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MUDs: on-line socialization
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 20]

The interactive virtual worlds that begin to abound in Internet can be excellent research labs on on-line social interaction, but also the embryo of a new business model that uses Visualisation as its vehicle.

MUD stand for Multi User Dungeons or more recently Multi User Domains. A MUD is a chat room which has been given a spatial context, be it a building, a landscape or a complete world. 

In the beginning they were pure textual experiences of almost literary nature, where the "novel" was written as you went along through the interaction of all the participants. With the appearance in the 90s of the web, improved graphic cards and the boom of video games, MUDs had the opportunity to change their textual topography for a visual topography.

Among the best known virtual worlds are Alpha World from Activeworlds, Inc. (NASDAQ: AWLD), The Palace The Palace, Online Traveler and Cyber Town Cyber Town. In order to visit these virtual worlds a specialised browser has to be downloaded.

One of the most interesting ones is Alpha World. This MUD has been active since the summer of 1995. It's one of the most technologically sophisticated with quite a realistic visualisation. Once inside it, the visitor walks through this world 'dressed' as an avatar whose appearance can be modified and has some limited ways of corporal expression.

Many types of objects and buildings can be built in a land equivalent to the size of California. There are more than a hundred shops where you can buy all sorts of things.

What is visualised in a MUD, apart from what's evident? The study of this type of virtual worlds provides an excellent social lab, as you can register the behaviour and interaction of all their inhabitants. Since the old times of textual MUDs, different social sciences were attracted to study on-line social interaction.

Several studies have been performed in AlphaWorld regarding the socio-spatial building, on-line social interaction and the importance of corporal expression in avatars, among others. The project Vevo has created 'satellite maps' of Alpha World. For example, the study of such maps shows, through the years, building patterns that are aligned with the easiest to remember geographical co-ordinates. 

The study of the on-line social behaviour and the ways to visualise virtual worlds can be a success factor in the incipient business model that represent Activeworlds, Vios (see number 15) and Blaxxun among others, that, at the end, is a mixture of real estate, thematic park and mall. The case of Video Game MUDs is easier: you pay for the game and a monthly fee if you play connected.

Will this be the way to surf Internet in the future?. The main problem that these virtual worlds have to face is the low density of visitors, that makes many places seem like ghost towns…. At least you don't have to wait in long queues like in Disneyland.

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