The Severed Lion's Head and the Cue Zebra: Web Review Magazine, Bleeding Edge Column


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Web Review Magazine, Bleeding Edge Column, 10-96

By Caleb John Clark

I’m in a matte black room with 30 Web developers sitting in a half circle. Some sit on futons, others on old wooden theater seats. It’s a NoEnd Web developers meeting in an artist’s warehouse in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. Steve from OnLive! Technologies is gearing up to give us a 28.8 baud guided tour through Utopia, a 3D chat VRML environ, using his company’s Traveler Software. Steve has hooked his Pentium laptop to a video projector that blasts his screen 10 feet high at the end of the room. A phone line snakes out and connects to the Net. Speakers flank the screen.

It’s been Christmas time for OnLive! lately. Packages of money have been arriving from investors like Intel, MCA, AT&T, Creative Labs and others. A couple of months ago the mother lode came in when Softbank lobbed $23 million at OnLive!

So clearly they’re working on something interesting, and that’s why Steve is sitting among us, wrinkling the creases in his not-advised-for-futon stand-up pants. We half listen as he slogs through the end of a mind-numbing company presentation on the theory and technology behind the product.

Here’s the pitch: OnLive! wants to create an online 3D environment that accurately simulates a cocktail party. The technology is group audio chat in an immersive 3D graphical environment with “multi-participant real-time voice communication.” For geeks, that’s low-latency, full-duplex, additive voice bridging and automatic gain control with customizable avatars and voice disguising options, all using audio specialization and distance attenuation. TCP/IP protocols, stand alone or as an extension of a Web browser. Full 3-D polygon environs, crude lip sinking, and blinking 300 polygon avatar heads.

In P.N.E. (Pre-Net English), the rooms have depth and ambient noise, and you can walk around in them. Talking is like talking on the phone, except you can change your voice. When you approach an avatar, you can hear them better, and if you turn your head you’ll hear them out of one speaker. All this on a Pentium with speakers, a mike and a 14.4 modem (we were using a 28.8) jacked to the Net.

Yadda, yadda, yadda… We sip beers and wait for something to actually happen. A month before, the guy from The Palace had come by and shown us a pretty cool 2D chat world using balloon text, GIF backgrounds and 2D avatars. Very populated, very frat party like, but cool, totally open tech. He had just booted up the world and let us play and ask questions.

The NoEnders are always skeptical of speakers. It’s a healthy skepticism born of the information overload Webheads can fall prey to. The only effective cure being the immediate installation — in the Eustachian tubes and vestibular nerve — of dual redundant bullshit filters.

The No-End group is a mailing list of Web Developers that meets once a week to drink beer and schmooze about the Web.

We’re geeks. Shush! Just let us noodle with the buttons and ask questions. The call of a modem brought me out of my inner rant. We were getting down to business.

Steve picked a fairly cute (for 300 polygons) lion’s head severed cleanly at the neck as our avatar du jour and we executed a spiral teleport through the roof and into one of the main rooms. A stylized Egyptian courtyard with background music greeted us. Our first-person POV gave a mild Doom/Quake-sans-bloodbath feel.

Humm…voices? Yup, voices coming from a group of similar severed animal heads floating four feet above the ground, and chatting like nothing at all was strange about that. They sounded like garbled signals from dying astronauts on the dark side of Mars.

A few of us who have been infected by networked Quake deathmatch-itis poked ourselves in the leg as we instinctively reached for the fire button. I would have felt a lot better with a rocket launcher and full armor in this strange place, but I feel like that walking down the street. I should stop playing Quake.

Steve pushed the forward arrow and we glided toward the group. The voices got louder. They got clearer. We could hear what they were saying. It was a fairly coherent discussion.

Now he had our attention.

Imagine if you will, approaching four unknown animal heads at a cocktail party in ancient Egypt. Imagine being a floating lion’s head as you do this. Naturally you’d go for the attractive, young and downright appetizing Zebra head.

(Conceptually speaking this is getting pretty weird. It might help to hearken back to any hallucinogens you might have taken in the past, or ask a friend who’s imbibed to explain.)

Back to our little trip…

We float up to the back of the Zebra head and Steve says “Hi” into his laptop’s speaker.

The Zebra turns around, faces us, blinks, moves her mouth, and a clear female voice says, “Hello!”

Thirty jaded Webheads gasped in unison.

The feeling was emotional…yeah, emotional. You know, those things that tighten your chest and confuse you. They’re rare on the Net. Our avatar was recognized as a sentient entity, we were heard, present, real.

But we were not real, we were nothing more than polygons resembling a cartoon. This was far and away an entirely different animal than text chat, video conferencing or 2D chat.

This is the beginning of something new and shining. Now we just need to figure out what to do when we get there. Companies like OnLive! are going to set up these environments, but it’s up to us to figure out what to do in them. Let’s make some good choices!

It’s getting stranger out there by the minute, buckaroos. Good for those of us who suffer from Future Impatience, which is the exact opposite of Future Shock.

Turn my garage into a Holodeck, slip a Transporter in my closet, install a replicator in my kitchen. I’ll say, “About time!”

Caleb out.

Web Review copyright ® 1996 Songline Studios, Inc.
Web Techniques and Web Design and Development copyright ® 1996 Miller Freeman, Inc.

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