Small Town Virtual Boy

A travelogue through a nearly lost cyber past

Before there were mines to craft and second lifes to live, there was ActiveWorlds, an open-world, multiuser, sandbox virtual reality 3D avatar chat program launched June 28th, 1995 that I first encountered in 1999.

As a geek growing up in a small town, there were few places I could go to really be myself: at first there was the public library where I taught myself to build gif libraries and Dragon Ball Z fan sites on Geocities after school, then I discovered the local aquarium & hobby store where I could play Magic: The Gathering in the back on the floor amongst the Dungeons & Dragons modules and sci-fi novels past the weird fish under the supervision of a man with a calculator watch, and later still after our family got our first computer, the internet. In these places my obsessions with Star Wars and science-fiction made me an insider, not an outcast. During this tumultuous time in middle school, I read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash — starring pizza deliveryman by day, deadly virtual reality Metaverse warrior prince by night — and Jeff Noon’s Pollen and Vurt — featuring cyberpunk drug users in Manchester, England who accessed a virtual world by putting feathers in their mouths — for the first time, and I was awestruck by the promise of virtual reality.

The Metaverse is real!

I don’t remember exactly how I first heard of ActiveWorlds, whether it was a friend at the hobby shop or a mention on the Sci Fi Channel’s (R.I.P.) tech centric c|net (R.I.P.), but I do know that its potential seemed endless. More exciting still, it had worlds based on the virtual worlds I’d read about in books, making their virtual reality into actual reality in a sense.

Simultaneous to my excitement over discovering this new virtual escape from reality, the original Star Wars trilogy had just finished being re-released in theaters, and now the first film in a new prequel trilogy was being released. Hindsight be damned; as a 13-year-old boy, I loved The Phantom Menace. So much so, that when it came time to choose my username for ActiveWorlds, the choice was simple. I would be called Sebulba, after Anakin’s pod racing nemesis.

“the most AWESOMEST virtual world on the web”

ActiveWorlds is an entire virtual universe home to many worlds. The oldest and largest world is AlphaWorld, where anyone can build in a virtual space equal to the size of California. My early days were organized entirely around Star Wars. Cities were built in AlphaWorld with names like New Jedi and New Mos Espa. I re-created the entire Boonta Eve podracing course based on memory and screenshots of the Star Wars Episode I: Racer PC Game, which I didn’t even own. A year later my freshman year of high school was ending, as was my Star Wars obsession, so I re-branded as Myrth, a name I’d chosen for my Drow rogue in Dungeons & Dragons which became my go-to username everywhere online for years.

In ActiveWorlds, a world building contest was announced where all participants would receive a small trial world and a time limit within which to build it according to set themes. My friend QuiGonJ and I got to work building a medieval castle fantasy world that was under alien invasion. We called it Zymosis, a word he picked out of the dictionary at random that means an infectious or contagious disease.

Having our own world opened up many new possibilities. Unlike in public building worlds, we now controlled what models, textures, and avatars were available and could even make our own. I began teaching myself how to manipulate models in ActiveWorld’s RenderWare 2 scripting (RWX) language. As a scripting language, files could be created and modified using only a text editor without the requirement of expensive specialty 3D rendering software.

My first model was an edit of a simple flowerpot. By opening “pot1.rwx” in a text editor and changing values for color and scale, I turned a small grey flowerpot into a large black cauldron fit for our castle. I was hooked.

ModelBegin
ProtoBegin Sphere
GeometrySampling Solid
Texture NULL
<...>
# 100 Polygons
LightSampling vertex
Color 0 0 0
Surface .5 .3 .1
<...>
Protoend
ClumpBegin
rotate 1 0 0 90
translate 0 0 -.04
scale .05 1 .05
ProtoInstance Sphere
ClumpEnd
ModelEnd

We ended up placing something like third in the contest, which meant the world was ours to keep. The name was shortened to Zymos, and after bouncing between Star Wars, Martian colony, and fantasy themes, bleeding edge inspiration was found. In 2001, the controversy over the reveal of “Celda” (the cartoon, cel-shaded style of Zelda: The Wind Waker) and the popularity of the Dreamcast’s Jet Set Radio led to cel-shaded 3D graphics having a moment. With a bit of experimentation, I realized I could model the 3D cartoon effect myself, and thus Toon Zymos was born.

I found the program MilkShape 3D — an inexpensive 3D modeling program popular for making Half-Life and Sims models that also had RWX export options. One of my first attempts at modeling was a Pikachu that I wish I still had documentation for because it was a masterpiece of youthful naivety. Now I could create my own world in my own style, which was possibly too much freedom. I modeled and built up a city center and a farm, but “Finish Zymos” languished on my high school to-do list for ages.

In late high school after four years spent of ActiveWorlds, I started visiting less and less. Zymos’s free hosting expired, and high school required a lot of time in the real world debating, interping, journalisming, and thespianing. There was also a lot of time spent posting on deadjournal and running an awful webcomic, where ActiveWorlds represented the NetherNet, a virtual afterlife where characters went when they died. By the time I went to college and made the switch to being a Mac user, I couldn’t go back even if I wanted to, leaving virtual reality behind for good, or so I thought.

There was a brief look back in college when I took a 3D digital design class that was run in a Windows computer lab. I paid for a month’s access to reinstate my old citizenship (ActiveWorlds called paid users citizens and free users tourists) and logged in to see the state of things. I must not have been impressed or else felt some sense of closure, because shortly thereafter when my hard drive filled up, and I backed up my files, I chose to delete all of the models, textures, and avatars I’d created and not burn them to CDs like I was doing for everything else. All that was left were high school backups on Zip disks stored at my mother’s house.

Coming home again, virtually

Last September, someone on tumblr messaged me anonymously that ActiveWorlds citizenships had become free a year before in 2013. I’d recently set up VirtualBox on my computer, allowing me to run Windows on my Mac, ostensibly for the purpose of using Internet Explorer to test websites I was developing. Instead, I decided to hunt for my lost digital youth.

I still remembered the password and citizen number for my old account, which much like my ICQ number I’ve somehow never forgotten, and I found an archive of a community website created years ago that listed the location of my “teleport center,” a kind of central hub linking to all my old builds: the pod racing track, the Star Wars towns, and an intricate winter mountain community called Willow Falls that includes ski runs, sewers, a hydroelectric dam, and a water treatment plant. There’s also a recreation of the house I grew up in, so I was able to stand in my old bedroom in digital underwear while thinking about the past.

Astonishingly, despite some ambient background animations, editable 3D terrain, and improved lighting effects, the graphics were not changed much from my memory of what they had looked like 12 years before. There was, however, a terrifying new custom avatar creator that I assume was added as a response to the popularity of virtual world second-comer Second Life.

Going back to virtual worlds I never thought I’d see again was quite surreal and oddly compelling. I recorded a 30-minute video of myself flying around my first night back.

Shortened here to 4:36 and set to Bronski Beat’s Small Town Boy

Exploring locations created fifteen-plus years ago in two-decade-old software doesn’t bode well for the future of the web. Virtual picture frames that pointed to images hosted on external sites are now ghostly embodiments of dead links — static-filled picture frames that leave physical scars on the virtual environment. With error messages turned on, the chat window fills with broken links to sounds and pictures that read like a who’s who of deceased free hosting services. Animated under construction gifs, the darling of the early web, are actual construction barrier signs blocking off empty spaces that will never be filled. Everywhere there are links to Geocities pages, almost all of which are now lost and inaccessible.

Now who will fight the Yeerk invasion?

What’s an avatar like you doing in a place like this?

In a strange coincidence during this time, my old friend QuiGonJ found my personal website (still MyrthCo after all these years) and emailed me out of the blue. Another old internet friend who had left ActiveWorlds to become prominent on Second Life was also back visiting the digital past and reached out to say hello.

Googling my old username unearthed old AW friends on an internet forum a few years ago accusing me of being a hipster graphic designer in Chicago. Many of my friends from that time seem to have gone down the paths of computer animation or computer science. I’m still traveling the long information superhighway to development after years spent in the woods of design. My middle school experimentation with HTML has become a bigger part of my job than the design skills I learned in college. In another odd turn of events, only a few weeks after I started regularly visiting AW again using VirtualBox, the first ever Mac compatible version was released, thus making getting online even easier.

This past June was the 20th anniversary of ActiveWorlds, which to me is an incomprehensible amount of time for it to have existed and more so, to still exist. That makes AW four years older than Google, eight years older than Second Life, nine years older than Facebook, 10 years older than YouTube, and 17 years older than Oculus VR. Sadly, the dated technology and limited support seem to have completely choked off growth. The universe typically lists less than 150 clients active at any one time, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of users crowed about in old press releases.

However, to me it’s now an intriguing (old) new tool. The first thing I did when I returned was remodel the version of childhood home I built in high school, which my mom sold and left when I was still a junior in college. You can’t go home again, but you can find an old 3D model to lurk around in. After my mother sold the house, I came home for one last Thanksgiving break, during which I photographed the house being packed up and empty for a photography assignment that technical issues prevented me from ever displaying as intended. After college, I pondered how to do a digital mock up of what it was supposed to be as part of my Make Something Awful project, but when I reentered AW, I realized I could create an entire virtual museum.

Leaving Home, 2005/2015 Virtual three-channel projection

The end result filters layers of digital distortion through faux nostalgia. The original photography project paired a Windows Movie Maker slideshow of snapshots (taken with my first digital camera at a whopping 1.4 megapixels) with an old film grain filter applied with two slideshows of intentionally poorly scanned negatives of the house getting emptied. The projector sound is sampled from my father’s old super8 home movies. The three-channel projection now sits in a virtual museum in AlphaWorld with three screens playing the slideshow videos, which I then filmed on my iPhone using the VHS Camera app for an extra distorted digital nostalgia cherry on top.

Being back in ActiveWorlds started itching my old 3D modeling desires. Gearing up for the 20th anniversary this spring, I wanted to find the files to try and recreate Toon Zymos. Digging through all my old binders filled with burnt CD backups revealed nothing, so I then retrieved the Zip disks. I purchased a Zip drive on Amazon, only to have none of the disks be readable. My entire 3D modeling career seems to have vanished, only to be remembered in a small handful of tiny screenshots pulled from the bowels of the internet — old free sites, archived newsletters, and whatever the Internet Archive managed to scrape.

Haven’t we been here already?

I was so confused when Second Life was suddenly the “next big thing.” ActiveWorlds had already been around for eight years, but never gained the traction or media attention Second Life did. Even Second Life’s virtual flame has dimmed. Every brand and institution that rushed to open up shop has left behind ghost towns. This kind of virtual representation of the internet has gone out of the style. No one really feels the need to sit in a 3D rendered classroom to take an online course.

The corporation behind ActiveWorlds suffered in the original dot com bust and only barely survived. Their initial public offering and later reversion to a privately held company could give any investor in modern VR pause. Now, AW has become a literal virtual graveyard. Beyond the abandoned spaces and empty worlds, there are memorials to former users every where. Several names I knew from my time as an active citizen were listed as having passed away, and it’s a strange thing to see an internet friend I never met or even knew the real name of has died. AW is light years away from places like Facebook and its real name policy. There’s still some of the wild spirit of the internet left in AW, where your username can be anything, and you have no obligation to reveal actual details about your life.

That aesthetic you like is going to come back in style

Strangely though, ActiveWorlds’ unfashionableness could be an asset thanks to the growing number of net artists whose work revolves around “vintage” computer graphics. And look where we are: virtual reality is once again just around the corner via the likes of Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens or even Google Cardboard, every day brings an insane new valuation of a tech company, and best of all, there’s endless hope and anticipation for a new Star Wars trilogy. I know it’ll be hard for me to resist the chance to play Minecraft in immersive 3D.

Those who don’t remember the virtual past are doomed to repeat it

These mostly abandoned, isolated internet communities are still hanging on, like survivors on a desert island. Unless you’ve proactively made efforts otherwise, your MySpace page and LiveJournal still exist. Those sites can still tell you what you were doing before Facebook Memories can, if you’re brave enough to look. There’s plenty of embarrassment to be had, but we’re in danger of losing parts of our history if we don’t make the effort to archive it ourselves.

A friend in college printed his entire LiveJournal and taped it together into a binder, which we all thought was insane at the time. Now, I’m not so sure. I’ve seen even younger platforms come and go in less time. What will we show our grandkids? Would they even want to see grandpa’s DBZ fanpage on Geocities?

I now have my entire (digital) photo library backed up to iCloud, Google Photos, and Flickr, but from 2000–2005 I was using the same terrible 1.4 megapixel camera, meaning almost my entire high school experience and my year spent studying abroad in England are documented only in blocky, low resolution at 640 x 480 pixel photographs. Even so, I’d be unhappier if I had nothing from that time whatsoever.

It never hurts to stop and document the digital roses. It might seem like a waste of time, but everyone should make their own copies of whatever they are putting online. Download an archive of your blog. You never know when a service will suddenly go dark, and by then it will be too late. I’d love it if ActiveWorlds released a compatible version for the VR headsets that are about to hit the consumer market, but I doubt that will ever happen. Instead, I’ll cherish the few tiny screenshots I’ve found that prove my time in ActiveWorlds existed and continue to log in and fly through the weird virtual past while creating new memories.


This is Topher McCulloch’s second post on Medium. You can download ActiveWorlds and find Myrth’s teleport center at AW 57.9S 3254.5E 2.2a 270.

A much shorter version of this post was originally published at makesomethingawfuleveryday.tumblr.com on September 17, 2014.