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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 23

"...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 language-based ceremony.

"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 you?"

"That's different."

"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?" she speculates.


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 bit."

"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 it."

"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 works.

"Say, nice site. Maybe we should design a place around here."

"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, remember?"

"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 music.

"Is that Bach?" she asks.

"Um, Vivaldi, I think. Whoa!"

"What's wrong?"

"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 deck.

"Where are you going?" she demands.

"All this tea. It's a real world problem with no virtual solution."

"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, though."

"Seems like the ultimate in falsies to me," she says.

"You think that's bad, probably half of 'em are actually men."

"Oh! I hadn't thought about that," she replies, shocked.

"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 volume.

"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 people."


"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 possible."

"That's disgusting!"

"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 sputters.

"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 real."

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.

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