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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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vCity 1.0
Chapter 16

"The Law of Unintended Consequences is what twists the simple chronology of history into drama."

-- Theodore H. White --


One of the reasons people like to visit our vCity is because it offers something more than advertising. Who goes to a great city to see its advertising? This is a point I tried to hammer home early in many a Zoning Council meeting, when the virtual world was young back in '97. You don't go to a city to look at its billboards. Even if they are clever, interactive billboards.

If a vCity does not offer people ideas about the future, and solicit ideas from them, then it is a sterile amusement. If it does not burn brightly as a torch lighting the way through the billowing mists of time, then it is only a fantasy -- and I have no patience with fantasy.

We have given people a chance to test their social and technological visions in a setting where error can do no lasting harm. This strategy of trying to recreate, with a fair degree of accuracy, the real world as a slightly futuristic 3D virtual reality city simulation has paid off handsomely. What a pleasant surprise it has been to see the fruition of a healthy virtual reality industry tied to the invention of the vCity itself.

I mentioned earlier my friends out at the Center for Preservation and Study of Desert Ecologies, Inc. who developed a continually changing ecosimm and are now apparently negotiating with an HMD manufacturer to promote both the content and the equipment. This is synergy at its best. Without the existence of HMDs, there would be no reason to laboriously spend years of effort programming VR worlds (files) to take advantage of some of the unique attributes that HMDs can offer such as "wrap-around" vision. However, without something interesting to look at, such as a desert filled with flora and fauna, as well as some practical reason to investigate the site (education; lack of access to a real desert), no one is likely to plunk down $500 for HMD equipment.

This is a long-winded way of stating the obvious, namely that the hardware and the software are co-evolving, interdependent, and synergistic. Don't ask me which came first. Both the chicken and the egg are necessary; we just provide the coop.

The best example I can think of today of this synergism is the relationship between the downtown area and the HPWV (Human Powered Wheeled Vehicle) industry. I would like to say that we had no clear idea of what we were doing when we established some basic zoning guidelines for the downtown area. The truth is, we had no idea whatsoever what would happen. It just morphed itself.

Downtown is metaphor.

If it were organic, it would be the heart and brains of the vCity.

If it were mechanistic, it would be the engine that runs the Machine, as Lewis Mumford might have described it.

Okay, enough of that. Let's just stick to geometry and say that, rhetoric aside, downtown is the center of the vCity. It's divided into three informal districts or sectors, each with their own distinct personality and rapid area transit station: City Centre; HQ District; and Plasteel Canyon. Technically Shantytown is also part of downtown, but no one likes to admit it. The vCitizens who live and work downtown would prefer to think that all of life is quality-enhanced, abetted by rapid technological progress, I suppose. I'll get to Shantytown later.

City Centre, or just "the center" as the vCitizens like to call it, is a wondrous example of the blend of organic and inorganic form and function. In other words, it's got a lot of trees, parks and gardens that fit like jewels within the crown of aesthetically pleasing buildings and monuments. This is where you will find vCity offices. The Zoning Council reserved volume for what we anticipated would be mostly information gathering and dispensing bureaus and the inevitable departments that manage the construction and maintenance of city infrastructure such as transportation, utilities, and environment.

The residential situation here is "rental only"; all housing within the City Centre is owned by the vCity, and only lottery winners have the privilege of paying "rent" to stay in Eden. In fact, our corporation does not charge anybody for anything, but that is the futuristic theory behind the City Centre. However, the occupants were assigned by random lottery, if that means anything.

Even in a virtual reality city where people can beam anywhere they like and geography therefore plays a very minor role, we anticipated that the center of the city would be very valuable estate. So we decided early on to "zone" it for luxury hotels. Indeed, almost every one of the major hotel corporations in the real world has set up shop here with a VR site. Architects and hotel designers from all over the world got a chance to let loose their fancy and produce incredible palaces of opulent design. All of this is rather fun to see, and the real world corporations do not miss a chance to entice the viewer with 2D information about their real world facilities. Indeed, you can make hotel reservations directly through the Internet without ever leaving the vCity.

One of the smarter real world corps -- Mariott, I think, but I don't recall now -- even offered "luxury suites" within the VR hotel as accommodations for people too lazy to build VR residences. It's kind of silly, but under the rules of the simulation there was nothing wrong with doing so. I'm not sure what the corporation got out of that, but it was probably a cute freebie tie-in promotion to something else. Or maybe the hotel got a chance to do some of its own marketing freely. Anyway, the others followed suit, and now there are a whole bunch of city coordinates assigned to people under the aegis of these luxury hotels. So the "filthy rich" live in the City Centre after all (and, as Junius R. Logan once said, one can never be too filthy).

The HQ District, true to its name, is the home of many headquarters buildings for companies and corporations and simmcorps as well as the professional associations and not-for-profit research institutes that dot the area. From the architectural point of view, the HQ District skyline looks pretty much like every real major metropolis you may have seen, a blend of the finest examples of skyscraper construction from Sydney, Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Rio de Janeiro, etc. Plenty of apartment buildings here, too, but quite a bit of the virtual real estate is "owned" by the corporations themselves. Same goes for the hotels, whose designs are luxurious by normal standards but geared more towards the needs of the professional and business communities.

There is a reason why many of these buildings look alike. They were designed by the same bunch of VR designers located in the real world San Francisco Bay area. What happened was, there were real world corporations who wanted a presence -- quickly -- in the vCity. It was considered a "hot" place to advertise on the Internet after the novelty of 2D web pages had worn off. So this bunch of VR designers, who I know quite well but whose names will remain unpublished for obvious reasons, spent nights and weekends designing a very complex, state-of-the-art office building. They then "leased" the design to real world corporations for real world money.

So selling VR art/design to vCitizens was yet another part of the business of the vCity. The snake eats itself.

As one scrolls through downtown of the vCity there is the glistening man-made VR wonder of Plasteel Canyon, the bustling HQ District, the stately majesty of City Centre parks, museums, and fine hotels. And then, almost without warning, there is a jolt of virtual reality.

When we were first zoning the vCity, we decided that there needed to be some places where people could build "free range" domiciles only. We set aside huge tracts of zoning volumes as essentially empty volume. This was Belowtown. It was also the above ground part of the vCity which we called Nada. In fact, there are still places in the original archives where the area is called Nada. However very quickly it went from sponge to onion, and today it is called Shantytown.

Shantytown would not be a very nice place to live in reality. It is crowded, it is VR graffiti, it is chaos. There is a high rate of abandonment and turnover, as if people, bored with their designs, preferred to move on. Even the vPigeons here have a mean and hungry look, and both human and rat scapps scurry noiselessly about their grim tasks, the former taking the day shift and the latter the night. Yet despite these poor conditions, the virtual potholes, the dysfunctional character of the sector, people do live and work here.

Why? Why struggle in the distant shadow of magnificent opulence? Because Shantytown has soul and character, that's why. Next to Belowtown I think it is my favorite place in all the vCity. It seems as if, if it were in the real world, it would be a place where neighbors would watch out for each other because who else would? A place where one could live in a tiny little house all one's own in the middle of the most famous vCity in the world. Sure, it would be tough to survive in such a place in reality. But what kind of R&B comes out of Lovely Land? Not to mention recipes for some kick-ass shrimp Creole. (If you're interested, find the Cajun Nation nowlink and have a ball)

All right. So what does all of this have to do with HPWVs?

I'm getting there. Patience is a virtue.

There isn't a major metropolis in the real world today that doesn't suffer from pollution from automobiles, trucks, or other engine-powered wheeled vehicles (EPWVs). So we decided to try something that was not too radical. The vCitizens themselves created Emission Control Zones (ECZs) where EPWVs using gasoline or diesel engines were prohibited during "peak" house of 05:00 to 10:00 VCT and 14:00 through 22:00 VCT. They figured this would be a safe compromise between the interests of the general public for low noise- and exhaust-pollution levels, and the special interests of shipping and handling and delivery companies, furniture movers, etcetera.

There was nary a squawk even from the affected industries. To be honest, I don't think that they really cared. In a virtual city where both transit of people and delivery of products take place by the Internet itself, where there is no noise and no fumes, why should anybody care? After being hosed down by the utilities industry on our utopian power system, I guess I was hypersensitive and expected a torrent of e-mail on every issue.

But in reality, people would need to get around. So what we did postulate, for the vCity and for cities of the future, was a healthy HPWV industry. And this is where things became interesting; the wheels turned, so to speak.

The human-powered wheeled vehicle is probably one of the most efficient passenger transportation technologies ever devised, both technically and socially. It is not so great for moving cargo, but it is a healthful, virtually non-polluting means of moving people quickly over short to medium distances. Although the basic form of the bicycle has not changed tremendously since the "safety bicycle" design of the 1910s, modest technical innovations have added safety and convenience features at relatively low cost. There are other, less popular kinds of hpwvs including pusher tricycles, pusher quadcycles, and the ubiquitous one- and two-seat carrycarts, sometimes referred to as "rickshaws."

In talking with the World Bicycle Association and others, we discovered that the real key to fostering hpwv use is not so much producing them and making them available to the public at low cost, but rather establishing and maintaining a helpful infrastructure of special dedicated lanes, right-of-ways, and parking/stowage facilities throughout urban areas.

Naturally, the vCity did all three. For good measure, the Zoning Council also promoted the special interests of "commuters" by postulating that local government would allow corporations to deduct 100% of the cost of hpwv parking/stowage reimbursement and 95% of the cost of shower/change facilities. (Because veritas pravalet, folks...have you ever tried to cycle to a Monday morning staff meeting in a suit and tie? Not even an anti-perspirant maximum-strength deodorant will help you out)

The easiest of the three is to establish for hpwvs right-of-way in all traffic situations, except those involving pedestrians. Hpwvs are still considered vehicles, however, and are themselves restricted from pedestrian-only walkways. Signs are cheap.

We knew that specially dedicated lanes, along with connecting overpasses, underpasses, and traffic lights, would in reality cost something to build and maintain. So would the parking and stowage areas that would dot the urban landscape. So how would these costs in reality be passed on to users?

Our solution was that local government would charge a fee for using the special lanes, parking lots and stowage racks. In order to use any hpwv-dedicated lane, riders/drivers would purchase and attach a magnetic attachable/detachable "flash pass" to the front of their vehicle. These monthly passes, which would look a bit like credit cards, could be purchased at kiosks throughout the city. They would serve as lottery tickets for trips and prizes, and serve as fun collectibles. Since there would be no enforcement against freeloaders, the system would not be perfect, and the inevitable budget shortfalls would be made up from general revenue funds.

But that is okay. In the larger scheme of things, a society wants to encourage cycling because it helps people burn fat as a transportation fuel. This in turn lowers overall health care costs and general pollution levels.

Next, we postulated a simmcorp called the vCity Area Cycling Association, a non-profit corporation, that would serve as the main clearinghouse for information to and from local area cycling organizations. The ACA would organize cycling races and "adventure tours" as a means of raising funds. A portion of the proceeds would be donated back to the vCity for "maintenance and repair of hpwv infrastructure." The ACA would update its Cycling Real Time Information Database continuously, allowing cyclers equipped with the right display equipment to locate exactly where they are in the city, and the most efficient (or scenic) route to getting to where they wish to go. Finally, the ACA would serve as a lobbying group to promote the special needs of cyclers, such as educating corporations on the tax and health benefits of supporting and encouraging hpwv use for their employees.

Ordinarily, all of this would have been entirely useless in a real world sense; merely a utopian simm to engage people in a multilogue about the kind of transportation system they might one day wish to see in the real world. However, the ACA came in handy. People decided that they really did want to "bicycle" in the vCity.

In 1998 -- about a year after the vCity opened -- I happened to come across an interesting article in a nowlink about a bicycling enthusiast in Sweden who had rigged up his ten-speed to some MSE equipment. Essentially he hitched his rear wheel up to a magnetic track stand with variable resistance depending upon input from the terrain in the simulation. This must have made for something of a soggy ride, since the city coordinates are sized in one meter increments. I don't know how he could get a real-time solution to the problem of dealing with increments or any delay in receiving input over the Internet. Apparently he must have been a pretty good programmer if he solved those problems. Anyway, he hitched his front wheel up to a device that would register right/left turns, and he wore an HMD.

The overall effect was that he could "move" through the vCity while exercise cycling. It gave him the illusion of bicycling through the city. Because the downtown area was relatively flat and because there were a lot of interesting things to see, he claimed he spent most of his winter exercising and "touring" through those ever-changing streets. Since the Swedish winter can be pretty long, this guy must have developed thigh muscles the size of Sequoias.

Well, it didn't take long for the news of this innovation to get out. The next thing you knew, vBicycling was a hot item. The use of virtual reality settings was actually nothing new to the exercise industry. What was different and new, was the idea that one could vBicycle through a terrain which was always changing -- indeed, which one could design oneself.

A whole new industry sprouted where none had been. Regrettably, we had to ban many of these sites on the grounds that they were not legally formatted. People would register a Zoning Volume of 100 cubic meters in some quiet little place like the suburb of Nondescript, and then design a VR world of rolling hills in terms of square kilometers. This was clearly a no-no, and we would advise them of the problem, and then they would go off somewhere else and do the same damn thing again.

Eventually that problem was solved by one of our competitors who, in alliance with a major bicycle manufacturing corporation, invented WheelWorld, an Internet site where one could go and vBicycle in eighty-two different terrain types and settings around the world. WheelWorld isn't a virtual city, but it is a virtual world on the Internet. Of course, you have to use their browser to access their VR world; the one we provided freely to people didn't adapt 100% to their file format. And naturally, people blamed us. We got a bucketful of e-mail messages and phone calls from people who had plunked down big bucks for VR equipment only to discover that they didn't have the right software settings or whatever. Eventually I just told my diablito to take any message with the keyword "WheelWorld" in the body of the text and flush it unread down the Internet toilet.

But WheelWorld was never as popular as the vCity. We were thankful for the fact that our competition had created WheelWorld because it stimulated the design and manufacture of all kinds of MSE equipment for exercise bikes. This lowered their price, which encouraged more people to buy them, which in turn stimulated demand for access to the vCity. A good example of how competition can be a win-win-win situation. Everybody profits except the consumer who shells out $1000 -- but the consumer then has an additional incentive to exercise, which leads to lower rates of heart disease or other kinds of ailments.

Okay, not everybody wins. The diet industry might suffer a dent in profits as a result, but then again, with all the people of the world turning into Chairborgs, I'm sure their revenues are going sky high anyway.

I might add, purely as a tangent, that "biking" in the vCity is safe for two reasons. One cannot get run over by anything; and one cannot run over anything else. There isn't a "collision detection" problem to work out. If one is "on" a bikepath and there is a "wall" to the right, for example, it simply isn't possible to turn to the right. You can turn your gear all day, and you will not turn to the right. Not, at least, until you come the to the end of the wall. It's a little disconcerting at first, a bit like skidding on ice or some other frictionless plane. You get used to it. Meanwhile, more than one "bicyclist" can occupy the same volume at the same time. The HPWV lanes were not set up for avatars, just static VR scenes frequently updated. It is not a question of going "through" someone else. One simply doesn't see anyone else, unless they are scapps.

Because of the peculiarity of the existence of vBicycling, from 1998 onwards the vCity developed and maintained a very strong following among cycling enthusiasts worldwide. There were a lot more wheeled vehicle designers out there than we had realized -- quite a few in China alone -- and they took to setting up sites in the vCity to do some serious HPWV marketing and advertising. It dawned on a lot of entrepreneurs almost simultaneously that they could reach their target audience quickly and more cheaply than ever before simply by setting up a site in the vCity. This was an audience in the millions; and in the world of HPWVs, one only needs a few thousand customers to make a profit off of a specific innovation.

There are three simmcorps that come to mind; there are probably more in the vCity that I haven't seen yet.

The KarmicWheel Corporation (Registry Protected) is dedicated to the production of cheap, low-cost bicycles. They produce three kinds of bicycles: all-terrain (or "mountain" bikes); hybrid; and touring. The bikes themselves are sturdy vintage 1980s technology and come in a variety of sixteen colors. If KarmicWheel could do in reality what it does in virtual reality, it would dominate the low end of the market so completely that no one could compete with them. On any given day, according to their statements, their mostly robotic plant produces an estimated 20,000 units at an estimated production cost of $20 per unit. It is fun to watch the VR factory go, a very entertaining techsimm.

By clicking on the end of the assembly line, you can follow the bicycles right up into the cargo loading dock and watch the trucks drive off. By the time these bikes make it to market, the viewer is informed, their price approaches $100 -- which is still dirt cheap. In the real world, kids can buy shoes that cost more than that.

Then there is BFC, Inc., with headquarters in midtown vCity. BFC Inc. (a simmcorp, Registry Protected) calls itself "a scrappy competitor for most hpwv markets." In the real world they do, in fact, sell bicycles at a loss just to maintain shelf-space against the dreaded unwashed masses of inferior products.

The real world corporation behind BFC has engaged its customers in multilogue for years about the kinds of products that they want to see. One can click on the factory site for a look at the latest projected products. The high-end BFC bikes use superior, long-lasting technology including composite lithium-carbon alloys, wind-reduction wheels, pressure-sensitive gear shifting, and so on. Indeed, the real world corporation fronting as BFC pioneered in the use of "intelligent" suspension systems that "sense" terrain conditions 10-50 meters forward and compensate for them, affording the user a smooth, uninterrupted ride. Well, almost. Anyway, adults love the real world products for touring and racing.

The real world corporation also grabbed market share in other hpwv areas including pushers (the kind where the rider lies low to the ground) and "rickshaws". Again, they proved themselves to be leaders in innovation, including safety and stabilization features and drag-reducing design. One proposed futuristic model of pusher quadcycle is completely enclosed and would afford the driver such niceties as wireless commlink, defroster/defogger, and beverage holder.

Another real world corporation that decided to let it all hang out on the Internet is AdTWV, Inc. It leased part of a prefab office building in HQ District and showcases several production facilities throughout the vCity area. AdTWV Inc. is a HPWV behemoth. The word "bike" is forbidden at AdTWV Inc.; they do not deign to enter that market. In truth, this corporation is not so much about the joys of cycling as it is about the rigors of transportation. Their organization is geared (no pun intended) towards commuting and providing safe, non-polluting alternatives to engine-powered wheeled vehicles. They consider themselves a competitor in, and to, the automobile industry. In the real world, they sponsor hpwv races & events. They even have a small R&D laboratory that basically studies the best of other people's innovations and uses non-patented portions in new model design.

AdTWV, Inc. is the only producer of the Musclepower! car, which is essentially a hybrid cross between a two-seat quadcycle "rickshaw" and an electric-battery-driven automobile. AdTWV Inc. has been lobbying Congress and the DOT (unsuccessfully, I might add) for years to get this thing classified as an vehicle so that it can use existing superhighways in the real world.

What the car does, basically, is help the driver store excess power by storing it in a combination flywheel/electric battery system. At the flick of a switch, the driver can engage a small engine that assists in driving the wheel train. So, the vehicle can maintain a fairly constant speed of about 50 kph even on those tough uphill climbs. The car is fully enclosed for all-weather transportation, and is safe enough and comfortable enough to carry an adult driver and adult co-pumper (or any passenger) and either a child or about two bags of groceries in the rear storage area.

I am pleased to say that all of this was pre-developed and test-marketed in the vCity before it was introduced to markets in the U.S. and Canada. So score another one for the power of positive futurism.

I should have bought stock in this company went it first went public in 2000. They have a very savvy marketing staff that really knows its business. They are like a combination of General Motors and McDonalds as applied to the HPWV market. AdTWV, Inc. also owns the Get It In Gear! repair/refurbishment/retail franchise. These shops are ubiquitous, locally-owned dealerships that specialize in marketing and servicing a variety of hpwvs, but especially the Musclepower! model.

In the real world, the GIIG stores are universally detested by independent mechanics and small retailers, but that's life in the free marketplace. GIIG franchises do, after all, serve a valuable purpose as training ground for a new generation of mechanics and salespeople.

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