"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
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
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
Downtown is metaphor.
If it were organic, it would be the heart and brains of the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.