What’s happening with multi-user 3D servers for VRML worlds?

Question:
What’s happening with multi-user 3D servers for VRML worlds? Can I take myavatar into any world yet?

Answer:
There are a few companies selling commercial versions of multi-user 3Dservers, or community servers as they are often called. But it’s not ahealthy marketplace at the moment. In fact, Black Sun has just pulled out ofthe server market, and laid off its marketing team and all but one member of itssales staff. The company is going to focus on doing large projects for selectedcustomers rather than trying to get revenue through sales of the server. Integrated Data Systems has also decided there’s no money in multi-user servers at the moment.With an eye on the progress of multi-user standards, IDS is standing on thesidelines for now.

One of the first to market was Black Sun with its CyberHub Server. Renamed Community Server 2.0, it is oriented toward making multi-user worldscommercially successful by enabling advertising on banners and via robots, aswell as by enhancing person-to-person communications with its free Passportmulti-user client. Passport gives everyone with this 1.1MB client the abilityto join multi-user communities based on Black Sun servers and to use a varietyof VRML browsers as plug-ins to either Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. You can even visit non-VRMLworlds hosted on the server network as long as you have a Passport-compatible viewer to see them with.

Passport supports the use of eithercustom or off-the-shelf avatars in VRML 1.0 or 2.0 and has gesture buttonsso avatars can be expressive. If you want to have voice chat, you need to useCoolTalk or NetMeeting software. Theserver and the client can be customized using APIs that can help withintegration of the server with a database, and a corporate Web site.

Then came OnLive! with its OnLive! Community Server. OnLive! is going afterthe business user and stressing the voice communication aspect of itstechnologies. The server lets groups meet at any URL address and speak inreal-time. The audio works with online text and graphics and in OnLive!’snon-VRML 3D chat spaces.

To persuade you to try it out, OnLive! is givingaway a CD with a five-voice version of its server. For remote classrooms,conferences or customer support this seems a great technology. There areserver solutions for both audio and 3D avatar based interactions.

OnLive!Traveler is the only 3D Virtual World browser software that allows groups ofpeople to talk through expressive, animated avatars. Users are representedby 3D customizable avatars that “lip-synch” what that person is saying inreal-time. If you don’t want the avatar side of this, you can just useOnLive! Talker and have audio chat on any OnLive! enabled Web site, meaning oneusing OnLive!s server technology. See www.onlive.com/promo/wwa.html.

Multi-user can be a dangerous area for companies to explore. Worlds Inc.’srecent collapse into an ‘on-the-market core’ demonstrates that despite highdemand for multi-user experiences, as evinced by the popularity of Alphaworldand Worlds Chat, there isn’t sufficient demand yet for developer tools,servers and content to keep a company afloat. Or at least not withoutcareful focus on one market segment.

Worlds’ multi-user server software isnow in the hands of a new company, Circle of Fire, who is selling it tothose companies and individuals wanting to create new zones with Worlds Inc.’s ActiveWorlds technology. This is not VRML; it uses the RWX file format andcan do things VRML can’t manage yet like, streaming delivery of objects.ActiveWorlds have the distinction of letting users build for themselveswithin their spaces, play Java-based games and communicate withfully animated avatars. You canteleport around the worlds and make personal creations for visitors to seeas permanent features of the world.

ActiveWorlds is compatible with both Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, and both update automatically when you visit the site, so you never haveto worry about having an out-of-date browser or world. Server prices rangefrom:

personal use at $69 plus a subscription of $23 per year for an area of200x200 meters ? which can cope with up to eight simultaneous users ?

to

the smallest commercial space at $995 plus a subscription of $495 per yearfor an 800×800-meter space and support for up to 24 users.

After that, thesky is the limit. Servers areavailable for Sun Solaris, Win 95 and NT 4.0. See www.activeworlds.com for further details.

Sony is still in development with its Community Place Bureau multi-userserver software. It’s available as a free alpha download for Win 95 andNT from vs.spiw.com/vs/server/bureauPC.html.

As the only multi-user VRMLserver still in development, it’s the one to watch. This server will allowyou to share VRML 1.0 and 2.0 worlds using the Community Place VRML 2.0browser. The server is restricted to support a maximum of 12 connections, but ifyou have a powerful workstation you can contact Sony about being allowed tohost more visitors.

Sharing a world is simple ? you need to add one line toan existing VRML1.0 or VRML2.0 world file, which will tell the CommunityPlace browser where your world server can be found on the Net: WorldInfo {info [ “VsServer:hostID:port” ] }. You run the server on your PC andanybody loading the VRML 1.0 or 2.0 file into a Community Place browserwill be automatically connected to the shared world. This means you cansupply details of the world in an archive file or on CD, as well asdynamically on your server, and then have users visit the multi-user versionon your server.

When connected, users can see avatar representations of other users,use text chat to talk to each other and express emotionswith the avatar buttons. Community Place Bureau running on your PC allowsyou to share scenes, avatars, and behaviors including shared animation,games, and collaborative tools. All behaviors are programmed in Java.

ParaGraph has plans to enter the multi-user market in a small way byproviding a limited-traffic personal server. This will be one of the add-onmodules to go with ParaGraph’s Internet Space Builder tool. Look for news of thislater in the year on www.paragraph.com. A ParaGraph multi-userserver facility has existed for a long time, but so far has only appeared at tradeshows. There are also commercial multi-user worlds that ParaGraph hasproduced for the Japanese market, entry for members only and worlds made forIBM’s Digital Library project, none of which are accessible on the Internet.Last December’s bundling deal with SGI and Cosmo Player may presage somejoint venture in the future.

Oz Virtual uses free distributed server technology to provide access to anyVRML world in a multi-user mode. It’s only possible to view and participatein Oz multi-user worlds themselves by using the Oz Virtual browser. Thedistributed server network uses load balancing for scalability andextensibility. There can be between 100 to 1,000 users per server dependingon the performance requirements. (Oz Club claims to be able to cope with anunlimited number of visitors.) The Oz multi-user server runs on Win 95, NTand UNIX platforms.

To keep in touch across many large worlds, there’s OzVirtual Pager. This is a watchdog program that makes any Oz Virtual userpageable if someone is looking for them. Even if Oz Virtual isn’t running,you will still get the message as long as you are online. And of course thismeans you can track down friends in any Oz world.

The addition of Voxware audio chat to its client and server means you canchoose voice or text for conversations while listening to bands play live atspecial Oz-casts. The client software is compartmentalized, so the chatfunctions are separate from the 3D viewer. This means you can keep talkingto a group of people while viewing a completely different site, which extendsthe use of the Oz server to group meetings in the same way as OnLive,although you have to use Oz sites as a ‘lobby’ to meet in.

Oz is looking topartnerships with ISPs to extend its server network. In addition to itsclient and server API, Oz is due to release an SDK of an Oz toolbox for gamedevelopers in April or May 97.

Then there’s Integrated Data Systems with its VRealm 3D Media Server technology and multi-user VRML browser.The server provides multi-user capabilities within worlds whether or not theworlds themselves have multi-user support. All you need to do is use theVRealm multi-user browser 2.0. It comes in a stand-alone or plug-in form andcan be used as a regular VRML 2.0 browser or, by right clicking and usingthe multi-user menu options, as a multi-user browser. To connect, you needto know the address of the server. If you’re behind a firewall you’ll need to know your proxyserver and port information. Then you enter the URL of your avatar; acollection is provided with the browser download, or use your own VRML 1.0creation. The 3D Media Server allows real-time audio (LiveAudio) and textchat as well as file sharing while in multi-user mode.

IDS has decided notto commercialize its multi-user server and browser technology at thisstage, preferring to concentrate on its authoring software and other developments.

Tribe is Chaco’s multimedia 3D multi-user MUD server, which runs onWindows/NT, Windows95 and UNIX platforms. It coordinates multi-useranimation, voice and location information in real-time, and can accommodateup to 500 simultaneous users per server computer. You can scale Tribe to a larger numbers of users by distributing the load across multiple servers.

Tribe is especially suitable for use with Pueblo, Chaco’s multimedia clientapplication but can be used with other multiuser clientapplications as well. Download Pueblo from www.chaco.com/pueblo.

A good place totry out Tribe and Pueblo is the Simprov! site at www.metaplay.com, where youcan join in improvised comedy while testing your avatar. Most MUD worldsare accessible only by telnet links; Pueblo can function as your’telnet’ client for Netscape, so that you can click on ‘telnet://’ links andconnect to worlds.

Sense8 has a product called World Server, currently in developer’s beta. It’s target is the business user who wishes to share data.Sense8 plans to have its WorldUp world creation tool exporting VRML 2.0before the end of the year, so thei World Server may become particularly usefulto high-end VRML developers.

What’s missing from all these multi-user experiences is the ability to seeinto one world from another and to move seamlessly from world to world. At the moment there is the need to click tochange worlds using an address list, be it on a menu or in a teleport booth.If you’re moving within one server system, you can at least keep the sameavatar body but if you want to move to another format of world, the avatarstandards movement hasn’t caught up with you yet.

If you’re on the Mac,you’re still waiting for multi-user technology to reach you. Unfortunately, all of the abovetechnologies are only available on Windows NT or UNIX servers or as Windows95 or NT browsers. Black Sun says it will provide a version of Passportfor the Mac; I suspect Black Sun is waiting for a Mac VRML 2.0 browser to comeout ? without one, there’s not much point having Passport.

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