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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 8

"In democracies there is always a multitude of persons whose wants are above their means, and who are very willing to take up with imperfect satisfaction, rather than abandon the object of their desires altogether."

-- Alexis de Tocqueville --

The first nightfall of summer, shortest night of the year. It's a hot, muggy evening in Washington, D.C., the kind that smothers conversation underneath a wet blanket of lassitude. Anyone who has lived in this city knows the apocryphal tale that for many years the British Ambassador to the United States received tropical pay and was allowed to wear khaki dress as partial compensation for being forced to live and work in the area. In truth, the city in mid-June is no worse than Singapore during the early rainy season. Which is not everyone's cup of tea, admittedly.

Anyway, we have finished our Friday evening rituals. My wife and I have gone to dinner, gone to temple, and returned. The cats are fed and laze contentedly on the screen porch. They eye the fireflies with vague interest. A few stars peek through the silver clouds like dust motes.

My wife eyes me with vague interest. "Know what I feel like doing?"

"What?" I say neutrally. What she has in mind could be good or bad, so I'm keeping my options open.

"I feel like..." she pauses for dramatic effect. "Going to the beach."

"The beach? You mean, like Rehobeth Beach for the weekend?"

"No. I mean, the house in Buena Vistas."

"Oh. That's a good idea. We haven't been there in a while."

"Yes, and the weather tonight is perfect for it, don't you think?"

"Okay, make some lemonade, then. I'll get the gear."



Buena Vistas is a virtual reality beach. On the conceptual map of the vCity, it is located about two hundred kilometers east from the vCity center. Geographically it is a cape and borders on both The Bay and The Ocean. Buena Vistas is a suburb but it has no light rail station; the only way to get there is to drive an EPWV (Engine-Powered Wheeled Vehicle), take a ferry or a sailboat, fly a helicopter, dirigible, or ultralite personal aircraft or -- for the true New Millennite -- beam there.

If Buena Vistas were in the real world, it would be enormously expensive property. Imagine every ritzy coastal area you've ever seen minus the teeming masses and not-so-fine hotels. No highrise apartment buildings to mar the view. Plenty of dunes and wildlife refuges; no industry.

When we first established the zoning ordinances for Buena Vistas, we knew that everyone would want a piece of this action. There are very few people who would pass up a free opportunity to own a few hectares of beachfront and a mansion overlooking the sea, with no worries about property damage caused by the relentless force of wind, salt, tide, and time.

Coastal and tidal areas are, however, even more fragile ecosystems than deserts. That may sound odd, but it's true. Where land meets sea, life rejoices; this fringe teems with diversity of all creatures, and it is a paradise of evolutionary fervor. Change a few minor variables, however, and the system crashes. From algae to seabird, life says "there goes the neighborhood" and sells out, leaving humans to sandbag their way through a miserable soda-can strewn existence.

Human presence demands much of an ecosystem. We need fresh water, electric power, and a means to recycle or otherwise dispose of waste products of all kinds. There are ways to cut down on pollution per capita, but we can only modify the basic formula that pollution is proportional to human population density.

So what's a Zoning Council to do? Frankly, we decided to deliberately limit the population density of Buena Vistas by reserving huge chunks of it as wildlife refuge; the remaining zoning volumes were restricted to large lots and large homes. Some of these parcels were reserved for registry by lottery, so that we could democratically satisfy the excess of demand over supply without resorting to "selling" virtual real estate. The remaining parcels were assigned on a first-request first-assign basis.

The wisdom of this became apparent within three weeks of opening the vCity to the general internetworking public. We were immediately swamped with requests for immense tracts of beachfront CCs. Not a few people were incensed with the fact that when they applied for residence in Buena Vistas, they ended up with a registry for Unpretentious to the south or Townhouse Row to the west, where cheap summer cottages, beach bungalows, ocean highrises and by-the-Bay six-story condos were permitted.

As a result, the First Law of vCity development once again reared its ugly head: Expect the Unexpected. People started buying and selling, with real world money, the right to "occupy" zoning volumes in Buena Vistas.

I thought this was stupid and said so through many editorials in various nowlinks. Why in God's name would people purchase what they could obtain for free? The supply-demand equation existed only within our simulation; if somebody wanted a virtual beachfront, they could just create it. They could create a whole new world consisting of nothing but beachfront if they wanted to. And it would only be a few internetworked seconds away.

I also thought leasing ZVs was irritating. When someone applied for and received a city registry, all that meant was that the CCs in our simulation referred to real world IP addresses. If an IP address were no longer valid or "active", we would remove the registration and assign a new one either to someone on a waiting list or the next available customer. To avoid losing the registration, the original owner would create and maintain a valid HTML or VRML-based web page that would provide a simple link to someone else. This created a confusing tier of "signposts" before one could actually scroll to a VR view.

In PC-based mode this was bad enough, but with HMD or MSE, it was downright barfogenic. It was similar to walking into a sudden, unexpected blank wall. Very disconcerting.

So the Empire struck back, and the Zoning Council decided to ban "signposting". In other words, even if a ZV registered valid, active IP addresses, it could be banned if it did not immediately conform to zoning ordinances.

There was a loophole, however. vCitizens could legitimately request a change of IP address for their ZV registry. We made this an automatic process for obvious reasons. So as it happened, those who "leased" their ZV to others for real world money could do so simply by changing the IP address in the registry.

This was perfectly legal, but I found it irritating as hell. Just as I got comfortable with the look of one house -- say, a sturdy tudor mansion -- it would be gone, replaced by a fashionably bizarre California-style ranch.

Oh well. We have a saying: "the vCity: it grows on you."

So my wife and I have this place in Buena Vistas. To avoid unnecessary arguments with or flaming from the vHoi-Paloi, the zoning volume is not registered to the First Citizen but rather to Goldi Locke, which is my wife's vCity moniker.

Ms. Locke is very lucky. She owns the finest house with the finest view in Buena Vistas. It's the massive white colonial on the hill on a spit of property that is the jutting end of the cape. In this house, one can see the sun rise from beneath the ocean in the East and set below the Bay in the West. There are trails that lead from the garden terrace and the porch down to the rocks and to the beach. Plenty of excellent wind-protected ledges for a picnic.

If this were a real world estate, its actual value would probably be somewhere between $10 and $20 million. Taxes would also probably run about $500K a year. In the world of make-believe, however, the whole site (which rests on a local server in the county public library) only costs us about $30 a year to maintain.

It did, however, cost us about $500 to build the site, and another $1000 in HMD/MSE equipment.

When I say "build" what I mean, of course, is "design". We didn't actually do the VR work ourselves. There are many, many "home builder" programs sold on the open market for about $40 -- our corporation even provides new citizens with some freeware -- that enable PC users to design VR worlds themselves. But these are merely stick-figure shadows of what a trained architectural professional using a high-end system can achieve.

Now, as it happened, one of my wife's friends in the real world is a real landscape and construction architect who does work with some very powerful modeling equipment. So he offered to design a VR site for us at cost. All we had to do was give him the parameters, and he would do the rest. He knew how to program for HMD because he does this for real-world clients all the time. He says that nobody contracts to build a house on spec any more without being able to walk through it before construction begins. The cost of designing an HMD-based virtual blueprint was an out-of-pocket expense, he admitted, but his sales skyrocketed as a result of employing the technique. Also, he saved money by giving the customers a shot at redesigning the house before setting the foundation.

"Doesn't matter though," he once grumbled. "The fuckers still change their minds half way through a project."

So we paid him off and purchased a pair of HMD helmets. All the really good equipment is made by the Japanese, naturally -- although to avoid import fees into North America, they end up manufacturing them in Mexico. These things have all the bells and whistles: superb audio as well video control; ergonomically designed to ease eye and neck strain; and a whole bunch of extra PCS (Personal Communications Services) devices to clean up errant signals and other kinds of electronic noise. What an HMD helmet allows one to do is link remotely (without wires) to a device that connects to whatever datapipe one has in the real world. Whichever way one connects to the Internet -- by phone, by ISDN, by cable modem, by utility line, or by satellite dish -- this thing will give you a solid link.

As we sit in our lounge chairs sipping lemonade, we are in two worlds at once. There are some things which cannot be reproduced such as the smell and taste of salt air. As a matter of fact, what we smell is not the tang of the ocean but the chlorine of the hot tub. But then again, we can drown out the ever present drone of the cicadas and crickets with a nice CD (Compact Disc) of ocean sounds. Tradeoffs.

What I particularly like is the way our architect/programmer friend rigged the program so that whenever there was a sustained sound in the CD, it would trigger a scapp within this mini simulation. So, for example, if one heard the cawing of a seagull, a picture of a seagull would float by on the display.

Looking at the virtual ocean reminds me of the problems we had setting up our virtual maritime simms. You never met more stubborn bunches of people in your life than oceanologists, drillers, fishermen, and sailors in general. I don't know why that is. Perhaps it is because the sea is ever-changing, and so confronted with this appalling lack of stability in their environment, they become islands. Perhaps for the men and women who live with the sea, the only true terra firma is within themselves.

We interrupt the flow of the narrative for this brief announcement.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled chapter.

We never really had to bother with designing a water-based transportation system for the simple reason that there really wasn't any place to go. The fundamental tenet of transportation is that it is a process of moving people and cargo from A to B. However, the vCity wasn't set up to simulate an archipelago. In short, anyone who wants to can move from A to A, which isn't very exciting. The "B", so to speak, is a motley collection of off-shore industrial destinations (sites) including an oil-drilling platform techsimm, two undersea research and/or mining facilities simmcorps, and a handful of aquaculture farm sites.

Nevertheless, we tried to set up some kind of seaport infrastructure that would enable individuals and corporations to engage in residential, commercial/leisure, and industrial activity on the Bay and the Ocean, even if all they did was float around. Surprisingly, there was a brisk demand for VR design of new fishing vessels, oceanographic research vessels, cruise ships, casino ships, restaurant ships, whale watchers, pleasure motor- and sailboats of all kinds, and houseboats. Apparently boat and ship designers had already been using VR technology in their Computer Assisted Design and Manufacture (CAD/CAM), so it was relatively easy for professionals to fool around with VR sites on the side.

Someone even did a marketing study of the potential for servicing an off-shore residential population. After all, reasoned the analysts, if people are going to drift like motorized jellyfish in their brand-new houseboats, they will need supplies and services. It gave a whole new meaning to the phrase "cash float." Anyway, what they discovered is that construction and operation of houseboats is still very expensive, and there are drawbacks to sacrificing a fixed position even in an age of wireless comm technology.

The Zoning Council agreed on the general principle that because the rivers and the sea are common heritage, their exploitation had to be balanced by preservation and enrichment. The current political scheme of allowing free market forces to self-correct the environmental degradation and outright disasters that result from exploitation of water-based resources seemed dubious. So we set up a vCity Sustainable Maritime Environment Information Center. This is run by vCitizens themselves, who regulate the use of the techsimms of the Seaport Complex and Sailboat Marina, and who establish "do's and don'ts" for any vCitizen desiring to use the virtual water as a transportation medium.

The SMEIC split into factions almost immediately and generated a tidal wave of e-mail seemingly on every issue. Their animosities spilled over into other areas of vCity life and drenched everyone in the process.

For example, overfishing. Clearing away the seaweed of rhetoric, it seems evident that a fishing boat, or fleet, is a large capital investment designed to do basically one thing: kill fish. Frankly, this is a tough technology to bend to multi-tasking. Worse yet, fishing interests throughout the real world seem especially resistant to, uh, socio-economic conversion.

The argument was: is commercial fishing sustainable? Yes, said many, with proper planning and a willingness to reduce short-term profits for the sake of long-term stability. The exploitation of river, coastal, and oceanic resources is not a priori evil, they argued. It all depends upon the means by which such exploitation takes place, its scale, and the degree to which resources are replaced and renewed. The Pisces Corporation (a simmcorp, Registry Protected) made a stab at it by showcasing in a VR setting how they could essentially convert their fishing fleet into fish breeders depending upon seasonal conditions.

No, said others, commercial fishing is not sustainable nor is it desirable.

I stepped into this once and only once when I encouraged designers to design watercraft that would not pollute, and sailors to engage in water-based activities that would not destroy or disrupt. I suggested that steps in the right direction would include the use of fuel-cell driven engines, sails, and use of spectrum frequencies that would not disrupt fish and mammals. I pointed out that aquaculture could be a highly efficient, easily sustainable, and reasonably environmentally friendly industry producing more food than the fishing industry ever dreamed of harvesting. And people could invest in and offer a flotilla of water-based floating entertainment and education centers such as restaurants, casinos, hotels, aquariums, universities, etcetera.

They all yelled at me to mind my own business; I went back to being a landlubber.


So my wife and I drowse on a sweat-filled humid night in Washington, D.C., as we spend a relaxing evening in our own little paradise, a palatial estate beyond our means.


I remember when I showed VR tech stuff to my father for the first time. He was mortified, and refused to don an HMD helmet.

"I won't," he said. "I think these things are wrong."

"What do you mean, Dad?"

"People will be living in their fantasy worlds, and they'll all get eye strain and fat asses. Go for a walk instead!"

"Very interesting philosophy. I believe it's called PullPlugism."

"Don't be so smart. You read Huxley with his feelies didn't you?"

"Brave New World. So?"

"Same thing."

"Well, I disagree. You can overdo and misuse any technology. Haven't we heard the same complaints about television for the last fifty years? That people don't get out any more, that they just sit home and watch cable television? Or movies on their VCRs? Radio, CDs, it's all the same. Electronic entertainment."

"People should read more," he muttered.

"Perhaps so, but riddle me this, Batman: what is a fiction novel, but a very low-tech form of virtual reality entertainment?"

"Oh, don't be so smart."

"Look, Dad. Think of it this way. Everyone wants to be able to afford luxuries. But by definition, that's an impossibility. No truly democratic society can stand the strain of being truly capitalist, because capitalism efficiently reveals the fact that some of us are brighter or more stupid than others. So we have to devise politics of substitution whereby the great mass of people can enjoy the form of luxury without its substance. People need to believe that they can do whatever they want, enjoy whatever they please -- even though the environmental damage from pursuing such a course of action would destroy the planet."

He stubbornly shook his head. "Not the planet. Just the people."

"C'mon," I said, shutting off the power on the helmet. "Let's you and me go for a walk."

He brightened. "That would be good."

next chapter


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