Aeneas is supposed to have founded Rome after his hometown of Troy was sacked. Ron Britvich lives in Carlsbad, Calif., which hasn't crossed Achilles, Menelaus and the rest of that wrathful crowd, but he's founded a new place anyway.
With little fanfare, he's gone out on the Internet and created a virtual metropolis known as AlphaWorld. It's not the friendliest world in the universe; you really can't even visit without a fast 486 or Pentium computer and plenty of RAM. (For those with the desktop wherewithal, it's at http://www.worlds.net/alphaworld/)
Yet human nature appears to abhor a vacuum, and so, somewhat to Britvich's astonishment, Internet users have moved right in, not just settling in his world but erecting an astounding 200,000 buildings, fountains, trees and other items on the virgin territory he brought into being. Some 4,000 Internet users have emigrated, so to speak, registering as "citizens" of this new land. One of these new citizens has even started a newspaper--on the World Wide Web, of course--that covers the place.
AlphaWorld is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it's an alternate metaphor for doing things on-line. Many of us by now are used to experiencing cyberspace via the World Wide Web, but AlphaWorld takes things a giant step further by establishing a sense of physical proximity between information.
Indeed, AlphaWorld is a prime example of the kind of 3-D on-line universe that you're going to see more of in the years ahead. Already, a 3-D version of hypertext markup language (known as VRML, for virtual reality markup language) is being developed on the Internet, although Britvich says VRML is currently too static to create an environment like AlphaWorld.
Given the state of our actual communities--often car-oriented or crime-ridden--it's no surprise that Americans should embrace communities on-line. But with advances in computing power and networking, having on-line communities that look and feel like real places is becoming more and more feasible. (Among on-line gurus, thinking in this area has been influenced by Neal Stephenson's popular science fiction novel "Snow Crash.")
AlphaWorld is also interesting because Britvich has found it necessary to begin to address, at least theoretically, many of the issues city fathers have wrestled with for as long as there have been cities. For example, who's responsible for the commons? How do you get roads and other public utilities built? Who pays for things, and on what basis? What's allowed and what's not? Can I build a fast-food joint next to your house? Or a high-rise?
Right now, the prevailing ethos at AlphaWorld is altogether laissez-faire, although the "world" actually is owned and operated by Worlds Inc., Britvich's employer and a spinoff of Knowledge Adventure, the well-known CD-ROM firm in La Crescenta.
Worlds Inc. is better known on the Net for its Worlds Chat experiment, a form of Internet Relay Chat that lets users choose avatars to represent themselves to one another in a rudimentary 3-D world (it's at http://www.worlds.net/). Fujitsu plans to bring a similar system to CompuServe.
AlphaWorld is considerably more ambitious than Worlds Chat. Worlds Inc. hopes that eventually you'll be able to do in AlphaWorld many of the things you can do in Los Angeles, without the traffic: visit your bank, buy a new outfit, shop for a good book, go to the post office, meet a friend, get the day's stock market results, sample some new music or perhaps even, someday, see a movie.
As on any frontier, population pressures will no doubt bring more rules to this one. But for now, at least, pretty much anyone can go into AlphaWorld and build anything, as long as the "land" in question happens to be vacant.
In visiting AlphaWorld, you begin at ground zero, in a sort of downtown. If you wish, you can see yourself as others do, in which case you'll observe a stiff-looking figure moving through the streets of a virtual world whose buildings and landscaping appear as if by magic just ahead of you.
This somewhat confusing syndrome is the result of the way AlphaWorld works. The building blocks of AlphaWorld objects live on your hard drive, where they got when you downloaded the free software. As you move through the "landscape," objects take shape on screen thanks to map coordinates that come down through your modem.
When I visited one recent afternoon, the Kasparov-Anand chess championship had begun in New York, and the day's game was being played out simultaneously on a chess board in a central square. Here and there around AlphaWorld, we'd stumble across another user.
"I built an underground cantina at 59N 0E, check it out sometime," typed a user from Orlando, Fla., with the screen name of Cholo. Addresses, as you can see, are given in map coordinates. We also came across an area in which flaming kiosks, when clicked, take you to other Web pages containing "hot news." Down the road, of course, more elaborate (and rewarding) links are planned.
But if Rome wasn't built in a day, neither will AlphaWorld be. Creating structures requires a little skill, there is no topography except for the mountains perennially in the background, and besides the neutron bomb quality about the place (buildings standing, but no people), there isn't much to do at AlphaWorld once you get there. You can type at other users in a kind of Internet Relay Chat, as Cholo did, but even with the help of an AlphaWorld executive (full disclosure: my friend Ken Locker), I couldn't find the place he invited us to.
On the other hand, although AlphaWorld hasn't even been officially announced yet and relatively few people know about it, private development is racing ahead. There is a bar, tended by a robot, where you can hear music; a subdivision called Sleepy Hollow where you can obtain prefabricated housing; and soon, apparently, TV sets that can play animations. The latest version of the AlphaWorld software even allows citizens to add sound to their constructions. Who knows? Maybe somebody is already working on an unsingable national anthem.
Daniel Akst can be reached at email@example.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.caprica.com/~akst