Microsoft’s Linda Stone to Present Her Virtual World to the National Cancer Institute This Week

Redmond, Wash., September 14, 1998 — Diagnosed with a chronic inflammatory disease on her 40th birthday, Linda Stone furiously searched the Internet for any information she could find. She surfed Web sites, read bulletin boards and participated in online chat sessions. The information Stone found empowered her, but searching the Web for information was both time-consuming and tedious. She wanted to find a single location on the Internet for both information and support. ( More Information )

Doctors eventually discovered that Stone had been misdiagnosed, but the experience inspired her to use her group’s software to create a comprehensive resource that could provide support and information for medical patients and their families. Three years later, Stone spends part of each day working with a small team of Microsoft researchers and workers at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (informally known as “the Hutch”) to develop a “virtual world” that enables people struggling with cancer to obtain information and interact with others facing similar challenges.

“I thought one application for our software could be to support communities of people who are struggling with their health, or with a family member’s health, and who need information and support,” Stone recalls. “I was very committed to this idea, and I realized that one of the more prevalent diseases that people are increasingly dealing with is cancer. One in four people will have cancer in their lifetime, and virtually everyone will be touched by it.”

A down-to-earth woman with straight, shoulder-length hair, Stone exudes self-confidence, clarity and determination. Spending just a few minutes with her, it’s clear that she is one of those rare people who have work they are truly passionate about.

Stone has attracted widespread recognition for her work as director of the Virtual Worlds Group at Microsoft Research. Upside Magazine named her one of the 100 leaders of the digital revolution in late 1996. And John Brockman featured her in his book, “The Digerati,” the same year, describing her as a “visionary both within Microsoft and the industry at large.” This week, Stone will visit the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to give a presentation on her work with the Hutch.

“Bernard Glassman at NCI heard about this project and really wanted us to come out to give a presentation,” Stone says. “They want to stay on top of cutting-edge technology that could serve the population they work with.”

Stone explains that the collaborative project with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a virtual world designed for cancer patients, their families and friends. Users enter the virtual world by connecting to the Internet and entering their “HutchWorld” password. The virtual world is a three-dimensional rendering of the actual outpatient lobby at the Hutch. A volunteer sits behind the reception desk to welcome patients and their families and provide them with information. Participants are represented in the virtual world by an “avatar”-a photograph or graphic depiction of themselves. The avatars are capable of several different gestures, allowing participants to register various moods and emotions such as happiness, sadness and frustration.

Patients and their families can visit a virtual gift shop, and leave virtual flowers and a box of candy in each other’s mailboxes. They can click on people’s pictures and read their profiles. Based on the profile information, they may want to leave a message for someone who has undergone similar treatment. They can hold public chat discussions or invitation-only meetings in private rooms. They can enter the auditorium to view presentations and materials prepared by the Hutch, and visit the Hutch library to use its resources. Children attending the Hutch School can share drawings and papers in the virtual world, and even act in a school play.

Patients and Their Families Benefit

The virtual world benefits patients and their families before, during and after they come to the Hutch, Stone says. Patients and their families can log onto the Internet before coming to the Hutch to meet staff, learn about Seattle and tour the center’s apartments. Once they arrive, they can use the virtual world to get the social support they need without exposure to situations that might challenge their immune systems. After returning home, they can visit the virtual world from any location to keep in touch with Hutch staff and volunteers and to offer support to new patients and their families.

“The patients undergoing treatment at the Hutch are in a position where they need social support and information more than they have at almost any time in their lives,” Stone says. “And yet they’re in a position where they can’t go out because they might be in danger if they’re exposed to germs or to situations that a normal immune system could handle.”

Ann Marie Clark, a Hutchinson employee who has been working with Microsoft on the project, agrees. “The transplant process causes patients’ immune systems to become compromised, so they really have to restrict their contact with people, which can be pretty isolating,” says Clark, who is director of the center’s Arnold Library. “This kind of thing is an ideal way for them to stay in touch with other people without risking themselves, so we thought that was pretty exciting.”

Microsoft and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are currently in the process of training Hutch volunteers who work with cancer patients and their families to use the virtual world, Stone says. The two organizations are planning to deploy the virtual world to a small number of patients and their families this fall, to a slightly larger audience next spring, and to a broad audience in the fall of 1999.

Once fully implemented, Clark believes the virtual world will help the Hutch provide better social support to its patients and their families.

“People interact when they’re physically together whether it’s the outpatient clinic lobby or if they’re in the inpatient ward-they cross paths,” Clark says. “But there isn’t a really formal way in which people are typically encouraged to interact like this and help each other. Whether it’s the patient or their family member, they’re all affected and they all have potential interest in talking to each other, and this gives them a whole new way to communicate.”

Virtual Worlds Offer Variety of Uses

The Hutch project grew out of the Virtual Worlds Group’s work to develop a platform that facilitates social interaction on the Internet. Stone and her team have spent the last few years striving to develop a virtual worlds platform that makes interacting with people over the Internet easy, rewarding and productive. Built using Microsoft’s ActiveX and DirectX technologies, the virtual worlds platform supports a variety of customizable user interfaces.

Stone’s group is in the process of creating a software developer kit to provide developers with a set of tools to build their own, unique virtual world applications. Using the platform developed by the Virtual Worlds Group, developers could eventually create applications that bring people together over the Internet for education, entertainment and business.

From School Children to Cyberspace

Stone’s entrance into high technology and her subsequent job at Microsoft came about circuitously. Stone worked for nine years as an elementary school teacher, university-level instructor and children’s librarian in the Seattle area. A crippling car accident in the early 1980s left Stone unable to walk. While recovering from the accident, Stone began delving into the cyber world using a variety of computers available at the time. Once she was walking again, Stone attended a meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she met a woman who worked for Synectics Inc., a Massachusetts-based consulting firm that helps businesses with issues related to creativity and group processes.

From her position as school librarian, Stone began working with Synectics to apply their techniques to education. Her ideas drew the attention of an Apple Computer executive, who spent several months trying to recruit Stone after attending the same Synectics workshop.

“This Apple person looked at me and said, ‘Apple doesn’t necessarily just hire people who fit a specific job,’ ” Stone recalls. ” ‘Apple hires people who are smart, and then finds a place for them. You would just be a great fit for Apple.’ And I replied saying, ‘What are you talking about? I’m a children’s librarian.’ ”

While Stone often receives surprised looks when she tells people she switched careers from education to high technology, she maintains that all of her jobs have allowed her to focus on the questions that interest her most.

“You’ve got to follow your interests and your passions, and the things that matter to you,” she says. “And the questions that have always been really interesting to me are, ‘What is learning? What is communication? What is intelligence? What is creativity? How can people express themselves more effectively?’ My whole life, I’ve been looking in different ways at these problems, whether it was through Synectics, through teaching or, now, through our work in virtual worlds.”

The Net as a Social Medium

Stone worked at Apple for seven years, where she was involved in multimedia market development. She decided to take a break in 1993, and was recruited to Microsoft by Nathan Myhrvold, the company’s chief technology officer. While working on several special projects, Stone began to believe that the Internet would emerge not just as an interesting content medium but also as an important communication medium.

“If you look at the history of the telephone, people in the latter part of the last century thought the telephone was a content medium before they thought it was a communication medium.” Stone says. “People have viewed the Net as a content medium. It is really both a content and a communication medium.”

Stone approached Myhrvold with her idea in 1994, and Myhrvold introduced her to a Microsoft developer interested in the same topic. The two started the Virtual Worlds Group that year, and went on to develop Microsoft V-Chat, a software program that allows users to create avatars to represent them in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional environments. The group’s work also contributed to the development of Microsoft Chat, a program that enables users to represent themselves as cartoon characters during conversations that are scripted in comic strip form.

Just as the telephone bridged the distance created by the automobile, which enabled people to live and work farther apart, Stone believes the Internet is bridging the even greater distances created by air travel.

“What we’re really coming up with is a toolkit, and the Hutch project is one of the first examples of a user interface and application on top of this toolkit,” she says. “There are many possibilities for this. The over-40 age group may not be the key audience. There’s definitely a trend to use the Net as a social medium. Anyone under 30 knows it and lives it-the Net is ‘the street.’ ”

Stone says her group is particularly interested in new technologies and situations that can enhance and enable community: “I think a lot of groups initially thought that technology would form community, and if they put their 3-D representational technology out there, communities would form. What we believe is that communities don’t form out of software. That’s like saying communities form out of cement. Communities form out of relationships, shared history and shared purpose. Our software can be used by existing communities to add value.”

A Visionary and Pragmatic Leader

In addition to drawing attention from computer industry leaders, Stone has earned the respect of colleagues within Microsoft and at the Hutch, who describe her as both a visionary thinker and a pragmatic person who effectively turns her ideas into action.

“Linda’s very visionary,” says Lili Cheng, a lead program manager in the Virtual Worlds Group who is working with Stone on the Hutch project. “She’s very good at spotting new trends before they happen. She talks to a lot of people and listens carefully, and when we’re making decisions about product features, she always wants to know, ‘Why is this important?’ And this is how the Hutch project started. It’s really about how our work can help people.”

“One of Linda’s strengths is that she thinks out of the box,” says Barbara Dingfield, Microsoft’s director of Community Affairs, who introduced Stone to the Hutch and worked with her to fund the project. “The virtual worlds technology which her group has been working on is pretty cutting-edge stuff, and here she was trying to say, ‘Is there an application for it in a real-life environment where we could make a difference?’ And I thought it was a really creative idea.”

“Linda’s been a real visionary and she’s been really tenacious and dedicated to this project,” says the Hutch’s Clark. “We’re really grateful to her for her generosity, for her vision and for her persistence with this. It’s been an interesting project for us, and we’re really exploring some brave new worlds.”

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