"...amidst the vast perplexity of human
affairs, none can say how much of ancient institutions and former manners will
remain, or how much will completely disappear."
-- Alexis de Tocqueville --
It is not uniformly a pain in the ass being First Citizen.
Sometimes it's fun.
With irregular frequency I have the following dream: I am
standing in a hallway and there is a room ahead of me. I can hear people
talking and laughing. There is a bright light coming out from under the door
crack. But the door is locked; I am not allowed in. I must stay in the
purgatory of the hallway. I cannot play in any of their reindeer games.
The vCity is a community at heart, and every now and then I
get a glimpse of what that bright light in my dream is all about. The door
opens an inch, and when I peek inside, I see all the people of the Earth having
lots of fun.
In today's e-mail I received a wedding invitation. An
e-mailed invitation is not so unusual any more. But this wedding
ceremony is unusual. It is the world's first virtual reality modeling
"Hey Fivirino, we've been invited to a wedding and
reception," I tell my wife.
"Who is it?" she asks, busy chopping an onion.
"We don't know them."
"It's a VR wedding."
"You've got to be kidding."
"No, really. Check this out," I say, reading hard copy out
loud. "Paulo Umbertino and Sha Ja Zhen request the honour of your avatarial
presence at their wedding on July 4, 2002, at 16:00 ECT, at the Wang Chung
Mansion located in Rich Estates, vCity. Reception to follow on the grounds of
the estate. Special servers have been rented for this very happy occasion.
Further details and URLs below."
"That's the most bizarre thing I've ever heard of in my
life," she says, starting in on some bok choy.
"Oh God, I knew you were going to say that. How is it
bizarre? Let me count the ways. First of all, it isn't legal."
"Why not? There have been marriage ceremonies performed
over the radio or by telephone, why not the Internet? I imagine as long as they
could find an officiant who would do the paperwork in either Texas or Sardinia
it would be legal."
"Well, it just isn't right. People only get married three
or four times in their life, it should be a special event for family and
friends only. Not for mass entertainment."
"You watched the Royal Wedding on television, didn't
"I don't see how. But anyway, they probably only invited
vCitizens which they considered family and friends."
"How did you make the list, then?"
"I don't know," I admitted. "Maybe it was a politeness to
some of the old hands. Anyway what could be more special than a virtual reality
ceremony? And think about it, you could invite any number of guests to attend
from anywhere in the world at no cost."
"Sure, why not?"
"Really? Millions of avatars at one wedding? Wouldn't that
be difficult to handle?"
"Now that you mention it, I guess so." I read further to
examine some of the details. "Okay, it says here that actual virtual
interactive presence will be limited to those invited and one guest avatar. I
guess that means that anyone who was not invited can still access the
server-array. They can see, but they won't be seen."
She pauses over the wok, oyster sauce in hand. "I can't go,
I don't have a thing to wear," she says sarcastically.
"Relax, Cinderella. Check this out. You can link over to
The Virtual Bride and Groom Store and the owners will provide you with a choice
of over 42 million defined-object combinations of hair and skin color, body
size, height, and type, gender, and outfit."
"42 million? That's too many choices."
"Well, it's probably menu-driven, so your final options
will probably be limited to only a few thousand gowns."
"Is it black tie formal?" she asks, curious. She has
forgotten her animosity.
"It's the only time you'll ever see me in a tuxedo,
that's for sure."
"Read me more," she says, stir-frying.
I scan through the sheet and try to summarize. "Okay, well,
they request that people call in ahead of time because they anticipate a bit of
a traffic jam. Let's see. Wow. All of the catering ideas are being provided by
Quebec Appetit Internationale, that's a world famous firm. Champagnes showcased
by. . .lawn and garden by . . .audio/video provided by . . .Geez, this thing
reads like an underwriter's dream."
The light bulb.
My wife portions out dinner. "Who says romance is dead?"
It is difficult to say how long of a commute it would be
from the vCity suburb of Rich Estates northeast to the downtown of the vCity.
The virtual distance is about 160 kilometers as the crow scapp might fly.
Anyone who lived in a residential area such as Rich Estates would have no need
to commute anywhere, however. Or if they did, it would be decidedly in the back
seat of a gasoline-powered limousine.
When the Zoning Council first established the vCity, Rich
Estates zoning volumes were rated "5A", which is as upper crusty as it can get.
It was conceived as an area where the mansions could be mistaken for embassies
and the estates confused for city parks. We presumed that even the convenience
stores would be tastefully decorated.
The Wang Chung mansion is a good virtual example of the
kind of landscaping and architecture which Rich Estates was supposed to
simulate. The entire estate is sedately brick-walled off from the neighbors.
There is no need for physical security measures in a VR world, of course, but
as my wife and I enter the "front" gate leading to the main house, I happen to
notice two security cameras posted discreetly on the pillars.
"You go ahead," I tell her. "I want to look around a
"OK," she nods.
In reality, we are both sitting out on the deck in our back
yard, enjoying a pitcher of iced tea in late afternoon of another hot, muggy
Washington day. It's July 4th, U.S. Independence Day, so neither of us had to
work today. We can hear a few firecrackers explode in the muffled distance; the
HMDs screen most of the noise pollution out, though. The fireworks won't begin
until much later this evening. This is the first wedding I ever attended
wearing a bathing suit. I'm already beginning to see the advantages. My avatar,
however, is a tall, thin, muscular, handsome white man wearing a tux. Just
another empty suit.
Just for the hell of it, I "eye-click" on the security
camera to the right to see what happens. Suddenly, I am whisked away to a 2D
web page advertisement presented by Peace of Mind Security Systems Inc., a
Hong-Kong based real world firm.
"Whoa," I say, pitching forward slightly and grabbing my
chair arms. It is a very disconcerting feeling to be "moving" through a 3D
world and suddenly face a wall of text standing there like a large monument.
The HMD adjusts to give one a 3D impression of a textual object, but there is
always that split second of transition -- more than enough time for the human
brain to think that it is moving into a large, stationary object. Human brains
do not like to think that they are moving into large, stationary
objects. It is one of the reasons why the species survived.
"What's the matter?" my wife asks.
"Nothing. I just got steamrolled," I explain,
feeling foolish. "Some of the defined objects in this program are hotlinked, be
careful what you eye-click on."
"Look at this," she says.
"Wait a second, I'm not back yet. What is it?"
"It's a registration table with lots of little cards on
"Can you move around it?"
"I'll try. No. Why is that?"
"It's a passgate. I was wondering how they were going to
keep people from crashing their party."
Suddenly I am back where I started, staring up at the
security camera object. I move over to the table and look at the cards. They
are arranged in an array from A to Z, stacks of cards aligned so that one
doesn't have to search through thousands of names. "This is clever."
"You have to search for your vCity moniker," my wife says.
"Oh, this is beautiful!"
"Wait a second, dammit," I say irritated. "I'm still
looking. How come I can't click on the Fs? What the . . . okay, here we go. Ah,
here I am. First Citizen. Whoa!"
Upon clicking my name, the scene changes to the backside of
the main house, where a stone terrace overlooks a gently sloping lawn filled
with hundred year old trees, a gazebo, a pond with swan scapps -- the
"Say, nice site. Maybe we should design a place around
"What, and drop another five hundred dollars?" my wife
asks. "Forget it!"
"You know, I can see some definite advantages to getting
married by Internet," I reply, quickly changing the subject. "The weather is
always perfect so you never have to worry about rain or heat."
"That would have been nice for our wedding," she replies
wistfully. "Do you remember how hot it was that June?"
"It wasn't that bad."
"No, it was only 90 degrees by 9 AM, you schmuck. Of
course it was bad. You were the one wearing the black suit,
"I can't remember that far back, I ran out of memory," I
say, teasing her.
"Well, I do. Thank God the temple had air conditioning, or
my make-up would have started melting."
"Well there's another point in favor of a VR wedding," I
add. "Nothing goes wrong. The dress and the veil are always perfect, and
everyone shows up on time. No flat tires."
"And no zits on the wedding day, either," she adds.
Suddenly, the site is filled with the sound of classical
"Is that Bach?" she asks.
"Um, Vivaldi, I think. Whoa!"
"Don't eye-click on the string quartet, you'll get
steamrolled. You know, this is a fun idea but it's got a lot of
advertising landmines in it." I take off my HMD helmet and place it on the
"Where are you going?" she demands.
"All this tea. It's a real world problem with no virtual
"You should have gone before we started!" she complains.
"Hurry up, they're not going to wait for you."
"Okay," I say. "Do me a favor, giggle my helmet every
twenty seconds, otherwise I might lose the link."
When I get back, there are more avatars moving around on
the terrace and on the grounds. This program has a pretty good collision
detection routine; I haven't had the misfortune of walking through anyone or
anything yet. The men's outfits are pretty boring, but the women all look very
pretty. In fact there are some gowns that probably should be banned for
defying the laws of physics, but I'm in an agreeable mood so what the hell.
Maybe they have a velcro catch I don't understand. It doesn't really feel like
a party, though, until I turn on the catch-all audio link and immerse myself in
the babble of conversations. That's too much, though, there are thousands of
people milling about. I tune back out.
"Nice outfits," I say to my wife. "Where are you?"
"Lost in the crowd. Does it strike you that a lot of these
female avatars seem, well, rather large-breasted?"
"Now that you mention it. It's not against the law,
"Seems like the ultimate in falsies to me," she says.
"You think that's bad, probably half of 'em are actually
"Oh! I hadn't thought about that," she replies,
"Yeah. It's the ultimate in cross-dressing, I suppose.
What's in a gender?"
Before she can reply, however, we are all simultaneously
whisked to standing positions on the terrace and the sloping lawn. The bride
and groom and the rest of the wedding party are down in front. The whole effect
is one of people standing in an amphitheater watching actors in a play. In VR
interactive presence, there are no "space" issues or body odors, so it's fairly
easy to pack a few thousand people like sardines into a relatively small
"Gee," my wife mutters.
"That's one way to start a wedding on time," I agree.
"Is Sha Ja Zhen really that tall?" she asks. "I had the
impression that most Chinese women were petite."
"Who knows?" I reply. "We don't even know if they are real
"Well, one would presume so. One would presume that a real
man is marrying a real woman, somewhere. But it doesn't have to be so. Maybe
this is a virtual wedding of two vCitizens, in which case anything goes. Or
maybe the whole thing has been staged by the owner of the site for real world
money, in exchange for advertising for real world businesses. Anything's
"Why? You're enjoying it aren't you?"
"Well, yes, I suppose so."
"Okay. So go with it."
"Is everything just entertainment dollars to you?" she
"Caveat Emptor, babe," I reply. "Caveat Emptor."
The program lasted about an hour in all; the reception
afterwards was boggling, and we could have stayed longer, but the fact is that
looking at rare champagnes and exotic foods isn't that much fun. A virtual
vodka tonic has no kick. Dancing avatarially is difficult. And making small
talk with random avatars who one might or might not know in real life is
exhausting. So we beamed out of there pretty quickly.
"Nice talking with you," I told one avatar. "It's been
My wife and I took off our HMDs and waded into the hot tub
for a few minutes to cool off. "So," I asked her. "What did you think?"
She sighed. "Well, it was interesting."
"The price was right."
"I liked the ceremony," she mused. "I thought the preacher
or the priest or whoever it was that performed the service made some good
points about marriage. And I liked the part where the bride and groom kissed
and then vanished."
"Like a fairy tale."
"Yes. And They Lived Happily Ever After," she quoted.
"Definitely a fantasy," I agreed.