Life mutates in MOO dimension

November 8, 1996

Three years old this month, the Weizmann Institute's BioMoo biology centre was acclaimed by Science magazine as the first major attempt to use a virtual environment for day-to-day science and science communications. Scientists worldwide find the virtual centre a valuable substitute for conferences and meetings. Its fans include a University of Mississippi neuroscientist who told Science he felt isolated from the science centres of the east and west coasts of the United States.

BioMoo (http://bioinfo. weizmann.ac.il:8888) is modelled on a modern scientific facility with labs, offices, spacious meeting halls and a convention centre. But it has several unusual features including a conference room that can hold an unlimited number of scientists, and a vast number of indoor and outdoor spaces. You can get there from anywhere in the world within a few seconds. Operated by the institute's bioinformatics unit, it is modelled after other non-scientific MOOs, virtual meeting places where users of computer networks can play games together or simply socialise. MOO stands for "multi-user dimension, object oriented". Its forebears were the MUDs or multi-user dungeons created by games enthusiasts in the 1980s.

BioMoo was opened in November 1993 by Weizmann graduate student Gustavo Glusman together with the head of the bioinformatics unit, Jaime Prilusky. It has over 800 members and is a regular visiting place for a growing number of biologists from all over the world, who log in to "meet" colleagues, exchange scientific ideas and explore the virtual world of computer networks.

The scientists who set up the Internet's Virtual School of Natural Sciences made use of BioMoo facilities. BioMoo offers a virtual meeting place for students on VSNS courses ranging from the principles of protein structure to biocomputing.

Part of the fascination of such a setting is the feeling of a real-world facility that the software generates. Access is through the Internet: you enter a lounge described as "a large, silent, dimly illuminated room" where you can study a MOO tutorial. A user can type "who" and find out who else is currently on the premises and you can go to any room and start talking to any of its occupants. BioMoo bulletin boards, labs and "journal club" meetings have covered subjects ranging from ecology to neuroscience. Science notes that BioMoo has served as an example for other virtual science centres. Neurosurgeons, ecologists and zoologists are planning their own MOOs.

* Oxford University recently advised students on one of its classics courses to study a collection of images of Greek and Roman gods on a Haifa University Web site. Art historian Sonia Klinger and media librarian Ora Zehavi developed the project as auxiliary material for Dr Klinger's course on mythology in western art. The aim was eventually to create "a visual textbook of art images of mythological characters", according to Zehavi.

The researchers wanted to distribute images of the main gods and goddesses, as portrayed in western art from the 8th century BC until modern times, to as many students as possible.

Visitors to the web site (www-lib.haifa.ac.il/www/art/MYTHOLOGY WESTART.HTML) can learn about the attributes and legends of 14 gods and goddesses. The images are organised in chronological order from ancient times to modernity and include vases, paintings, pictures, jewellery, coins and reliefs. Students have not just improved their knowledge of mythology.

"Teaching in this way has also helped students learn art-related subjects such as the importance of visual images as well as texts, and has also improved their computer skills," Zehavi says.

"Dissemination of art images by computer also aids in the preservation of the material and allows rare and precious material, such as manuscripts and museum exhibits, to be widely available."

* Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, known for its desert research and as the home of one of Israel's first supercomputers, plans to set up a new department offering the country's first BA programme in multimedia. Course subjects will include creative writing, cognitive perception, film and photography.

Haim Finkelstein, who teaches art at the university and is on the team setting up the new department, said that the purpose is to create a programme that will combine academic courses with the technical processes of multimedia.

He said that a lot of groundwork has already been done to set up the department, but it could be up to two years before it opens.

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