February 7, 1996
Evolution of Virtual Universe
Echoes Reality, Warts and All
By ASHLEY DUNNhris Sloan, a Jacksonville, Fla., diesel mechanic, spent his first week in the lush digitized plain of AlphaWorld trying to figure out why someone had created this three-dimensional virtual world in the first place.
As Sloan's avatar wandered this strange new world, he was surrounded by buildings, fountains and plazas arranged in an almost random fashion. He wandered for hours searching for other visitors who could explain the purpose of the place. No one had an answer.
"I started building just to kill time while I waited for someone to talk to," Sloan said in a recent interview. By the time he spoke to a reporter, he had built a house, an aqueduct, a pyramid, a lighthouse and an entire city, which he named Taurine's Township. "I'm still not sure what the purpose is."
The creation of virtual worlds has long been a dream of technologists and science fiction writers. Now, with the creation of AlphaWorld by a San Francisco-based virtual reality company, this corner of cyberspace has germinated a strange new culture of primal architects and builders.
In AlphaWorld's six brief months of existence, it has become a sort of off-kilter mirror of the real world, a place where, for example, one artist created a virtual bar, complete with beer mugs and potato chips, for visitors who are never thirsty.
Christopher Cole, vice president of engineering for Worlds Inc., which created AlphaWorld, said it was intentionally designed as a three-dimensional blank slate. The company provided settlers with just the bare essentials: 166,000 square miles of virtual land, a program to enter the world via the Internet, and 473 objects, including walls, roads, plants and chairs, that they could use to build a new world.
"We have no idea what people are going to do with this," Cole said. "We just put up the plain, and now we'll see what happens. Will all the roads meet up? Will there be anarchy? Who knows?" (AlphaWorld: The Facts)
What has happened so far is simultaneously enervating and disturbing.
The newness and vast uncharted frontiers of AlphaWorld have suffused this bubble in the virtual universe with a spirit of discovery and exploration.
Some of its pioneers, including Sloan, who is known as LittleBull in AlphaWorld, find that they now spend nearly as much time exploring these odd virtual environs as they do living in the real universe.
"It's another world for me," Sloan said. "In my circumstances, I don't have a lot of money to travel to other places. This is about as close as I'll get to going somewhere else."
But even in a world where physical violence is impossible and hunger and disease do not exist, disturbing echoes of reality intrude in strange and unpredictable ways.
Russ Freelander, the editor of AlphaWorld's newspaper, The New World Times, said that this virtual world had already given birth to its first gang, called The Order, a name taken from the neo-Nazi group in the race-war novel "The Turner Diaries." Its members, he said, had discovered how to use aliases on line and then, using other people's names, had cursed and taunted some settlers. Freelander, who is one of the few AlphaWorld settlers with the power to destroy structures, has occasionally gone out to The Order's headquarters at coordinates 666 North, 0 West to erase profanity.
The Order has fought back by erecting a castle and a wall on which they post insults against Freelander and demands for freedom of expression.
"It's a pretty surreal situation when you think about it," Freelander said. It is becoming increasingly apparent to the creators of AlphaWorld that some form of government is needed to control the growth of their virtual world, which so far has been an experiment in anarchy.
Worlds Inc. has adopted a God-like aloofness as societal problems emerged. Cole says the company has no interest in being a watchdog and has instead focused on providing settlers with virtual tools of power and letting them decide how to use those tools.
In an eerie re-creation of the development of real societies, the company decided that the core of power in AlphaWorld would be the ability to destroy structures and banish residents. The current plan is to reprogram AlphaWorld so that a few people will have these police powers.
They have decided to leave the issue of who gets the power and how it is exercised to the residents of AlphaWorld, who can choose to empower rulers with elections or by appointment, or to ignore the issue altogether.
Cole said that the company was already worrying about the ramifications of giving some people power over others. For example, he said, war could erupt, with one community sending out its empowered ruler to destroy the property of another community. "Well, some interesting things can happen," he said.
For the creators of AlphaWorld, the purpose of the program was less an ontological exercise than a marketing device; it was simply created as a demonstration of World Inc.'s virtual reality technology for corporate clients and consumers.
The company said it hoped to make money on the venture by constructing three-dimensional worlds for companies and by selling advertising in AlphaWorld or possibly even by charging admission.
But the company's objectives are of little consequence to the residents, most of whom care less about how much money Worlds Inc. makes than they care about how this fantasy world, even in its current crude state, fulfills dreams of creating a new society in virtual space.
Users connect to AlphaWorld over the Internet using special software that contains the background scenery and construction objects. Once a user is connected, the world is rendered from data sent from AlphaWorld's computer describing the location and appearance of objects. The world can be accessed through 14,400 b.p.s. modems, since the only data transmitted are the coordinates, not the actual images of the structures.
Even so, the technology required to tour AlphaWorld comfortably is closer to a Porshe than to a Volkswagen. Since the coordinates of a trek through this three-dimensional world must be translated by a user's computer into the continually moving image that appears on the computer monitor, a fast 486 or a Pentium with 16 megabytes of RAM is needed. There is not yet a version available for the Apple Macintosh.
You see other residents of AlphaWorld (and they, in turn, see you) as avatars - in this case, faceless figures that resemble beige crash dummies. The avatars can walk or fly, enter buildings and chat with other avatars. Users can also click on objects in the world, some of which are hypertext links to F.T.P. sites or Web pages.
It is now a world of constant light, where the sun basks the mountains in an eternal afternoon glow, approximating 3 P.M. Programmers are now considering adding cycles of day and night to approximate real life more closely.
What has set AlphaWorld apart from previous attempts at creating virtual worlds is the ability of residents to construct the environment as they visit it.
Using pieces of walls, walkways, ceilings, furniture, roads and plants, residents can create their own structures, landscapes and urban environments. As a safeguard against vandalism, only the creator of a structure has the power to change it.
Since AlphaWorld was introduced in August, more than 16,000 people have registered as "citizens." Together, they have built thousands of structures, most clustered within a few thousands meters of the world's center, known as Ground Zero.
Even without the restrictions of gravity and cost, most builders have simply mimicked the structures of the real world. Neat suburban houses, for example, line two-lane roads that crisscross the green plains, even though no one has a car or needs to drive in this world peopled by flying avatars.
Sloan is among the rare few who, grasping the creative opportunities in a universe freed of the laws of physics, have built structures never seen in the real world. His Taurine's Township, a sprawling city of fountains and parks, is anchored 40 meters above the ground. He named the town Taurine, which means of or relating to a bull, after his AlphaWorld alias, LittleBull.
Sloan said that for all the construction that has taken place, what AlphaWorld lacks most is a sense of community. It is a world, he says, where people are building furiously but, as far as he can tell, randomly and without any sense of shared goals. He built a small settlement in the hinterlands in the hope that others would join him and help forge a community. No one came.
"Just building things isn't enough," he said. "This isn't a community by a long shot, but it has potential."
The creators of AlphaWorld have built in a few features to help foster the development of a society.
For example, to encourage open discussions and prevent the world from becoming a sleazy cybersex chat site, they provided no way for citizens to communicate privately in AlphaWorld. The creation of property rights, which prevent anyone from changing another person's buildings, was an early feature of the program.
Later this year, the creators of AlphaWorld say, residents will be given the ability to create small programs using Java applets, meaning that for the first time they will be able to interact in ways other than just building things. They could, for example, play checkers or discuss investment strategies as they watched the Dow Jones Industrial Average scroll across a wall.
Right now AlphaWorld is an isolated universe confined to a single computer in Seattle. But within a few months, Cole said, it will be linked with other computers containing their own virtual worlds. The linking of such "bubble worlds," he said, will allow a diversity of cultures to coexist. Some worlds could be designed for artists or computer hackers. Others could be lawless places where anarchy reigned.
The company is now considering introducing cybercash into AlphaWorld, both to make money and to promote the creation of an economic system that could have vast implications for the development of their world. For example, the creators of the world are already preparing for the creation of virtual shopping malls. Freelander said he believed that a distinct culture would eventually develop in cyberspace, although he had no way of predicting its characteristics. The evolutionary process itself, however, could be as illuminating as the final result, he said.
"This place has unlimited potential determined only by who comes in and what they want to do," he said. "I'm convinced this place is the social experiment of the century."
AlphaWorld: The Facts
AlphaWorld Home Page
AlphaWorld client software - Download aworld45.exe
LittleBull's Lighthouse - 200 South, 102 West
Worlds Inc. Headquarters - 0 South, 25 West
Bar Zero - 8 North, 5 West
Taurine Township - 8000 North, 8000 West (40 meter in the air)
Laura's Township - 8000 South, 8000 West
New Venice - 8000 North, 8000 East (40 meters in the air)
Grover's Township - 8000 South, 8000 East
Adrenaline Vault - Action games download area - 6 North, 1 East
AlphaWorld Beginner''s Maze - 18 North, 15 East
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company