communication modes

My wife is getting frustrated with the medium as she constantly checks for the latest in the raging debate in her favorite mailing-list. Meanwhile, writers and researchers lament the loss of the art and practice of writing letters.

There’s no spec for Croquet. Although the architects have mature experience and good taste in evaluating technologies for what does and doesn’t work, I don’t think they set out to achieve a particular set of characteristics. Yet one of the things that appeals to me about Croquet is the characteristic that it is agnostic about what mode of communication works best: Synchronous like face-to-face conversation and chat, or asynchronous like email or a handwritten letter; Seemingly anonymous like most of the Web and multi-player games, or full of social cues like voice and video communication. Croquet is equally facile at all.(*)

But what works best? When? In what ways? My boss, Julian, has been bringing together a very interesting group of educators and scientists as initial users of a Croquet Collaboratory that we are building. Although they come at it from perspectives that range as far as art, public health, and games, I think they are all vitally interested in this issue. By having a single medium that provides all – a meta-medium – they can study group interactions and observe how different communication techniques affect outcomes.

(*) I’m not quite sure what it says that I’m comfortable saying this, even though the effectiveness of both persistence and naturalistic voice and video have only been suggested in demonstrations, rather than proven in practice. Is it vision, confidence, or faith among the developers, or naiveté and the academic environment?

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. I can’t think of much to say about this, but if there is anything you can do to bring back the lost art of conversation, I for one would be most grateful.

  2. There are two general approaches:

    1) Get as close as possible to face-to-face, but at a distance, and with multiple people. I’m told that the new version of the Macintosh OS will have three-way video conferencing. Frankly, I don’t find two-way iChat to be quite natural yet. I expect Croquet to track improvements in this area. For example, some of our colleagues have developed an immersive 3D video conferencing system (outside of Croquet), which creates 3D avatars in real-time from an array of video cameras, and then paints the video camera textures onto it. One of the subtle things about this is that, unlike a Web-cam sitting above your screen, this technique actually allows you to look your friends in the eye. These things matter.

    2) Be "better" than live, even if everyone is at computers in the same room. People are doing experiments to find out what actually promotes conversation, collaboration, good decisions, etc. For example, do people cooperate more when they can see each other (e.g., with video avatars) or when they’re anonymous (e.g., with cartoon avatars)? How do personal choices of representation effect communication? What about the environment? What other things can we do in virtual space that we cannot do in the physical world? (E.g., pass interactive "notes" among multiple members of a subgroup, even as the main conversation continues.) I have no idea how these will pan out, but I do like the idea: that Croquet can enhance our human communications capabilities, and not merely be some distance-closing substitute.

  3. Alas, I fear that just as video killed the radio star, the modern world & especially "always on" digital communication has nearly destroyed the art of converstation. Listening carefully. Thinking before responding. Learning to give proper consideration to the point of view of the person(s) with whom you’re speaking.

    Really, it’s a different thing than just talking with somebody. But I’m a professional nostalgist, so don’t mind me.

  4. John, have you noticed? The radio star isn’t dead! Neither is the state of the music world in general, either popular or artistic. (Sure, I can’t tell the difference between songs by Cold Green Ladies vs Sarah Merchant or Tori Mathews, but that’s just me…)

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