A MOO-Based World-Wide Web Server:

A research project of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities

Supported with funds from the AT&T Foundation


Background of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities

The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities was established in 1992 to provide researchers in the arts and humanities with an opportunity to employ sophisticated technical support and advanced computer technology in the service of their scholarship. The Institute encourages collaborative research proposals from humanists on the internet, and it can offer creative technologists a broad range of research opportunities. The Institute is unique among humanities computing facilities for its combination of a broadly interdisciplinary charge with a projects-centered and research-oriented plan of work. In addition, it is unusual for its success at bridging the gap between the two cultures of academe: from its inception, the Institute has depended on the synergy of computer science and the humanities; its fellows meet regularly with computer science faculty and graduate students, and they confer and collaborate on a daily basis with the Institute's staff of computer professionals.

The principal goal of the Institute is to see that humanists have the tools, the training, and the support to make the most of computer technology. In part, this entails a consolidation of existing facilities in order to produce an integrated environment for the use of networked information resources. In addition, the Institute's support is often concentrated on converting information into electronic form and addressing issues of standards and formats that arise in the process of this conversion. Finally, where existing software does not meet the needs of scholars in the humanities, the Institute's technical staff will work with the Institute's Fellows to produce broadly useful software tools.

The Institute also addresses itself, wherever possible, to topics and challenges of general importance for electronic scholarship across the disciplines. These include (but are by no means limited to) testing methods for collaborative networked research, peer-review, and editing, investigating the possibilities for networked hypermedia archives, developing practical models for cost recovery in networked scholarly publishing, exploring the creative potential of the networks, negotiating cooperation with the private sector and with government, studying the implications of the digital library, and addressing the impact of electronic media on intellectual property, with regard to both the author's right to credit and the user's right to access.

Recent research projects at the Institute include:

These fellows have employed and created network technologies for the advancement of scholarship in the disciplines of literature studies, history, religious studies, architecture, urban planning, and anthropology.

History of MOOs

MOOs came into existence ten years after the invention of UNIX, when Pavel Curtis and others working at Xerox PARC invented MOOcode. MOOs belong to a class of programs known as MUDs (Multi- User Dungeons), which are network- accessible, multi-participant virtual reality programs whose user interfaces are entirely textual. In the MOO, really just a large database, the world is made up of objects: objects always have a particular location within the database and the landscapes of the MOO, and objects are in turn composed of properties and verbs. The "OO" in MOO stands for "object-oriented." Like UNIX, MOO functions as a command interpreter and programming environment. Programmers can easily have access to the individual building blocks of the MOO and can use the tools within the MOO to alter or add to those building blocks. MOOcode and UNIX are similar in that both are hierarchical, multi- user, time-sharing environments for the creation, storage and retrieval of information.

This family of software, which was first seen and used primarily as a vehicle for games, now shows great promise in many arenas as a tool for network communication and collaboration over the Internet. MOOs function with a basic hierarchy much like that of UNIX. MOO-characters are divided into three ascending classes: player, programmer, and wizard, with each class representing a higher level of programming control.

In addition to their original incarnation as textually mediated communication and virtual reality programs, MOOs are now increasingly used as WWW servers. MOO-based WWW servers do not allow for real-time communication between users but do provide some editing capabilities. The technology is currently limited such that users can only edit the objects they create and own; that is, users can add to the database (for instance, in the form of comments), but they cannot change the overall parameters of the MOO or redesign pages already posted on the Web. And, in order for the users of the MOO to create pages, they must be able to program in MOOcode.

The potential for MOOs to serve as tools of genuine collaboration, then, is currently limited by the fact that the software does not permit a hierarchical distribution of authoring permissions for non-expert users, as would be beneficial for many research, business, publishing, and classroom projects. What is missing, in short, is a user-friendly administrative interface for assigning and controlling read-write permissions on collaborative, MOO-based Web documents.

Proposal

What we propose is a significant refinement of MOO-based Web servers. With the AT&T Foundation grant, we will create four new types of MOO-interfaces to aid in the creation of collaborative Web pages. These four types are

  1. an administrative interface that can assign different read and/or write permissions to different users or work groups.
  2. a submissions interface that will allow for the easy submission of pre-existing html and vrml documents to a networked database
  3. an authoring interface that will give users the ability to edit existing Web pages, depending on their level in the project hierarchy
  4. a scrapbook interface that will enable users of the MOO to collect their own excerpts of documents

The new administrative interface will serve the various needs of several classes of users working on a networked project by assigning read and/or write permissions on particular documents or parts of documents appropriate to their role in the collaborative process (whether it be peer review, archive creation, proposal writing, etc.). For example, in a peer review project that employs such a server, reviewers will be able to comment on an article but not alter the text of the article or see the comments of other reviewers; authors will be able to alter the text of their articles and read but not alter the comments of reviewers; editors will be able to read and alter the text of all comments and the article itself. Users of the MOO will be assigned different permissions based on their being identified as members of particular groups. Documents will similarly be classed such that they are partially or entirely open for some groups, but not others. Basic administrative forms for creating these different groups using standard WWW clients will also be provided.

This type of user-interface will serve to address the needs of non-expert administrators who desire stratified levels of authorial control, and it will be well suited to projects for which selective and highly articulated access is a significant asset. Current Web servers do not have the ability to retain state information; users are simply allowed or denied access, and their preferences are not recorded. The authoring and submissions interfaces this project will create will enable users who identify themselves within the MOO hierarchy to take advantage of gradations of access and authoring permission.

Overall, as the paradigm for Web use changes from browsing to one of authoring, as seems destined to happen, this tool will help make the newly- embraced possibilities of the network easier to implement for the average user.

Rationale

Several recent and ongoing projects at the Institute have pointed to a strong demand for software of the kind described above. Fellow Ed Ayers is in the process of creating an electronic hypermedia archive entitled "The Valley of the Shadow: Living the Civil War in Pennsylvania and Virginia" which compares how the cities of Staunton, Virginia, and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania weathered the Civil War. Ayers and networked colleagues in different geographic locations have used email extensively for communication purposes but, because of the limitations of the MOO software for non-expert users, they have not employed MOOs for the editing itself. Ayers also desires a scrapbook interface for his project, so that users will be able to excerpt personalized archives from the already posted documents.

Likewise, fellows Joseph Viscomi at the Institute, Morris Eaves in Rochester, and Robert Essick at the University of California, Riverside will be working in 1995 on a hypermedia archive based on the illuminated books of William Blake with support from the Getty Grant Fund and the Institute. A MOO-based Web server that could assign different writing permissions to users working at different levels of the compilation process would be an enormous benefit to an enterprise of this kind and scope. With researchers working in different parts of the country and the world, a MOO-based Web server that could address the communication and editing aspects of the collaborative process simultaneously would greatly enhance the cooperative creation of a networked document.

The utility of this software is not limited solely to research projects. MOO- based Web servers also have great potential as collaborative teaching tools. This past academic semester, University of Virginia professor Michael Stern's graduate landscape architecture class (LASR 702) established a network collaboration between architecture students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. to create a design-consultation hypertext document, "Visions of a Sustainable City." The project employed a forms-based interface and cgi-scripts written in perl to facilitate the collaborative creation of Web pages. This interface, which proved somewhat difficult to work with from a technical standpoint, was created and tailored specifically for this project and could not easily be generalized to other uses. The MOO-based Web server the Institute is proposing to create will not only meet the same requirements but enhance the overall functionality of MOO-based collaborative authoring and eliminate the need for any project-specific programming of this kind. This software would also be useful for classes such as John Unsworth's undergraduate seminar "The Practice and Theory of Hypertext" (ENSP 482), for which students collaborated on various hypertextual, creative documents.

A MOO-based server with the access-defining capabilities described above would additionally be of immediate use in the peer review of the Institute's electronic journal Postmodern Culture.

The idea and perceived need for this kind of software grows out of David Blair and Tom Meyer's work on the hypermedia document "Waxweb," an electronic film with an authoring interface which allows users to collaboratively add to the story. "Waxweb" is at present the longest hypermedia narrative document on the Internet, and it is accessible to both WWW (Mosaic) and MOO users. The creators of Waxweb refer to it as a "hypermedia" document because it incorporates hypertext, visual, audio, video, and virtual reality objects, the latter using virtual reality modeling language (vrml). Currently, "Waxweb" allows users to add comments and see others' comments, but the hardcoding denies them the ability to edit existing pages, something that even the creators of "Waxweb" can do only in MOOcode. The creators of "Waxweb" identified the need for a user-friendly administrative interface that could facilitate a hierarchy of programming permissions.

Description

The objective of the project will be to create working piece of software in 6 months for free distribution to all users. Three part-time technical staff members will be hired (2 at the University of Virginia and 1 at Brown University) to assist with the actual programming with associate fellow of the Institute David Blair serving as a consultant.

Evaluation

This project will be deemed a success by the Institute when the participants succeed in developing a MOO-based Web server that can provide selective access with the high degree of sophistication described above. This project will demonstrate the viability of the WWW as a collaborative authoring and teaching medium. Once this software exists, its potential applications in the classroom are numerous, whether for networked collaborations between students in different geographic locations, for faculty research projects, or for electronic, scholarly publishing. With the strong push in American universities to promote hypertextual awareness and the educational applications of Web, this project comes as a timely aid in making the Web more accommodating to collaborative projects, particularly those involving non- expert users.

Budget

Much of the work to develop this server has already been done by Tom Meyer and others at Brown University, working in concert with the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and under the direction of David Blair, a networked associate fellow of the Institute. The budget for this project includes funds for a student working at Brown under the direction of Tom Meyer, staff working at the Institute and elsewhere under the supervision of John Unsworth, Director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, and consulting from David Blair. The technical director for this project would be Tom Meyer, and alpha testing would be done with the electronic journal Postmodern Culture, co-edited by John Unsworth.

The project should be completed, to a testable stage of development, within six months.

1 tech. staff (Brown)    	@ 	$24/hr, 	20 hrs/wk, 	25 wks:$12,000
2 tech. staff (IATH)    	@	$12/hr,	20 hrs/wk,	25 wks:$12,000
Consulting (David Blair) 	@	$25/hr,	10 hrs/wk,	25 wks:$6,250
Subtotal:									       $30,250

Equipment:		RS6000 RAM						 $4,750
			because MOOs are RAM-intensive
			[50 mb dm = 170 mb RAM]
Total:										            
$35,000

AT&T Rationale

This project addresses AT&T's interest in networked computing. Interest in the WWW is currently very high (WWW recently surpassed email as the largest portion of internet traffic), and the MOO software we are proposing would help make the Web accessible to a wider ranger of users as a medium for collaborative authoring, and not just as a browser for static information. Additionally, it will benefit curriculum development, as educators will be able to use it to generate hierarchies for the cooperative authoring of Web documents. Most of the projects at IATH that have shown a need for this kind of software are by nature interdisciplinary, and the interest in this tool grows directly out of users' concerns and their experience with existing Web technologies.


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Copyright 1996 by John Unsworth, all rights reserved
Document URL: http://www3.isrl.uiuc.edu
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