People are the Metaverse.
The newly-minted head of the innocuously-named but impossibly influential ‘Information Processing Techniques Office’ (IPTO) of DARPA – the ‘advanced research projects agency’ of the US Department of Defense – moved into his Pentagon offices in 1966 to find three computer terminals. “One of them left for MIT, another went to a Santa Monica research facility, and the third joined the UC Berkeley crew. To communicate with each of these groups, I required a different machine. And I began to question why.
Since its establishment in 1962, the IPTO has poured the Pentagon’s research funding on a variety of cutting-edge computer concepts. Its first director, JCR Licklider, funded efforts to make computing ‘interactive’ – simply put, you should be able to walk up to any computer, anywhere, and immediately be able to make it do your bidding. Today, virtually all computers operate in this manner, which is evidence of the impact of those early IPTO grants.
Ivan Sutherland, the second director of the IPTO, got his position because – courtesy of a grant from Licklikder – he invented the first truly interactive computer program. With “Sketchpad,” users could draw whatever they wanted on a computer screen by tapping it with a pen-like device that resembled a mouse. Again, this is essentially what modern computers do nonstop.
Sutherland offered a more expansive vision to the IPTO: a “ultimate display” that allowed for 3D graphics, virtual reality, and augmented reality. This new approach to computing put the user in the centre of the action rather than on the sidelines. Our entire present understanding of computers is based on IPTO-sponsored research into “human-centered computing.”
Sutherland gave the IPTO to Bob Taylor because they both believed that a network connecting all of these interactive, graphically advanced devices together was the next crucial step for computing. Taylor was aware that a network could bring his dispersed researchers together into a single community because he had already witnessed it. The early interactive computer programmes allowed multiple users to process their actions simultaneously on a single, pricey machine. Taylor saw how those people who were linked reached out to one another, creating chat and email programmes in addition to many other things, to make the most of their connectivity. Through computer interactions, connectivity seems to create something more than the sum of its parts.
Again, more than fifty years later, this reality seems so clear to us that we hardly ever even acknowledge it. We become smarter through the network. (The network also amplifies a variety of less desirable human attributes, but that lesson was still decades away.) The Advanced Projects Research Agency Network, or ARPANET, was created by researchers with funding from Taylor.
Although none realised it at the time, ARPANET served as the foundation for the modern Internet. All of its fundamental methods—to package data into tidy small “packets” that could be transmitted from one place to another—were developed, refined, and tested on the ARPANET. The best part is that Taylor made sure all the work was freely accessible to any institution or researcher who want to utilise, experiment with, or alter ARPANET. Bob Taylor, the IPTO, and the ARPANET are the sources of the notion that networks should be accessible to all since they are beneficial to everyone.
The “microcomputer revolution” pushes computing into the home in 1986, so let’s fast forward. Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer, the creators of the groundbreaking shared virtual environment “Habitat,” pondered what would happen if they connected thousands of players in what is now known as a “massively multiplayer online role-playing game.”
The graphics in Habitat weren’t particularly impressive—not on a machine with just a tenth as much processing power as those we use today. The server connection speeds that allowed participants to communicate with one another while they explored the same virtual environment could be kindly described as pokey. Farmer created a lengthy list of challenges that needed to be solved after entering their shared virtual environment in order to keep participants interested. Farmer remembers, “I figured it would take them at least a few days to complete the problem. Boy, was I mistaken. The person who figured out the riddle in a matter of minutes shared their solution with other players, who then shared it with still more people. Farmer’s meticulously designed puzzle game collapsed in a matter of minutes.
But the players of Habitat couldn’t have given a damn. The players of Habitat were interacting with one another, talking in the “rooms” that Farmer had made as well as making their own. We quickly discovered that talking and creating information are more interesting than simply consuming it.
Even the numerous bugs in Habitat provided players with fresh opportunities. Habitat is not only the first multiplayer online game, but Farmer also created a full-fledged money economy to function within it. “One flaw allowed users to gain a lot of money,” – And they utilised that money to develop additional Habitat games.
Within Habitat, players aspired to amaze one another with their creations because, as Bob Taylor had already discovered, creativity is sparked by connectivity. But none of it involved sophisticated visuals or lightning-fast connections. In many ways, it’s fortunate that Habitat’s technology was so basic, says Morningstar. It helped us stay focused on the individuals, who were what mattered most.
Publisher Lucasfilm struggled to promote the first massively multiplayer online roleplaying game to a world that had never heard of it, which is why Habitat never really took off. Fortunately, Chip and Randy summarised their lessons in a charming essay titled “The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat,” motivating a new generation of online game developers to keep in mind that connectivity is all about people, and that connectedness inevitably fosters innovation.
Mark Jeffrey would experience the same lesson once more a decade later, when the Web was well underway and tens of millions of homes were connected to an ARPANET that was no longer related to the defence industry. A 2D visual chat programme called “The Palace” became extremely popular, but not because so many popular businesses or performers were using it. Instead, people merely wanted to interact and communicate with one another. The other folks were the focus of The Palace. Everyone wished to converse. Therefore, The Palace itself was not the product; rather, it was the other people.
Since social media has been around for almost 20 years, we all understand the benefits and risks of networking. Technology facilitates communication, but it has never been the main focus. Mark Jeffrey had quick PCs and access to the large amount of online content, whereas Chip and Randy had cheap, basic machines. Bob Taylor had computer terminals. Even if none of it mattered, everything did. This has never been a tale about the development of technology, regardless of what you call it: ARPANET, Habitat, The Palace, or the Metaverse. This is the tale of a dialogue that has existed for as long as there have been people. Technologies will develop. The connected and incessantly inventive people will continue to exist.
Please listen to my new podcast series, “A Brief History of the Metaverse,” for more information about the people discussed in this article.