Virtual Worlds, History & Technology

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The idea of 'virtual worlds' goes back to the first story told around a fire, and we have evidence of virtual worlds in the form of cave paintings. Books (assuming you include clay tablets in these) provided the first virtual worlds, outside the oral tradition. These presented a complex sequence of events, rather than a single view, or small number of views, such as is provided by illustrations. Plays were open to all, not just the literate. The most interaction with these worlds involved throwing rotten fruit, or for the very wealthy, commissioned works.

Collaborative story telling (best known from the Bronte family) was the first example of multiple people interacting to create a virtual world. Improvisational theatre, possibly guided by a director, can produce a virtual world. Table-top, pencil-and-paper, role-playing gaming (see 'Dungeons & Dragons') used a referee, who was responsible for presenting the virtual world within which the game took place. And players, each of which controlled the actions of one or more characters, all within a framework of game rules. While these virtual worlds allowed effective interaction, participation in them was restricted to small numbers of people, generally no more than about seven, at one time, so that they remained manageable.

Computers allowed what had previously been the linear virtual worlds of books to become interactive. Though, there are 'create your own adventure' books, where the results of a decision directed you to different parts of the book. Initially this was purely text-based, but text-based graphics, and vector graphics, were used as soon as the display technology permitted. Sprite-based and more advanced graphics arrived in due course. Most of these worlds were single-user action games, often combat-based, as the interaction rules for these, and computer-controlled 'opponents', were reasonably straight-forward to program. Other varieties were 'first-person shooter' games, limited by communication speed, where people competed with each other, sometimes as well as computer-controlled opponents.

Computers also allowed remote interaction between people collaborating in creating virtual worlds. This was limited by the speed of the communications links, and for a long time was purely text-based. Bulletin boards enabled remote access, and once the Internet arrived, newsgroups, e-mail, and mailing lists were used for 'off-line' collaboration, with various chat services (like IRC) providing a more immediate interaction. Forums on web sites were used once the World Wide Web arrived. In almost all these cases the virtual world created existed in the minds of those involved, and was not visible to others, except by reading an archive, like a linear book.

More powerful graphics, produced to support the increasingly sophisticated single-user games, combined with the wide availability of high-speed communications, meant that the single-user games could be combined with the collaborative world creation. Initially this took the form of scaled-up single-user games, just with multiple people, possibly anywhere in the world, being able to interact together in teams against computer-provided challenges, or directly compete with each other. Customisation tended to be limited to relatively rigid 'crafter' capabilities, and challenges were fixed, with rigid ways of defeating them.

Other systems concentrated on personal interaction, backed by powerful graphics, and the ability of people to customise their appearance, in the virtual world that they meet-up in. Some virtual worlds provided more or less powerful customisation tools, allowing people to generate their own parts of the virtual world. These worlds may have wider commercial possibilities, as well as being used for creative work, education, and entertainment. They may be suitable for customer and technical support purposes.

The most flexible virtual worlds allow sufficient customisation that it is almost possible, and will be likely soon, to create a gaming world with complex rules, equivalent to the 'combat' games. And, for almost any other conceivable purpose.

This is just one view of 'virtual worlds', as a progression of the idea and practice towards what is available in the very early 21st century. Other approaches might be to look at the science and technology of 'virtual reality', or to explore how the idea of virtual worlds has developed in literature, such as science fiction. Virtual worlds are likely to impact many parts of everyday life.

(c) ROMsys Ltd, April 2008, permission given to use for non-profit making purposes

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