Exploring and Building
Virtual Worlds on the Internet
Visions of Avatar Cyberspace:
The Internet in 2001, Way Beyond the Web
We are Going Way, Way Beyond the Web
It was May 11, 1995 and I had come back from Internet World in San Jose where I had just seen the public launch of VRML (the Virtual Reality Modeling Language) and met Mark Pesce and other creators of the virtual worlds movement for the first time. The previous month myself and Anthropologist Jim Funaro had agreed to go ahead with the formation of a new organization, the Contact Consortium, which would be ready to enrich the new communities of Avatar virtual worlds when they appeared on the Internet, which we thought would happen some time before the year 2000.
I sat down at my trusty PC here in the lab and connected to the net. I had been surfing the Web for about eight months and was starting to wonder: "there must be something more out there than just all these documents"? It was nice to finally have a graphical user interface for the Internet but it was starting to get in the way of what I had been using the Internet for since 1984: to communicate with people. With the Web turning the Internet into a giant bulletin board, it seemed to be leaving its roots in community. In my inbox was an email (from whom I can't remember) which described a three dimensional space station world where you could enter as a character (avatar) in the form of a person, chess piece, blowfish and talk with people. I went to the website and downloaded the software from a company called Knowledge Adventure Worlds (later renamed Worlds, Inc.).
A moment of epiphany
I was half expecting some kind of a of a MUD with a crude graphical window. Boy was I surprised! When I started it up I was landed in a smoothly flowing, beautifully designed 3D world. It kind of reminded me of Doom but with more polish and it seemed to me that this world would not be full of monsters and killing. I was placed first into an Avatar Gallery. I wandered around for a while amongst portraits of avatars and found a window out into space, where I could see a space station floating there. I thought, this is going to be good! I clicked on an avatar and pressed a button to go into the world. I materialized in a room. I looked around and the first thing I spied seemed to be another person. I daintily crept over to the corner where this avatar was sitting, careful not to crash into her. I was new to this world and did not know the rules. I began to type something, to try to get her attention. After a minute of no response, came a text message "I think she's a bot". I turned around and there facing me was another avatar. "She's been sitting there for a while, I think she may be a bot". I thanked the person and asked her to help me out. I didn't know what a bot was and I was a "newbie" in a brand new world. I was breathless with excitement, for here was proof that avatar Cyberspace was possible on ordinary computers through ordinary telephone lines. It was a moment of epiphany and I knew that the medium would emerge quickly. I went to work hard on building up the Contact Consortium and began to lay the groundwork for this book.
May 11, 1995, 1:55 am
To: Consortium-ites and CONTACTies:
KAWORLDS (Worlds Chat) is Great! I finally got it working and you just move around this space station exploring and talking to the other real human avatars, cast as people, blowfish etc. They guide you around to their secret discoveries. If they turn to you they can see you etc. the Snowcrash vision is alive!
ALL GRAPHICAL! Typing your correspondence mudlike. This stuff is HOT and just about to explode!
Come over and see this working!
Future Visions of Avatar Cyberspace
Let's take a journey, far from that day in May 1995 and out into the new Millennium. What will Avatar Cyberspace look like in five years, in ten, or fifty? What will people be using virtual worlds for? The following is a collection of visions that have been bouncing about in my mind for the past two years. I hope they stimulate your imagination and help you see beyond the limited virtual worlds you will explore through this book. To bring us back down to Earth, I have included some actual datelines, real events that are happening today that make these visions seem not so far fetched!
- A HoloDeck in Every Home: In the 21st Century we all Go Back to the CAVEs
- Cyber Cults that will make Heaven's Gate look like a Tupperware party
- Big Brother Avatar: Watch Where you put your Interface!
- Digital Be-Ins, Gathering Places of the Global Cybertribes
- Cyborgs at Work: Being There in the Virtual Workspace
- Friends and Family Spaces, the 21st Century Telephone
- And Life Will Out
- Epilogue: Are you Being Digital, What about your Digital Being?
A HoloDeck in Every Home: In the 21st Century we all Go Back to the CAVEs
Texas hill country, suburban Austin, spring 2002, where no home would be complete without a C.A.V.E., a room whose every surface is coated in pixel paint, reverberating with Dolby Super Tri-X sound and capable of delivering almost any experience. Fiercely hyped HoloDeck media startups crank out total experiences for teenagers who cracked their first virtual teeth back in the 90's on old Nintendo 64s. Nintendo's current lineup: 'Decks of '02 feature a million Marios hacking their way through an infinite jungle inhabited by an ecosystem of digital biota. The jungle is in the Net and at least someone you know is one of those Marios. The walls radiate the visualstim, buried woofers shake your bones and body clasping haptics pump your blood. As your eyes dart about, total triangulation lasers play across your corneas and know just where your sight is falling. No sense in wasting net bandwidth on sending you what you won't see. If you are able to afford a high end TORUS 'Deck or even more phenomenally Saudi Oil Minister budget MOEBIUSTRIP 'Deck, your feet and heart will do the pounding as you run through corridors and open spaces in infinitely unveiling resolution.
Holodeck area in the Borg World, May 1997
Velocoraptors in the Marioverse
In this world, every plant is constantly growing and the jungle will never, ever be the same from visit to visit. But that is OK, because these kids are the first generation to really thrive on complexity. But it is not a world for the faint of heart. Those hoary things crashing through the undergrowth after the scent of Mario's meat have been evolving and getting mighty clever, learning on their own how to hunt in packs like Velocoraptors. The kids of Millennial Texas will enter their 'Decks and jump into the Marioverse with the other jacked-in minions from the planetary techno-elite. Hunkered down in virtual Q labs buried deep under the roots of the sentient jungle, these kids will be hacking the genetic code of their own Marios, building better war bots, and growing L-system tripwire vines, all to make survival on the surface last more than a few minutes.
Experimental Tottooine Star Wars world, May 1997
These kids' aging Boomer parents and grandparents will occasionally decompress the 'Deck and throw out the kids to tune in and turn on to Turner Tri-D remastered experiences of their youth, like Woodstock World where they will relive the sights, sounds and smells of the 20th's greatest rockfest. Aged trekkies will role play every part in every episode of every version of Trek, with live 3D enterprises Other Trek crewmembers will beam in as gorgeous, articulated avatars barking commands about overloading warp drives. Every film, TV series, book or live newsworthy event of the 20th will have its remake by the Avvywood MegaSim studios and be showing at a HoloDeck near in your network neighborhood. No-one would have known it, those few teen Dungeons and Dragons addicts of the 70s would grow into hordes of MUDers in the 80s and then discover Avatars in their millions in the 90s. And they will go on to remake TV in their own image, for it is their one great common heritage.
And it will Eat You
Yes, Ray Bradbury saw it all almost a half century ago in his short story The Veldt, part of a collection called The Illustrated Man. In The Veldt, the kids in this not-so Ozzie and Harriet family recreate an African Savannah in their friendly family HoloDeck where the lions are really very hungry and the youngsters solve the parental control problem once and for all.
Dateline Fall 1996: the US Marine Corps begins using Quake, a multi-player avatar kill game, in their combat team training.
Cyber Cults that will make Heaven's Gate look like a Tupperware party
Scenes of Teoworld Biota
Humming the seven Chakras into the Utopia world
Avatars in Utopia world singing into the circle
Heaven's Gate, this century's first truly successful cyberdeath cult, will pale and wither away in front of the Metacults of virtual world Cyberspace. Electrowire your body direct to the seven chackras and teleport your mind into your guru's total headspace. What is the trigger to your subservience, your shaman will find the right look, feel, voice and persuasion to lock you down. The special Coolaid crystal pouch comes to your door delivered by the nervous Fed-ex driver and you will now give every cell to the silver bearded man speaking to you from Cyberspace. All those billion billion hours in front of the tube back in the 20th were just a warm up act for avaddiction occult.
Dateline March 1997: Thirty Nine Heaven's Gate cult members commit mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California. On their website is found a VRML 3D world consisting of a black cube full of stars. Around this cube orbit seven spheres. Nobody knows or will ever know the significance of this first ever cult virtual object.
Big Brother Avatar: Watch Where you put your Interface!
When virtual worlds have populations in the millions.. when the value of property around Ground Zeros will exceed all but the most valued square footage in real world retail.. when the body politic reconstitutes itself like a multicellular organism inside avatar virtual societies.. how will the old power structures react? Can't put the cuffs on that avatar! Will we see a Stephensonian world of snow crashed nation states? Will the Geek truly inherit the Earth, or will the old structure go to war over the new Cyberspace?
Dateline April 1996: the author and John Perry Barlow first discuss the concept of property, vandalism and law enforcement in avatar CyberSpace. Barlowe holds that there will be no property in Cyberspace, only relationship. While this debate is going on, vandals strike the east side of the Sherwood Forest, a virtual village built by 60 people in a 3D avatar world. The vandals take out 10 hectares of prime building land and the area takes over a year to get reclaimed through formal appeal to virtual city officials.
Digital Be-Ins, Gathering Places of the Global Cybertribes
Pharohnic avatar head addressing the Be-In crowd from a 50 foot wall screen
It is December 31, 1999 and all over the planet, millions of people teleport into a huge digital Be-In. Sixty foot high avatars address the crowds from giant electronic billboards in New York's Times Square, Prague's Wenceslas Square, and Beijing's Tiennamin Square. Actors on the streets in body suits mime their way into virtual worlds. Millions of partygoers follow the rhythm and dance in and out of Cyberspace. Fireworks go off in Cyberspace as the zeros roll in across the time zones. Avatars go wild.
Dateline August 1996: the first Voce chant is held by Phil Harrington and Paul Godwin in the Onlive Traveler virtual world the with participation of audiences at SIGGRAPH 96 in New Orleans.
Dateline 7:00pm, January 9th, 1997: the first large avatar teleport opens at the Digital Be-in in San Francisco and runs for five hours, serving over 2,000 people.
Cyborgs at Work: Being There in the Virtual Workspace
Pop in that monocle and enter the world of Cyborg worker. Why take that red-eye flight when you can be teleported directly into offices and factories modeled for you in real time? Who is physically and who is virtually there will make less difference in the cyborgic virtual workspaces of 2010. Don a tiny Borg-like monocular viewer and deal with your avatar attendees and physical presences at the same time. Fly at high speed through every department and cubicle in the organization and sail off into the abstract dataspaces that bind them all together. Like the first true cyborgs coming out of the MIT Media Lab in the 1990s, the power worker will exist in many places at once and see many views of the world, both real and highly abstract.
Virtual workspaces will be expensive, so deep-pocket businesses will pay for their development. Lets take a look at two high buck candidates for the virtual workspace.
Ghosts in the New Machine: Flying Avatars in the Boeing Superjumbo Plant of 2010
Engineering teams move ghostlike, unseen except through the engineer's monocle which show the virtual plant and its virtual visitors. He leads a group toward the trouble spot in the airframe of the giant 800 seater Boeing-Airbus superjumbo problem resolution team members teleport in from all over the aerospace world, visible to the worker in the plant as phototextured avatars sailing down the length of the plant in seconds. The engineer stops in his tracks and watches as his virtual companions fly up from his spot on the floor and swarm about the giant airframe (also completely modeled inside the virtual plant). These avatars start to sprout cyborg appendages: hovering cameras give them an insect-eye's view of the finest details; micro electromechanical system sensors embedded in every object give them a touch and inner feeling of the entire airframe and its parts; robot manipulators catwalking the structure give them hands and feet. The problem holding up production of this billion dollar monster is resolved and the avatars disappear. The whole episode is stored 'holographically' so that managers can replay it standing in any position.
Dateline 10:00am, January 29th, 1997: Boeing researchers meet with the author in the AlphaWorld 3D cityscape inside a structure they had built at coordinates 1050 north, 197 west. The author did not have to fly to Seattle to attend this meeting.
Virtual combat with our greatest enemies
Beyond Boeing, out in surgeon's offices around the world, doctors don operating avatars and enter the tissues and vessels of patients. Paying strange homage to the late 20th Century film Fantastic Voyage doctors and interns congregate for consultation in a giant real time model of a patient's diseased lung. MEMS effectors piloted by surgeons through the body graft tissue and directly inject cells with nucleic gene-therapeutics. A thousand surgeons remotely jack into a patient lying in a 3D scanner and hunt down and destroy a systemic cancer. Nano-virologists don a cloak of molecules, becoming virtual antibodies to do battle in mock wars with mutations of the greatest enemy Human Beings have ever faced: the filovirus Ebola. The world at the level of the immune system all looks like Space Invaders. The video arcade of our youth may have trained the doctors and medical researchers of our old age.
Dateline January 1996: HITLab researchers from the University of Washington present a model of the Harborview Hospital Trauma Center (complete with patient) at the fourth Medicine Meets Virtual Reality Conference in San Diego. The researchers don VR headmounts and fly over the patient and through the pulse lines of his vital signs.
Friends and Family Spaces, the 21st Century Telephone
All the relatives meet in baby's room. Like a combination kitchen and playroom, it is a virtual space custom built to experience the life and times of baby Bo. The room-length refrigerator door will one day be totally coated with baby's images, drawings, and mashed potato art. Fly over by the counters and the drawers sense your presence and automatically open up to let out Bo's baby musings and first words. And look up and there are all the relatives in giant head avatars coo coo-ing over Bo, who floats there like a pink balloon, grabbing for the relatives like baubles. Bo's Kitchen World is just one of hundreds that this family owns and operates from the house HoloDeck.
Dateline July 1996: on his own, baby Markee Kindrick grabs the microphone and sucks and screams his way into a the Utopia virtual world running on the family computer, becoming the youngest human being to use an avatar on the Internet. Winter 1997: the first marital picture gallery is built by newlyweds in Active Worlds.
And Life Will Out
Deep in one of those forests in the Nintendo Marioverse is evolving something new. The remnants of a smashed ogre graft together with a trip vine to create a form of virtualife so tough, and so flexible that a million Marios can't defeat it. For a long while they just don't even notice it. When it has grown so large that it sucks up almost all the poly budget energy, life in the Marioverse comes to a virtual standstill. The kids hack and hack grafts of the genetic code and still it evolves to survive and absorb all introduced parasites. A giant slime mold drapes itself across the virtual horizon. U.S. Army biohazard experts invoke National Security laws and seize the world. Unknown to the Army, the kids still have grafts and they reintroduce a mutation into Marioverse II. And so it goes.
Scenes of Teoworld Biota
Savannah in Teo World
Jungle in Teo World
In digital space life has finally found a place to evolve beyond its age old restrictions. No longer is life limited by the supply of available atoms or the slow clock tick of chemical reactions. No more is life trapped by the bonds of Earth, for it can travel massless and at the speed of light across the solar system. And now, in the mid 21st Century, nanofabricators have brought life back out of the matrix into atomic form. A nanite species of crustacean coats the surface of asteroids, absorbing direct sunlight and chewing up the hard baked surface. Polypores float in the rich Jovian atmosphere, all bound together by an interspecies radio data network. Million year lifespan living spacecraft carry their human cargo in total mind/body symbiosis out beyond the reaches of the solar system.
Timeline December 1996: Tom Ray at ATR in Japan reports that 660 billion individual synthetic organisms have emerged from the latest runs of Tierra, the world's first large scale digital ecosystem. He also reports that several new coping strategies have evolved to enable hosts to deal with surging parasite populations.
Epilogue: Are you Being Digital, What about your Digital Being?
Hey, 2001 didn't happen, and we are not going to be able to visit the Clavius moonbase or Jupiter any time soon. But we still have our imaginations and a great new vista to create and explore: digital space. Back in the early 1990s, Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, wrote a seminal book Being Digital. Today, with more and more people being seen on the Internet, it might be time to ask the question "what about your Digital Being"? I hope that this book gives you a good first look and a meaningful experience in a medium that is likely to be as important to the 21st Century as the Telephone, Radio, Film and TV were to the 20th.