Microsoft V-Chat

The information here was taken from what little sources regarding Microsoft V-Chat are still available online.
These include, but are not limited to, the following:
The books "The Social Life of Avatars", "Digital Cities II: Computational and Sociological Approaches" and the paper "The Social Life of Small Graphical Chat Spaces"
The WikiWikiWeb
If you have any corrections or addendums to make to this document, please contact me.

Microsoft V-Chat was an experiment created and carried out by the Virtual Worlds Group in 1996 with the goal of studying how the design and structure of virtual environments affected social interactions, specifically with the hopes of better understanding how to build virtual environments that would foster sustainable, dynamic communities.

Microsoft Research is, as the name implies, the research subsidiary of Microsoft. It was formed in 1991 with the intent to advance state-of-the-art computing and solve difficult world problems through technological innovation in collaboration with academic, government, and industry researchers.

The Virtual Worlds Group, headed by Linda Stone, was a subsidiary of Microsoft Research that conducted research and developed technologies for online social interaction and experimented with technologies that support the use of the Internet as a social medium.

The V-Chat version 1.0 team consisted of Linda Stone, Development Manager Manny Vellon, Lili Cheng, Russel Eames, Rick Raddatz, Kevin Goldsmith, Chris Liles, Philip Reay and Mark Mecham.
The MSN V-Chat version 2.0 team consisted of Kelvin Chan, Don Schmidt and Don Smith.

Linda Stone

Linda Stone (born 1955) worked on multimedia hardware, software and publishing for Apple Computer from 1986 to 1993, after which she joined Microsoft Research. During this time, she also taught as adjunct faculty in New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program. In 2000, she became a Microsoft vice president, working on industry relationships and improving Microsoft's corporate culture. She left Microsoft in 2002.
Stone initiated and directed a variety of projects including HutchWorld, PhotoStory and V-Chat.

Since joining Microsoft, she had focused on improving human social interactions in cyberspace. She created and directed the Virtual Worlds team, a "joint effort by engineers, artists, and animators to develop multi-user, multimedia, technologies for the construction of social environments that really work on a human level". Their first offerings were the multimedia chat services V-Chat and Comic Chat, but the group intended to develop technologies that went far beyond that through the Virtual Worlds Platform.

When they began designing virtual environments in 1995, they drew heavily on existing virtual spaces such as Multi-User Dungeons/Domains (MUDs), 3D Multiplayer games like id Software's Doom & Quake, LucasArts' Habitat/WorldsAway, and New York University's interactive 3D television show YORB.
In the interests of studying how different design approaches affected the development of a sustainable community they developed tools that supported multiple design solutions for building virtual environments, rather than develop an application that supported a particular design approach.

They developed Microsoft V-Chat and later (with feedback from V-Chat users and world builders) the Virtual Worlds Platform, geared toward allowing users to build their own virtual environments. They used these applications to design and deploy their own virtual environments, in addition to studying how other world builders used the applications.

Being a World Builder for V-Chat meant you were part of an exclusive club, with the so-called V-Chat Building Kit (which enabled the creation of a new 2D or 3D space from a template) only being given out to MSN forum managers and content providers who had a relationship with Microsoft. Users interested in making their own spaces could reportedly make an appeal to Kelvin Chan, but were otherwise limited to copying and modifying the textures and sounds of existing worlds.

The creation of some (if not all) V-Chat worlds was sourced to designers working under contract from Microsoft, like Philip Reay (owner of design firm Metacosm) who worked on places like The Fishbowl and The Lunar Islands, and the animation company Tooned In who worked on The Kiva World and its underground counterpart.

Though V-Chat version 1.1 needed specific V-Chat servers to allow users to connect, worlds in V-Chat 2.0 were run through Internet Relay Chat (IRC) rooms, the world files being hosted on and downloaded from a web address, and could even be joined through any ordinary IRC client - though the data for displaying V-Chat users' avatars and positions within the world would be conveyed to IRC users as a garbled mess of text. All of this is similar to Comic Chat, which works the same way & produces the same results to non-Comic Chat users.

While Microsoft ran the official rooms and servers, anyone could host their own V-Chat room with any world they desired, and could (despite the lack of proper world editing tools) easily replace the sounds and textures in order to customize their personal space.

The actual size of the V-Chat community at its peak is not precisely known at the time of this writing, though it had enough of a userbase to result in the formation of smaller sub-communities within its virtual worlds.

The greatest example of this would be the Angel Society, a V-Chat club founded by end users that supported new users, whether they needed help with V-Chat or the Avatar Wizard, and helped manage the various V-Chat rooms.
Membership in this club was by invitation only, and members had high status within the V-Chat community.
Angel Society members could be identified the same custom angel avatar and later developed a uniform naming convention.

Angel Society member JamesC
Pictured here with the default V-Chat avatar, a common sight as the custom Angel avatar did not always load for every user.

Angels were among the first people new V-Chat users would be likely to meet.

The Angel Society was a meticulous and organized group, going so far as hosting a duty schedule on their own website that listed Angel Society members & the times and worlds at which they could be found online.

Angels were so renowned and respected that Microsoft actually gave them an active administrative role in V-Chat, answering to Angels' reports of offensive avatars and users.

V-Chat had its fair share of troublemakers, for instance those posing as different users or members of the Angel Society and other such groups, but it seems to have overall been composed of a respectful and polite bunch of ordinary folks looking to make friends, some even going on to meet their future spouses on the service - though this is generally typical of any chat service and not exactly unique to V-Chat.

The V-Chat Lobby

It's not clear who specifically was responsible for the creation of the various worlds.
As far as online sources go, it is not obvious what any of the members of the group involved in the creation of V-Chat were in charge of - just that they were on the team.
What makes it even harder to discern is the fact that, given that you had to be affiliated with Microsoft in some way to be granted the V-Chat Building Kit, almost every single about.txt file in the worlds' directories simply states "Microsoft Corporation" - if the text file even says anything at all.

The only world that has any credits in its files is The Kiva World, provided by TOONED IN. More information on that can be seen on The Kiva World's page.

V-Chat was an interesting experiment on Microsoft's part.
It was conceptually far ahead of its time, and while it has since been forgotten and superseded by more modern social virtual reality applications such as JanusVR and VRChat, the lessons learned from the project were an undeniably important part of the long history of Virtual Reality, and it deserves to be remembered in some capacity.

Microsoft V-Chat can be run on a few older editions of Microsoft Windows, can still be hosted using any IRC server, and can still be accessed by any other V-Chat users.

Windows XP runs V-Chat relatively well, albeit with a few graphical issues, while Windows 95 runs it flawlessly even on a Virtual PC (though getting internet set up on this can be cumbersome at best).

Click Here to download Microsoft V-Chat