Thursday, 30 August 2012

Project on Hold but not Forgotten!

Unfortunately and fortunately, my summer has come to an end and the greater hours of my day must be dedicated to my graduate research. While I do not want to put the project on hold, I have little choice. Even dedicating only one hour a day will spill out into three or four and I cannot afford to do that–just when it was getting good! I ultimately decided, for now, to use a local webserver in order to generate dynamic webpages containing PNGs of the local conversation and so far my tests have been very successful.

For now, I plan to spend as little time in front of a computer as possible for the next several months.

I salute you, then, in peace, Internet.

Saturday, 18 August 2012


So what do my "fruitless efforts" look like as of late? If you are new to my project, snoop around the blog or have a look at my most recent entry which will give you more than enough information. Also, I refer to fruitlessness here as a sort of self-inflicted reverse psychology for ironic motivational purposes. As if I were capable of such a thing. Wooh.

Uh, anyway. If you're using Windows, head on over to Mermaid Elizabeth's download page and start using Microsoft Chat. Note the help page as well if you're using a newer version of Windows.

If you're on Linux and remember using Microsoft Chat back in the day, consider following my project or even lending me a creative hand! Good luck.

Progress Report: "Comic Chat" Shell for Linux

Some amount of progress has been made since my previous post, although there is still quite a way to go.

Remember the internet in the 1990s? If not, you probably don't remember Comic Chat.

My original efforts, as you may recall, were to run Microsoft Chat, that is Comic Chat, on a GNU/Linux operating system. During the initial, conventional WINE troubleshooting, it dawned upon me that Comic Chat is nearly 20 years old. A century in the world of technology. My effort then, one of technological nostalgia, transformed into a more creative endeavor: to duplicate Microsoft Comic Chat on my own system and improve it when necessary.

As I am not a developer, and in judging my word please acknowledge this disclaimer, my options are limited. I cannot aim to provide an IRC client for Linux users that replicates Comic Chat. I can, however, work on top of other clients and build local bash scripts that work on top of those clients in order to suit my own needs. When I began this project two months ago, I had the important decision to make of choosing a client. I am increasingly confident that Weechat was the right choice. FlashTux's support of the really handy FIFO pipe has made my own limitations a potential strength, allowing practically unlimited possibilities of shell-to-IRC-client interaction. Weechat is fast, powerful, flexible, and featureful; the only limitations I have encountered have been met with either solutions or workarounds thanks to a little hacker creativity and the continuous support of FlashTux, the developer, on his website forums.

If I do manage to bring this project to a completely workable state before half the applications used in the scripts change or break, I will begin to look at moving slowly out of bash and into probably python-based Weechat plugins. For now, I am running off the built in features of weechat, a few hacked Weechat plugins from the web, and a few hundred lines of bash scripts that communicate with Weechat.

The drawing of image bubbles needs a good deal of work. The patchy one-line bubble pictured above is about as good as it gets; longer messages run off the screen. Only outgoing messages are being drawn, incoming messages are still text only at the moment.

The memorable randomly generated ("Networked Nerds," "You Shoulda Been There," etc.) title that filled the first pane in Microsoft Chat has been duplicated at the top of the user list; this list is generated by a bash script which reads the Weechat room log upon joining a room. The icons represent the actual icons corresponding to the characters that are associated with the given nicknames. User names are numbered, as scene below each icon, as are all the possible outgoing poses for the local user's own character file.

The outgoing message prompt, in the gray terminal on the left side of the screen toward the bottom, is automatically prefixed with the format "0t0." The number preceding the "t" represents the pose code, corresponding with the pose that will be sent to Comic Chat users. If it is left at "0," then one of the neutral poses will be selected, or the proper emotion/gesture will be interpreted based on the message the user sends out (for example "hello" will trigger a wave or a grin, etc.) The number following the "t" indicates who will be the recipient of the outgoing message, that is, who will be featured in the comic pane. Sending to multiple users or the whole room will be supported in the future, as will sending out "thoughts," "actions," or "whispers," instead of normal speech bubble messages.

All graphics are, for the moment, generated on the fly by Image Magick and local, saved "comic art." They are then displayed with feh which is basically fine for displaying the nicks list, for example, but very unpleasant and inappropriate for pages of comic panes generated in a busy IRC channel. I simply have not encountered the resources necessary to do this "appropriately" (as though any of this is appropriate, I should not be doing this project as I am not a developer and bash is not a programming language) and am open to suggestions. Ultimately, I would like to find a *nix image viewer, or some other sort of already existing program, that can dynamically update the image displayed whenever it is modified, perhaps displaying four comic panes at a time.

In the mean time, there is a lot of work to do behind the scenes. Microsoft Chat does not handle away messages according to IRC standards, but generates a "coffee cup" icon to indicate away statuses based on CTCP messages under the format "PRIVMSG #Channel :\01AWAY Gone fishing.\01". Scripts have to be provided that send the away message not only when going away, but every time a new member joins. It should also be remembered in between "sessions" in case there is a crash, etc. Woodsman figured out how to automate this in a mIRC script he released back in 2000, but as far as I know it has not been done in a native *nix client until now. Ultimately, my work here should and hopefully eventually will be remade into a native plugin for Weechat, rather than an outside bash script piped in.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Vintage Comic Chat

As I have suggested in the past, those wishing to continue to entertain their nostalgia for Comic Chat will most likely succeed in doing so only if the experience is approximated and improved upon in new software, leaving the old Microsoft Chat behind as the powers at Microsoft themselves have done.

While it has been my own goal this year to build an elementary proof of concept interface that replicates (and is compatible with) Microsoft's own Comic Chat, specifically in order to make use of Comic Chat in a GNU/Linux environment, an Italian team headed by another nostalgic Comic Chat user, Gianluca Nicoletti, has begun a project known as "Vintage Comic Chat," specifically aimed for Windows 7 and Windows mobile devices.

"The main purpose of this project is to re-create an application resembling Comic Chat, the imaginative product created by Microsoft in the Nineties, updated to use current computer technologies, available on Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 first, then the other platforms available on the market.

The features will be the exact as in the original product: a text line will transform the words into a cartoon characters and dialogue Between the Interaction Between users will create graphic panels. Users Will Be Mainly focusing on the content, Because The context will be provided by the Software That Will interpret words and subtle meanings in order to create cohesive and interesting comic stories.
The graphic appearance and artwork will be new; However, it will keep the vintage style that made the original so appealing Comic Chat.
The idea behind the project is to bring back to life a great product that, though discontinued, is still appealing to millions of people."

Nicoletti hopes to revive the Comic Chat experience not only for fun and games, but also for various business venues as well as a means of presenting information in new and promising ways to work with students with different learning abilities and autism.

Nicoletti has apparently been using for his project the room "GN_Vintage_2.0" on the currently active Comic Chat server Comic-Sun, although the room does not appear to be in use or registered at this time.

David Kurlander, retired author of Microsoft Chat whose name you may recognize from his Comic Chat page linked to on Mermaid Elizabeth's front page for some time, is purportedly an advisor to the project.


Monday, 4 June 2012

"This person is too lazy to create a profile entry."

While today I am a graduate student working on my master's degree in the humanities, I have been using Microsoft Chat roughly since I was in the fourth grade, creating Comic Chat characters since around middle school.

Among other things, my main contribution was a set of Star Trek themed Microsoft Chat characters, created by colorizing and modifying some of the original characters that came with Microsoft Chat (modifying these being a common practice among other AVB or character makers).1

As a curious middle schooler, at one point I even discovered that by modifying the CChat.exe executable in a hex editor, I was able to replace Microsoft Chat's ability to play RMI files with that of MP3 files, allowing fellow users (at least those who followed the technique) to send MP3 sounds to channels and hear them even though the client had been made before the popularity of the now ubiquitous MP3 audio format. It is in this same spirit, now several years later, that I have created this blog, in which I hope to share my observations as I tinker with Microsoft Chat, attempt to discover how it works, and how to make the most of it (note Eric S. Raymond et al.'s definition of a hacker).

1. Some of these were of a higher quality than others, and most included roughly one to two dozen poses and gestures. While my old website, The Comic Chat Connection, is no longer updated, an archived version where copies of my characters can be downloaded is still available courtesy of Mermaid Elizabeth.

Running Microsoft Chat in GNU/Linux

Unfortunately, it seems that it is only with techniques currently beyond the domain of this blog that Microsoft Chat may be run in GNU/Linux or other operating systems under Wine, the usual method of running Windows applications in Unix-like operating systems.

It is possible to install Microsoft Chat 2.1, the older version of the program, on GNU/Linux systems via Wine. The result, however, is not functional. The executable can successfully be loaded, but comic pane and speech bubble borders are so thick that they distort the presentation and render the conversation completely unreadable, if it is generated at all:

As Microsoft Chat 2.1 is limited to the default black and white characters (and is unable to display any of the many thousands of user-made AVBs or character files generated in the Microsoft Chat Character Editor, it is considered obsolete by Comic Chat users. Generally speaking, it would not meet the demands of most users attempting to use this software on their own operating system.

While I am able to install the later Microsoft Chat 2.5, I am unable to run the installed executable. Wine-dbg yields the error:

err:seh:setup_exception_record stack overflow 976 bytes in thread 0039 eip 7bc70340 esp 00240f60 stack 0x240000-0x241000-0x340000
Process of pid=0038 has terminated
As I do not have a lot of experience troubleshooting in Wine (truthfully I do not desire to run many Windows applications), my planned efforts will not involve running Microsoft Chat on Linux per se, but emulating or imitating the experience of Comic Chat in a GNU/Linux environment, in such a way that appears functional and compatible with Microsoft Chat from the perspective of all users involved. As I am not a developer, I can only provide hints and some of the steps necessary toward building a native Linux client; I cannot create own myself. Such a project would depend on other interested parties. I will attempt through various means to see how Microsoft Chat works behind the scenes, and I will share that information here. As I gradually learn more information about running Microsoft Chat under Wine, that information will be posted here as well.

In the mean time, you may consider running your own copy of Windows under Linux via virtualization software such as VirtualBox. This is how I currently access Microsoft Chat. Or, if you're interested in intellectual mating with my creative spirit à distance, consider following my project to "port" a mostly cross-compatible "Comics Mode" to Linux.

While Microsoft Chat has finally removed the download from their own website, you can still download it (in multiple languages) from Mermaid Elizabeth's still regularly updated website, where you can also follow links to download characters and backgrounds and find out where Comic Chat users continue to lurk to this day.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

"You Shoulda Been There"

Microsoft Chat – the best IRC client ever? Perhaps not the best IRC client as such, it may indeed have been the most creative and imaginative among popular clients of its era or any other thus far. Microsoft Chat, developed throughout the late 1990s, may at least today be best defined not by its function but by the memory of its experience; "Comic Chat," a feature with which the software became largely synonymous, took online chatting and gave it a twist that was new and exciting.

While lacking the advanced functionality of some clients catered to the more technically inclined, Microsoft Chat found its audience among popular users. This demographic shifted, however, when Microsoft decided to "go another direction" (a nice way of saying "you're fired") and permanently closed its IRC servers in 2001, a moment in the memory of some that marked one event in a wider wrinkling away of an Internet golden age. In addition to the general remnants of its early userbase, the ever shrinking Microsoft Chat small pocket populace would include computer enthusiasts, artists, and web-designers among its most unyielding loyalists.

While the numbers continue to shrink, Microsoft Chat is employed and enjoyed by several within that strand of society that never wants to let go of a good piece of software – geek culture, however broadly defined.

Microsoft Chat

The one time in your computer literate life when it's okay to use Comic Sans MS.