Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 5 / September 1, 1994 / Page 6

An Interview with Jon Callas

MOO format

(see also Conventional format)

by Chris Hand (

(Jon is Jon Callas; Axolotl is Chris Hand.)

Initially I was interested to see whether Jon considered text-based systems to be VR. I mentioned that I'd recently had a heated debate with a colleague who stubbornly insisted that if you wanted to call it VR, you had to have goggles and gloves.

Jon says, "It's the you-are-there aspect that makes it VR, not the peripherals.
           That combined with 'agency.'"

Axolotl says, "I count it as virtual if: It's not real, but you interact with it as  
if it *were* real.  That's fine by me."

Jon nods in agreement. "A traditional time-sharing system is not VR because you aren't 
there. As a matter of fact, most computer systems use a lot of subtle dramatic and 
semiotic effects to accentuate that fact you aren't there. I would go so far as to 
say that it is set up to *protect* you from the computer by accentuating the borders."

Axolotl nods

Jon says, "Also, a 3D movie or amusement park ride isn't VR because you are not an 
actor (or agent)."

Axolotl says, "a movie (or a book or a play) still involves the willing suspension of 
disbelief to some extent though...."

Jon says, "As does this place."

Axolotl says, "we often react to movies or plays or books *as though they were* real, so 
they must share some of the properties of VR's."

Jon says, "Are you a human or a salamander? Frankly, I can treat you as either."
Axolotl laughs

Axolotl says, "So you often meet up with salamanders in real life?  Fine..."
Axolotl grins

Previous Work

Jon says, "My last project in MUDs/VC/SVR was a MUD that was intended to 
be an alternate reality."
Axolotl asks, "in what way?"
Jon says, "It was called The Dreamtime, and we asked that people treat it as 
its own reality."

Axolotl asks, "how did it work out?"

Jon says, "As an example, suppose you meet me, and I tell you that 
my name is Nick Marlowe, and I was born in Kent in the year 2055 and have 
been a time-traveler most of my professional life."

Axolotl grins
Axolotl says, "yes..."

Jon says, "You're in character, as it were, if you treat my statements at 
face value, and deal with me like you'd deal with anyone else in a social situation."
Jon says, "It worked surprisingly well. Lots of people harumphed and 
left the place, but we had our own little community."

Axolotl asks, "yes, I see.  So this was part of the "ground rules" in DreamTime?"

Jon nods, "Yes, that was a ground rule. Stay in character -- at least in public."
Jon says, "There were plenty of people who were simply themselves, 
but the good ones treated the world as real."

Axolotl asks, "What did people use it for?"
Axolotl says, "I mean what purposes"

Jon says, "It was entertainment. Escape. A place to go and hang out, talk 
to people, play with ideas in philosophy, politics, personality, and so on."

Axolotl says, "I treat this place as *fairly* real... this room for example, 
is a copy of my study at home, from where I first logged in to MediaMOO."

Jon nods.
Jon says, "As is Jennifer's."
Jon says, "When I build mine, it's going to be not my current office, 
but an office I'd like to have."

Axolotl says, "For me, the best thing about this place is the chance to talk 
to interesting people in real-time, people I'd probably not normally meet."

Jon says, "That's also what The Dreamtime was, but it had the interesting 
feature that you might run into someone you *really*, really wouldn't meet."
Axolotl grins

Jon says, "For several months, for example, we had a fellow who was d'Artagnan, 
roughly 40ish, and retired."

Axolotl says, "how did it feel to be a character there?  Must have been quite surreal"

Jon says, "I enjoyed it. The characters take on a life of their own. There's 
a great thrill to listening to a story that you're telling, but it's not you. 
It is some muse driving your fingertips."
Axolotl grins

Axolotl says, "I've never really done any role-playing as such, not in the fantastical 

Jon says, "Those of us who started it had done a lot."
Jon says, "I've played role-playing games since I was 16, and still do every 
Tuesday night."
Axolotl nods


Jon says, "I've also done a lot with alternative forms of theatre."
Jon says, "I like taking the line between actor an audience, and blurring or erasing it."

Axolotl asks, "on-line?"

Jon says, "Both on-line and in person."
Jon says, "A number of us have done (and periodically do) 'plays' that are 
weekend-long productions."
Jon says, "They are typically murder mysteries, because it's an enjoyable form."

You exclaim, "My partner's grandfather used to lecture drama.  He's 79 yrs old and 
he's just started using a word-processor.   I told him I can send e-mail to the US 
and he was amazed.  If I told him about your plays he would freak RIGHT OUT!"
Axolotl laughs

Jon says, "Oh, please tell him! I'd love to talk to him about it."
Axolotl grins

Jon says, "It's a fascinating form, because you *can't* write a plot in a 
traditional sense."
Jon says, "I say can't because if you do, someone will screw it up."
Jon says, "They'll do some completely reasonable thing that you never thought of."

Axolotl asks, "Do you have to have a very strong personality to be able to survive 
these weekends, mentally speaking?"

Jon says, "Ummm, maybe."
Axolotl nods

Jon says, "Wallflowers have fun at them too."
Jon says, "Some people are terrified of the idea or just think it's no fun. Other 
people are introverts who come out of their shells."
Jon says, "A good production also has some characters who are 'information-gatherers' 
and try to ferret out as many subplots as they can."

Axolotl says, "I find that sort of thing a little scary.  One of the great things about 
MUDs is that you can eject at any time..."
Axolotl grins

Jon says, "Yes, that is the problem with those. You have to make a commitment, because 
twenty other people have also made investments of time and emotion and expense."

Axolotl nods
Axolotl says, "But that probably makes it more likely to work -- invested effort"

Jon nods. "It works quite well."

MeetingSpace and the Commercial Face of MUDs

Axolotl asks, "Do you know Oracle?  Is he 'the competition'...?"
Jon says, "I know Oracle. We met at DIAC in '92."
Axolotl nods

Jon says, "He also showed up in our booth at SF MacWorld last month."
Jon says, "I don't believe he is the competition, for a number of reasons."
Jon says, "First of all, we're both in sort of the pub business. Not every pub-keeper 
is in competition with another. As a matter of fact, a town's  healthy nightlife 
depends on having a variety of places to go."
Axolotl nods

Jon says, "Secondly, since I'm selling software rather than a service, we're not 
directly in competition."
Axolotl says, "I was just going to ask about the software"
Axolotl asks, "Is yours the only commercial product of its kind?"

Jon says, "Yes it is."

Axolotl asks, "How has the reaction to it been?"

Jon says, "It's been *extremely* good. We have impressed a lot of people in the
press, and a lot of potential customers. I like it when social scientists come 
and tell me that my software is the first thing they've seen in
fifteen years that addresses the way that people actually work."

Axolotl asks, "so which social concerns are you addressing?"

Jon says, "Many of them you're used to just from MOOing. For example, the 
narrative-format that the text arranges itself in. That you can whisper to people, 
talk from a distance, and so on."

Axolotl says, "MeetingSpace is not just another MUD then, obviously... I'll have to 
read those brochures."
Axolotl grins

Jon says, "We have built a system that has its own integrated client and server. So 
on Meeting Space, we have a window with "interesting" objects in it, like people."
Axolotl nods
Jon says, "You can put an icon on yourself, if I double-clicked you, I'd get an 
equivalent of your research and @whois."
Jon says, "I can get a small window to type in whispers and private emotes to you, 
which reduces the chance of whispering to the wrong person."
Axolotl nods

Axolotl asks, "Have you seen AstroVR running?"

Jon says, "I have not seen AstroVR. I've talked to Pavel, and we exchange ideas 

Axolotl says, "I'd like to get some graphical extensions up and running, since I could 
then use a MOO  for teaching."

Jon says, "We also have in Meeting Space a document system. We have objects that are 
documents, and objects that are shelves (read directory/folder)."

Axolotl says, "I think the hard part would be making the graphics [and maybe sound] to 
be *complimentary* to the text, rather than making it obsolete"

Jon says, "You can file documents in the Meeting Space, transfer them to and from the 
system while you're talking to someone (it's multithreaded), and so on. We have 
documents called "minutes" that are text files that record."

Jon says, "We also have "presentations" that are graphics slide shows."
Axolotl asks, "really?"

Jon says, "Yes, really."
Jon says, "You can click a button, and I see the next slide."
Axolotl asks, "Did you read about the college teacher who's been teaching a 
quadraplegic student over the modem using Macs?"

Jon says, "I think so."
Axolotl says, "He was using Apple Remote Access and Timbuktu, but he said the screen 
took several minutes to redraw sometimes"
Axolotl says, "but he was using two 14k4 modems back-to-back"

Jon says, "I can imagine."
Axolotl asks, "Does MS work across the Internet?"
Jon says, "Yup. AppleTalk or TCP/IP."
Jon says, "Soon to be Novell, too."
Jon says, "And all at the same time, I must mention."
Axolotl asks, "Do you plan to port it to PC/UNIX environments, or are you happy with 
just Macs?"

Jon says, "We're doing PCs first, and then Unix."
Axolotl grins widely
Jon says, "We *have* to be cross-platform."

Axolotl asks, "How much does it cost?"
Jon says, "It starts at US$350 per connect, and goes down to $200/connect. We also 
have edu, volume, site, and reseller discounts."

Axolotl asks, "per connect?  How does that work?  Do you subscribe in order to connect 
to the server?"
Jon says, "It is roughly the same price as any other 'productivity' tool."
Jon says, "You buy a server with say, ten connects."

Jon says, "Ten people can connect to it at any one time. You may distribute the 
client program(s) freely."

Jon says, "If an eleventh (or eightyeth) person connects, we limit them to 10 minutes."
Jon says, "That's another social feature. If you know you need to talk to Jennifer, 
but there are ten people connected, we'll let you, but annoy you by yanking your line 
every ten minutes."

Axolotl asks, "Ahhh... so who do you expect to set up and administer servers?"

Jon says, "We expect nearly anyone can. There are very few administrator functions."
Jon says, "Creating new people is easy. It's a dialog box with four fields."
Axolotl says, "I wish MOOadmin were so easy..."

Jon nods, "We've learned a lot from the previous generation of MUDs."
Jon says, "We have a lot of shortcuts for building."
Jon says, "For example, the world comes with an "office corridor". When you create a 
person, we make them a home that is a room, a shelf in that room,  and exits 
connecting their office to the office corridor. You can build from another wing, 
simply by remembering to stand in the room you want to build from."

Axolotl asks, "Are there any servers already in place in institutions such 
as Universities, or are they all in large businesses who can justify the 
cost more easily?"

Jon says, "We have a lot of educational interest. One of our first customers was a 
private college in Connecticut."
Jon says, "We give a %50 discount to educational institutions, and will do more if 
you buy more, or sweet-talk us."

Axolotl says, "I would imaging Distance Learning is a prime market for you"

Jon nods, "It is. We're not in this *just* for the money, but we have mortgages. So 
we *want* to help people who are doing worthwhile things like teaching the disabled."

Jon is a nice guy with a pragmatic streak.
Axolotl grins

Jon says, "I want to be in business five years from now, and that requires that I 

[interrupted connection here; final question asked by e-mail]

>What's your next step, and do you see multimedia becoming part of what you do?

Jon's Reply:

Well, I think what we're doing *is* multimedia. If by multimedia, you mean voice 
and video, then, yes, I see it becoming a part of it. I don't know quite when, yet, 

Right now, the computers that people have, and the networks they're on aren't good 
enough for running voice and video. All the Macs people have have sound in-and-out, 
but PCs are still short on recording capability. The telephone companies have done 
such a good job that we expect a quality and responsiveness of voice that is very 
hard to compete with on a computer network. Our expectations about the quality of 
video are even higher.

I can talk for a while about that, but it's not answering your question. We will be 
doing all forms of multimedia when it becomes appropriate. Which means that it has to 
be wide-spread enough for it not to be only a toy. If, for example, a rumor I have 
heard about Sanyo coming out with a US$100 video camera in the next year, then video 
becomes more interesting sooner.

Our development plan is to spread out in what systems we support. We're working on 
the Windows client now, and will be demoing it at Groupware '94, which is at the end 
of this month. We'll be then working on a unix client and server. We may also do one 
on some other OS like OS/2 or WNT or VMS, if there is call for it. We already have 
most of the server running on NT, but haven't done extensive testing.

At the same time, we're expanding the feature set. We have already added in anonymous 
rooms for brainstorming, etc. Our next major features are for shared text editing, 
and a graphics whiteboard. We are also working on other features including voting, an 
extension language, Internet services (mail, gopher, ftp-backed document objects, 
WWW support), and RSA-based privacy enhancements. Our development plan goes out 
several years from the very firm desires (like whiteboards and privacy features) to 
the really mushy (like video).
See also: the overview article for this interview.

Chris Hand is a lecturer, writer and co-founder of the UK VR-SIG. His physical body resides in Leicester, England where even local phone calls cost 71 pence per hour.

Text and artwork Copyright © 1994 Chris Hand ( All rights reserved.

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