The Metaverse is the people

Bob Taylor had a problem.

The newly coined head of the innocuous but incredibly influential “Office of Information Processing Techniques” (IPTO) of DARPA – the “Advanced Research Project Agency” of the US Department of Defense – moved to the his Pentagon offices in 1966 to find three computer terminals. “One of them went to MIT, another to a research lab in Santa Monica, and another to the UC Berkeley crew. I needed a different machine to talk to each of these groups. And I started wondering why “.

Since its founding in 1962, the IPTO had donated the Pentagon’s research budget to a range of ideas at the extreme edge of computing. Its first director, JCR Licklider, funded efforts to make computing “interactive”: Put simply, you should be able to get close to any computer, anywhere, and immediately be able to do your bidding. The fact that basically all computers work this way today testifies to the influence of those early IPTO grants.

Connectivity, through interactions on the computer, seemed to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.

Ivan Sutherland, the second director of the IPTO, got his position because, thanks to a grant from Licklikder, he invented the first truly interactive computer program. “Sketchpad” allows users to touch a computer display with a mouse-like device known as a “light pen”, then allow them to draw whatever they want on that display. Again, virtually all computers do this all the time today.

Sutherland brought a broader view of the IPTO: a “definitive display” that opened the door to 3D graphics, virtual and augmented reality, a turning point on computing that put the human at the center of the action, rather than somewhere on the outskirts. IPTO-sponsored research on “human-centered computing” has become central to our entire modern conception of computing.



Sutherland handed the IPTO to Bob Taylor, because they both agreed on the next essential direction for computing: a network to connect all these interactive and graphics-rich machines together. Taylor knew that a network could help bring all of his remote researchers together into one community, because he had already seen it happen. The earliest interactive computer programs allowed a single, expensive computer to process the actions of multiple users at the same time. Taylor observed connected users contacting each other, inventing email and chat programs and more, to get the most out of their connectivity. Connectivity, through interactions on the computer, seemed to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.

Again, this fact seems so obvious to us – more than fifty years later – that we rarely notice it. The network makes us smarter. (The network also amplifies a number of human characteristics that are less attractive, but this lesson still lies for a few decades in the future.) Taylor funded researchers who built a “network of networks”: the research agency’s network. on advanced projects, or ARPANET.

Connectivity, through interactions on the computer, seemed to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.

Although no one knew it at the time, ARPANET was the embryo of today’s internet. All of its basic techniques – for flowing data into neat little “packets”, which could then be routed from anywhere to anywhere else – were invented, tested and improved on the ARPANET. Most importantly, Taylor made sure that all of the work was freely available to any researcher or institution who wanted to experiment, modify, or simply use the ARPANET. The idea that networks should be open to everyone, because everyone benefits from them, stems from Bob Taylor, IPTO and ARPANET.

Fast forward to 1986: the “microcomputer revolution” brings computing into the home. Game designers Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer wondered what might have happened when they connected tens of thousands of players within “Habitat”, their first shared virtual world, something we would now call a “multiplayer online role-playing game. mass”. game’.

Habitat’s graphics weren’t very elegant, not on a computer just a ten-thousandth of the power we use today. Server connection speeds that allowed players to message each other while exploring the shared virtual world could generously be called pokey. To keep players engaged, Farmer has come up with a whole series of puzzles to solve after logging into their shared virtual world. “I thought it would take at least a few days to solve the puzzle,” Farmer recalls. Boy, was I wrong. That puzzle was solved in minutes, and the player who solved it shared their solution with other players, who shared it with others. ”Within minutes, Farmer’s carefully constructed puzzle game imploded.

“In many ways, it’s a good thing that the technology behind Habitat was so primitive. It kept us focused on what really mattered: people! “

Chip Morningstar

Yet Habitat players couldn’t care less. Habitat players connected to each other, conversed in Farmer’s “rooms” and created their own. “We quickly learned that consuming content is less interesting than communication and creation”.

Habitat bugs – of which there were many – also opened up new possibilities for players. “A bug allowed players to earn a lot of money”, – Habitat is not only the first online multiplayer game, Farmer has also invented a complete money economy to operate within it. “And they used that money to create new games within Habitat.”

Players wanted to delight each other with their creations within Habitat, because, as Bob Taylor had already learned, connectivity generated creativity. Yet none of it had to do with fancy graphics or super-fast connections. “In many ways, it’s a good thing that the technology behind Habitat was so primitive,” says Morningstar. “It kept us focused on what really mattered: the people!”

Habitat never caught on: publisher Lucasfilm had a hard time trying to commercialize the world’s first massively multiplayer online RPG in a world that had never seen anything like it before. Fortunately, Chip and Randy summarized what they learned in a delightful essay, “The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat,” inspiring a generation of online game designers to remember that people are the center of connectivity and that connectivity naturally leads to creativity.

With nearly two decades of social media behind us, we all know the value – and the dangers – of connecting.

A decade later, with the Web in full swing – and tens of millions of homes connected to an ARPANET stripped of its defense connections – Mark Jeffrey would learn the same lesson once again. “The Palace,” a 2D visual chat program, took off like a rocket, but not for all the hip brands or famous entertainers using the tool – people just wanted to connect and talk to each other. “The palace was about other people. Everyone wanted to chat. And so the product wasn’t exactly The Palace, the product was the other people. “

With nearly two decades of social media behind us, we all know the value – and the dangers – of connecting. Technology helps us connect, but that was never the point: Bob Taylor had computer terminals; Chip and Randy had cheap, rudimentary personal computers; Mark Jeffrey had fast PCs and the vast content available over the Web. Everything mattered, yet none of this. Whether you call it ARPANET or Habitat or The Palace or Metaverse, this has never been a story about the evolution of technology. This is the story of a conversation that has been going on since human beings were human. Technology will change. People will stay: connected and infinitely creative.

For more stories about the people mentioned in this column, check out my new podcast series’A brief history of the Metaverse‘!



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