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The Synthetic Ecosystems of Biota.org
Biota.org is an organization that found its roots at the Fourth Foresight Conference on Nantotechnology in the fall of 1995. At this conference, I was exhibiting a special piece of software I had designed over the previous year or two. The software was called Amoeba and its purpose was to simulate the lowest levels of control in biological systems: tubes and the things that flow in them. When you really look at it, tubes, flows and places where flows accumulate make up just about every living thing. From your stomach to your blood vessels to the neurons in your brain, everything seems to come down to channels and flows. For the conference, I had reworked Amoeba to show the flows of individual molecules in a simulated molecular manufacturing system. At the same show, a fellow named Todd Goldenbaum was demonstrating a series of VRML models of hypothesized nanotechnology machines.
It didn't take long for Todd and I to strike up a conversation and before long we were asking ourselves: couldn't these flows inside the Amoeba software be used to animate these VRML models? Couldn't Amoeba become a sort of nervous system for VRML? Thus, the Nerves project was born. Todd and I knew that in order to make compelling virtual worlds there had to be believable lifelike behavior in them. Nerves and VRML seemed like a good way to go.
Nerves begets Biota.org
By the spring of 1996, the Nerves team had grown and was considering some way to introduce Nerves into the emerging VRML 2.0 standard. In July of 1996 I was up on a mountaintop in British Columbia and conceived of a new organization called Biota. Biota would extend beyond the Nerves concept and create a forum for any kind of biological simulation in virtual worlds. When I returned to California, a special meeting was called and we created the new organization, calling it Biota.org, with its own Web site http://www.biota.org. Biota.org held its first conference program at Earth to Avatars on October 27th, 1996 and attracted more members, who begun to call each other Biotians.
Nerve Garden: the genesis of L-systems in virtual worlds
Biota.org began to grow rapidly, and was soon invited to present at several conferences and participate in educational grants. Biota.org became a Special Interest Group of the Contact Consortium and a Working Group of the VRML Consortium in early 1997. Biota was invited to participate at SIGGRAPH 1997, a major computer graphics conference to display the original Nerve Garden, first developed under the Nerves group in mid 1996. The goal of Nerve Garden is to create a virtual world into which users can "grow" simulated in VRML plants.
Figure 13.5.1: bi1a.jpg
The preceding figure shows a "creature" generated from an L-system. An L-system is a set of mathematical rules that involve the rewriting of strings of symbols. Symbols replace other symbols until at some point you decide to attach shapes to the symbols. These strings can thereby generate beautiful branching structures like the Airhorse above.
Why not grow your worlds?
For some time, creators of virtual worlds had been complaining about how difficult it was to build good looking models for their worlds. They were crafting these models by hand, one polygon at a time. With L-systems and other generative methods objects and whole worlds could be grown from a simple rule set. In the Extreme Cyber Edge later in this chapters you can see an example of generative architecture. Landscapes have been created from fractal algorithms for years. A company called Construct Internet Design (http://www.construct.net) even created an avatar breeder to create compelling avatars through mutation. As you can see in the section The Organic Artists later in this chapter, there is a whole movement behind generative arts. Believe it or not, there is even a generative music movement.
To abstract and serve
With all these generative methods, it should be possible to pack the description of a complete world into a set of generative rules. The resulting rule set would be a kind of abstraction and a natural compression of the world. In nature, eggs and seeds and the very DNA in cells are abstracted representations of living organisms. It turns out that it is a lot easier to deliver the parts of a virtual world through the thin pipes of the Internet in their abstracted form than in full final geometry. Sending big fully finished VRML worlds through 28.8 BPS modems is about as smart as an architect building complete houses and then shipping them to their construction site on flat bed trucks. Houses are built by shipping the plans to the construction site and then building the house out of individual parts.
Doing Cyberspace right
Members of the Biota.org group identified that a fatal flaw in VRML was that it did not support some form of abstraction, instead forcing designers to ship finished copies of their worlds through the Internet. Biota.org set out to apply its knowledge of generative methods, background in Nerves, and understanding of how other abstracted worlds like AlphaWorld functioned to bring both abstraction and streaming to VRML worlds. The first project was Nerve Garden. In the garden, only the L-system seeds of the plants along with their current growth state needs to be sent through the Internet. Each user's garden can be grown locally on their own computer once the seeds and other data arrive. Benefits of this method are that large gardens can be served through slow modems and the gardens can grow only as complex as the user's computers can bear. And like AlphaWorld, traveling through a huge jungle of VRML will be possible as seeds and growth state are streamed in as you move forward through the forest. If all of this works, Nerve Garden should be a compelling proof of a smarter way to make virtual worlds and quite possibly the key that unlocks the doors to the "new Cyberspace".
Nerve Garden: plant a seed in Cyberspace
Figure 13.5.2: ngp1.gif
Nerve Garden Prototype
Nerve Garden is being built as this chapter is being written so I can show you only a glimpse of what it may be like. The preceding figure shows the second prototype Nerve Garden running. Green thumb virtual worlds gardeners can choose a plant from the set of seed packets on the top of the screen. After choosing how they would want the plant to grow (bushy, droopy), eager gardeners would then choose and island on which to plant their seed (on the left side of the window). In the center frame up would pop their plant. A primitive ecosystem implemented with Nerves would control the flow of water tokens through the garden and thereby limit how big the plants could grow.
Become a Biotian!
Visit the Biota.org home page at http://www.biota.org and feel free to try out Nerve Garden, join our mailing discussion list or become a Biotian yourself and participate in projects. Biota.org will be hosting its first ever conference in August of 1997 up in the Canadian Rockies where we will trek to the Burgess Shale, a 530 million year old fossil bed full of weird creatures of the Cambrian. We will then sit down for discussions with Paleontologists and Computer Scientists and consider the use of virtual worlds to both model living systems and the future of "artificial" life in Cyberspace. For a bit more of my own personal vision on this, see Digi's Diary Let Life Out (Or In) at the end of this chapter. The color plates in the center of this book feature more synthetic organisms from Biota.org.