Metaverse is people

Bob Taylor has a problem.

The head of DARPA’s newly named but impossibly influential “Information Processing Technologies Office” (IPTO) moved to the Pentagon’s offices in 1966 to find three computers. stations. One went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one to a research lab in Santa Monica, and one to the staff at UC Berkeley. I needed a different machine to talk to each of these groups. And I started wondering why.”

Since its founding in 1962, IPTO has spent the Pentagon’s research budget on a range of ideas at the extremes of computing. Its first director, JCR Licklider, funded the effort to make computing “interactive” — simply put, you need to be able to access any computer, anywhere, and be instantly able to make it fulfill your offerings. That essentially all computers work this way today is a testament to the impact of those early grants made by the IPTO.

Communication, via interactions on a computer, seems to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.

Evan Sutherland, the second director of the IPTO, got his position because – thanks to a grant from Licklikder – he invented the first truly interactive computer program. The Drawing Board allows users to click on a computer screen with a mouse-like device known as a ‘light stylus’ – and then let them draw whatever they like on that screen. Again, all computers do this procedure all the time, today.

Sutherland brought a larger vision for IPTO: the “ultimate show” that opened the door to 3D graphics, virtual reality and augmented reality, and revolved around computing that puts the human at the center of the action, rather than somewhere outside. IPTO-sponsored research on “human-centered computing” has become central to our entire modern concept of computing.

Sutherland handed the IPTO to Bob Taylor, because they both agreed on the next fundamental direction of computing: a network to connect all these interactive, graphic-rich machines together. Taylor knew the network could help connect all his remote researchers into one community – because he saw it already happening. The first interactive computer programs made it possible for a single tasked computer to process actions from many users simultaneously. Taylor watched these connected users communicate with each other – the inventors of email, chat, and more – in order to get the most out of their connection. Communication, via interactions on a computer, seems to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.

Again, this fact seems so obvious to us – more than fifty years later – that we hardly even notice it. The network makes us smarter. (The network also amplifies a set of less attractive human characteristics—but that lesson remains for a few decades to come.) Taylor funded researchers who created a “network of networks”—the Advanced Projects Research Agency Network, or ARPANET.

Communication, via interactions on a computer, seems to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.

Although no one knew at the time, ARPANET formed the embryo of the Internet today. All of its core technologies – to slice data into neat little “packets”, which can then be routed from anywhere to anywhere else – have been invented, tested and improved on ARPANET. Best of all, Taylor made sure that all of the work is freely available to any researcher or organization that wants to try, modify, or simply use the ARPANET. The idea that networks should be open to everyone, because they benefit everyone – originated with Bob Taylor, IPTO and ARPANET.

Fast forward to 1986: The “microcomputer revolution” brings computing home. Game designers Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer wondered what would happen when they hooked tens of thousands of players inside “Habitat,” their first-ever shared virtual world — something we now call a “multiplayer online role-playing game.”

Habitat’s graphics weren’t very impressive – they weren’t on a computer just one ten thousandths as powerful as the ones we use today. Server connection speeds that allowed players to send messages to each other as they explored the shared virtual world, could be called Bucky. To keep players engaged, Farmer worked out a whole series of puzzles to be solved after logging into their shared virtual world. “I thought it would take them at least a few days to solve the mystery,” Farmer recalls. “Boy, I was wrong. This puzzle was solved in minutes – and the player who solved it shared the solution with other players who shared it with the others.” Within minutes, the carefully crafted Farmer puzzle game exploded.

“In many ways, it is a good thing that the technology behind Habitat is so primitive. It made us focus on what really matters – the people!”

Chip Morningstar

However, Habitat players couldn’t care less about it. Habitat players were communicating with each other, talking in the “rooms” created by the Farmer – and creating their own. “We immediately learned that content consumption is less interesting than communication — and creativity.”

Even the Habitat bugs – of which there were many – opened up new possibilities for players. “One mistake allowed players to make a lot of money” – Habitat isn’t just the first online multiplayer game, Farmer has also invented an entire cash economy to operate within. “And they used that money to create new games within Habitat.”

Players wanted to delight each other with their creations within Habitat, because – as Bob Taylor already knew – the connection brought creativity. However, none of it had anything to do with great graphics or super-fast connections. “In many ways, it’s nice that the technology behind Habitat is so primitive,” Morningstar says. “He made us focus on what really matters – the people!”

Habitat Like Never Before – Publisher Lucasfilm had a hard time trying to market the world’s first multiplayer online role-playing game to a world it had never seen before. Fortunately, Chip and Randy summarized what they learned in a delightful article, “The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat,” inspiring a generation of online game designers to remember that people are the whole point of connection—and that connection naturally leads to creativity.

With nearly two decades of social media behind us, we all know the value – and risks – of communication.

A decade later, with the Web in full swing — and tens of millions of ARPANET-connected homes stripped of their defense sector connections — Mark Jeffrey will learn the same lesson again. “The Palace”, a 2D visual chat software, rocketed – but not because of all the trendy brands or famous artists using the tool: people just wanted to connect and talk to each other. “The palace was other people. Everyone wanted to chat. And so the product wasn’t really the palace – it was the product that was the other people.”

With nearly two decades of social media behind us, we all know the value – and risks – of communication. Technology helps us connect, but it was never the point: Bob Taylor had computer peripherals; Chip and Randy had cheap and rudimentary personal computers; Mark Jeffrey had fast computers and massive content available across the web. All of that mattered – yet none of it mattered. Whether you call it ARPANET, Habitat, The Palace, or Metaverse, this has never been a story about the evolution of technology. This is a story of a conversation that has been going on since humans were humans. Technologies will change. People will stay connected and creative forever.

For more stories about the people mentioned in this column, please check out my new podcast seriesA Brief History of Metaverse“!

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