Bot Story:  Technical Background

Most of the action in Bot Story takes place in virtuality. Primarily in a privately owned virtual world called SkunkWks. The time is approximately 20 to 30 years in the future. The virtual reality of Bot Story is fairly immersive, but not as advanced as The Matrix. The human/machine interface is still somewhat primitive and humans are only temporary visitors.

The technology and social systems of the Bot Story works as follows.

The Environment

SkunkWks is a small world of about one square kilometer, although a treeless terrain extends out to infinity. It exists in a logical space on the Internet called a galaxy, along with over a thousand other virtual worlds. Everything about SkunkWks is manufactured, though many software routines attempt to model some natural process to negate the necessity of explicitly modeling everything. This allows for a degree of unpredictability. When a world is well done, the visitor can actually start to feel they are in a real place.

The objects in a world are represented by files, which describe appearance (geometry, textures, and even sounds) and behavior (mass, strength, and other interaction rules for the physics engine). The world server carries out physics calculations.

Only a small percentage of humans who regularly visit a galaxy will have a world. Most are content to either wander from world to world, or to build a place in someone else's world. A world can be public, which anyone can come and build something in, without asking the world owner first. Or a world can be private, with only a select few being able to build there. Or even the product of a single individual.

The Characters: Bots

Two kinds of beings inhabit virtuality, bots and humans. The bots are really nothing more than a computer program running on a bot server and personalized with a high-level scripting language. With a sufficiently advanced script, bots can appear intelligent, but they can also be very simplistic such as a deer or a flock of birds. Such simple bots are referred to as animal bots. The most sophisticated bots are capable of learning and will utilize some sort of database. Such bots often need periods of inactivity (sleep) for necessary housekeeping tasks, such as defragmenting or backing up their database.

Bots live in virtuality. Even the most intelligent and aware of them view it as their whole existence. They have a real struggle with the concept of reality, or the fact that they are nothing more than a program running on a machine. On the other hand, humans are fully aware of both reality and virtuality, traveling between the two at will. Because of this, some of the more intelligent bots hold humans somewhat in awe.

Because a bot is a program, it has a high degree of integration with the networks and the computers that the various services that make up virtuality run on. A bot does not need some kind of artificial interface or control console to query a server. For example it can simply think, "Who is here?" and the query is sent to the world server. Which then sends a list of all users within a programmed radius back to the bot's machine. This list will then simply pop into the bots consciousness. Individual characteristics like IP address are as natural to a bot, as the way someone combs their hair would be to us in reality.

The Characters: Humans

On the other hand, humans must carry with them a small tablet computer, something like a PDA. With this the human can teleport from world to world, communicate with people and bots out of speaking range, select an avatar to wear, or even surf the web. And with the proper permissions, control various machines such as world or bot servers. The use of this device makes it unnecessary for the human to pop out of virtuality to do something on the computer in reality. Popping between reality and virtuality can be very disorienting, more so if the transition is not expected. Still it is possible for a human in a hurry to terminate their connection to virtuality without the use of the tablet interface.

Most humans that come into virtuality do so using some credentials, typically an account that they've paid for, which exists on the metaserver. Such a human is called a citizen. Other humans enter virtuality with temporary credentials. These are the tourists. A citizen has a lot more abilities than a tourist, including the ability to have bots. Any bot must access the system using the credentials of some citizen, so that bots are thought of as belonging to someone.

Because of the wide disparity in privileges between a human citizen and a human tourist, a few people will treat tourists as second class. Even programming their bots to snub tourists or blocking them from entering their world. In some worlds bots get better treatment than tourists do, like the nobleman of old, who makes sure his dogs get fed while the peasants working his lands starve. The attitude amongst a few citizens is; "Well, they are just a tourist..."

Bots and Humans

A citizen can only have a limited number of bots, but the way bot server software works it is possible to put all the simple bot behavior onto a single instance of a bot, so that all of the animal bots of a particular type require only a single bot license. Because of the complexity of an intelligent bot, most citizens who have them will only attempt to host one per bot license (unless clone behavior is wanted). A citizen can have more than the standard limit of bots if they purchase a license for more. Another approach is to only have only a few of your bots awake at a time.

Bots can travel from world to world. This is usually either in the company of their citizen, or at the direction of their citizen. Bots are keenly aware that a particular citizen is theirs. The best and brightest bots have some sense that their citizen somehow created them, or is otherwise responsible for their existence.

Avatars: The Interface

Both bots and humans wear an avatar; a complex set of geometry, texture, and scripting files. The geometry and texture files give the avatar its unique look. While the scripting files give the wearer of the avatar certain abilities; such as flying, swimming, how high they can jump, etc. The avatar scripts also feed environmental information back to the wearer: To the human/machine interface devices, or to the enviro-sim routines of the bot. It is possible for two people to wear the same avatar at the same time, since they actually just use identical copies of the same files; they'll simply look like identical twins.

Avatars can either be supplied by the world server, or by a special avatar server. By hosting your personal avatar on an avatar server, a citizen or bot can have a unique avatar that they wear in any world they visit (assuming the world owner has not blocked that feature). Tourists cannot utilize an avatar server and are further limited to a selection of only two avatars supplied by the world server, known as the tourist or default avatars. Not many people run an avatar server, those that do typically do it as a for-pay service and rent space to citizens to store their personal avatars. Also only about half the citizens will use an avatar server, either because of the added expense, or lack of finding an avatar they really like.

Technology Limitations

When a human visits a world for the first time, they typically materialize a few meters above where the surface of the terrain will be. There is a delay while the client software on the human's PC has to download the world description and geometry files from the proper set of servers before the world can begin to be rendered. At some point the terrain description will download, then the server will ramp gravity up for that user and they'll gently float down to the ground.

Until things download, objects will be shown as a simple default object, a small black triangle. In fact the user's avatar also has to download before they can have any abilities beyond the default abilities. Once the initial download is complete the visitor can wander about and the incremental downloads necessary to make things appear whole and seamless, will keep up with their explorations.

However, the greatest technology limitation is with the human/machine interface. For most computer users (desktop as well as VR) the standard human/machine interface consists of: A head mounted display with stereo vision, accelerometers&tilt sensors for head position; a stereo headset with a boom microphone; and a pair of data gloves with tactile feedback and accelerometers&tilt sensors for hand position. During typical use, most interaction with computers, in my storyverse, is vocal – although a simulated keyboard can be used for data entry.

Some users wishing to immerse themselves into 3D worlds (for games or VR) will have, or want, the following: A full body suit, similar to the data gloves in function and features; and a force-feedback chair, to contain the user, measure large movements, and provide certain types of feedback: foot pressure, body vibration, etc.

What is missing are skin and olfactory stimulation. Although some research labs are working on immersion tanks to try to provide this. Still, for almost every citizen or tourist coming into SkunkWks, a lot of the experience is left to the imagination.