"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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