Press Archive

SDSC Supports Oceana Educational Text-based Virtual Reality Project

Published 08/07/1995

SDSC (the San Diego Supercomputer Center) recently announced plans to provide permanent support to Oceana, an educational tool that is gaining worldwide popularity among those in the K-12 community with access to the Internet and a spirit for high-seas adventure. Children with knowledge of a simple programming language can visit and modify the virtual planet of "Oceana" and experience global travel within a text-based virtual reality (TBVR) world of islands created and administered by their peers. Oceana "inhabitants" work together to create this environment without guidance from adults. There are currently 35 islands under construction and, through this creative process, participants learn about government, trade, and economic systems; cultural boundaries, traditions, and customs; and how to use virtual reality as a building block to create virtual societies.

Oceana is run on a software platform called MUSE, which stands for Multi-User Simulated Environment. MUSEs are multi-user, TBVR environments accessible via the Internet. They derive from popular text-based adventure games but support real-time interaction among many participants who collaborate to build their own world, thus fostering a strong sense of community among participants. MUSE is a program that was created nearly four years ago by a group of students, and it continues to be improved and expanded.

Some of the many educational opportunities that a MUSE offers include the chance to discuss, debate, or think about important issues; to meet people from different cultural and social backgrounds; to learn about social interaction; to experiment with anything from personalities to methods of speech for use in the real world; and to create an object to see other people's reactions. Moreover, the educational benefits are not limited to those with computer knowledge. The technical details are invisible to the users, so anyone with Internet access can very easily become part of the society. Also, the code is easy for young children to learn--the youngest user is an eight-year-old.

OceanaMUSE is collaborating with the MuseNet project. MuseNet stands for Multi-User Science Education Network and refers to a loose confederation of educational MUSEs and to a collection of Internet host computers, which support access to and administration of the MuseNet system. According to Barry Kort, the consulting scientist

for the K12 MuseNet Project in the educational technology research department at Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) Systems and Technologies, "MuseNet is an unfunded K12 outreach program for informal science education, operating on donated, surplus, salvaged, and rebuilt computers and is operated entirely by volunteer staff members." MuseNet's main goal is to provide access to online educational worlds such as Oceana for as many students and adults as possible.

OceanaMUSE takes place on the planet of Oceana, named for its vast oceans and numerous islands. Users are given the opportunity to govern an island, construct a stable domestic system, and participate in international affairs. (To visit OceanaMUSE, type "telnet oceana.sdsc.edu 4201" from the UNIX prompt.) OceanaMUSE is operated and supported by "Oceana Admirals" Terry Ford, Mark Eisenstat, Peter McArthur, and Jason Hula, who range in age from 14 to 18 years old and live in Canada and the United States.

Ford and Eisenstat, 17-year-old high school students from Ontario, Canada, created OceanaMUSE nearly two years ago. Oceana began when Ford created a virtual "island" on another MUSE, TimeMUSE. Interest in Oceana soared, leading Oceana to take over a large portion of the MUSE. Ford crafted a proposal with Eisenstat for a new MUSE, one that was to be based on Ford's original concept of Oceana, emphasizing the presence of an educational theme within an entertaining setting. Eisenstat worked on hardware, and Ford worked to develop a good system of softcode to manage/partition islands. With the charter formed, Oceana was prepared for users. The next challenge was to land a permanent site for the OceanaMUSE. With assistance from Hans-Werner Braun, SDSC senior staff scientist, Oceana has obtained a permanent site at SDSC on a donated DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) Alpha machine.

Oceana is growing at a tremendous rate, and as it grows larger, there will be more opportunities for Oceana administrators to collaborate with SDSC researchers on projects that address the efficient management of large numbers of users and that remove certain limitations of the MUSE, such as insufficient memory. Ford sees a potential solution to the problem of insufficient memory, "If we found a way to better handle `objects,' it would be possible to have an almost limitless world. Users would not have to have limited building quotas." When Oceana first ran on an SDSC machine, there were fewer than 10,000 total objects and the database was nearly 1.4MB, but now the database is approximately 10.5MB and consists of 26,478 total objects, 6,636 rooms, 5,808 things, 13,188 exits, 846 players, and 773 sailors. Though the OceanaMUSE has been in existence for a little less than two years, it is only second in size to MicroMUSE located at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab.

SDSC's Braun, leader of the Applied Network Research (ANR) group--a group established to develop realistic models of today's complex network infrastructure--is focusing efforts to expand Oceana and to address issues of scalability. (See http://www.nlanr.net) According to Braun, his group "plans to develop more sophisticated communication and relational channels to allow an object, such as a `room,' to appear simultaneously on multiple servers. People at various servers will be able to communicate within this virtual room. This model fosters social interaction across the individual `world' (servers) while obscuring the geographic distribution of the participants." Discussions are under way to implement this multicasting capability across an environment like the MBONE (Multicast Bone), which facilitates multicasting by means of a virtual network overlaying the Internet infrastructure.

The San Diego Supercomputer Center, a national laboratory for computational science and engineering, is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, administered by General Atomics, and affiliated with the University of California at San Diego. For additional information, see http://www.sdsc.edu or contact Ann Redelfs, SDSC, redelfs@sdsc.edu, 619-534-5032.


For more information, contact:

Mark Eisenstat, "Oceana Admiral"
613-596-4059
meisen@musenet.org

Terry Ford, "Oceana Admiral"
613-225-3487
aa429@freenet.carleton.ca

Hans-Werner Braun, SDSC
619-534-5035
hwb@upeksa.sdsc.edu

Barry Kort, BBN
617-873-2358
bkort@musenet.org