Virtual Archaeology: Active Worlds Turns 15
July 4, 2010 5:39 PM   Subscribe

Fifteen years ago this week, programmer Ron Britvich launched version 1.0 of Active Worlds. Started as an autonomous project of Worlds, Inc. (a spinoff of educational gamesmaker Knowledge Adventure), Active Worlds was one of the first and most ambitious attempts to create a 3D virtual community on the web. Built on the architecture of Britvich's Worlds Chat beta, Active Worlds debuted in the form of Alphaworld, a sunny green infinite plane open to public building. In its opening years Alphaworld experienced a land rush of construction, resulting in an anarchic starfish sprawl larger than the state of California. A sister company, Circle of Fire, was soon founded to craft additional themed hubs, and once individual ownership of worlds became possible the AW community spawned a veritable universe of hundreds of worlds. Although the company has seen its ups and downs since those heady times and its fortunes have slowly dwindled, the Active Worlds platform survives to this day. Look inside for a simple guide on how to log in to the (free) service, rundowns of the best worlds, links to essays analyzing the program's legacy, and other content summing up its venerable community.

Getting Started
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).
Recommended Worlds

Note: Links to locations within Active Worlds posted below are underlined. If you open this post in the AW browser's web tab (press F7), clicking these links will teleport you to that location instantly.

Also, keep in mind that the userbase of the service has declined substantially since its heyday. Even the most populous worlds rarely have more than 20 people online at once. The upshot is that the majority of worlds are eerily empty and have been for years. Bad if you want social chat, but perfect if you are intrigued at the thought of exploring vast fantastic virtual ruins that have been sitting untouched for over a decade.
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.

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.
Active Worlds Europe

If you want more content, download and install the AW Europe browser (a multi-lingual spinoff affiliated with the main project). It uses the same interface, but has a different set of worlds on offer, including:
London: a large replica of Victorian-era London.
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.
Extra links
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's "Archiving Virtual Worlds" project
To Meet Without Actually Meeting: Cultural Models of Virtual Rituals in Cyberspace [PDF]
posted by Rhaomi (18 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

(This is a hell of a post, Rhaomi. Thanks.)
posted by maqsarian at 5:46 PM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Zarquon, it's full of links!

Thanks Rhaomi!
posted by honest knave at 5:49 PM on July 4, 2010

Three Wikipedia links above the fold and they pick now to have their servers explode...

Back-up links:

Active Worlds
Knowledge Adventure
"Although the company has seen its ups and downs..."
posted by Rhaomi at 5:53 PM on July 4, 2010

One of my first interactions with the internet! Gosh this brings back memories. Thank you for such a great post.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:01 PM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Excellently put together, Rhaomi. How much griefing goes on in these worlds, though? I'm going to be giving this a shot regardless; just curious as to how many Pain Image Boxes I might encounter.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:21 PM on July 4, 2010

I had such high hopes when Active Worlds was released. It didn't quit meet them, but it was still pretty awesome considering that the majority of my online interactions involved lynx, irc and usenet. Thanks for the memories, Rhaomi!
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 6:42 PM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks! I love exploring various virtual worlds, it's amazing how many of retro ones are still around and free to try/use: Myst Online - Uru Live (yes, it's back up and available for free, and the graphics and soundscapes are still impressive even compared to the current VWs), A Tale in the Desert (a unique crafting MMORPG), and now AW!

At the moment I am dancing with the crowd at nurses. Friendly crowd :-) Someone kindly gave me a trial citizenship so I am a legit citizen now. Look for me, I'm Quiplash in world as well.
posted by Quiplash at 7:20 PM on July 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

OH, and I can stop ANYTIME. I. WANT.
posted by Quiplash at 7:26 PM on July 4, 2010

Penitum 133mhz. I remember pretending to be sick to get to work on my crazy castle. The first I saw AW was at my cousin's house and it just felt like, "Oh, the future is finally here". The Winter Worlds around Christmas, oh my. Now I'm a big ball of misty nostalgia.
posted by GilloD at 8:46 PM on July 4, 2010

Active Worlds is very cool in a retro way, and I'm real pleased it's still around, but if you want the 'real' thing then Second Life is still free to play and is getting bigger and better all the time....
(Rumours of its death have been greatly exaggerated)
posted by Monkeymoo at 9:09 PM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

This brings back memories. I used Worlds Chat on Windows 3.1, I think! Was an admin in a sci-fi themed ActiveWorlds world, too, for a while, when an online friend of mine briefly owned his own world. I paid for a year of premium membership after AW went pay-to-play, but let it lapse after that. Wow, nostalgia trip.. might have to sign into AW now...
posted by Alterscape at 9:31 PM on July 4, 2010

I vividly recall being blown away by Worlds Chat during my first forays to the brand-new local Internet cafe, around 1995-6. Shortly after, I signed up for my first Internet account and bragged to my friends that I was able to download the massive 10MB Worlds Chat executable to my home PC within an hour using my super-fast 33.6kbps modem. Sunrise, sunset.

(I also remember someone from my school walking past said Internet cafe, seeing me inside playing Worlds Chat, and banging on the window shouting "fucking geek!" at me. Looking back, he may have had a point.)
posted by asconfusedasnigel at 12:05 AM on July 5, 2010

Huh, I didn't notice when posting that the interview in the second link had additional parts. Reading through the rest I found two interesting things:

* After leaving the Active Worlds project, Britvich went on to develop AskEarth, a community Q&A service remarkably similar to AskMetafilter. Despite being around since 1999 (as old as Metafilter!) it seems to be virtually unknown to the wider internet, which is strange since it's still active to this day.

* On the last page of the interview (conducted in December 2000), he expressed some prescient thoughts about the internet, and quite possibly coined the term "cloud computing":
RB: "Napster is under the category of information, more precisely music… but there's fundamental forms of information out there right now. There's books, music, movies, software. So, I'm of the opinion, that information is free. So that once information is distributed publicly, there is no way to put the Genie back in the bottle. There is no way to restrict its access, or to charge for it. So, in the short term I believe that every book ever made, every song ever written, every movie ever made and every piece of software ever written… basically everything man has ever created that can be digitized will be freely distributed. The copyright has become technologically irrelevant."

RM: "Which is a scary proposition for a lot of people."

RB: "Oh yeah, to a lot of people. I'm not scared at all, but to probably 99 percent of the population it's a really scary thing."

DV: "Yeah, I'm sure it was really scary too when the combustion engine was created to a bunch of horse traders and blacksmiths, but I don't think it's a moral issue at all. I don't think it's a matter of stealing somebody's copyrighted material. Should you violate copyright laws? Laws should be the written form of what's practical for society, and that's not practical. They cease to be practical because they aren't enforceable at all. It's like outlawing an invisible car speeding down the freeway. Sure, you can have a law against it, but try and catch the car… it's not going to happen. Technology makes the law void. Right now people are wasting their time talking about encryption and trying to modify the laws…"

RB: "They just need to realize how implausible what they are attempting to do is."

RM: "So, do you think there is going to be a proliferation of Napster-like sites that do more than just music… like Napster for software, or movies?"

RB: "Oh yeah, this is what's going to happen. People are going to be able to access information anonymously, and they will be able to distribute information anonymously, so you'll know neither the source, nor the receiver. Everything will just be in a cloud, an information cloud. You won't know where it came from or who's accessing it."

DV: "It will be a distributed network, no servers…"

RB: "And given that environment, then… it's over. All information that is made publicly available will be freely distributed. Now, that's not to say that you can't keep trade secrets and things like that, but if you make a music CD, that's it, once you release the CD, it's out… forever."
posted by Rhaomi at 1:17 AM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't let me rain on the awesome nostalgia-fest, but the information technology concept of "clouds" and "cloud computing" and the phrase itself has been a staple of networking and networked computing for at least a decade prior to 2000, if not several decades.

The most simple example would be the illustrative icon used to represent any large aggregate of "unknowable" inter-networked computers or network hardware in a network topology diagram - usually a big cloud with single or double arrows indicating the input/output points from a local subnetwork, through the cloud and exiting to a remote subnetwork.

I think the first time I heard it used in a professional context would have been the utterly useless Novell Netware class I was taking in community college about 1992. Surfcomp my fat ass, Novell.

Anyway, yeah. The whole "cloud" concept is actually probably older than the desktop PC itself. People used to use terminals instead of computers to access "the cloud". You'd put your data there in some remote mainframe, but your data could be mirrored across more than one mainframe depending on the size of your org.

At one point this model was considered harmful by some of the very same people who successfully sell it to us now, the same kind of people who invented or helped invent the PC because terminals and batch-processed computing wasn't enough immediate access to the machine itself. It wasn't "yours" to do with as one wished. A user didn't own the hardware or the computer if they rented expensive processor time and a bit of disk space quota - therefore they couldn't really hack on their programs and try out algorithms that were forbidden, your disk quota could be wiped, your access cut off, etc.

Granted, now we have some of the best of both worlds with real computers in our pockets and bags, real networks and humongous freakin' clouds that would make Lee Felsenstein's head spin right off his neck. Community Memory? Check, and mate.

But watch your ass. iPhones and iPads are happy, shiny toys - but they're basically glorified dumb terminals that are conceptual throwbacks to centralized computing. Don't kid yourself about how serious that walled garden is, or how tall the walls are. If Apple could do it without alienating everyone and while still making a profit - and they're earnestly trying, IMO - they'd restrict all access and data on the iPhone and force all users to store it remotely in that... cloud. All of your music, movies, pictures, mail... everything through the cloud and network, stored remotely and delivered on demand.

Because 32GB of memory on a chip is much more expensive than 32gb of disk quota in an array, and bandwidth is cheap. Because people would obviously keep paying and paying once their life is inside those walls and it can't go in or out without subscribing to that model. They'd do it in a heartbeat, and so would Microsoft. Heck, Microsoft is probably still salivating at the idea of making Windows and Office a service to subscribe to, rather than an OS on media that you buy. So would Intel. And probably even Google, too.

So would any major player that had half a brain, because it's the true Holy Grail of for-profit computing - making consumers pay for access to their own data and content.

posted by loquacious at 2:10 AM on July 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, I remember messing around with AW. It was really clunky even back then, even when compared to stuff like Doom multiplayer across a modem and BBS - granted, with pre-loaded content only. But it was still lighting fast compared to AW on a modem with downloaded content and objects.

I'm interested to know about the crossover between AW and Second Life, because SL is pretty obviously a ripoff of AW, especially with the whole URL/web location interface, the "buying land" and the way people built stuff. Did someone leave AW to start SL? Was SL started by some ex users of AW?
posted by loquacious at 2:16 AM on July 5, 2010

...SL is pretty obviously a ripoff of AW...
I can tell from this statement that you have never played Second Life. No offence to AW but it is vastly superior. As to whether it's a rip off.... Are all modern first player shoot-em-ups 'ripoffs' of Doom? I think not.
posted by Monkeymoo at 6:13 AM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

AW and Second Life are both a rip off of Neal Stephenson's Metaverse. Or rather, an attempt to make it a reality.

I had a citizenship with AW many many years ago, and there must still be some of my constructions gathering virtual dust somewhere on AlphaWorld and Mars. I've long since lost their coördinates.
posted by Stove at 9:15 AM on July 5, 2010

I can tell from this statement that you have never played Second Life.

I can tell by this statement you're just comparing glossy surface interface aesthetics and not thinking about my question in terms of the underlying mechanics or topology.

SL is very much like AW in the way it handles location URLs. AW's "worlds" are functionally the same as SLs "sims" - at least to the end user. You can even run your own private "world/sim" on your own private server in SL, just like you can in AW. Locations, objects, files and more can be shared the same way in the game's viewer client or externally in a third browser through custom URLs.

Yet AW predates it by about ten years. I want to know how much crossover traffic from developers and engineers there is, how much direct influence there was. Because either SL reinvented their wheels very similar to AWs wheels, or they copied/borrowed the model outright. Given the history of software development - I'm going to make an educated guess and say they probably didn't reinvent as much as borrowed/copied AWs infrastructure.

PS: My SL account is so old school it still receives a weekly stipend/allowance and I remember when you couldn't actually teleport to your direct location. I don't log in much because if I wanted to visit an empty, abandoned mall or a museum I could do that in real life.
posted by loquacious at 12:21 PM on July 5, 2010

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