Active Worlds can be accessed by downloading and installing Active Worlds Browser 5.0 (direct link; Windows only). Because of the dated nature of the software, the system requirements are modest, allowing the browser to run relatively smoothly on laptops and low-end desktops. Compared to more recent virtual environments like Second Life, Active Worlds graphics are pretty simplistic and low-impact. A high-speed internet connection is best for loading your surroundings, though.
On first startup, the browser should download a few updates. Once this is done, it will prompt a login. No registration is required -- just enter a username and a fake email address and you will be given access on a free tourist account. Tourists have some restrictions: they can't visit many of the private worlds, and anything they build can be replaced by other users. But since a full-featured citizenship account costs $70 per year, tourism is best if you just want to look around. You will begin at Ground Zero of AWGate, the default introductory world. There are usually a dozen or so users here chatting.
The controls are FPS-standard, with keys for walking forward, backward, and sideways. You can activate a mouse-based free-look mode by going to Options -> Settings -> General tab and checking the "Freelook mouse" option, then clicking the mouse icon in the toolbar at the top (exit by pressing Escape). You can jump by pressing + on the number pad, or fly if the world you're in allows it. Holding the Control key while moving will make you sprint, while holding shift will make you pass through solid objects. You can modify all of these functions using Options -> Configure Controls. A common change is mapping the forward/backward/strafe keys to WASD and the jump/fly key to the right mouse button. You may also want to tweak the download/cache/performance settings to fit your system and internet connection (Options -> Settings).
You can view a list of worlds by opening the Tabs pane (Show -> Tabs) and clicking the "Worlds" tab. You can sort them by name or by population. Clicking a world will warp you to its Ground Zero (the central plaza at coordinates 0n 0w), or bounce you back to where you were if the world is restricted. Click here for a list of tourist-accessible worlds.
When in a world, you can teleport to any location by clicking Teleport -> To... in the menu bar and typing in some coordinates. You can also teleport by entering portals (their exact appearance varies by world).
Alphaworld (aw): The oldest, largest, and most important world of all, Alphaworld is an unpredictable hodgepodge of mansions, streets, gardens, canals, arcades, mazes, rainbows, heavy machinery, model cities, impossible architecture, and everything else hundreds of thousands of people can collaboratively construct over the course of a decade and a half. The old Ground Zero (link) is the historic heart of the world, arguably the oldest continuously accessible virtual space still in existence. The world's entry point has since been moved to a slicker and more complex plaza at 2000n 7000e.Active Worlds Europe
Alphaworld supports special navigational tools that you can access by clicking the double-arrow icon in the bottom-right corner of the main window. The most important tool is the world map, a top-down satellite image of the world that you can use to scroll around and teleport to specific locations. You can also view this map online in a Google Maps-style interface at AlphaMapper if you want to browse Alphaworld without installing any of the software.
See the wiki page for listings of cooperative building projects and model cities within Alphaworld, such as SW City (internal wiki, "trailer", guided tour, link) and Alpha Mechanics (link). You can also browse points of interest in AWPortal's Alphaworld places database. But since Alphaworld is 0.4% larger than California, teleporting to any random coordinates (especially near the center) will likely take you to some place interesting.
Metatropolis (cofmeta): Modeled after the cyberpunk dystopia of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, Metatropolis is a dark and foreboding science-fiction city. The most interesting location, the Global Biomechanics Consortium, is located at 129S 199E. It's a small city that serves as the headquarters for a fictional megacorporation, with plenty of secret interiors to explore within. There's also the Teleport Center at 16S 0E, with portals to many other points of interest in the world.
Mars (mars): Like the name implies, Mars is a futuristic simulation of the Red Planet, complete with colonies, caverns, spaceports, and a massive model of Olympus Mons. See the Mars places database for more.
Yellowstone (yellow): A naturalistic world based on Yellowstone National Park and built with the aid of the Dept. of the Interior. Recently underwent an acclaimed renovation that won multiple "Cy Awards" (think Oscars for worldbuilding).
AWTeen (awteen): A youth-oriented public building world, notable for its many subcommunities, such as the futuristic Cobalt City (video).
Van Gogh (vangogh): This world brings Van Gogh's town of Arles to life in his style, as if you'd stepped into a painting. In fact, several of his works are incorporated into the colorful small town landscape. Short video here. See also the associated AWPortal places database.
Casablanca (rick's): A world with a moody black-and-white film noir theme.
Canyon (canyon): A cheesy but well-built world full of interactive set pieces from famous fantasy and horror franchises (Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, The Dark Tower, The Haunted Mansion, etc.)
Dirt City (dirtcity): A gritty Matrix-esque slum.
London: a large replica of Victorian-era London.Extra links
Venezia: A world based on medieval Venice.
Titanic: A scale model of the RMS Titanic.
Future: A Jetsons-esque world of towering skyscrapers, automated factories, and floating walkways.
An extensive interview series with the founders of Active Worlds
Snapshots of Ron Britvich's original Active Worlds development notes
Mapping a Virtual City
Mapping Cyberspace gallery
Reconstructing Art in a Virtual World [PDF]
The homepage for AW Reunions (yearly meetups)
The official Active Worlds Wiki
AW Communities Portal
River City educational project
Stagecoach Island: A semi-active spinoff of Active Worlds maintained by Wells Fargo.
Timeline of virtual world development (interactive scrollable timeline)
Saving Virtual Worlds from Extinction
Archive.org's "Archiving Virtual Worlds" project
To Meet Without Actually Meeting: Cultural Models of Virtual Rituals in Cyberspace [PDF]
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