Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Keywords: VR, Internet, Education, Robotics, Computing
A MUD, or multi-user domain using virtual reality techniques and personal models or avatars, is described. Developments in self-assembly robots as educational toys are discussed.
A feature of the Internet that has interested psychologists and sociologists is the emergence of "virtual communities", with community feelings and interactions but no connection other than electronically. By their nature, "chat rooms" are likely to encourage such communities, and there is particular interest in the varieties referred to by the acronyms MUD and MOO.
These have been mentioned in an earlier Commentary, and MUD stands for "multi-user domain" and MOO is the same but having a claim to be object orientated. Strictly, a chat room should qualify as a MUD, but these terms are generally reserved for implementations in which the interaction is not only by spoken or typed messages but has a virtual reality character, in which case the term MOO would seem to be automatically applicable.
A particularly intriguing type of implementation is that in which each participant is represented by a simulated human or animal form termed an "avatar". The chance to experience such a system is now offered by the American organisation Worlds.com, made readily available in Britain by the Freeserve ISP (internet service provider). On the Freeserve home page, clicking on a tab marked "Chat" introduces a further page on which the user may choose to enter "chat rooms" with various specialities, or aimed at particular age groups.
One of the alternatives that can be selected on this page is "3D chat", which leads the user to register with Worlds.com and to download a substantial number of megabytes of software. All of this is free of charge. The registration with Worlds.com is not immediate, and after about a day a four-letter password is sent to the applicant by e-mail. This seems to be needed only once, when making the first entry to the system as a player. The URL address for Worlds.com is: http://www.worlds.com.
Like other software with a strong graphics content, that supplied uses a substantial amount of memory and takes some tens of minutes to download, using the now-customary 56k modem (or about one third as long with direct digital connection). Enhancements to the basic scheme are offered, described as new "worlds" and similarly needing an appreciable time to download.
A player entering the system is first invited to choose a name that will appear above his or her avatar and can be used by other players to address that player. Remarks the player wants to make can be typed into a space provided at the foot of the screen, and a record of the exchanges, attributed to the respective avatars by their displayed names, appears in another box. The avatar can be made to move, using the arrow keys on the keyboard. The back of the avatar head can be seen near the bottom of the screen, and can advance into the simulated space, or retreat, when the "up" or "down" arrow key is pressed. When a left or right arrow key is pressed, the side of the avatar face is seen for a time (so that, for my avatar which was a penguin, an eye and beak came into view) until the background view swings round and again the avatar is seen from behind.
The other avatars move around, some of them solidly, but some making arm movements. The avatar can be steered into labelled rooms, including one called "picture gallery" and one called "avatar gallery". The entrance to some rooms is marked "VIPs only". The player is invited to register as a VIP player, which means agreeing to some cost, whereas everything described here is available free of charge. Besides having admission to restricted rooms, VIPs are allowed choice of avatar type, and the possibility of making arm movements.
My own excursions in this virtual world have been somewhat disappointing. There was of course the opportunity to strike up dialogues with other players, but without context nothing seemed appropriate and I must admit that I (or my avatar) mainly hung around as an observer. The other players also seemed to have little to say, so the proceedings were distinctly desultory, despite welcoming remarks and offers of help from unseen participants with "host" added to their given names.
The system, however, should not be judged by these impressions from a very few visits, possibly made at times of day that were badly chosen considering that many of the potential players are in different time zones on the other side of the Atlantic. It is clear that an enormous amount of programming effort has gone, and continues to go, into the scheme, and some of the new "worlds" that are offered are as yet available only as beta, or not fully tested, versions (for which volunteer beta-testers are welcomed). At the very least, the facility gives an opportunity to experience at first hand the mysterious entities of MUD and MOO referred to in many contributions to the cyberspace-and-society discussion list.
An initiative by the Lego company in collaboration with a number of academic establishments including MIT is described at the Website: http://www.legomindstorms.com and reviewed also by Rudall (1999). The Lego system is extended to allow the construction of robots by the provision of an element termed a "Scout" containing a microprocessor and having connections for a variety of sensors and an actuator, purchasable as a Robotics Discovery Set. Variants are available with "Star Wars" effects and given the name of "Droids". The "Scout" element allows simple programming and can receive input from an infrared remote control. Possibilities for interacting robots are considered.
The use of the term "mindstorms", especially with an MIT connection, suggests the influence of Seymour Papert (1980, 1984) although his name does not appear in the Website. The Lego system has a strong educational value, which is entirely consistent with Papert's aims and his introduction of the programming language LOGO and its associated "turtle graphics".
A considerable organisation has been built around the Lego project, with a "First Lego League" for robotics contests and a Hall of Fame for notable inventors. It is also the basis of a game called Robohunter, played online and said to have new features that make it "not just another online game". Like other computer games it has a tomb-raider theme and involves descent into an ancient temple in search of treasure, but with the additional feature of a Robohunter character who has the perfect tool for any challenge, namely Lego Mindstorms. The sound and visual effects seem to be dramatic, judging by the set of extra software plug-ins needed to run it.
A useful page associated with the site is at: http://www.usfirst.org/sitelist.html, giving a list of Websites relevant to hobby robotics, including associations and journals and suppliers of robots and components, mainly in the USA.
The legomindstorms site also has pages reporting events in which Lego robots have featured, including a 1999 European tour. A particular feature of this is a bungee jump of 100ft (30m) by a robot at an event in Hamburg on September 14. A short cine record of the feat can be viewed, though only if the software plug-in "QuickTime" has been installed. The legomindstorms site has a link to an Apple facility where an installer program for the plug-in can be downloaded free of charge. (It is also one of the plug-ins needed to play Robohunter.)
Alex M. Andrew
Papert, S. (1980), Mindstorms -- Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, Basic Books, New York, NY.
Papert, S. (1984), "Tomorrow's classrooms", in Yazdani, M. (Ed.), New Horizons in Educational Computing, Ellis Horwood, Chichester, pp. 17-20.
Rudall, B.H. (1999), "Reports and surveys", Robotica, Vol. 17 No. 5, pp. 463-73.