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- In Victorian England, the game of croquet was a completely neutral area where social ranking and gender didn't matter, and people could share the latest news without inhibition.
For the past few years, it has been the goal of a research team working from the University of Wisconsin-Madison
and the University of Minnesota
to capture that sense of interactivity and bring it to the Internet. Their tool for doing so is Croquet
, an open-source software system where information can be shared and converted in a three-dimensional framework.
Now, with its first complete version scheduled for release later this fall, the Croquet project has come closer to realizing its vision of a world where the Internet does more than shovel information to users.
It's a vision several universities are keen to share.
"Croquet basically asks the simple question: Knowing what we know about information systems, what would we do differently if we could go back 20 years ago and do it again?" said Julian Lombardi, a principal architect of the Croquet project and its director at UW-Madison's Division of Information Technology
Description of Croquet and the models used
Croquet developers were trying to solve a problem. The Internet, for all its information and supposed interactivity, existed only as what Lombardi described as a "high-speed textbook." Even though speed and quality of the hardware has improved drastically, the medium is still the same: information is displayed as if it was on a sheet of paper.
"Really, what it comes down to is you spend all your time trying to defeat the fact that the Web just hands you a page," said Preston Austin, chief architect of the software company Clotho, who's worked on Croquet for two years. "Although it brings people to information, it does a very bad job of doing anything else."
At a presentation given Oct. 13 at the Fluno Center in Madison, Lombardi and Austin showed how they were making the Internet do its job differently. They opened with a 3-D courtyard dubbed the "Cirque du Croquet."
Using avatars of the White Rabbit and Alice Little, Lombardi and Austin moved through the environment to show off some of the qualities of Croquet. Inside the system, each avatar can make changes - move a virtual mirror, make changes to a document or spreadsheet, upload a picture and play a game of chess - and all of the changes are displayed to the other person in real time.
Inside Croquet, users can build a completely new space and move into it using arrow keys and the mouse - what Lombardi called the 3D equivalent of a Web page and hyperlinks. This new space can be either public or private, and users can place more information or graphics or even the link to an invisible page inside.
"Croquet is very different from a video game interaction, because it allows for a game structure that is scalable over large sets of space," Lombardi said. "We've broken the idea of a Web page - now we have context."
Croquet's 3D makeup also allows for more flexibility than existing online systems. Since windows can be tilted for a 360-degree view, it provides a perspective angle of flash animation. Basic paint programs can also render a new figure inside the software easily, as Lombardi demonstrated by drawing a crude shark, which was visible in a 3-D fishtank instantly.
Croquet was designed in the true spirit of open source, each programmer adding parts of it and then offering it for free so changes could be made.
"Although we designed it, we provide commercial rights to the rest of the world," Lombardi said. "You can download it and call it something else, burn it to CDs, DVDs and sell it."
"It's the true spirit of open-source," he added. "But don't blame us if you have a problem."
The system is programmed as a peer-to-peer connection, which offers benefits over other online services, according to Lombardi. The system has no main server that can crash, providing more room for each person to affect the system.Applications of Croquet
Many in the worlds of education and business are interested. Beta versions of Croquet, released over the last few years, have already been adapted by universities working with the Croquet team, such as University of California-Berkeley's mechanism for the display of artwork and film, the CITRIS Collaborative Gallery Builder
Croquet's team has collaborated with researchers at Boston University, Duke University and the U.S. Military Academy, as well as the training director at NASA and the Academic ADL Co-Lab
, which is currently evaluating the efficacy of Croquet. Lombardi said he has met with several companies interested in using some of Croquet's applications, but said he could not disclose names.
Outside the country, Croquet has received support from Japan's National Institute of Information and Communications Technology
, which signed a $200,000 contract with UW-Madison in January to develop more educational uses of the software. Lombardi said NICT has recently signed a second contract with the UW's Division of Information Technology to develop these ideas further.
Croquet's interactivity would also be useful in fields like healthcare where poor communication is a major issue, according to Fred Kron, an assistant clinical professor at UW-Madison. A virtual tool like Croquet would give physicians a different way to organize their information and test it out, while at the same time communicating with other doctors and modifying the data collectively.
Since Croquet was designed as a highly modifiable environment, developers intend to keep adding new tools and capabilities. Clotho, the software company, plans to improve the video conferencing capability, developing prototype video capabilities designed to exceed the current limits of video handling and speed, Austin said.
Eventually, said Lombardi, users of Croquet will be able to watch television through embedded video, and share and edit documents and communicate through audio chat, video conferencing and instant messenger.
To ensure the system will continue to develop in the marketplace, Lombardi is establishing a consortium where businesses and universities can come together and discuss what works and what doesn't with the system. The consortium will be headquartered at Duke University and its founding institutions include UW-Madison, University of Minnesota and University of California-Berkeley.
Lombardi added that he, Austin and Mark McCahill of the University of Minnesota are partnering to form a new company which will develop specific "turn-key solutions" for Croquet useable for business and academic entities. The new company is as yet unnamed but Lombardi said they have a business plan and are currently seeking funding, as well as choosing a location for the headquarters. It may not be headquartered in Madison as the city's atmosphere is geared to biotechnology, not computer programming, he added.
"We're trying to build a vibrant community that depends on the people we have working with Croquet [to] broaden the exposure of Croquet to other universities and other people," he said.
Previous WTN coverage on Croquet:
UW-Madison releases open 3D collaboration environment
UW open-source 3D environment tapped for commercial development
Japanese institute will develop for UW's Croquet platform