In the early 1990s, I stumbled across a 3-D building and social world called Active Worlds. The graphics were poor, but it was the early days of 3-D interactive worlds, and there was an innocence and excitement about Active Worlds that impressed me deeply. To this day I maintain an account there.
What was marvelous about AW was that it was the wild West. Anything could happen, anything could be built, anyone could go there…a participant’s imagination was the only limit (within the technology’s limitations, of course). People could lease/host their own empty worlds within the panoply of AW worlds, and create replicas of interplanetary destinations, or ancient Celtic burial grounds, or art museums full of paintings, or tropical paradises complete with undersea venues, or 1930s art deco cityscapes or replicas of corporate headquarters. A visitor could stroll around in a generic avatar form, or, as a member, assume a customized form that could be as varied as the worlds he/she visited. I remember one world I loved to visit where my normal business dressed avatar was suddenly transformed into a graceful form clothed in a Japanese kimono and listening to shakuhachi flutes as she roamed the environment watching butterflies. It was a magical time, before Doom and Quake were common names, before Everquest and World of Warcraft set the benchmark of expectations for how 3-D worlds should work.
Active Worlds was on the leading edge. They offered the first virtual exhibition hall and trade show, where real world companies set up virtual booths staffed with both avatars and bots. They established AWED, an educational world with a virtual high school space that real teachers could use for teaching real students using their avatars for interaction. There was also the beautiful architecture of a college campus modeled after the University of California-Santa Clara. Different rooms had lecture areas, 3-D exhibits, science experiments, art work, and videos on demand. There were summer camps, where an adult counselor and a group of 10 young people spent several weeks creating and building a world together to be judged against all the other summer camp worlds for a prize. AW also invented personal 3-D web sites for members, where you could design and staff your own virtual office, complete with brochures, product demos and training videos. This was all before 2000. I loved all the possibilities AW offered, and tried very hard to get several of my employers to understand the potential and establish a presence there. I never succeeded. I was in the wrong industry–we sold knowledge, not products.
I don’t know if the developers at Linden Labs were afficianados of Active Worlds or just had a similar idea, but Second Life has more similarities than differences. The graphics have the same blocky, amateurish feel as AW, and lack the fluid rendering and rich textures found in World of Warcraft. The participants engage in a lot of social chatter, and everyone wants to show off their latest virtual acquisition. Lately when I hear Second Life getting so much publicity for its user created world, its competitive economics and the real world impacts on its members, I reflect on the kinder, gentler family environment created by Active Worlds. I remember the amazing inventiveness and variety of landscapes created by users out of love for the medium, with no thought of how they could license and market their inventions. It was simply fun. And I remember time spent creating worlds with a 10-year-old boy who called himself Luke Skywalker (and about eight other names in a three month period), who chose as his avatar a giant flying blueberry, and who wouldn’t let me forget what it’s like to be young and free where only your imagination matters.