Interview with Bruce Damer

Bear Creek, California - Saturday Feb. 29, 1997, 14:00

© 1997 - Adriaan van Roeden -

When I was in Califonia to attend the Web 97 conference, I stayed at Alan Lundell's House in Bear Creek. Bruce Damer also stayed there because a storm had cut off the power to his house. After hearing about the things he had done and what he was working on, I decided to interview him :

(AvR) So Bruce, here we are in the mountains in California, in a very secluded space, the sun is shining...

Let me start by talking about how you nearly escaped from death, or, well, your neighbor did. You live here in the mountains of Bear Creek. There was a storm...

(Damer) There was just a wind really. We had a lot of rain this year, we had a period of thirty centimeters in three days, but that wasn’t the problem. We regularly have winds here and there are threes that one hundred of meters high here. And the Douglas Firs fall apart all the time and one was rocking back and forth and than hit my neighbors house and exploded it. He was in his bed only five minutes before, and he’d decided to go into town for a coffee. And when he came back his house was in pieces. My house was just missed. (AvR - you got lucky there). I’d driven at six o’ clock in the morning to the VRML Conference and it happened two hours later...If I had been in my bed I would have wondering whether the end of the world was coming

Your power got cut off?

Power and water and everything else. For a cyberperson living in a cabin in the mountains... Thanks God we have a whole community for support......

And you went over to Allan Lundell's house and that's were I met you..

(here's a a picture from Allan Lundell's Video, which shows the damage)

Yeah, I jacked into the Metaverse again.. got into the Virtual World and started working on this Ski hill in that world again. I also did a book chapter review. Nobody knew what happened.

One of the things you’re doing is writing this book about virtual worlds. Before we start talking about this book I’d like you to introduce yourself a bit. Tell us where you come from and how you've got to do your kind of things.

Well, I’m Bruce Damer, I was born in Canada, emigrated to the USA to study how to make computers out of light. It seemed that was far in the future, so I did my other passion, which is interface-design. And I wrote a lot of software in the eighties. I started working for a small company that worked for Xerox. Then later, we - the chief and myself - build a laboratory in Prague, Tsjecho Slovakia, starting in 1990, we hired cold war engineers. We renovated a villa, bribed a phone company to get a high speed line there and we built an electronic community with notes, and engineers all over Central Bohemia to build software.

Then I started - I always like to kind of start communities with people around themes - a salon with a Tsjech artist, a painter and a musician which we ran for a year. Every couple of weeks we had an enormous private party where we introduced Tsjech artists to wealthy patrons. Because with the crops of communism there there isn’t any funding so we wanted to connect them with private money (There are a lot of millionaires).

But why did you go to the Tsjech Republic of all places?

We knew that the engineering talent.. - he (my chief) had actually worked with Tsjechs in Norway - was just phenomenal. Because of all the Eastern Bloc countries, it was were the most successful duplicates of Western computers and software were made. We found them brilliant - there are some slobs but they had enough German blood in them, so that they were very hard working, very methodical. So you have the best of both worlds, so we could afford to build a large lab without getting any venture funding. Yet for them it was great, and they got to go to California a couple of times a year to play tennis, which they loved. They’ re still working very happily there.

So you did this for three years?

Yes, and then in 1994 I decided I wanted to - the Internet had just started to really move. I saw Mosaic in ‘93, the University of Colorado....

Was that in 1993? Didn’t they develop that in 1994?

The first test copy came out in march of 1993. And then it was spreading to the universities by the fall, there were like maybe five or six hundred Web home pages by then. I was visiting professor (Hookey), I started also a lab at the (Trouse) University in Prague when I was on the faculty there for three years doing special projects, to introduce advanced interfaces and 3D to Tsjech students. We bought all the computers and brought them in, and then the university got a lot of wonderful hardware. So I wanted to come back to get involved in the mainstream again, in this case the Net, because I saw it was finally getting to that point and...

You were impressed what Mosaic made possible?

Yes, but I was looking beyond Mosaic, because I knew because I had worked for Xerox for ten years, I knew that documents - documents are phenomenal interface, but the Web was going through this phase, the Net was going through this phase of building this enormous document database, that would have animations and things , but fundamentally it's just pages. It ‘s flat. And the original intention of the Internet was to function as a community mechanism, and that the Web would include that. And I could see that beyond the Web there would be like this return of community were things like muds and moose and IRC and the Chatworld - they have an incredible social richness in history - and that that is far more powerful then say the Web and this document database.

Did you participate in these Moo's and Muds and on-line worlds at that time?

To some extent. I wasn’t very attracted by the text interface, and all the terminology you had to master. It was kind of like DOS.

And every world has it's own set of arcane commands...

Yeah, and I had done like enough learning in programming language in arcane systems to... But I could see then when those environments got a visual interface, when people were embodied by what we now call avatars, and the worlds were visual, it would probably reduce the level of dialogue, but it would increase the appeal, and it would be quite an exposure. And I read Snow Crash like everyone else.

Well I didn’t, I still have to...

It was apparent that that vision could come one day, so I hooked up with people I had known for a couple of years, Contact Cultures of the Imagination, which was a group of anthropologists and NASA scientists. And that group included science fiction writers, many of the worlds most known science fiction writers, anthropologists, community designers, primate researchers, space scientists and their whole theme was trying to see what happens when human beings contact another civilization.

So you got in touch with Neil Stephenson?

No, I did later. By then he wasn’t a part of this group. He was the younger generation, they were the older generations science fiction writers like Gerry Parnell, Larry Niven and Paul Anderson. And part of the theme of the organization was creating Muds for education, creating a future human civilization in the solar system, and each university did a Mud simulation and created its own community. And then the communities would be put into contact with each other. And this is called the Bateson Project, named for Gregory Bateson who was like the mentor of this organization in a sense, of all the people here. And so that was organized out of the Northern Arizona University, by a guy named professor Ried Reiner, and he was hugely successful, they got major awards. Students learns how to create a whole community, how to interact, how to contact other communities. This started in ‘89 and it's still going on. And that was a virtual world which was truly well structured.

So by the time you got involved with that it was well underway?

Yes, and at the same time this contact organization had created virtual worlds, modeled virtual worlds for about fifteen years, because the science fiction writers would call them and say: "I’m gonna design a planet an asociety." And they would actually... teams in this organization would design everything from geology to social structure to it’s creation myths, total climate design...


For years and years. It was a project called (Iponah), which was finished in 1995, and that was fantastic. It was some of the best work that Larry Niven had ever seen, and that says a lot. So our conception was, given that we had deep experience in virtual communities in the text sense, that formally structured communities that were successful, we headed with variation criteria. You could eveluate the effectis every year. And then we had these virtual world structures. We felt you could combine Iponah and this Sol Sys simulation, make Iponah the planet and embody people somehow, and you have the elements.

So what we decided to do is form a new group of the Contact consortium. I’m one of the three directors. And that group is an independent non-profit group, and the Contact consortium set up to say: "hey, at some point people are going to look for you how to do visual Muds", and there's gonna be this enormous human contact that occurs to the Internet because it will be real-time scene of people moving around in the space that you can share. It’s gonna be a phenomenon. And human cultures will clash, sensibilities and races, ages and economic groups, and all kinds of new cultures, microcultures will emerge in these virtual worlds.

By the time you were doing this you had already returned to the States. You also started your own company.

I started a company that did actually a lot of consulting for Xerox as well. It was like a transition. And now I’m doing consulting for other companies, purely in virtual worlds.

One of the nice things of your company is that it is totally 'virtual'.

Totally. There’s no office. I've build an office in three virtual worlds where I meet people, like we meet in the buildings. We have a lot of facilities on-line, so we have a room with all the Web pages plastered on the walls, talking voices like: "Hello, welcome to digital space." And we get it done in that way, people leave their objects there. So we’re trying to use the medium actually to do really serious business. The consortium has monthly exercises.

Obviously the companies you work for take this seriously. They accept that you don’t have a real office?

Yes, that’s very much accepted. They see you as a consultant, they see you as an access to a network. Because I’m one of the directors of this consortium of which most of the companies are members, and they attended my conference that I helped put together since last fall, they don’t have any question about... What they’ re after is my knowledge and my contacts which I build through the Contact Consortium.

You also started organizing a conference about this?

Yes, it was held in San Francisco in October and it was called: ‘Earth to Avatars’, trying to wake people up, trying to tell them: "Hello, there’s an earth here..." Because the Contact Consortium was founded in March of 1995 and in April of 1995 the very first virtual world came on the Internet, a 3D world of avatars.

When did (VRML) ...?

(VRML) was launched virtually the same day that the World’s Chat Space Station (which you saw) came on-line. Because World’s Chat already did what the (VRML’s) would eventually try to do two-three years later, so there have been a number of virtual worlds that came one-line. VRML is still working up toward this vision, but it will get there. The VRML community did not identify avatars and virtual worlds as an important application really until last year. For the most part they saw it as a way to do models, to do virtual malls and things like that. There wasn't this realization that the embodiment of people was the 'killer app'.

Would you say that your conference helped them to get this realization? You brought all this people together and established a community...

Yes, that was a part of the purpose of the conference, because the VRML community was able to see for the first time that there were a lot of people making spaces, whether they be 2- or 3 dimensional, on the Net where people can meet and have a body, a visual body, do all kind of things. Trading and bargaining and insulting and building and building towns and things like that. And the VRML community now understands that there are many ways to do it and that the VRML still has a ways to go. But they have contact with people like the Palace, or people who did Alpha World.

And these are all huge on-line virtual environments?

Yes, Alpha World has 125,000 registered users and has a city scape that has a hundreds of square kilometers, that has been build in 3D by ordinary people in the whole world. A lot of them were build by kids. The city has it’s own culture, it’s own history, lot’s of Web-sides around it, attached to tiny post boxes, newspaper boxes. If you click there you get a Web page. That’s the metaphor of how they tie the Web in their communities. It’s the newspapers and magazines. Which makes sense, that’s the way it is in the real world.

Right now you’re one of the authorities in this field. You are writing a book about all this for Addison Wesley..

It will be published by the Earthly Westcoast Division called Peach Pitt Press, and it’s gonna be a starter kit.

The title?

‘Avatars’, just ‘Avatars’, the subtitle will be: ‘Exploring and building virtual worlds on the Internet." We are not using the word ‘virtual reality’, because this is not virtual reality. VR has gotten quite a bad name now, because it is so overhyped.

And here’s a good story for you for the parallels with pretty much a hundred years ago. The filmindustry was just starting and Edison was building these nicolodian boxes were you could put your head in. You put in a nickle and you could see a film. Those were quite a sensation for a while. They would show it in faire grounds, in cities at major streetcorners. They were electrically powered and everything. Ladies didn’t like using them. They had to bend over, man could look at them. This is Victorian times you know...

But the engineers in Edison's labs wanted to build a camera that would project onto a screen, They went proposing this to Edison that they could open theatres, music halls, charging at the door, and everybody would sit there and share an experience on a common screen without this box. And it wouldn’t be as immersive. And Edison got so upset that he threw them out and they eventually quit. They formed their own company and opened a theatre.

At the same time the Lumiere brothers were doing the same thing in France. The whole theme was that you move from this rather difficult piece of gadgetry that somebody wanted to sell boxes, that was Edison’s complaint to them; They were going to undercut his sales. Because he sold for similar prices, phonograph records, telephones. The parallels with today: 1989-1991; you had this whole idea of virtual reality, where you would pull a head set and you had to go to a booth and things like that. And you’d paid five dollars. And you went to an immersive performance. Personally, every time I tried those things I got sick and I’ve tried almost every system..

How about playing Doom? Does that make you sick too? Because lot’s of people do get sick from it.

No, but I wouldn’t doubt it. They should make a smaller window..

Anyway, the parallels there, this was here and there was a lot of excitement about it. Then what happened was virtual worlds came, and virtual worlds meant that you could do that without the gear, but on a common shared screen with thousands of people.

But of course they are not immersive..

But in a sense it’s like you’re going to a movie theatre and you immerse yourself into the world with your mind. Like reading a book or watching a film. It's really to immerse yourself. You don’t need to have encompassing vision.

But the next level would be going beyond that into real immersive experiences?

That depends on how it is really done...

But the technology is not really that far.

Then again, like the (nicholodian), it’s a lot more fun to go a theatre and share a film with people, than it is to be alone in the theatre. Certainly you can sit at home with a head monted display and experience the world.

But if the immersion is really good, it’s like being there with all those people...

What you find is the technology, the spaces of people within these virtual worlds. They’re nice to explore for a while, but eventually people really don’t care. They care about the interaction and the people they meet. It’s kind of like the Palace, it has now thousands... it has twelve hundred servers now. And that’s really simple: 2D worlds with little cartoon avatars. People they don’t... they’re not there for the world, but for the interaction, for the gimmicks, and the stuff they can trade. So the experience of a social virtual world. It’s not a game or a scientific exploration.

So the social experience is very important to you?

Yes, very important. And in the Netherlands: the Digitale Stad Amsterdam, that was an early proof of the concept. And that was... (Rolf van der Haar) was one of the people -he is now with Philips - The Netherlands seem to have a very strong community ethic, and that project was the inspiration for a lot of the virtual worlds. because it was done so simply and elegantly, and the whole idea of neighborhoods, the people could built in their neighborhood.

They could erect their own house...

Yes. So that was a very early - it was 1993 ...

They also got a bit of funding...

Yes, they sold space, advertising space.

But it was also subsidized.

I’m sure, well what isn’t subsidized in the Netherlands,....(AvR - everything..), at least that used to be the case. All of this is come now to pass, and you have 350,000 - 400,000 people using virtual worlds on the net. And it’s growing really really rapidly. New environments coming up all the time, new approaches. VRML is only a very small approach to this... There are so many other worlds using different technologies.

But VRML is important in the sense that it is a standard, it’s like the HTML of the virtual worlds...

Yes, but it has another generation to go through before it can really do any avatar worlds. There are a couple of environments that do, but they do it with custom extensions. So they become proprietary. There’s no way in VRML right now to say: here’s all of the things to describe in avatar and all of the social things that people want. Like what is in my pocket. This is a very big problem (space), and there a several groups working on it, notably 'universal avatars' and 'living worlds', two groups working on this with... they tend to get into discussions that are so big, it’s about the totality of human experience. How do you come down with a technical spec out of that. It’s difficult.

So it is becoming more popular all the time. And is there money being made?

By some, it depends on the model. Most of it’s venture capital support.

What about stores in these virtual worlds, is this something which is going to happen?

It’s always being predicted and promoted as one of the utilities of the world, but there’s been very little done, and in one of the worlds there's a Macdonald's and people aren’t there. Because you don’t of course go to a Macdonald's to socialize, you go to somebody's kitchen of where ever.

And virtual burgers don't taste like much..

Not really. And there’s been record stores. Tower records has a store in the (Oz) World where you can hear the music, and that’s possibly a very cool application. If you had high enough speed networks you could download the music and pay for it.

Because one of the things you can do nowadays in these virtual worlds is hear audio and there are even some worlds where the characters which represent you they have a lipsync with the audio so they...

And 3D heads that move and talk and they bump into you. You can play avatar football. There’s a broad range of social experience.

So this is what your book is about? Does it also tell about the development, the history, the culture?

Yes, very much so, because it’s trying to be a starter's kit for children, schools and people at home. And it also tells the story of how it happened, and what happens in the worlds. The big wheels in the world; How ordinary citizens in their homes have become big players, well respected in the virtual world. This is what they’ve build, the events they host. They’ve become known names, and....

there was a story about a baby that was able to get into a virtual world. This virtual world has microphones, and you talk into your avatars head. The baby is five months old and had always looked to the family, the family was using this every night, including the five year old brother. And one day, evening nobody was around and the virtual world was up, and there were avatars heads moving around talking.

The baby got out of it’s crib and got up on the table, because he was really determined to get to it on his own. Because no one would let him use it. No one offered. He was five months old and he pushed the spacebar down to open the mike, because he knew that. He took the mike and put it in his mouth, and started sucking on the mike as hard as he could. And people came over to the avatar, which was his mother’s avatar and saying: ‘What’s wrong? What happened? Are you OK? You're sounding like the baby in the Simpson's. You are doing a really good imitation of that baby sucking away...’

And as soon as the baby saw that he had gotten communications, he started screaming, and his mother came running, but his screams were of joy, because the baby had done on his own... he knew that he had finally got them to come over. He saw their faces, and he had communicated through the Internet, though he didn’t know that it was the Internet.

He must be one of the youngest virtual world inhabitants ever...

Yeah, probably, The youngest person to use the Internet on his own initiative . Not being helped.

Looks nice on you resume.

(laughing) His name is Mark E. And he is in there al the time. He is one now. He has his own avatar now, and he knows not to suck on the microphone and to put it in his mouth.

What about this thing that happened, with the dog or person who fell asleep and the avatar was snoring...?

It turned out that it was an engineer at NEC in Japan and we were in the virtual world and we saw this microphone avatar and the sound which came out was like snoring, so we went over to it and there was a big crowd of avatars around. There’s he was snoring for like half an hour in the corner there and we couldn’t wake him up. But eventually he must have woken up and realized because in Japan a lot of people sleep at their desks.

Yes, they work too hard, work themselves to death.. And your book is also a how-to-do-this- on-your-own-guide?

Absolutely, how to build an avatar, the beginnings of how to build your own world. For avatar worlds, there are a few environments that allow you to do that, there are some like Alphaworld..

So your book describes how to build your own world, how to participate. When will it be published?

It should be imprinted in April or May, and June or July it should be available.

One of the nice things of the book is that it’s done completely on the Net, on the Web even.

Full text and images, because the reviewers are the public, the people who use the world are reviewing the chapters and are putting their own stories there.

You get contributions from other people?

Many, many people have a story to tell. We tell their story and put their picture in the chapter. So there is a lot of human interest. It’s good to let them be able to see what it looks like before it’s published.

So you have a very quick feedback on anything you do ?

Yes, a day or two.

This is the first time a book has been put together like that?

Accordingly to the publishers it’s the first time they’ve ever seen it done this way, a fully composed Web sites, that has everything, including the cover art. Including production schedule. So everybody has access to a common set of ideas, no paper has ever been send, paper manuscripts or review samples.

How do you think where this all will lead to, how do you see the future of vision of virtual worlds?

I think it will be a very new exciting communication medium, kind of like this family in Virginia where they talk all the time with their relatives in the virtual world. And they are now thinking to built a space for the baby's pictures and voices. So when the baby speaks they can attach his sounds to the wall so that friends and relatives can come in and meet him in an avatar and see what he has been doing. So that means a new communication medium that extends beyond the telephone. Cause you’re building a space that you couldn’t have in the real world. But you’re meeting people in this space, that you’re able to do things, to give gifts and objects, to create things there, to put part of your life there.

That vision is like the 21 century telephone. Because we had the telephone for a long time, it’s time for a change. You can’t just add video, because people aren't particularly interested in this, they don’t like how they look anyway. That’s why video falls. But if you add these worlds it may be enough to reinvent the telephone. There are the future visions of this whole idea of artificial life what we call (Biota) emerging in the virtual world.

That’s yet another thing you do, you’re also very busy with this artificial life thing, self-generating organisms..

When you have a virtual world you can make it interesting by putting people in there. And the people do interesting things. But the real world is interesting, because we’re living with other living things, so you gotta bring that into the virtual world.

Like virtual trees.

Exactly. We call them, we have a name system: a bot or robot in the software world. It’s a common term. Biot is a robot like a pet dog that’s sort of like an agent, trying to behave like a biological form. And then there’s Biota. Biota doesn’t care about you. It’s in there on it’s own, has it’s own ecosystem, it’s own survival, it’s not necessarily aware that people are there. It’s self evolving, self organizing. And that’s what we’re looking at, that is what we are building in this Biota working group. I’m one of the several founders of that. And that is a very impassioned worldwide project.

So it’s really a world that mixes people with artificial creatures.

Eventually in decades hence the artificial creatures aren’t gonna seem that artificial anymore, because they are going to be so evolved on their own, that no one could have understood how they got there. And they will provide humanity a very important engineering survival tool. Because you can try out whole new ways of building robots and forms. And eventually if you can fabricate those forms, the way they have evolved in the Net, you have a revolution in engineering. If you want to live in the solar system, you are not going to do it with the technology you have now. You are going to do it with organisms who can live in vacuum and of solar power. You got to evolve those to prepare the ground for humans if they ever going to live off the earth. Thing like that which are becoming obvious, like we are trying to build space stations... that is just.. The environment doesn’t treat 19th century technology like tanks and things very well. We're not going to see see starship enterprises. You got to have living things there first to prepare the ground..

Some interesting things you do there...

It’s going to be a fun project, because we’re gonna have all these VRML based forms, that are having their own behavior, like dancing crabs that you walk up to and they move, they sense you, they have a growing garden in VRML, called the (Nerve garden). Where we are growing these plants. So those are just very early stages, it’s a lot of fun, lot’s of people want to be involved in that. Lot’s of kids like that to. If it appeals kids we are on the right track. Because the children are gonna do all the evolution, the building.

They're gonna take it from here.

And that’s why it has to be usable by kids.

When will be your next conference?

I’m not sure yet, October (?) here in San Francisco. And in August in Canada we are going to have a workshop on artificial live and virtual worlds. You can find this on:

..You have to catch your plane - so let’s end this. Thanks for the interview..

Ok, thank you

See also :

Bruce's Avatar Site and Book Info