If telephone, radio, film, and TV defined life in the 20th century, the virtual world is the one true new medium of the 21st. The virtual world combines aspects of all these earlier technologies creating something novel in human experience. This column is dedicated to a brief exploration of the origins, evolution, and future of this profound new medium.
If we define the virtual world as a place described by words or projected through pictures, which creates a space in the imagination real enough that you can feel you are inside of it, then the painted caves of our ancestors, shadow puppetry, the 17th-century Lanterna Magica, a good book, play or movie are all gateways to virtual worlds. Humanity's most powerful new tool, the digital computer, was also destined to become a purveyor of virtual worlds, but with a new twist: The computer enables the virtual world to be both inhabited and cocreated by people participating from different physical locations.
Text-based role-playing games that operated on time-sharing systems prefigured the explosion of imaginative word-built worlds of Adventure, Avatar and other games on PLATO, the first MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), and other online environments of the 1970s and '80s. As the age of affordable graphical computing dawned, there was a natural instinct to create visual versions of these experiences (with the unintended forfeiture of the imaginative contribution of written language). The new-born medium of the graphical, digital virtual world experienced a "Cambrian Explosion" of diversity in the 1980s and '90s, with offspring species of many genres: first-person shooters, fantasy role-playing games, simulators, shared board and game tables, and social virtual worlds.
To limit our scope (and word count), we will focus on the last genre, social virtual worlds, in which the primary purpose is the creation of meaning through the manipulation of the world and communication with others within the world. Game-play worlds, while supporting social interaction and user-created content, have as their primary purpose structured play. For the most part, in a social virtual world, users are asked to "make it all up" for themselves.
Maze War, created first on two networked Imlacs PDS-1 vector graphics workstations at NASA Ames Research Center in 1974, was the first software to fill the niche of the first-person shooter (users traveled around a 3-D maze shooting at each other), but it also set the stage for the very concept of being "in-world" (a term that I coined in 1995 to describe the act of being, well, "in a world"). The cartoon drawn by Ted Kaehler around 1980 (Figure 1) shows a player of the Alto version of Maze being asked "Hi, I'm looking for Bob Flegal..." and being told, "I believe he's hiding right over in this corner here..." (i.e.: in-world rather than simply down the hall). Maze also created many of the innovations that would later come to define the virtual worlds medium: instant messaging, nonplayer robot characters, levels, and in-world building. Players would often simply use Maze to have a chat. Maze also created the online interaction dichotomy between static documents and dynamic interaction still present today in the relatively static document Internet of the World Wide Web versus the dynamic inhabited Internet of chat rooms, shared video and audio, multiplayer games, and virtual worlds.
Imlacs or Altos were not destined to inhabit suburban homes, but with the arrival of ultra-affordable, color-graphics-capable personal computers such as the Commodore 64, and low-speed dialup network interfaces, the stage was set for the first graphical, social virtual world, Habitat, created by Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer working at Lucasfilm in the mid-1980s. The Habitat screen capture (Figure 2) shows users (for the first time referred to as "avatars") interacting through text chat and moving around a built environment that could change through time. Users bartered objects and eventually created self-government independent of the server operators. The social virtual world had arrived.
As CPU and system performance increased through the early 1990s, it became possible to run real-time, textured 3-D graphics on a consumer PC. In the spring of 1995, a company called Worlds Incorporated launched Worlds Chat, a 3-D space station where users "teleported" in and could navigate in a rich sound and spatial experience and, of course, exchange text chat (Figure 3). Three months later, the same company launched Alphaworld, an experimental platform to allow users to build in-world using prefabricated objects.
Alphaworld was a key proving ground of the social virtual world's medium. My two organizations, the Contact Consortium and DigitalSpace, carried out several years of experiments, including group meetings and shared building in the earliest Alphaworld versions (ground zero gathering in summer 1995, Figure 4, left) all the way to a full cyber-conference with thousands of attendees (Avatars98, Figure 4, right). Other important platforms of this period included WorldsAway (successor to Habitat), which expanded the realm of barter and object economy, Onlive Traveler (which pioneered voice and lip-synching avatars for intimate social interaction), and The Palace (which allowed any Palace user to easily create and host their own 2D shared "room" utilizing a simple image backdrop, which catalyzed a viral spread of distributed worlds).
The companies and investors who bankrolled the early-adopter phase of Internet social virtual worlds ran out of cash and patience by the end of the '90s, and most firms changed hands or vanished, even before the "dot-com crash" of 2000. Only the original Alphaworld, which became Active Worlds, survived relatively intact. A "winter" period followed, during which it was unclear whether social virtual worlds were a viable medium or an evolutionary dead-end. At this time, the rise of social-networking software (Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, Orkut, Tribe.net, LinkedIn), texting and graphics on mobile devices (SMS, DoCoMo, Cyworld), voice and video over IP (Skype, YouTube), and collective literary constructions (Wikipedia) created a whole new awareness and acceptance of multiple forms of identity online. In parallel, the great success of "massively multiplayer online games" from Everquest (1999) to today's World of Warcraft was a financial driver for vastly better 3D graphics hardware and network infrastructure, including consumer broadband.
Incubating within this winter period were firms like Linden Labs, creator of Second Life, and There, Inc. (creator of the virtual world There), which emerged to reenergize the social virtual-world space. Second Life and There each launched a public beta in early 2003. Second Life built on two key concepts from the first-generation virtual-world platforms of the 1990s: the user-empowering, in-world building techniques of Alphaworld and the object economy of Habitat/WorldsAway that created a marketplace of objects (bought and sold in a currency called Linden Dollars). Thus emerged a large community of object makers, builders, and marketers. A fascinating extension to the object economy was the ability of users to clothe avatars in configurable animated garments, creating a fashion industry that attracted a whole new clientele. In Second Life, virtual land is purchased and rent is due, much like a Web-hosting service, ensuring that spaces stay actively maintained and that Linden Lab secures a revenue stream.
Today, avatars and social spaces are propagating everywhere, from IMVU's small and intimate 3D instant-message themed avatar rooms to social enclaves appearing on game consoles where users can interact and create personalized home worlds that are used while outside game play. Mobile phones are now scaling the performance and pixel density curve and will soon host rich social worlds, perhaps using the lip-synching voice avatar heads pioneered by Onlive Traveler. These devices are connected to GPS and may ultimately yield a mixed-reality view of the virtual and physical worlds. Searching for friends in a New Year's Eve crowd in Times Square in 2012, you might simply peer into your personal virtual-worlds-capable device and there, in the milling parallel reality crowd of avatars, would be everyone present from your social network.
Let us finish with a quotation from Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson's 1992 visionary novel about a future ubiquitous social virtual reality. Stephenson's term for virtual worlds was the Metaverse: "Hiro is approaching the Street. It is the Broadway, the Champs Élysées of the Metaverse. It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturized and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles. It does not really exist. But right now, millions of people are walking up and down it."
Damer, B. F. Avatars! Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet. Berkeley: Peach Pit Press, 1997.
DigitalSpace and Contact Consortium publications on virtual worlds, 1995 to 2007: http://www.digitalspace.com/papers
Virtual Worlds Timeline history project, on the Web at: http://www.vwtimeline.org
About The Author
Bruce Damer is author of the book Avatars and director of the Contact Consortium, which is a research and development consortium focused on virtual worlds and communities. He is also CEO and founder of DigitalSpace Corporation, a developer of open-source 3D software supporting NASA and other research organizations. Bruce's work is documented online at www.damer.com
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