2 . 3 Integrated Chat

"I know a lot of people without brains who do an awful lot of talking." The Scarecrow, Wizard of OZ

Chat systems offer users the ability to congregate in "virtual rooms" using only textual interfaces to talk to each other. Internet Relay Chat (IRC), is the protocol used to support this interface. The results can be quite amusing. With the coming of the Web and technologies such as 3D interfaces, via VRML, users are being offered new types of interfaces on top of the traditional chat services.

One approach is to simply offer a "helper" application that is integrated with a Web browser. The Global Chat client by Prospero Systems is just this type of application.(5) Prospero Systems also created Global Chat client and Global Stage server.(6) They offer chat servers in three friendly sizes: the cafe, the theater, and, the stadium.

Quarterdeck's Global Chat stand-alone or helper chat application.

2 . 3 . 1 Ubique

One fascinating extension to the Web comes from a company called Ubique Ltd. This Israeli start-up company has created something called Virtual Places. It works either as an extension to existing browsers or with a modified Mosaic browser called Sesame. Ubique was acquired in mid1995 by AOL.

Ubique's Virtual Places running with Netscape and icons on a page for people. The chat log on the bottom window gives a history of the conversation.

Ubique's technology offer three basic capabilities: integrated chat and Web browser; real time audio communications; and guided tours, either automated or with a tour guide. Let's take a brief look at each.

Users are visually represented in a Virtual Place by an icon. You can select from among the variety of existing cartoony icons or design your own, such as a small photo of your face.

When you go to a Web site that is running a Virtual Places server, you can place your icon on the page. This lets other people click on your icon, signaling the desire to start a conversation. If you start a chat, an extra line on the bottom of the Sesame Web browser displays the chat.

If you and the person you are chatting with have a fast enough Internet connection and the right sound hardware, you can start talking. Yep, you can use thousands of dollars of computing hardware and the Internet to replace a telephone. Actually, it is useful for quick conversations, though the sound quality is variable and dependent on the bandwidth of the moment. Furthermore, it's cute as all hell and makes a great demo. (See Section 2.6 Streaming Technologies-Audio/Video for information on these products.)

The most interesting capability Ubique offers is the guided tour. Basically, you can, offer people a ride on a magic carpet. Up to 10 people can get on the carpet with you. After all are aboard, you can surf the Web, showing people whatever you want. Their Sesame Web browser goes along for the ride. This is a fabulous way of showing people Web sites.

With the purchase of Ubique by AOL, the magic carpet facility has been converted into the AOL Road Trip. AOL itself offers many of its own Road Trips, and users can create their own. After you create a Road Trip, you can enter a chat room and ask others to hop on for a ride.

To top it all off, you can set up a script that acts as a little automaton and takes people on tours. In this way, people can be guided though the wonders of your Web site without your actually being there.

2 . 3 . 2 Web and Real Time Audio

Another interesting capability is the increasing interest in the Internet as a replacement for the telephone. While I don't think AT&T has anything to worry about, the possibilities are intriguing. The potential lies primarily with the integration of live audio with other computing activities.

Some interesting products are just beginning to appear. Two are the Internet Phone from Vocaltec, and PowWow from Tribal Voice. Of the two, PowWow seems geared more towards integration with the Web, and Internet Phone more as a replacement for the telephone.

Real conversations are difficult because of the halfduplex nature of most sound cards and the software. This means that the sound can only go in one direction at a time, rather like 1970's CB radio conversations. You need to say "hello how are you...over" or something like that to indicate that you're finished talking. It is a great way to talk to people overseas and in faraway lands without paying the phone company though.

PowWow multi-party chat windows and audio control panel.

In terms of integration, the PowWow people have a leg up. They work with a URL that uses the "powwow" protocol and is integrated more with Web browsers. For example a Web page might have the PowWow icon on it. When selected it executes a URL that looks like: "powwow:sandy@interramp.com." This URL would cause your running PowWow process to try to contact my running PowWow process. With a successful connection we could chat via typing or with audio.

Another nice integration feature of PowWow is its ability to take people on a Web "cruise." Once you establish yourself as cruise leader, you can use your Web browser to surf the Web, and all other members of the Web will "travel" with you, using their Web browsers. This is virtually the same as the Ubique "road trip."

Finally, there is PGPfhone developed by Phil Zimmerman of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) fame. PGP, is the encryption software that has gotten Zimmerman into hot water with the U.S. government on numerous occasions, and elevated him into a "cause celebre" with the right to privacy advocates. PGPfhone is a free encrypted audio system than enables users to have secure audio conversations. PGPfone is distributed by MIT. Depending on the resolution of various export control laws, PGPfone may be available only for citizens of the United States and Canada.

PGPfone, encrypted audio software.


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