Computing for the People

What comes after desktop computing? Social computing — technology that supports communities and turns cyberspace into a cyberplace.

A Xerox researcher has a problem he wants to discuss with a colleague, so he steps across the hall into her office. As the two of them brainstorm on a whiteboard, a third colleague notices their activity and decides to drop in. He leaves the meeting after a few minutes, then has an idea he thinks might help. He jots it down on a Post-it note and leaves it on one of their desks.

Interactions like this happen all day everyday in workplaces around the world. What makes these particular interactions different is that the three coworkers are thousands of miles apart. They work in virtual offices, walk down virtual halls, write on a virtual whiteboard. The Post-it note? You guessed it: virtual.

These Xerox researchers are working in Jupiter, the most exotic and advanced of a collection of "community-based systems" under development at the company's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). There's no mistaking Jupiter for traditional computing technology. It is not about e-mail, relational databases, or other "information systems" that help people organize and access facts. Jupiter is a social system — a "network place" designed to allow colleagues, regardless of physical location, to share and create ideas.

"Jupiter is virtual social reality," says John Seely Brown, PARC's director and Xerox's chief scientist. "It's a system to support the organizational mind."

Jupiter is the work of a handful of PARC researchers led by Pavel Curtis, a 35-year-old computer scientist. He has longish hair and a beard and works out of a crowded, cubbyhole-like office — just what you'd expect at PARC. In fact Curtis is something of a cult figure in computer circles, a hacker's hacker best-known for his groundbreaking work on MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) and MOOs (MUDs, Object-Oriented), two of the Internet's most novel and dynamic technologies.

MUDs were created in the late 1970s to support interactive adventure games. Participants built their own electronic worlds, adopted new identities, searched for treasure, or fought wars. As MUDs got more elaborate, players used them to write software to make their games more exciting. MUDs became a programming tool. MOOs are a subset of MUDs. They use object-oriented programming to make the code-writing easier and the environment more robust.

Curtis himself is best-known as the creator of LambdaMOO, which he unveiled in January 1991. LambdaMOO is a virtual world inhabited mainly by college students. The participants play games, discuss homework, and interact in ways that students everywhere interact. LambdaMoo is an evolving community, albeit one built on hundreds of thousands of lines of computer code, most of it written by its members.

"MOOs are extremely compelling," says Curtis, whose LambdaMOO identity is Archwizard Haakon. "They engage people in a very active way." He says it wasn't all that big a leap from college students discussing homework to engineers swapping ideas about new products. Thus was born Jupiter.

On the computer screen in front of me are rows of windows that conjure up memories of the "Hollywood Squares" or the opening credits of "The Brady Bunch." Occupying these squares, though, are ordinary-looking people in ordinary-looking offices doing what people do: sitting at their desks, talking on the phone, tapping on their computer keyboards. They are Xerox researchers and engineers in the middle of their daily activities. They are the people who work in Jupiter.

What most distinguishes Jupiter from traditional computer systems is its grounding in the physical world. Jupiter's various rooms offer clues about what kinds of behavior are appropriate there. One-on-one discussions in a private office are more informal than, say, group discussions in one of Jupiter's virtual laboratories. And people aren't free to access colleagues at will. Each video square has an icon that indicates how "interruptable" a person wishes to be. An open door means colleagues should feel free to double-click and enter. A locked door is an electronic do-not-disturb sign.

"People want boundaries," says John Seely Brown. "They want to know what is expected of them. So different social protocols get coupled to different places. It gives you the feeling of being 'located' and a willingness to interact in natural ways."

Equally as important as these social protocols are the tools Jupiter incorporates to enable productive collaboration and focused conversation. Jupiter's virtual whiteboards, fax machines, tape recorders, and messaging systems provide all the functionality of the physical tools — but without their limitations.

I've been watching Jupiter from the outside — now it's time to step inside and become a player. I'm late for a meeting with someone on the other side of the building. I click on his square and see he's on the phone. So I type a note to let him know I'm on my way. I drag the note to his window and click. The words, "You pass note to Mike" appear on the screen — narrative generated by the system's omniscient Greek chorus, event-driven programs that provide a running commentary on the action. Mike, still on the phone, gives a wave and gestures for me to come on by.

Fewer than 60 people now use Jupiter, mainly researchers at PARC and its sister lab in Grenoble, France, as well as Xerox engineers in Rochester, New York. But for this core group, the system has become an essential part of their day-to-day work experience. A team of engineers reports that Jupiter played a major role in how they prototyped a new product, an Internet billing and credit-authorization system. Most everyone uses it for routine activities like tracking down hard-to-reach colleagues. And people look forward to the brainstorming serendipity Jupiter enables, like bumping into a friend taking a break in the "lounge" — a friend who happens to be on the other side of the country.

Jupiter is still an experiment, not quite ready for prime time. But its technical headaches are becoming less painful every day. Meanwhile, the demand to be part of Jupiter continues to grow. "We've never tried to get users," Curtis says. "Instead we've had the 'success disaster' problem — people keep coming to us and saying they really want to use it."

So Curtis and his colleagues are working on rollout strategies. This fall, PARC plans to release a version of Jupiter designed to run on personal computers — opening it up to a much larger population inside Xerox. Curtis is looking forward to it: "That's when we'll learn what these systems are really good for."

Debra Feinstein (debra@loop.com) writes on technology and innovation from Topanga Canyon, California.

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