Avatars, EVL and Ghosts -- Oh My!!

"Alive on the Grid" -- virtual reality that gives even buffs a real-time thrill

Release Date: October 26, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When UB hosts "Digital Frontiers: The Buffalo Summit 2001," on Nov. 2 and 3, one of the projects to be exhibited in connection with the event is a little honey called "EVL: Alive on the Grid" -- a peculiar virtual experience involving avatars, simultaneous occupation of virtual space, lots of music and dancing "ghosts."

"EVL" stands for the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Art and Design.

"Alive on the Grid" is a virtual reality art installation developed collectively by Dan Sandin, the director of EVL, and 18 other digital artists throughout the world. Among them is Josephine Anstey, assistant professor in the Department of Media Study in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, who studied at EVL with Sandin, who curates this and other virtual reality art projects.

The original installation was a networked international environment of sorts that for three days in September hosted a "virtual atrium" that housed several interactive art worlds built by participants.

Wearing lightweight head and hand trackers, visitors from six sites in the U.S. and Europe entered these specially created "worlds" to interact with the art itself and with other users at distant sites who were "virtually" sharing the space with them.

At UB, the site of interaction was the portable ImmersaDesk, a one-wall, virtual-reality environment in the Center for Computational Research (CCR). Four-wall, theater-style virtual reality environments are called CAVEs and were invented by Sandin. The project was made possible through the use of Internet2, the high-speed, broad-bandwidth network.

For the digital summit, Anstey and her team will produce a local, stand-alone, version of "Alive on the Grid" that will be exhibited on the ImmersaDesk in the Center for the Arts Atrium. It will demonstrate how participants can engage in real-time interactions in virtual space from several campus locations.

"Alive on the Grid" players are represented to the other players by a virtual avatar with a photo-realistic, 3-dimensional face. Using their avatars, users are able to navigate and interact with others in real time. The avatars cannot be seen in their entirety by the persons they represent, just as we cannot see ourselves when we interact with others, but they can be seen and recognized by other players.

The avatars not only are able to visit the virtual worlds, but to create and alter them, leaving "ghosts" of themselves for others to view. Participating art teams created special sites for visitation by the other players. For the original project, the UB team created a dance hall site that turned out to be very popular.

Players and their avatars demonstrated their dancing chops and were able to create dancing characters -- usually abstracted, humorous figures -- whom they could "leave behind," dancing their "hearts" out in their creators' absence. The hall ended up hosting quite a crowd of these hip-hopping "ghosts" crafted of peculiar colors and forms.

In fact, all of the worlds, including the dance hall, were persistent, meaning they continued to grow and collect information from remote participants on the Grid even after festival users leave the environment.

In addition to EVL and UB, four sites world-wide participated in "Alive on the Grid: the Interactive Institute and Tools for Creativity Studio in Umea, Sweden; the C3 Center for Culture & Communication Foundation, Budapest, Hungary; the H.R. Hope School of Fine Arts, University Information Technology Services and the Advanced Visualization Laboratory, all at Indiana University, and V2 Lab/V2 Organization Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in collaboration with the Technische Universiteit Eindhoven (TU/e) and Stichting Academisch Rekencentrum Amsterdam (SARA).

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