Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 5 / September 1, 1994 / Page 4

meet me in cyberspace Art and text Copyright © 1994 Chris Hand (

by Chris Hand (

MUDs used to be part of HackerSpace. They were populated by games-playing, programming net-junkies who innocently spent their leisure time in a shared virtual space. Now things are changing. When a corporate colossus like Microsoft or Apple starts moving in you know they must have smelled money. Apple has announced eWorld, effectively a graphical front-end to a USENET-like BBS using a village, building and room metaphor for navigation. Microsoft's project Utopia is an experimental interface using a virtual house to organize activities. It doesn't take much to recognize these ventures for what they are--a tentative toe in the water of real-time interactive shared-space virtual communities: MUDs.

So when the big boys start moving into our cyberspace what are we going to do? Run away and hide somewhere else? That's one option, but some of our net pioneers have decided to meet them head-on.

Take Metaverse for example. Run by Steve Jackson Games (well known for taking on the establishment during operation Sun Devil) under the umbrella of Illuminati Online, Metaverse is a subscription-based MOO. It also provides a home to several "virtual corporations" such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who have virtual office-space there.

This is one strategy: net-citizens move their businesses into MUDspace now, before big business moves into MUDspace.

MUD goes GUI

Another strategy is to create a new MUD specifically for the business community, and then to sell it to them. World Benders, Inc. of Nashua, New Hampshire (see ``Bending the World'') have created a client/server system called Meeting Space. They intend to sell this software to businesses so they can conduct meetings in virtual--rather than physical--space. Participants can connect to the meeting server over a network using a GUI client running on their local PC, Mac or workstation.

Illustrations of Meeting Space:

From a business point of view it makes sense: it costs money to physically transport people from A to B just so they can have a meeting. Driving on the roads is stressful and takes time (road traffic also kills thousands of people every year as well as kicking out tons of pollution, but of course that's of no interest to your average capitalist venture). When you scale things up and start flying everywhere the cost is even higher.

So Meeting Space lets you conduct virtual meetings across a network. Of course this is useful, but it's nothing new--it's why we've had video-conferencing rammed down our throats as the Next Big Thing. The trouble with video is that it's expensive, it doesn't travel well over the Internet and who wants to sit in front of a camera for an hour trying to look awake anyway? The parallels with Orwell's telescreen are obvious.

MUDs as meeting-spaces have several advantages. If all you have to do is put a text window up on your screen then you can carry on doing useful work during those long, boring meetings. There's no hassle with dragging someone in to record minutes when all you have to do is log the session into a file.

One of the great things about meeting in TextSpace is that no-one can see you. This means that prejudices get left behind on the desktop: people have to judge you on your words rather than on your T-shirt, hair, gender or body odour. You are what you type. It also means that you can crawl out of bed, grab a coffee and log in just in time for a meeting instead of rushing around like an idiot trying to get into the office--you don't even have to bother getting dressed.

This is an instant bonus for anyone running a small business on the net, since it doesn't matter that you don't have offices bursting with palm trees and chrome. Get your ASCII right and you'll look just as good as anyone else doing the same thing. It goes without saying that anyone who finds it difficult to get from one place to another--whether they're physically disabled or just snowed in--can let their modem do the walking.

Of course, those who already live and work on the net can appreciate the value of this straight away. Indeed plenty of people are starting to use MUDs as virtual business headquarters (the EFF for example, see above), but World Benders are selling to people who've never even heard of a MUD before. To make text-based VR more palatable to Mac and Windows users, Meeting Space has been GUI-fied--click on one of the icons representing a person and you can find out their phone number, job title or whatever. Other tools include white-boards, agendas and automatic recorders for taking minutes.

Wiring up the Ivory Tower

Distance Learning is a tailor-made application for the Infobahn, and several projects are already underway to create virtual universities on the Internet. One example is Diversity University, a MOO built on a university campus metaphor complete with tutors and lectures: here whole classes of students can log in to participate. On a more personal level Michael Maier (, an arts professor at the College of Dupage, recently made the news by lecturing to one of his students (who's quadraplegic) using two Macs joined back-to-back with 14,400 baud modems.

As networks creep out across the globe we can expect to see more of this remote learning going on and desktop non-video-conferencing has a large supporting role to play. But when they're being used for teaching and learning, systems based purely on text can sometimes fall short of the mark. Experimental projects such as Astro VR (a MOO for astronomers which supports graphics and sound) and Project Jupiter, the latest project of MOO-creator Pavel Curtis, are paving the way for audio and video for those who need it to support the text-based interaction, rather than replacing it.

Another promising development, although in a slightly different direction, is the integration of the World-Wide Web with MOOspace. Many MOOs already include gopher clients (or "slates") which allow users to browse gophers without leaving their text-worlds, while JayshouseMOO, hangout of the MOO-programmer élite, has its own built-in WWW server.

Whether or not educators will be willing to pay money for Meeting Space remains to be seen (although one of the first organizations to buy it was a college). The majority of MUDs on the Internet are run out of universities anyway, and the software for the clients and servers is available for free by FTP. Of course you get no technical support, apart from perhaps begging on the appropriate USENET news-groups. In any case, World Benders are serious about the educational market -- they're offering 50% off list prices for K-12 and higher education purchasers.

Internet MOOs are based on the LambdaMOO software written by Pavel Curtis of Xerox PARC. The software, which runs on UNIX, is available by anonymous FTP from

In Search of Meeting Space

When I first heard that World Benders had been launched with the intention of bringing MUDs to the business community, I decided to track them down. I started by connecting to MediaMOO, based at MIT's Media Lab.

Unlike many MUDs, MediaMOO has an entrance policy--if you want to have your own character there you should be actively involved with the Media or MUDs. This is in marked contrast to the majority of MUDs on the Internet, which usually allow anyone to join in.

Those who use MediaMOO often connect to do some "serious" work or to make contact with professionals and researchers working in related fields. Again this is different to many of the Internet systems which often end up full of people chatting, programming, verbally abusing each other and all the rest of the typical MUD activities.

After firing up my client and connecting to MediaMOO's host machine I found myself in the usual place--a text-based facsimile of my study. The @who command gave me a list of the people who were connected. Of course, everyone has a character name but it's not always easy to work out who they are, even using @whois, the MOO equivalent of finger. But previous experience told me that MediaMOO was a good place to hang out in order to meet up with some of the "names" of virtual communities and MUDs. For example, the character known as Oracle is in reality F. Randall Farmer, co-founder of the Habitat on-line community. If you meet him he's likely to mention his latest venture, Electric Communities, as he thrusts a virtual business card into your hand.

What makes MediaMOO different is that it's enabled me to do useful work, work which I might not have been able to do any other way (which presumably is why we're all so willing to spend time banging away on a QWERTY). Take the time I was searching in vain for the source of a quote I'd used; it was the "Willing Suspension of Disbelief" so widely-discussed in VR circles these days. I knew the term was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the English poet, writer, critic and famed opium-eater of the 19th Century, but I didn't know where it had been published. It was a Tuesday night (make that Wednesday morning), around 2am British time.

I knew that MediaMOO hosts a computers and writing get-together in its "Tuesday Café" each week, so I logged in and headed down there to see if I could find any literary types [Ed. Note: The Tuesday Café is part of the Netoric Project; the purpose of the café is for discussion on current issues in using computers in the teaching of writing, not necessarily literature.] As luck would have it, the café was still well-populated (it was only 9pm EST) and the people there were helpful in dealing with my question. Within ten minutes I had the reference confirmed by two separate sources and I could carry on and finish my paper, which had to be done by the morning. In case you really want to know, it's from Biographia Literaria (written in 1817), Chapter 14.

So I'd come to MediaMOO again, this time in the hope of tracking down someone who knew about Meeting Space. As luck would have it the @who command revealed that Jon Callas, World Benders' Director of Technology was logged in. I paged him to ask him if he'd like to chat, and he teleported over to my (virtual) study.

Interview with Jon Callas

This interview was conducted in a MUD and is available in a format consistent with that medium. The interview is also available in conventional format, if that's what you prefer.

Choose from MOO text format (like reading a transcription of a MUD session), or Conventional interview format (possibly easier to read). ¤

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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