This New App Sounds Fishy By Michael Stroud 2:00 a.m. Aug. 1, 2001 PDT Tired of having the same old fish swim across your screensaver? How about fish that have minds of their own and swim off your screen onto someone else's in, say, Japan? That's the idea behind DALiWorld, peer-to-peer software that debuted this week. It allows you to create a virtual aquarium on your computer housing your own artificially intelligent fish, and any others that wander by. The software -- the brainchild of three computer scientists and a young dot-com millionaire -- is one of the first examples of how a technology best known for song-swapping on the Internet is emerging as a foundation for a new generation of online games. "Traditional peer-to-peer software like Napster or Gnutella is just about moving files," said DALi CEO Todd Pappaioannou, a PhD from England's Loughborough University and an authority on "mobile agents" software that travels from computer to computer. "What we're talking about is shared, networked entertainment -- people interacting in the same virtual world from wherever they are." All of the virtual fish and aquariums are built using Sun Microsystems' Java language. And it just so happens that one of Sun's chief goals is to get game developers to write their games in Java -- enabling people to access their favorite games over PCs, Macs, interactive televisions, cellular phones and any other computing device. DALi hopes to do exactly that with its fish world over the next year. DALiWorld is "the poster child," Pappaioannou says, for the tiny company's technology for allowing gamers to trade software agents over massive distances and injecting artificial intelligence into games. Pappaioannou hopes DALiWorld will evolve into a complex universe where players can create their own creatures, communicate with players from around the world, forage for food and even fiddle with the biochemistry of the virtual environment. For the moment, people who download the software will have to be satisfied with watching fish swim lazily on and off their screens, and right-clicking on them to see where they've come from. DALi Inc. (which stands for Distributed Artificial Life, not the surrealist Salvador) has created 20 varieties of fish that the user randomly generates when pressing a "new fish" button on the virtual aquarium. Each fish is modeled after a real fish, such as an angelfish or a blowfish, and the programmers added five "special fish" that occasionally get created to spice things up. Users can follow fish by clicking on their cursors and zoom in on fish by left-clicking on them. They cannot, however, control where the fish go or what they do. Some simply hover, while others swim rapidly from side to side, or appear to stick close to others. DALi doesn't control the creatures either, merely creating the "life forms" according to software algorithms that allow them to decide -- as well as a real fish can -- where and how they want to swim. Could such fish, prompted by a craftily inserted virus, swim right into someone's hard drive and total it? Pappaioannou insists that the chances of that happening are small, given security features in both the company's software and Java itself -- although he allows that "I'd be an idiot to say never." Virtual fish -- especially ones that use up a fair amount of silicon horsepower to power their "intelligence" -- might seem a rather boring addition to an electronic device. But cyber-fish seem to have an enduring popularity, as witnessed by the ubiquity of Berkeley Software's own fish screensavers and the surprising success of fishing games on cellular phones and portable devices in Europe and Japan. Pappaioannou has no intention of stopping with fish, although his plans for creating more evolved species will take a lot more computing power and employees than DALi has now. Ultimately, though, "I see the day when a fish looks up through the ocean and catches its first sight of dry land." Copyright (C) 1994-2001 Wired Digital Inc. All rights reserved.