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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 3

"City planning by specialists is a recent event in the history of cities."

-- Richard Sennett --


The desert always helps me relax. It is not, as many people often visualize it, an empty wasteland. It is an ecosystem in its own right, fragile because of the relative lack of rainfall, utterly serene and beautiful in the warm orange and pink glow of a permanent dawn.

It was one of the first sectors we created because of its stark vastness. When you don't pay too close attention to the details -- individual scrub bushes, cloud and bird scapps, that kind of thing -- the outback works better than most other sectors. Our karoo stretches from the Volcano Slopes in the West to the wind-swept dunes and beaches in the East. The desert is the southern border of the vCity outlands, beyond which there is only the Great Beyond.

Its pale blue sky does not stretch to azure infinity. In addition to being an overworked literary cliché, that would be a mathematical impossibility.

The original desert was pretty lame as a simulation. The basic problem was that none of us knew anything about the ecosystem we were trying to simulate. The solution was obvious, and that was to hire some experts. The corporation donated large tracts of zoning volume to the Center for Preservation and Study of Desert Ecologies, Inc.. In return for giving them sector space to run their own simulations, the CPSDE helped our VR designers integrate variables of climate and the growth of flora and fauna.

This proved to be such a useful technique that we subsequently duplicated it for the tundra, the mountains, the piedmont, the "badlands", the rainforest/jungle, the savannah/prairie, the marshlands/swamplands, The Bay, and The Ocean. Strangely enough the most useful of all the experts came from the oil & gas corporations, but that's a story best left untold at the moment.

That was a good example of how the early vCity grew itself. It turned out that there were a great many professionals out on the Web with a lot of pent-up energy to do VR modeling and simulation of things that interested them. Stifled at their own jobs, or perhaps frustrated with the slow pace of the real world, they sought outlet through the vCity, where virtual estate was free and ideas on form and substance could literally take shape as they pleased. All our corporation asked was that they "be nice."

The response was astonishing. Not only were the early "freesteaders" nice, but also they were helpful, offering advice & aid on a variety of issues that we hadn't originally considered. In effect, our corporation received a ton of free consultation for which, had we tried to hire experts, we would have had to pay a fistful of money.

After a while, a few corporations began to ask to set up alter-ego simmcorps (simulated corporations) in the vCity. We told them to go ahead provided that they adhered to the zoning guidelines established for each sector. Our thought was that we needed as much help as possible to flesh out the basic skyline of the vCity. Much later, we could reconsider our "freesteader" policy if we wanted to. In the meantime, by "giving away" that which was infinitely available, we sacrificed nothing and gained goodwill with potential customers.

Again, we were surprised by the quality of the engagement. We assumed that most corporations would register a parcel or a city block somewhere in HQ District, erect a largely pre-fabricated VR office building, and set up the VR equivalent of a billboard. We even planned to study the demographics of the vCity in order to make a case for charging for advertising space.

Instead, what we discovered was that companies were setting up simmcorps not to be recognized or discovered, but to do DDT&E (Design, Development, Testing & Evaluation).

Since I'm scrolling around out in the desert, I might as well point to a local example. The LiC corporation has a production plant out here somewhere. It's not easy to find the damn thing because it was designed to blend into the local environment. If I remember correctly, it looked something like an old style Spanish mission.

After wandering around on the topside for a while, I find it. I could have "beamed" there via a bookmark, but that's not as much fun. Besides, by beaming one does not discover new additions to the landscape.

The architect that designed the VR structure used mostly materials that she assumed would be native to the local ecology: brick, stone, and mud. (Clicking on the signpost gives the reader a complete text explanation of why the building was designed that way. There is a lot of aesthetic mumbo-jumbo involving explanations of texture and allusions to the history of Americans native to the desert southwest, but she seems to have omitted another point, namely that using local materials is cheaper up front and over time owing to costs of transportation to the plant site) The LiC building is also designed to be self-sustaining. It recycles much of its own water, and generates most of its own power via solar dynamic reflectors. (More clicking on each of these items brings up more explanation, this time more technical).

The production plant itself is underground (to help with heat distribution and cooling, according to the text explanations). The plant, which is almost entirely a robotic facility with a human staff of three people, produces a lithium-carbon composite called aromatic lithocarbons.

(Oh God, more technical mumbo-jumbo. An entire Ph.D. thesis, it looks like. Um . . . apparently this stuff is not stable in pure form, and tends to turn to jelly or something unless supported by an internal carbon-silicate lattice with trace elements of heavier metals. Quite frankly, I don't understand what this author is talking about. But then again, I don't know how my toaster works, either.)

Now, the interesting part about the LiC is that none of this exists in reality. Neither the building nor any of its technology, nor the management. All of it is DDT&E. Or to be precise, it is pre-DDT&E, designed to entice investors and draw both supporters and detractors out into the open where the parent company (Registry Protected) can engage them in multilogue.

Which is, in fact, exactly what happened. According to my follow-up research with designers at the real world corporation, the response they received was very favorable. Lithium-Carbon composites are potentially useful because they have the strength and tensile cohesion of steel, but they are much lighter than steel. Lighter, in fact, than aluminum. The "LiC" mailbox was apparently stuffed with inquiries from real-world designers in the automobile, aerospace, and construction industries, all demanding to know where they could obtain supplies of this composite. The mailbox was also filled with scientific bombast and barrages from university professors, researchers, et al, who delighted in pointing out flaws in the chemistry theory. And there were missives as well from robotics companies, architectural firms, and management consultancies, all demanding a piece of the action.

The real world corporation that created "LiC" was, naturally, delighted. Well, not 100% delighted. Apparently they also received a couple of patent infringement lawsuits. I'm told that their attorneys are not squeamish, however. Anyway even negatives can be positives. At least they flushed their opposition out into the open before going any further.

Wandering down the hallways of the plant, I find that LiC has added an interesting innovation. There is a room, a VR laboratory as it were, where visitors can supply molecular simulation programs and run them. LiC promises to publish the results of outstanding work, and according to their PR, they've already hired two promising young geniuses.

I checked with my source at this real world corporation, and she confirmed that it was true. One was a 26-year-old graduate student in chemical engineering from Singapore University, and the other was a 14-year-old girl from South Korea who worked in a shoe repair store.

With an HMD and a good set of earphones, the outback is a very special place to visit. The CPSDE sells a one-hour guided tour of the ecosystem, supplemented with sound, for $6.49 plus tax. That's a real bargain in terms of education / entertainment value. At first I thought that was kind of corny, selling a VR experience when people could enjoy the real thing for free. But early on I changed my mind. Not everyone lives within easy walking distance of a desert. And even then, do they really know what they're looking at? Or what to look for?

I asked the director at CPSDE why he didn't just put the same information tour on a CD-ROM or a video cassette and sell those. Turns out that they did, and lost money on them. He told me that the vCity ecosimm was the only multimedia package that made money for the simple reason that it did not require shipping and handling. CD-ROMs and cassettes are cheap to manufacture, but they cannot easily be updated once they are mailed out. The vCity ecosimm, on the other hand, could be updated continuously on the CPSDE server. As a matter of fact, he added, the continuously changing nature of the simulation is what makes it unique, and why people keep coming back for second and third visits at $6.49 a pop.

What about the PC-based version, I asked him. Did that sell, too?

"Nah," he responded. "We give that away. Nobody really wants to sit and mouse- scroll through a herky-jerky desert simm on a PC when they can eat popcorn and watch a high-rez Nature video. HMD's the thing."

"You ought to cut a deal with headset manufacturers," I told him.

A long silence filled the other end of the phone. "Well, no comment," he explained.

The desert in eternal dawn. There is symbolism in there somewhere.

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