In addition to providing previously unimagined access to information, the Internet is also making it possible to communicate and collaborate in unprecedented ways. Online role-playing games such as MUDs are evolving into real-time collaborative environments with their own themes, objectives, and social cultures. SDSC is supporting and participating in the development of several such environments. One, called Oceana, targets the K-12 community.
The mission of Oceana is to provide a dynamic learning environment that emphasizes ongoing construction of a virtual world.
Oceana encourages participants to explore, work together, use their imaginations, and express themselves. Through this experience, the participants can become more aware of their changing physical and cultural environment, learn about group dynamics by working through group problems, and develop self respect. Digital Equipment Corporation, which shares SDSC's interest in collaborative environments, has committed to donating an Alpha workstation to the project as an enhanced replacement for the machine that is the current server.
As public interest in these virtual worlds increases, scaling of the servers will become important to accommodate greater participation. Scalability, in turn, will depend on developing a functional structure to organize the servers and make them easier to find. Currently, people find out about them mainly by word of mouth so tend to access them somewhat randomly. The ANR group is trying to make them more logically accessible by developing mechanisms to organize them based on semantic relationships.
Several servers currently allow intercommunication in the form of sending messages among multiple servers, and some clients support moving from one server to another in a fairly ad hoc manner. We are interested in developing more sophisticated communication and relational channels that allow an object, such as a `room', to appear simultaneously on multiple servers with people from those various servers freely communicating within this virtual room. This model fosters social interaction across the individual `worlds' (servers) while obscuring the geographic distribution of the participants. Discussions are under way to implement this capability across a multicasting environment, such as the mbone, to facilitate this kind of communication without a need for a point-to-point communications mesh among all the servers.