which enhances communication over distances has the potential to enhance education. In addition, there are some types of training which can benefit by the 3D virtual worlds. Any training which could benefit by use of full 3D models will benefit. For example, a mechanics training course where engine parts are shown being replaced and installed in a full 3D model of an engine would be a substantial improvement over alternatives.
GS: What about in the Performance Arts?
KP: A very exciting area of performance arts is called "performance animation." This is the technique of driving 3D animated characters with motion capture technology.
GS: This is the technology where an actor is wired to a figure on the screen and the avatar is made to move by the actor much like an electronic (digital) puppet?
KP: Yes. This allows a live actor to act out sequences in which a 3D animated character performs synchronously. I expect that this technology will be useable in 3D multiuser worlds.
GS: What about in their use in Interactive Fiction?
KP: Certainly. Many worlds/situations/characters that could be created for use in interactive fiction can be expressed in VR. The key distinction is really interactivity (more than the 3D aspect). If we only have to deal with the 3D aspects, then the only variation will be the media, and you would essentially be producing a movie via 3D technology (like "Toy Story"). Interactivity is the essence, since this makes it possible for a user to explore the world and talk to characters in any sequence that they might like to. This will be both exciting and the challenging part of creating fiction for the web.
GS: Online games are rapidly moving in the direction of multiplayer use in virtual reality.
KP: Certainly games count as VR, and in the case of multiplayer, a virtual community. It is the games industry that has the strongest understanding of interactivity, and we will need to tap that understanding as new forms of content are created. Nonetheless, the games industry has traditionally had a bias towards "twitch games" aimed at young males. Clearly the web needs to step beyond this bias and create content for a much broader market.
GS: What about Computer Conferencing? Can they be used for that process?
KP: This is similar to training in that the main benefit of the use of VR would be the extent to which we can enhance distance communication.
GS: There certainly is a great deal for content providers to think about. How do you see the future of VR?
KP: Wow - this is a big one. I believe that VR will have a big impact on the Internet, via VRML.
Ed. Note: VRML is Virtual Reality Modeling Language, first created in the Spring of '94. It is the code that is used to create 3D environments.
KP: I think it would take a book to address all the things I could imagine VR doing on the web, but suffice to say that we are the beginning of a User Interface revolution, comparable to the introduction of the Graphical User Interface.
GS: And the writer's place in the development of VR?
KP: VR will need to have people that create worlds, and create characters and objects that populate those worlds. While 3D artists will need to create the models for scenes, characters and objects - the spirit/atmosphere underlying the scenes and the personalities behind the characters is much more of a writer's job. In this vein, we have been talking to writers to script our bots (i.e., define the personality of an automated character).
GS: Well, that's quite revealing. Thank you, Kirk. We'll be watching Black Sun and all the new things coming to pass.
© 1996 Gloria Stern