Life In There
Monday, May 28, 2018
 
Life In There - There.com, There, world, interactive, fun, funny,
Life In There  [1448 Page Views]
Every dog has its day, every day has its way of being forgotten. - Dave Mathews Band
A There.com Tribute Page

There.com was the most amazing and beautiful online virtual world ever created. Closed beta began in July 2001, with various stages of beta following, and ending with an October 2003 launch date. On March 9th, 2010 - one week after the announcement of its closure on March 2nd, 2010 - There.com shut its doors to the public. While neither the server-side or client-side programming have been released publicly (open source), it remains unknown if a similar virtual world using the same platform will launch at any point in the future.

Robb
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Me at home in There.com
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Discover Magazine
2003

I am learning how to smile again.

I've also been working hard at scowling, frowning, and rolling my eyes dismissively. And I'm getting better and better at it—revealing my true emotions. In the real world it all comes quite naturally, without thought. But in the world I've traveled to, I have to think about my emotions in order to show them. I'm practicing with an electronic version of me—my avatar, to use the lingo—that lives in a new online virtual world. It's called There (go to There.com for a quick look).
There is a testing ground for one of today's most interesting experiments in communication, one that harks back to where we were just a little more than 100 years ago, when a technology first appeared that convincingly fooled our eyes into seeing the illusion of motion in a series of still images. We are exploring a comparable threshold point in our perceptual systems today—only this time, the illusion at stake is that of emotion. At There we can build online representatives of ourselves, then meet other online versions of other people in the same virtual space and—this is the magic—express a wide range of human feeling, from anger to love, from boredom to sarcasm.
First, a little history. In recent years, as more and more social lives have migrated to online spaces—e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging—we have grown increasingly dependent on crude props to convey the tenor of our words, such as the silly sideways smiley-face emoticon used in chat rooms. It consists of a colon and a single parenthesis—:)—and often includes a noselike hyphen—:-). Emoticons are all we've got if we want to express feelings as basic as happy or sad. This is an awkward situation because humans aren't really very good at expressing themselves through a keyboard.
As the psychologist Paul Ekman has shown, we are endowed with an extraordinarily nuanced set of facial expressions that convey our inner emotional states, along with even more nuanced perceptual skills for decoding those expressions. Our vocal intonation also conveys emotional color, which is why phone conversations don't need smileys. But in the text world of chat rooms, you have to spell out your mood. Sure, gifted writers can convey emotional states without resorting to emoticons, but most of us are writing impaired. And even gifted writers have difficulty expressing emotions in text during real-time conversations online.
Avatars in There convey emotions through both facial expressions and body gestures. When your on-screen representative frowns, his shoulders sag along with the corners of his mouth. The prototype version offers more than 100 different emotional states to choose from—everything from surprise to anger—and Melcher says the plan is to release 10 new emotions per quarter.
The software behind There's emotion system was designed by pioneering artificial intelligence researcher Jeffrey Ventrella ("Our first employee," Melcher says proudly). Like many artificial intelligence projects, it uses a genetic metaphor. The facial expression system contains 62 "genetic pairs," with each pair referring to a specific movement of the face (raising eyebrows, lowering the corner of a lip). New emotions are concocted by creating new combinations of these genetic pairs.
Melcher's team deliberately avoided making the avatars' expressions exact duplicates of the human versions. "We're less interested in precisely modeling the musculature of the face. We're more interested in creating something believable," he says. "Oftentimes when you create something precise, it's not believable. So when you tell your avatar to make the 'sexy' expressions, you'll see its eyebrows move up and down a few times. Now, in real life, your eyebrows can't move that much. It's physically impossible. But in There, it's very believable. It's a bit like the exaggerated gestures and expressions of cartoons. Cartoons aren't precise, but they're very believable."
In the prototype version of There, which is a lot like being inside a cartoon world, triggering emotional expressions with a keyboard is not all that different from typing them in a chat room. The software translates common emoticons and other abbreviations (such as LOL for "laughing out loud") into gestures and expressions. It also automatically parses a small subset of words: If you type yes, your avatar will nod its head. Most of the time users convey emotion by typing short keystrokes, intensifying or dampening down their feelings depending on the situation.
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A There.com Tribute video that I made:























The Wizard of Lag - A Miracle Pictures Production (Part 1)


For example, typing angry with one apostrophe in front of the word gets you a scowl, while typing '''angry actually bares the incisors. When you're engaged in conversation with another There citizen, you see a close-up shot of his or her avatar's face and upper body, as well as a dialogue balloon floating above the avatar's head. The software also provides a mirror view that gives you a glimpse of your own avatar's face so you can confirm that your "sexy" look is indeed as sexy as you want it to be.
Right now, if your avatar's flirtations aren't working their magic in There, you can't do much about it other than look for other partners. But soon There residents will be able to brew their own expressions using a tool designed for ordinary users. "People want unique emotions," Melcher says. "And advertisers would love to have emotions that they could sell. Imagine Budweiser being able to sell you the 'Wassup?' expression."
There is a strange mix of typing and animation. You carry on conversations by pounding away at the keyboard, creating text. Meanwhile, on the screen, your character flinches or waves, smiles or grimaces, depending on what you type. Right now it's a kind of QWERTY puppeteering, but the conversational dependence on text is just a peripheral effect of limited bandwidth. High-speed users of There can converse using their own voices, at a quality that compares favorably with an average cell-phone call.
That shift promises to be liberating, but not necessarily because it will eliminate furious typing. "Once you switch to voice, the question becomes: What are your hands going to do?" Melcher says. "I personally think that 10 years from now we're going to have a very expressive hand language of emotion that will become standardized, like American Sign Language." We'll send our words over the Net via our vocal cords, but we'll emote with our hands.
Why would we want to create a new emotional language when our flesh-and-blood facial expressions do such a good job? If the technology is already there for voice, video can't be far behind. Once we get over the 16-frames-per-second threshold, won't we prefer to see real eyebrows arching on our computer screens, not simulated versions? Yes and no.
We like virtual spaces precisely because they don't have to be anchored in the humdrum realities of everyday life. Maybe your facial mole isn't as attractive as Cindy Crawford's. That's why the exaggerated gestures of There have appeal, and why so-called reality television looks nothing like reality. Moreover, the creators of There have spent almost as much time conjuring up an imaginary world that's fun to explore as they have creating emotional representation. You can ride hoverboards through the desert, play paintball, or just take a walk along the beach—and you can do it together.
On my first visit to There, I stumbled across a resident named Danniboy, who was hanging out in an open field on Caldera Island, a place that exists only in this virtual world. We struck up a conversation, mostly involving me pestering him with questions about how the interface worked for him. I tried an entire fusillade of emotions on him, testing out the system, and he patiently sat through the entire display. When I asked him how he liked this world, he paused for a few seconds and typed, "Come follow me." Then he trotted off.
After scrambling around for a few seconds to figure out what key combination allowed me to run, I raced after Danniboy. We ended up standing at the edge of an imposing cliff, banked far above a glistening sea. The sun was setting regally over the water. Having a total stranger bring me to see a pretty view was a pleasant surprise. The experience was as much about sharing an environment as it was about communicating, and the effect would have been completely lost if we had been simply staring at videophone images of each other.
"It's a pretty great world," Danniboy typed, as his avatar looked out to sea. Then he turned to me and smiled.
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