Virtual worlds can be very, very addictive. I used to be a member of There.com and met a lot of nice people, including computer experts from all over the world, we spent hours and hours together, but since it closed on march 9, 2010, I have no idea where to find them. It's like, one day, God forbid, Facebook closed its website, would you loose touch with your friends?
I thought people would try to do something to avoid losing treasured friendships that lasted for years, but now the virtual world is gone and so are the connections with the humans behind those avatars.
What caused the demise of There.com? the official announcement blames it on the recession. I think it was due to a defective businees model. But first, let me tell you the story of my life in There.com.
I read about There.com in Wired Magazine; it is based on the technology used by Virtual Laguna Beach, a virtual world based on the MTV series. The objects and the people (represented by avatars) were so realistic that developers were asked: “please, try to do your 3-D design a little bit cartoonish”.
The audio capabilities were impressive, you could hear the music on your left earphone if you had a jukebox to your left and in stereo as your avatar turned left. As you walked away, the volume would go down. The voice chat was clear and stable, even among a large group of people because you only heard conversations taking place nearby.
A lot of people made a living in the real world supported by virtual world income, there were exchanges where you could turn your ThereBucks into US Dollars. Anyone could become a developer and design virtual objects: clothing, cars, etc. and sell them in auctions, the diversity was impressive.
You were able to control the transparency of specific parts of an object. The top of the bar is solid, the botttom had a transparency of 75%.
I designed the robot. The set of bottles on top of the bar and the Elephant Ear potted plants were bought in auctions. They were best sellers, you would see them in every house.
The very first day I entered the virtual world I met people of all walks and had really interesting conversations about varied and unexpected topics; on my second visit, I heard a group of people talking in Spanish, so I started making friends right away.
Socializing in virtual worlds is no different than the real one. It starts with a circle of friends, normally, people who have something in common or just want to chat. Once the circle of friends is created, gossiping steps in, then one member of the circle feuds with another.
In the beginning they just avoid each other, but after a while, some of them spawn archenemies. So the rest of the members have to choose sides. Alliances are formed and later change, as one person notices the other group seems to be having more fun.
As the smaller group shrinks, its members will look for another circle of friends and if they don’t find one interesting enough, will end up moving to Second Life, Microsoft’s virtual world, which has less detailed graphics, but has plenty of members.
Some of the feuds became really nasty (most of them began from members of the circle who had begun to date) and looked for ways to inflict as much damage as they could to their opponents. The solution: ban them. If a member was banned, he/she could not enter the virtual world, and if you tried to create another avatar, you wouldn’t be allowed because your credit card info would give you up.
So, in order to ban people you had to call mediators and in most cases, as in real life, the nicer person would lose the argument and be forced to go. Banning, I think, is one important reason why There.com failed.
They should have let people resolve their issues on their own. If you run a business, you can’t just discard customers. I even thought on opening an arbitration office, you know, like a Court, but as I said, the mediators of There.com were the judges.
One day I ran into a group whose common interest was space and I was taken to a space station, it was so cool!! You could see the earth below and use a rocket backpack to explore and expand.
That's me using a hoverpack to view my space pod from above. Even though the earth was below us, we placed a small replica of the earth in the space station to make it feel even more "spacey".
You could place objects anywhere in your property and later adjust the position. Therefore, I spent hours pointing the satellite dish on my space pod to the one on earth. The water fountain was animated and transparency made it look really awesome.
So I decided to join the space station neighborhood and became a developer myself. I had to learn how to build things in 3-D, which meant not only how to use a 3-D design tool, but also the lingo. I learned the latter by designing a cube and using all the menu options to see what it did to my simple cube. This way I could figure out what "beveling" meant. It’s a steep learning curve.
To design a 3-D object that could be used or traded in There.com you had to create four versions of the object. Let’s say, if you design a floor lamp, this is what you had to do:
- The lamp as seen 50 feet away from you, usually a third of the number of polygons in your original design
4- The lamp as seen when you are 10 feet away, half the polygons in your design
- The lamp in full detail, as seen right in front of you
- The collision: that is, the area occupied by the lamp, so you cannot walk through it.
Even though this made designing objects harder, the approach was very clever: the computer does not need to waist memory or processor time to load the distant objects in full detail, and depending on how far from you the object was, the computer would pick the right version, therefore rendering was really fast and seemed like real time.
I had an advantage as a designer, the 3-D design tool (G-Max) worked in meters, so I never failed in the proportions of my designs. Once you built an object you could not make it bigger or smaller in the virtual world, that makes sense, otherwise would be chaotic. I assume that since There.com was built as a replica of the earth, they had to use meters, because geo-coordinates are based in meters not in inches.
designed stuff to be used in space: command consoles, robots, space pods, etc. My masterpiece was a spaceship (so sad I didn't take a picture). I made most of the designs for use in the space station for fun or just to give to friends as a gift. But as I said, a lot of people made their living in There.com. Some objects were so popular that you could seem them everywhere, the designer could have earned enough to pay rent in the real world.
This is one of the command consoles I designed to use in the space station. Given the simplicity of the shape, the three versions of the console had the same number of polygons, even the colission.
Each component could have a differnt texture: the base and sides are metalic, the keyboard and screen used different images. You were also able to use the image as a mosaic, so big objects didn't look blurry.
Our space station neighborhood grew to 12 residents and then one day a punk built a very cheesy house on my backyard and blocked my view of the virtual milky way. The guy was never there and had a loud jukebox blasting what sounded to me like satanic music.
I called the mediator and he measured the distance between his house and my space pod and said the punk could stay. Because of this, the 12 residents of our space station (most of them with at least 3 years of membership) were forced to disassemble their space pods and rebuild it somewhere else. That really pissed me off, and after three years of being a member and a developer and spending more than $1,800. I left There.com for good.
A lot of people used to come visit our space station and brought friends, we had a Botanical Garden, a Square with a water fountain and a race track for motorcycles and cars. This incident dissapointed a lot of them.
I went back to There.com after a year and they said that after I left they changed the rules. Now people who live in space must set up shop where no other space station can be viewed. But I couldn’t stop noticing that a lot of friends were gone. Most of the people I saw were developers or people who made money in different and creative ways, like this girl who made extra income babysitting. A mom paid her real money to supervise her nine-year-old daughter’s conversations and the kind of people she talked to when in There.com. And this woman who organized events in There.com to make money to pay for her real medications.
I agree with lots of people regarding the sophistication of There.com, it was way ahead of time, so let’s hope that in the future someone uses the technology, rewrites the rules and launches a new virtual world located out in space only. After all that's why they are virtual, to do things you cannot do or have in real life, like peace. We fight, do harm and compete in real life on a daily basis, why replicate that. Most of us won't be able to go to another planet or visit a space station in our lifetimes, so why not use virtual worlds for that? Bottom line, the inmense creativity of designers of space stations all over the world, can serve as a blueprint for real ones when the space travel is feasible.
After all the years I spent in There.com I just recently learned that it was built as a replica of the earth, with an accurate scale. Had I known that back then, I’d have built my house in my hometown, Trujillo, Peru.
My life in New Technologies
- Life Cox
- I'm a computer programmer working in New York developing web applications using Cold Fusion and MySQL since 2002.
Although I graduated in law back in Peru, I was lured by a friend to a computer programming class, she found it boring but it changed my life forever. It was easy for me to program so I started reading everything I could put my hands on about computers and new technologies since.
I love challenges and learning new computer languages is my favorite distraction, it is so rewarding to see the fruits of your work right away. So I've learned how to build robots, do 3-D design and create virtual worlds on my spare time.