Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 5 / September 1, 1994 / Page 7

An Interview with Jon Callas

Conventional Format (see also Moo format)

by Chris Hand (

Initially I was interested to see whether Jon considered text-based systems to be VR. I mentioned that I'd recently had a heated debate with a colleague who stubbornly insisted that if you wanted to call it VR, you had to have goggles and gloves.

Jon Callas: It's the you-are-there aspect that makes it VR, not the peripherals. That combined with 'agency.'

Chris Hand: I count it as virtual if: It's not real, but you interact with it as if it *were* real. That's fine by me.

JC: [nods in agreement] A traditional time-sharing system is not VR because you aren't there. As a matter of fact, most computer systems use a lot of subtle dramatic and semiotic effects to accentuate that fact you aren't there. I would go so far as to say that it is set up to *protect* you from the computer by accentuating the borders.

JC: Also, a 3D movie or amusement park ride isn't VR because you are not an actor (or agent).

CH: A movie (or a book or a play) still involves the willing suspension of disbelief to some extent though...

JC: As does this place.

CH: We often react to movies or plays or books *as though they were* real, so they must share some of the properties of VR's.

Previous Work

JC: My last project in MUDs/VC/SVR was a MUD that was intended to be an alternate reality.

CH: In what way?

JC: It was called The Dreamtime, and we asked that people treat it as its own reality.

CH: How did it work out?

JC: As an example, suppose you meet me, and I tell you that my name is Nick Marlowe, and I was born in Kent in the year 2055 and have been a time-traveler most of my professional life."

CH: yes...

JC: You're in character, as it were, if you treat my statements at face value, and deal with me like you'd deal with anyone else in a social situation. It worked surprisingly well. Lots of people harumphed and left the place, but we had our own little community.

CH: Yes, I see. So this was part of the "ground rules" in DreamTime?

JC: Yes, that was a ground rule. Stay in character--at least in public. There were plenty of people who were simply themselves, but the good ones treated the world as real.

CH: What did people use it for?

JC: It was entertainment. Escape. A place to go and hang out, talk to people, play with ideas in philosophy, politics, personality, and so on.

CH: I treat this place as *fairly* real... this room for example, is a copy of my study at home, from where I first logged in to MediaMOO.

JC: [nods] As is Jennifer's. When I build mine, it's going to be not my current office, but an office I'd like to have.

CH: For me, the best thing about this place is the chance to talk to interesting people in real-time, people I'd probably not normally meet.

JC: That's also what The Dreamtime was, but it had the interesting feature that you might run into someone you *really*, really wouldn't meet. For several months, for example, we had a fellow who was d'Artagnan, roughly 40ish, and retired.

CH: How did it feel to be a character there? Must have been quite surreal.

JC: I enjoyed it. The characters take on a life of their own. There's a great thrill to listening to a story that you're telling, but it's not you. It is some muse driving your fingertips.

CH: I've never really done any role-playing as such, not in the fantastical sense.

JC: Those of us who started it had done a lot. I've played role-playing games since I was 16, and still do every Tuesday night.


JC: I've also done a lot with alternative forms of theatre. I like taking the line between actor an audience, and blurring or erasing it.

CH: On-line?

JC: Both on-line and in person. A number of us have done (and periodically do) 'plays' that are weekend-long productions. They are typically murder mysteries, because it's an enjoyable form."

CH: My partner's grandfather used to lecture drama. He's 79 yrs old and he's just started using a word-processor. I told him I can send e-mail to the US and he was amazed. If I told him about your plays he would freak RIGHT OUT! [laughs]

JC: Oh, please tell him! I'd love to talk to him about it. It's a fascinating form, because you *can't* write a plot in a traditional sense. I say can't because if you do, someone will screw it up. They'll do some completely reasonable thing that you never thought of.

CH: Do you have to have a very strong personality to be able to survive these weekends, mentally speaking?

JC: Ummm, maybe. Wallflowers have fun at them too. Some people are terrified of the idea or just think it's no fun. Other people are introverts who come out of their shells. A good production also has some characters who are 'information-gatherers' and try to ferret out as many subplots as they can.

CH: I find that sort of thing a little scary. One of the great things about MUDs is that you can eject at any time...

JC: Yes, that is the problem with those. You have to make a commitment, because twenty other people have also made investments of time and emotion and expense.

CH: But that probably makes it more likely to work--invested effort.

JC: It works quite well.

MeetingSpace and the Commercial Face of MUDs

CH: Do you know Oracle? Is he 'the competition'...?

JC: I know Oracle. We met at DIAC in '92. He also showed up in our booth at SF MacWorld last month. I don't believe he is the competition, for a number of reasons. First of all, we're both in sort of the pub business. Not every pub-keeper is in competition with another. As a matter of fact, a town's healthy nightlife depends on having a variety of places to go. Secondly, since I'm selling software rather than a service, we're not directly in competition.

CH: I was just going to ask about the software. Is yours the only commercial product of its kind?

JC: Yes it is.

CH: How has the reaction to it been?

JC: It's been *extremely* good. We have impressed a lot of people in the press, and a lot of potential customers. I like it when social scientists come and tell me that my software is the first thing they've seen in fifteen years that addresses the way that people actually work.

CH: So which social concerns are you addressing?

JC: Many of them you're used to just from MOOing. For example, the narrative-format that the text arranges itself in. That you can whisper to people, talk from a distance, and so on.

CH: MeetingSpace is not just another MUD then, obviously... I'll have to read those brochures.

JC: We have built a system that has its own integrated client and server. So on Meeting Space, we have a window with "interesting" objects in it, like people. You can put an icon on yourself, if I double-clicked you, I'd get an equivalent of your research and @whois. I can get a small window to type in whispers and private emotes to you, which reduces the chance of whispering to the wrong person.

CH: Have you seen AstroVR running?

JC: I have not seen AstroVR. I've talked to Pavel, and we exchange ideas periodically.

CH: I'd like to get some graphical extensions up and running, since I could then use a MOO for teaching.

JC: We also have in Meeting Space a document system. We have objects that are documents, and objects that are shelves (read directory/folder).

CH: I think the hard part would be making the graphics [and maybe sound] to be *complimentary* to the text, rather than making it obsolete.

JC: You can file documents in the Meeting Space, transfer them to and from the system while you're talking to someone (it's multithreaded), and so on. We have documents called "minutes" that are text files that record. We also have "presentations" that are graphics slide shows. You can click a button, and I see the next slide.

CH: Did you read about the college teacher who's been teaching a quadraplegic student over the modem using Macs?

JC: I think so.

CH: He was using Apple Remote Access and Timbuktu, but he said the screen took several minutes to redraw sometimes, but he was using two 14k4 modems back-to-back.

JC: I can imagine.

CH: Does MS work across the Internet?

JC: Yup. AppleTalk or TCP/IP. Soon to be Novell, too. And all at the same time, I must mention.

CH: Do you plan to port it to PC/UNIX environments, or are you happy with just Macs?

JC: We're doing PCs first, and then Unix. We *have* to be cross-platform.

CH: How much does it cost?"

JC: It starts at US$350 per connect, and goes down to $200/connect. We also have edu, volume, site, and reseller discounts.

CH: Per connect? How does that work? Do you subscribe in order to connect to the server?

JC: It is roughly the same price as any other 'productivity' tool. You buy a server with say, ten connects. Ten people can connect to it at any one time. You may distribute the client program(s) freely.

If an eleventh (or eightyeth) person connects, we limit them to 10 minutes. That's another social feature. If you know you need to talk to Jennifer, but there are ten people connected, we'll let you, but annoy you by yanking your line every ten minutes.

CH: Ah... so who do you expect to set up and administer servers?

JC: We expect nearly anyone can. There are very few administrator functions. Creating new people is easy. It's a dialog box with four fields.

CH: I wish MOOadmin were so easy...

JC: [nods] We've learned a lot from the previous generation of MUDs. We have a lot of shortcuts for building. For example, the world comes with an "office corridor". When you create a person, we make them a home that is a room, a shelf in that room, and exits connecting their office to the office corridor. You can build from another wing, simply by remembering to stand in the room you want to build from.

CH: Are there any servers already in place in institutions such as Universities, or are they all in large businesses who can justify the cost more easily?

JC: We have a lot of educational interest. One of our first customers was a private college in Connecticut. We give a 50% discount to educational institutions, and will do more if you buy more, or sweet-talk us.

CH: I would imaging Distance Learning is a prime market for you?

JC: It is. We're not in this *just* for the money, but we have mortgages. So we *want* to help people who are doing worthwhile things like teaching the disabled. I want to be in business five years from now, and that requires that I charge.

CH: What's your next step, and do you see multimedia becoming part of what you do?

JC: Well, I think what we're doing *is* multimedia. If by multimedia, you mean voice and video, then, yes, I see it becoming a part of it. I don't know quite when, yet, though.

Right now, the computers that people have, and the networks they're on aren't good enough for running voice and video. All the Macs people have have sound in-and-out, but PCs are still short on recording capability. The telephone companies have done such a good job that we expect a quality and responsiveness of voice that is very hard to compete with on a computer network. Our expectations about the quality of video are even higher.

I can talk for a while about that, but it's not answering your question. We will be doing all forms of multimedia when it becomes appropriate. Which means that it has to be wide-spread enough for it not to be only a toy. If, for example, a rumor I have heard about Sanyo coming out with a US$100 video camera in the next year, then video becomes more interesting sooner.

Our development plan is to spread out in what systems we support. We're working on the Windows client now, and will be demoing it at Groupware '94, which is at the end of this month. We'll be then working on a unix client and server. We may also do one on some other OS like OS/2 or WNT or VMS, if there is call for it. We already have most of the server running on NT, but haven't done extensive testing. At the same time, we're expanding the feature set. We have already added in anonymous rooms for brainstorming, etc. Our next major features are for shared text editing, and a graphics whiteboard. We are also working on other features including voting, an extension language, Internet services (mail, gopher, ftp-backed document objects, WWW support), and RSA-based privacy enhancements. Our development plan goes out several years from the very firm desires (like whiteboards and privacy features) to the really mushy (like video). ¤

See also: the overview article for this interview.

Chris Hand is a lecturer, writer and co-founder of the UK VR-SIG. His physical body resides in Leicester, England where even local phone calls cost 71 pence per hour.

Text and artwork Copyright © 1994 Chris Hand ( All rights reserved.

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