Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

10.30. Can MUDs actually be useful for real-life activities?

Answered by Dave Van Buren (, Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, Institute of Technology and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Supported by NASA under contract to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

MUD servers' functionality, which provides such a rich gaming and social environment, is a missing component of current "useful" network resources (such as bibliographic databases and tools for access and analysis of data.)

In a small project here at Caltech we have been merging MUD technologies with tools to access remote information servers with the goal of providing a virtual space for collaborators to do astronomical research. Our system, dubbed AstroVR and based on the LambdaMOO server from Xerox, is a place where astronomers can jointly peek into large astronomical databases, launch queries into the "cyberspace" representing those services, hold small group meetings, sketch ideas on virtual whiteboards and shared plotters, conduct seminars, and be appraised instantly of new comets, supernova, and other cosmic events.

Several enhancements to gaming MUDs are keys to our project. First, the newer versions of MOO provide tools for importing data to and from remote servers. Thus, programs written inside AstroVR can directly call a bibliographic service and ask to be shown a particular journal article. Second, the program used to access AstroVR (the client) is able to interpret certain messages coming from AstroVR in special ways. For example, the client can automatically transfer a galaxy image file from a distant collection to the user and show it on the screen, making the task of fetching information from the Net trivial. Third, we are using the new multicast technology to provide audio and even video channels for users, removing the tedium of typing all conversation.

A number of other real-life MUD projects are being undertaken elsewhere. MediaMOO at MIT's Media Lab seeks to bring media researchers together to explore the uses of this new technology. The Global Network Academy is the first "virtual" corporation and has as a goal the creation of an accredited online university. Several small companies are leasing virtual space on MUDs to provide simple conferencing with customers. A project at the University of Dublin is to build an AstroVR-like system for mathematics, and the Jupiter project at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center aims to explore the potential for a hardware-rich system, including ubiquitous video and audio pickups in a large research facility where there is significant telecommuting.

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