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A quick look back at when Microsoft created a comic book generating online chat client

Microsoft comic chat

On occasion, Microsoft will shut down some software apps that it feels have outlived their use. Last week it announced that the Xbox Console Companion app will shut down on August 28. This week, it disabled the standalone Cortana app for Windows 11 PCs. They join a long history of Microsoft apps and services that have either been closed completely or morphed into new apps with different names.

One of the more interesting canceled Microsoft apps and services is one that in many ways was ahead of its time but has since been forgotten by most people. It's called Microsoft Comic Chat, and it basically is an IRC client that created 2D comic book panels for users who wanted to chat with others. It's a bit of a precursor to today's popular generative AI art creators like Midjourney, DALL-E, or Microsoft's own Bing Image Creator.

Microsoft Comic Chat began as a project for the company's Research division. The main person behind the initial idea was David "DJ" Kurlander, and he talks about some of the ideas behind the program on his official website. Kurlander, who has since retired from Microsoft, first developed Comic Chat in 1995, and he, along with team members Tim Skelly and David Salesin, wrote a paper about its creation for the SIGGRAPH graphics developers conference in 1996.

In that paper, the authors wrote about some of the issues they felt graphical chat services had at that time. They include issues like the "relatively static nature" of chat room backgrounds, users taking time to do things other than chatting like navigating rooms to find conversations, and that chat histories were regulated to just storing text conversations.

Microsoft Research's project was created to help with many of these problems. The paper stated:

We have built a system, called “Comic Chat,” that automatically generates comics to depict on-line graphical chats. Relying on the rules of comic panel composition, this system chooses which avatars (presented as comic characters) to include in each panel, determines their placement and orientation, constructs word balloons of multiple types, and places these word balloons according to the rules for proper reading order. The system also chooses an appropriate camera zoom factor for each panel, decides when to begin a new panel, and selects default gestures and expressions that the participants can override.

Microsoft comic chat

The artwork that was created for this chat client was originally drawn by well-known indie comic book artist Jim Woodring. There's no word on how Kurlander and his Comic Chat team chose Woodring for the program's art style, but it certainly was an inspired decision to bring him in for this project. His art resembles that of the underground comic art trend from the 1960s and 1970s and gives the chat program a distinctive look.

Besides its ability to create new comic book panels on the fly for online chats, Comic Chat also had a "emotion wheel" where users could alter the look of their 2D avatar to express different emotions. Kurlander wrote on his site:

The circle at the bottom includes a number of emotions at its periphery (laughing, happy, coy, bored, scared, sad, angry, and shouting). At the center of the circle is the neutral expression. As the user moves the selector from the center of the circle towards an expression at the periphery, the character's emotion becomes more intense. For example, here an intensely angry emotion is chosen on the emotion wheel, and the self-view of the character reflects this. When the user next types a chat utterance, their character will be drawn in a panel with the same gesture and expression as in the self-view.

Microsoft Comic Chat was officially launched to the public in 1996 as part of Internet Explorer 3. It would later be released as part of IE 4 and 5, and would also be bundled with Windows 98 and Windows NT 5. It would later be renamed as just Microsoft Chat.

In 2001, Microsoft decided to shut down the official servers for Microsoft Chat and the development of the client ended. As a result, the program quickly lost a lot of its audience. However, the last version of Comic Chat (2.5) is still available to download from many places. If you are interested, you can check out Mermaid Elizabeth's website which has a ton of resources on Comic Chat, including a way to find some IRC servers that still support the program.

In this new generative AI age, perhaps Microsoft should take a look at creating a new version of Comic Chat. Combining Bing Chat with Bing Comic Creator would be a very interesting new experiment.

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