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Hypertext Fiction Adds a Third Dimension [ex NYT]

(enhanced for Direct-WWWithin-E-Mail-Clickability[tm] ;-))

The New York Times; Thursday, December 10, 1998

           Hypertext Fiction Adds a Third Dimension

           by Matthew Mirapaul, mailto:mirapaul@xxxxxxxxxxx

Hypertext fiction was born in the mid-1980's when writers tried to
expand the boundaries of literature by using computer technology.

But technology's boundaries have expanded since then, so
hypertext-fiction authors are now experimenting with techniques
that literally introduce a new dimension into their work.

Holo-X and Waxweb <http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/wax/>,
a pair of Web-based projects that were launched independently on
Thursday, employ Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML used to 
be at http://www.vrml.org/, but now at http://www.web3d.org/)
software to create three-dimensional environments for their
words and images. The Tomb Robbers <http://raven.ubalt.edu/staff/
moulthrop/hypertexts/wip/>, a work-in-progress that was put online
last week, incorporates http://www.apple.com/quicktime/qtvr/ 360-
degree QuickTime VR panoramas that serve both as illustrations
and story-navigation devices.

Stuart Moulthrop http://raven.ubalt.edu/staff/moulthrop/ author
of "The Tomb Robbers" and a hypertext-fiction pioneer, said,
"I feel pretty strongly that virtual space has profound aesthetic
possibilities. These may not be narrative so much as something
else, but stories are a way to start."

Most examples of hypertext fiction, whether disk- or Web-based,
expect readers to immerse themselves in a story by clicking on
highlighted words, which are in turn linked to other written

    From the outset, though, high-tech wordsmiths have routinely
    employed drawings, photographs and other two-dimensional
    graphics to lend meaning to their on-screen tales, so 3-D
    software was an inevitable addition to the genre's ever-
    expanding palette of multimedia tools.

    Those who intend to visit Holo-X http://www.holo-x.com/ must
    be forewarned that its language is as rude as its graphics are
    crude. The writing on the site is hyperlinked erotica, and
    while much of it strays down conceptual pathways, there are
    still plenty of explicit descriptions and more than a few
    naughty words. At the same time, the graphics sport the
    cartoonish look that currently characterizes VRML.

    But if you are able to enjoy or overlook the content, Holo-X
    offers a fascinating glimpse at the future of hypertext. At
    its best, fiction creates a world of its own. Here, it is
    embodied by one, as well.

Albeit a simple one. Once the Holo-X site loads on a browser that
has been configured with the correct VRML plug-in, a 3-D rendering
of a single room appears on the screen. Visitors can twirl around
the space and zoom in on objects like a diary or a wall socket
that are connected to pop-up windows filled with hyperlinked text.
The site also contains a number of multimedia elements, like a
boom box that leads to music files.

Another innovative aspect of the site is a "dialogue engine" that
generates the comments of the site's shapely protagonist, the
Sorceress of Language in Uncharted Territories (you can work out
the acronym yourself). Her comments, which appear as text, are
generated randomly, but the choices have been carefully programmed
so as not to lose the thread of meaning.

   "There was a substantial amount of writing," said Jay
    Dillemuth, one of Holo-X's authors, in an interview from his
    Berkeley, Calif., office. "If it was all played linearly,
    there would be over two-and-a-half hours of her talking."
    Instead, each of the 20 possible scenes lasts 1 to 3 minutes.

    The prose was penned by a half-dozen contributors, including
    Dillemuth, Alex Cory and Caroline E. White, the site's
    principal partners, and Mark Amerika, author of the hypertext
    fiction Grammatron. When not romping in the gutter, the
    writing often aspires to the poetic, as in this example:
    "The joyful night in inky spasms descends upon the street."

Holo-X's function is somewhat akin to that of a mink stole on a
prostitute: the high-toned site is designed to lure readers to
XRave, an adult-oriented virtual community that the partners plan
to open on New Year's Eve.

But Dillemuth maintained that Holo-X also represents an honest
effort to find a wider audience for experimental poetry and
hypertext fiction. "That's where the sex comes from," he said.
"It's a way to bring users in and then undermine their
expectations by having it be smarter than it normally would be."

In May 1995, David Blair's Waxweb became the first hypertext
fiction with VRML elements to be published on the Web. A
science-fiction story about an engineer who keeps bees that
eventually keep him, Waxweb began life as a full-length feature
film in 1992. The film was the first to be transmitted on the

On Thursday, Blair launched a final, considerably more elaborate
version of the project. He also unveiled a preview site for his
next film- and VRML-based project, the abbreviated title of which
is http://www.telepathic-movie.org/ The Telepathic Motion Picture
of the Lost Tribes.

For the 1995 iteration of the Waxweb site, Blair took objects
from the movie, rendered them in 3-D and transformed them into
navigation devices. They continue to work in this fashion in the
new incarnation, but the New York artist has created new animation
for the objects and integrated them with the site's text and
a streaming-video version of the film.

Initially, the site's complexity can be daunting, but once its
icon-driven commands are mastered, Waxweb's world of evocative
imagery comes alive, in part because it demands a high level of
user involvement.

For Blair, the spatial attributes of VRML are essential to the
aesthetic mix, plunging his viewers into "the short, constantly
crossed distance from text to space to moving picture -- time
into space, and back again, with story in both."

Moulthrop described his "Tomb Robbers" demo as a sketch, most of
it less than a week old. "I can't swear there is a story in the
current version, or if it is the right story," he cheerfully

The demo allows navigation through colorful panoramas or their
accompanying text, but the circular illustrations are clearly the
more attractive device for traveling through the imaginary realm.
A few of Moulthrop's students at the University of Baltimore are
http://raven.ubalt.edu/staff/moulthrop/updates.html also tinkering
with QTVR panoramas as narrative tools

Moulthrop said he has always enjoyed the crossbreeding of text and
graphics found, for example, in comics and concrete poetry, and
that QTVR technology might appeal to him as a hypertext-fiction
author for the same reasons.

"Or you could come at the problem from hypertext theory, arguing
that some illusion of geometry is necessary to compensate for the
invisible complexity that underlies these machineries," he said.
"But these are rationalizations for what is in fact a deeply
irrational affinity. I'm playing with QTVR right now because it
feels like a good thing to do. It seems to affect my brain in
interesting ways."