September 4, 2002

Bruce Damer

The author of ‘Avatars’ talks about cyber cocktail parties and the concept of shared virtual worlds

“Larry Lessig is the Paul Revere of our times. We’re still looking for the George Washington. You know, the English troops are here, and they’re big, powerful and all around us.”

By J.D. Lasica

Bruce Damer, a pioneer in the field of virtual worlds and author of “Avatars,” spoke by phone in advance of the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine.

Have you been to PopTech before?

This will be our first trip. My life partner, Galen Brandt, will be coming, too. I’ve heard so much about it.

What have they asked you to talk about?

I was brought into PopTech by Ray Kurzwell as our organizations (the Contact Consortium and DigitalSpace) have been doing virtual worlds stuff for seven years now. I even wrote a book on the subject. I have to say I’m a little skeptical of the notion that some day AI’s will replace us and we’ll fall in love with them or upload our consciousness. I agree with Jaron Lanier that in fact we are as a species pretty bad at writing code and that in 25 years we will still be buried under the weight of legacy systems. I have a whole barn full of computers on our property here in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California that bears living testament that progress in software is painfully slow. I wrote a lot of code for 15 years giving me a healthy respect for the gap between expectations and reality in technology. In response to last year’s debate among folks like Bill Joy, Jaron, Ray and others, I wrote a piece for Ray’s site that pretty much spells our my views on this.

In the ’80s I wrote a GUI-based environment for Xerox, but got very tired of the metaphor of windows and pages, links, lists and trash bins. In fact, our museum is crammed full of working systems from the ’70s and ’80s that exhibited the beginnings of the user interface.

What’s the museum and its message?

The DigiBarn Computer Museum just opened in July. It’s about 5,000 square feet of weird old computers, from Xerox Star to game systems to the Cray 1 supercomputer. It represents the Cambrian explosion of innovation that occurred from 1975 to 1990. It’s also about the realization that we may be coming into a period of less innovation, which I think we are. And it looks at the speculators from the investment community who came in during the ’90s and wrecked the industry. And now with software patents and large monopoly players, where are we gonna go from here, folks? You can’t so easily go out, form a company, and design and build something that’s kooky and innovative today.

Are you bringing any of your avatar toys to PopTech?

We have gathered together a bunch of technology that was generated in the first wave of the concept of a shared virtual world. One such system, called Traveler, works so that when you talk, your avatar representation lip-syncs with you. The company that created this tremendous environment was going into Chapter 7, so we picked up its assets two years ago, and now it’s growing virally. People are hosting their own world and utilizing it around the clock. Traveler teaches you what an avatar is: You see a window on your screen and giant floating heads and one of these giant heads turns to you and talks, and you talk back. An avatar is therefore your personification, your visual agency in cyberspace. I hope to give a tour of several other avatar and biologically inspired worlds for the audience. The entire medium is pretty well documented at the Contact Consortium site.

Do people use this for games, or chat, or other applications?

For the user, Traveler is a cocktail party, a huge social scene. They play instruments through their avatar heads, they dance. It’s amazing. In some virtual worlds, you’ve got people who like to talk, or build, or make social organizations happen, or who are simply flirting, or who are shy and become less shy in these worlds.

A lot of people over 30 scratch their heads and say, Why? People over 40, like me, scratch their heads and say, Not another bloody thing to learn! Let me out of here. I don’t want to learn how to navigate 5,000 acres of virtual space. But in a sense, these worlds are the frontier in the interaction between humans and technology. A lot of kids can build worlds together with whole social organizations. They can do that in cyberspace but can’t do that at school because they’re stuck in a bloody 19th century classroom setting. These kids are using virtual worlds to learn how to live in the 21st century. There are many stories to tell here.

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