Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Road to SecondLife: Part II

Introducing The Internet

The 1990's brought change at a blistering rate to the world of micro-computers, both in terms of raw computing power and innovative software.

Worlds Away:
Compuserve again lead the way in social applications for networked computers when they released World's Away in 1995. Developed by Fujitsu, World's Away combined computer-game like graphics with live on-line chat and introduced the world to the concept of the online computer avatar.

World's Away replaced the screens of raw text used by most chat programs, with full-color images of rooms for users to navigate through. Computer generated characters represented each user who could customize their head or body style by choosing among various company-prepared options. Worlds Away even had a small in-world economy where users searched for "coins" which they could then trade for rare heads or bodies or accessories.

Although incredibly innovative, focus on World's Away wouldn't last long in the face of even larger changes in the on-line concept. Companies like Compuserve and AOL changed their focus entirely with the advent of the internet and restructured their companies from content providers into gateways for the internet and the Mosaic HTML browser.

The Palace
Released the same year as World's Away, but much slower to develop, Time-Warner's The Palace software made several changes to the graphical chat concept.

Conceptually, The Palace worked much the same as Worlds Away. Users navigated through "rooms" with .gif format images as backgrounds, and a graphic "avatar" represented each user, but The Palace doubled the number of avatars per room (up to 16) and allowed users to upload their own avatar images. The Palace even had its own scripting language called "iptScrae" (pig-latin for "scripts").

Unlike Compuserve's World's Away which operated only on Compuserve Machines, anyone could purchase The Palace server software and open their own "palace" on their own equipment, accessible to customers through the internet rather than their own proprietary network.

While World's Away faded amidst Compuserve's crisis of corporate identity, The Palace peaked in the late 1990's. Television's South Park had their own Palace where users could get avatars looking like Stan, Kyle or even Cartman. The rock band Korn, also had their own Palace.

The Palace peaked in popularity when singer Britney Spears hosted a live chat with hundreds of Palace users.

The Palace wouldn't last forever though. Although very popular, the company could never find a way to make itself profitable and changed owners several times., the company's last owner finally abandoned the software and discharged all the employees.

Before they left the company, some of The Palace employees leaked all the necessary software for users of The Palace to continue the concept on their own servers and as of today there are still several active Palace servers and user groups.

Although 2-D, rather than 3-D, The Palace introduced many elements common to SecondLife. The concept of user-created content so important to SecondLife started with The Palace as did the concept of using sound files as "gestures". Before SecondLife, The Palace eventually added the capability of using voice to communicate rather than just text.

Many social concepts common in SecondLife found their origins in The Palace. Two groups who ultimately found their home in SecondLife, originated in The Palace: Furries and the fans of Gor. Although originating in other forums, griefers, trolls and ban-jumpers haunted and taunted The Palace long before discovering SecondLife.

Publicly launched in 2003, SecondLife took advantage of the advances in home computer technology and introduced three-dimensions to the virtual world concept and many of their first users were people who already knew the concept from its previous incarnations.

SecondLife adopted the user-created-content concept from The Palace and used it as a mantra for their new world and focused on giving users the tools to create with. Rooms became regions with many times the user capacity of previous incarnations.

SecondLife adopted the virtual economy aspect of Worlds Away and users become entrepreneurs, selling their content to other users and trading in a currency only usable in-world.

The Future:
The future is always unknown, but you can get an idea of where you're going by looking at where you've been. The path from CB Simulator and one-color screens full of text to the technicolor world of SecondLife seems so obvious now, but, at the time every minor step seemed either a revolution or an apocalypse. SecondLife as a company may not survive, but the concept probably will, just as it has in the past, and the torch will pass to other hands.

Although we didn't know it at the time, each step in the on-line revolution added verisimilitude to the experience as, I suppose, will each step in the future--until we reach a point where the second-life will be indistinguishable from the first.

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