Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Tale Of Two Worlds-In-A-Browser & Time Travel

Cybertown 2011

I am time-traveling today.

In 1997 I was one of the pioneers in ColonyCity, which later became Cybertown - the second of the big Virtual Worlds at the time (the other was AlphaWorld/ActiveWorlds where I was also a homesteader). This was my introduction to Virtual Worlds and a very exciting time. We had worlds which ran in any browser (with the plugin); could build and chat; send email from inworld; video on surfaces and stereo sound. I spent many hours in these worlds building and chatting with other pioneers.

Fast-forward to today. I have been invited to participate in the beta testing of Unifier from Second Places. I spent some time poking around in there despite the "public opening" being tomorrow...

Because of this experience with Unifier, I decided to do some deep searching and... found the archived site for Cybertown 1998, which still lists my Resident Apartment at Cybertown Colony 16! Wow, 13 years of virtual world exploring... so here begins the Tale of Two Worlds and some ruminations on virtual worlds history and progress.


Unifier 2011

Unifier @ Second Places

I contacted Mark Duffy at Second Places; I wanted to see how far "worlds in a browser" had come since the late 90s and he was kind enough to send me a pre-beta registration. I logged in very late (3am) and did not encounter anyone; after all, the actual opening is not until tomorrow.

Setting Up

I popped inworld without too many problems; I had to authorize a plugin and wait a bit, but the plugin integrated smoothly with Firefox (unlike the problematic Active-X control for Cybertown 2011). I took a few minutes to cycle through the 3 male and 3 female avatars currently offered for beta exploration and chose the Brunette with the tank top (must say, 1 of the male avatars looks rather thuggish). This initial world (area) is an outfitting room; there's a mirror and what we'd think of as a pose stand. It loaded fairly quickly; about 15 seconds for 6MB.

The interface is a combined worldview/chatpane/sidebar that reminded me strongly of the interfaces of Alpha and Cybertown, as well as that of Virtual Places (a 2D web-page-world chat program akin to The Palace) (see pics above).

Rezzing In

I chose to rez in the Castle Hall and immediately noticed the dynamic shadows from the fire flickering on the wall. I spent a few minutes playing with the controls, esp the View and Camera controls. One thing I noticed was that using the arrow keys shifted my view around the compass by 2 points; If I was facing East, one arrow tap would face me South. To get a view inbetween those required me to use the mouse to click on the camera controls.

The camera controls are a bit wonky at this time. There's a Zoom Out and Zoom In button. If I clicked the Zoom In button first, I was able to zoom in. However, once I had clicked Zoom Out, both buttons acted like Zoom Out and I quickly became very far away, looking at the build from outside in a Blue Space (familiar to me from SL); using an arrow key to move luckily reset my camera. There's also a Mouselook mode which makes the world fullscreen and eliminates the chat pane and sidebar. Wandering between rooms in the Castle was instant transporting - when I walked through a door, there was a slight delay and message while the new section loaded.

I rezzed at a third-person viewpoint. Unlike grid-based worlds, my POV was set behind me but slightly down... which meant I had a perfect view of my butt and had to keep using the camera controls to raise the POV. Unfortunately, when I used an arrow key for walk, as opposed to holding the mouse on the Forward camera widget control, my POV would default back to... my butt. This really should be adjusted :D

Moving Around

I decided to become a bit more ambitious and teleported to New York Buildings. This is a big world; probably among the largest at this time. It took about 40 seconds to load and I believe the info said it was 20MB. More of the interesting dynamic shadows. I tried another world, Media City, which also took about 40 seconds to load.

When I walked in both these worlds, I observed the most aliasing I had seen since 16-bit 256-color gaming. Building faces, light poles and fixtures flashed, flickered and looked like seeing a landscape through a fence while driving by. Windows, building ornaments and corners; everything was animated-stripey, like walking towards a moiré pattern.


Future, Meet Past

Here's where I started comparing what I was seeing to the VRML worlds of the late 90s. The Second Places FAQ tells me that these worlds are built in 3D Max (or comparable programs) and imported.This is what started me thinking about VRML (and sent me on the search that ended up finding Cybertown).

I am also curious about the tech being used. Since I had to allow a small download, I assume this is a browser plugin or extension very similar to the plugin Netscape Navigator required for VRML. So is Unifier (and by extension all the Second Places) VRML-based? The lighting is certainly better; the first worlds were flat-lighted (think everything Full Bright) and the shadows I saw in all the worlds (areas) within Unifier gave a nice little immersion/realism.

Memory Lane

I remember that in Cybertown movement was somewhat jerky depending on your modem's speed and the time of day (yes, we used modems then). I remember that you'd pray you didn't crash too much and have to redial in and relog in; thankfully that is no problem in Unifier.

The tools we used to build then were the same, though - 3D Studio Max, Lightwave, Bryce3D, POV Ray Tracer, trueSpace and others. We had some "jaggies" on edges (depending on how good your graphics card was) but nothing like what I observed in Unifier in New York Buildings or Media Center.

I know Unifier is a beta (v0.7) technology for portable browser worlds. Obviously, I have been in very early VWs before and I was also in Unifier before the actual opening, so my observations are quick and not a serious shakedown of the world/tech. I have a lot of patience; to me a beta test is a proof-of-concept and not a grown and polished thing. I also look forward to tomorrow's opening, when there will possibly be people there to chat with and explore. This is not a serious look at Unifier/Second Places. It just got me remembering and thinking...


There's No Place Like Home - Cybertown

Finding Cybertown still operational (though passed through many hands by now) was a chance to go look at a VRML world from approximately 13 years ago. I emailed Support and they pulled my ancient username/password and sent it to me. Unfortunately of course it is very, very out of date. Cybertown is also now a subscription service, and although I dimly remember that I had what we now would call 'developer' status for being a Homesteader and a Builder, that of course did not carry through 13 years and several ownership changes, so I had to go in on a Visitor's permit, which limited my available worlds.

I also had to download the blaxxun plugin (a classic VRML rendering engine). Firefox didn't like it (as my FF is multiple-armored and armed) so I blew the dust of InternetExploiter and let it be the goat. You can access Cybertown in a "2D mode" for simple chatting, but to see the world you must install the browser plugin (an Active-X component which may make people leery, although if I remember correctly this is an MS problem; Netscape didn't handle it through Active-X).

Rezzing In To The Past

The "view my avatar" setting did not work; I was in 1st person/mouselook mode; possibly a problem with the browser. The movement was smooth. Many of the controls, including flying/walking/speed controls (which would be nice in Second Life) and others are accessed by right-clicking the screen; so are setup and other options.

The buildings were all very geometric, much the way I had remembered them. Think Second Life in limited-faces; the Obelisk, for instance, was 8-sided/octagonal with no curving; most things in Cybertown are made up of straight lines/surfaces. However, there was none of the jagged aliasing/flickering I saw in Unifier.

It was a memory lane avalanche as I stood in the City Hall, gazing at the golden plaque with the Cybertown Pledge which first thrilled me in the 90s -

"As a Citizen of Cybertown, I pledge to uphold each of the principles of Cyber-etiquette and to encourage my fellow citizens to do the same. I will strive to maintain a family-oriented community for all fellow citizens and newcomers alike."

[Sadly, my old apartment is unavailable to me as a non-paying member, although I have doubts it would still be there even if I was. I do remember laboring over model replicas of a DEC PDP-10 and a generic desktop computer, which served as clickable inworld-to-external email interface and teleport directories to my self-contained VRML worlds. Yup, we had that then :)]


Progress Report and Musings

Cybertown 2011 had problems, although to be fair it is probably a browser problem; IE was moaning to itself about pop-up windows and crashed-but-refreshed tabs. Obviously a lot of the code is old and this kind of behaviour is expected (an old site of mine that linked many sound files to text-clicks is unable to function today because all the fetch-code has been changed). I did not have this problem in Unifier. Still... I didn't see a very big difference between Cybertown and Unifier. Both had their glitches. Both of them are remarkably alike in the interface. Both of them accept .3ds and other common 3D tool file extensions. Both of them showed more artifacts than SL/Gridworld.

What is sad to me is that I was looking at a world from 1997 and comparing it favorably with one from 2011. I've been eagerly following the "worlds in a browser" action, believing that portable worlds, accessable from any browser, are a key to wide adoption of the 3D format for virtual worlds, just as the HTML spec was the basis of the WWW.

In some ways, Second Life/The Grids have disappointed me. No dynamic shadows, rather flat compared to many 3D games and MMORPGs, mono sound uploads, less camera/avatar control... in some ways more-smoothly integrated, but not really a long way from 1997 and Cybertown. The Unifier demo is in some ways less impressive than the Cybertown operating today (taking into account Unifier is an announced pre-version beta). We still are for the most part tied to programs we must set up on our machines to access today's virtual worlds.


To me, seeing and remembering my old worlds, there has not been a lot of progress at all from 1997. I don't have Second Life circa 2003 to compare it to Cybertown or Alpha/ActiveWorlds, which is why I want to emphasize that my poking about in Unifier was not a serious exploration of that tech and worlds.

It just reminded me of how much was lost when the bickering and warring over trying to lock up the browser/WWW market caused a crashing and fracturing of the rapidly-evolving computer tech at the time. It's hard to explain the sense of exhilaration and progress of the time between 1995-2001 when the web was evolving new things monthly; huge leaps in showing animation, pictures, sounds and videos came at quarterly-or-faster intervals. VRML 2.0 was poised to make a huge change in accessing the web, only to be destroyed in Microsoft's deliberate sabotage and mangling of the WWWC's standards and protocols with illegal "extensions".

I wonder what kind of progress could have been made with the VRML 2.0 spec or further; there were exciting branches and whole areas opening up in the 2.0 spec as compared to VRML 1.0. What we now would term "media on a prim" was beginning to show up, as well as animation, better object rendering and handling and a lot more world-to-web data exchanging routines than I see even now in virtual worlds.

What would be possible in "worlds in a browser" today if the tech had been followed and developed, or if Sun wouldn't have let VRML become sidelined, a casualty of the Browser Wars? Certainly more advanced than Unifier (sorry guys). I'd be willing to bet more advanced than Second Life and all the rest of the extant VWs. It's this experience and knowledge of what was possible 13 years ago and what led to it being lost that worries me about the current Grid platforms and state-of-the-art. I've been waiting a long time to see this revolution in accessing virtual spaces.

[Wizard Gynoid, who tried unsuccessfully to meet me in Cybertown (browser/IE issues) turned up an interesting photo on Cybertown's Help page; look familiar? :D]

Talking to the Hand... in 1997


Vin Sumner said...

Great article and feedback on Unifier. Please continue to feedback , we are working hard on some of the control and camera issues. We moved the camera because perspective was lost in really large scale model we have recently built. We will look at offering some alternatives.
Vin Sumner ( Second Places )

Iggy O said...

"Microsoft's deliberate sabotage" is well put. I walked away from that company, save for my employer-issued copy of Office, and never looked back. I think Windows 7 is a decent OS, but I won't be giving those boyz my money (though my once-beloved and rebellious Apple is once again going down a similar path--but I digress).

Thanks, however, for a look back at an earlier era of optimism about the Net. I will never forget the thrill of logging on to Cybertown in the late 90s...Gibson's Matrix seemed right around the virtual corner.

But like the oft-lamented post-Apollo Mars missions and space colonies on NASA's drawing boards in 1967-9, it never happened.

Will it? If not, we can blame more than Micro$oft. The history of technology is full of might-have-beens. Facebook is the Net for most casual users, and they got that way through consumer choice, not through MS' strong-armed tactics. Zuckerberg didn't make browsers that would not run MySpace.

Olli Aro said...


Just to let you know that public beta for Unifier is now available at

I must also emphasise that Unifier is aimed to be an online virtual world toolkit and we are not trying to start yet another virtual world here.

The value of this product is trying to make creation of your own online virtual world as easy as content management systems have made the maintenance of websites.

We use a product called Unity3D ( for the 3D component of our product. Their website has a lot more impressive games to illustrate what is possible. The great thing is that anything developed in Unity3D can be uploaded to Unifier in order to publish it as an online virtual world.

Olli Aro (Second Places)

Mera Kranfel said...

Interesting and fascinating the world still exist! I always has believed a web based opportunity would be the rescue for Virtual Worlds. A "light" version so to speak where u can listen to music, shop and chat but not build.

Mera Kranfel said...

A Web based world even.. *sighs* friday... =))

Miso Susanowa said...

@Vin: Hi! I made it clear that this post was not a serious look at Unifier, more a comparison to a tech issue that I have followed for a long time.

Neither Alphaworld nor Cybertown looked much different from Unifier when they launched. I look forward to exploring Unifier much more and believe browser-based worlds have immense potential.

I understand about the perspective-point of the camera, and you do have cam controls for adjusting the view, so that's a tinkering thing I'd expect in a beta launch. People spend hours twiddling their camera setup in the Gridworlds also so it's no big deal.

Miso Susanowa said...

@Iggy: agreed. The problem for me is that due to these company's destruction, warring and deliberate sabotage, consumers don't have the choice of alternates.

And MS is not the only one; I could add a dozen companies to the "contributor's list" of the mass dismantling of the forward momentum the web had in the late 90s.

I also lay the blame squarely at the feet of Congress for using the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to give billions to telco companies and allow them to create a defacto monopoly/duopoly, failed to censure or demand accountability for those billions that were never used on infrastructure and continue to collude with the telco industry to restrict our choices and options.

sororNishi said...

Great post....thanks for a history lesson too...some of us need to hear all this background as we were not involved.

Iggy O said...

Grandpa warms up the old 8088 and the 14K modem to say "Let me tell you, kid, about the good old days of BBS utopia..."