Online & Kicking
Living in a Virtual World
by Ben de Leeuw
Ever since I first read the description of cyberspace in William Gibson's Neuromancer (Ace Books, 1995), I've been captivated by the possibilities of shared 3D virtual spaces. The idea of having meaningful interaction with other people without regard to physical location is a dream I've long harbored. And to be honest, it's still a dream, but one that is getting much closer.
Although it will not be mistaken for Gibson's cyberspace, Red Apple Online Virtual Community, a new multiuser avatar space, is another step toward making Web 3D a real tool for real people, instead of a cute gimmick to sell this week's Hollywood blockbuster.
Spurred by the growing list of school tragedies such as the Columbine massacre, American General Financial Groupone of the biggest insurers of teachershas created Red Apple, an online community where educators can communicate with each other about the issues that are important to them. Along with the virtual 3D environment, the site offers group discussion forums and a daily bulletin board that offers news relating to education and other issues.
The 3D multiuser component of Red Apple was created by DigitalSpace using its tool, Meet3D. The oldest developer of Web 3D multiuser communities, DigitalSpace is the brainchild of Bruce Damer, one of the instrumental players in the Active Worlds community, the most successful and long-lived 3D community on the Web. DigitalSpace has a client list that includes the NASA Ames research center, Xerox PARC, and Borders bookstores. Damer and his team have brought years of practical experience with Web 3D communities to the design of Meet3D, and it shows. They have created a virtual environment that is inviting and easy to useperfect for the Web 3D novice.
Meet3D is a bold example of how Web 3D can move out of the specialized niche market of games and entertainment and into the the general public. The targeted users for these spaces are not the hip cybercitizens you might find in a community like Active Worlds. They are normal people who have probably never even heard of Web 3D. Because of this novice audience, it was key for Meet3D to be easy to access and operate. DigitalSpace chose to base Meet3D on Shout3D's lightweight, java based engine to eliminate the need for users to download a hefty plug-in. The Java engine also allows users to enter the world almost immediately, with a download time of about a minute and no need to install any new component on their computer. The Red Apple Online Virtual Community, the first Meet3D offering, was based on Shout3D v1.03, but future Meet3D worlds will be based on v2.0 of Shout3D, and will have more interactivity and better graphics.
Cyberspace is maturing everyday, slowly leading us toward something as rich and complex as William Gibson's vision. There are many steps to take before we get there, but products like Meet3D are taking those steps already. The Red Apple Online Virtual Community isn't slick or cyberiffic, but it is a Web 3D community with a real purpose, for real people, and that is the first and most important step.
Ben de Leeuw teaches at several Bay Area animation colleges and is the author of Digital Cinematography (AP Professional, 1997).