Instant Messengers and early 3D Virtual Worlds – A lookback
The Arrival of Instant Messengers
One of the giant leaps in virtual worlds was the introduction of Instant Messaging (IM). The first widely available chat service to the public was the CompuServe CB Simulator which was released in 1980. CB had 40 channels and used commands like ‘tune’, ‘squelch’, ‘monitor’ etc but later they enabled multiplayer games, digital pictures, multimedia and large conferences. Mick Jagger, the English songwriter, and singer held the first online multimedia conference using CB simulator on December 7, 1995. CB simulator was also staged in one of the earliest online weddings! The wedding was attended by almost 50 virtual guests.
Another one of early instant messaging services was the Quantum Link that worked on Commodore 64 and 128 personal computers from November 5, 1985, to November 1, 1995. Along with instant messaging, they provided email, online news and chat and public domain file sharing libraries. The Quantum Link’s client software divided the screen into sections and instant messages appeared as yellow bars which displayed the sender’s name and message and presented various options for reverting back. PowWow, ICQ, and AOL Instant Messenger came to power during mid-1990s and this created an uprising for the modern day internet-wide, GUI based messaging clients. The powwow was introduced by a company called Tribal Voice, which was established in 1994 by the software millionaire John Mcafee. The program featured many innovative aspects such as Voice over Internet Protocol, WAV sound file playing, Offline messages via Post Office Protocol and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, built in a speech synthesizer, shared the whiteboard. It also facilitated simple drag and drop interface which made file sharing very easy. The powwow was also one of the very first instant messaging programs that were compatible across multiple platforms. The program ran with both AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and Microsoft’s MSN Messenger.
The phrase ‘I Seek You’ was the idea behind the name for open source instant messaging computer program ‘ICQ’. The program was launched in November 1996 by the company Mirabilis. Using this, the users could register an account and then they would be allocated a number, much like a phone number for others to locate and contact them. This was the first program that featured a fully centralized service and one in which one on one conversations with individual user accounts was the focus point. ICQ is still an active platform and as per 2013, it is estimated to have 11 million monthly users. At its best period of 2001, ICQ had more than 100 million accounts registered. Over the years, ICQ has introduced several features such as ICQ Game Center – a game platform that enables to play with or against other users, SIM Card – that is offered to people across Europe at a discounted rate, and a video magazine that broadcasts teen content 24*7.
America Online (AOL, now known as AIM) Instant Messenger was launched in 1997 by AOL Inc. AIM was very popular in the late nineties and with 52% market share in 2006, it once held the largest share of the instant messaging market in the United States. The official ‘Running Man’ mascot of AIM was so popular that an editor of ‘Complex’ media called it a ‘symbol of America’. AIM was characterized by the presence of chat robots that could talk to users in natural human language and also play games, provide advice and also aid in studies!
Growth of Instant Messaging
From then on, instant messaging went on to become a massive revolution and the introduction of IM services from Yahoo, MSN, Excite etc ignited the fire. The popularity of mobile phones and that too the ones with multi-touch features significantly empowered the system of instant messaging. You don’t have to log in to a complex system or wait to make a connection now. It can be done by a small device that fits your pocket and within a matter of nanoseconds! A survey indicated that in 2015, mobile phone messaging apps were used by 1.4 billion customers and in 2018 it is expected to reach 2 billion, which forms 80% of smartphone users worldwide. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in the Facebook F8 Conference went on to say that “Instant Messaging is going to be the next big platform for helping you connect with all kinds of services in new ways”. We are already familiar with the potential it has in store. How many Skype Interviews and conferences have you attended? Most employers today prefer to have the preliminary round of face to face interview using a video chatting platform like Skype. This is a significant life saver as it helps to save time, energy and money for both employers and employees. Imagine those periods where you come across a job vacancy notification, flies down to the interview spot and wait hours for your turn. Furthermore, no office can smoothly run today without proper application of real-time video conferencing. Staff, managers, and clients can take part in an important meeting from literally anywhere in the world with an easy swipe of the thumb! When geographical limitations are surpassed nobody has to worry about missing an important event and this reduces the day to day stress in an organization and allows easy flow of information.
We know how quickly an interesting content moves around in the instant messaging era. An interesting piece of message, picture or video gets shared across millions around the globe in no time. This is a fabulous tool when it comes to advertising. Expensive and high profile advertisements are good but that’s not the only one that can attract a customer anymore. An interesting message, a photo or a catchy video can help popularise a brand at the remarkably low price and effort. Similarly, chatbots are available on numerous platforms like wechat, nimbuzz, facebook messenger etc. This is an incredible tool that helps business concerns create bespoke responses based on natural language inputs. As its use expand, it will be a new breakthrough in customer – business relations as customers can easily place orders by just messaging the chatbots! They can also get all the queries addressed real time, filter the products according to their needs and even gain after sales services by mentioning what the defects are… All through instant messages!
Messengers today feature much more elaborate teamwork and communication tools than traditional emails. The number of emails that people need to send to an organization has significantly reduced as all major communication can be made possible through instant messaging. Each department can create its own instant messaging group and just one message will ensure that all employees of that group are notified immediately. A study in 2016 by Symantec Corporation, an American software company indicates that 55% of people who use instant messaging at work claims that it has cut down on Internet traffic and 50% find it an efficient mode of communication than email. Instant messaging is also an easy tool to educate, train and coordinate employees. New projects, ideas, and updates can be communicated quickly using photos, audios or videos. Any confusion and doubts can also be cleared immediately as you don’t have to wait for your superior to come down to your table! Enterprises can also enable networks based on each department and assign individual functions and settings.
Messengers have the potential to assist users in almost all online matters. In China, the application WeChat is used to order food, taxi, purchase airline tickets, check bank balance and even play games! Using the Japanese messenger ‘Line’, users can even place orders at stores. So just like texting a “hello” to your friend you can purchase products from stores! ‘Line’, together with Snapchat and Facebook also provides the option to send and receive money within the app.
Beginning of 3D Virtual Worlds
MUDs and instant messaging services slowly started the heritage for virtual worlds. The first attempt at large scale virtual community came from none other than the mighty filmmaker George Lucas’s video game publishing concern. LucasArts launched ‘Habitat’ in 1986 as a beta test by Quantum Link, an online service for the Commodore 64 computer. Habitat had a Graphical User Interface and a strong base of consumer-oriented users which made it the benchmark for the modern day online 3D virtual communities. The user interface was provided by the client software which generated a real-time display of events happening and then translated it as messages into the host. The players of this virtual world were assigned with on-screen avatars and interestingly enough, the virtual world was governed by its own citizens. Initially, this led to severe chaos as avatars were even robbed or killed by other avatars! Later on, a system was established to maintain order within the virtual world.
In 1999, the first educational virtual world, Whyville was launched by the company Numedeon Inc. Whyville was one of the earliest virtual worlds to introduce the concept of virtual currency. Depending upon their educational activities players earned a ‘clam’ salary. These clams can be used to buy furniture, bricks, projectiles, face parts or other virtual goods and in 2007 they partnered with Bankinter, a Spanish bank to build a virtual banking system! Whyville has been involved in many projects and researches related to education and schools and it is considered to be an innovation in digital learning and education online engagement of children.
Another virtual world that became popular during this era was ‘Habbo’, an online community that was specifically aimed at teenagers. It was launched in 2000 by Sulake, a Finnish Corporation and it has now expanded to nine online communities with users in more than 150 nations. Habbo’s unique attraction is the ‘Hotel’. Players could navigate around the Hotel, search the catalog to see the items that can be purchased, read user-made stories on Habbo stories widget, message other users or entire their own private rooms. Its public rooms are available to all members and they include scenes such as dance clubs, restaurants, and cinemas. Public rooms are featured by automated robots who speak pre-recorded messages and offers food and drink to the members.
One of the earliest introduction to 3D virtual worlds came through ‘Active Worlds’ which was launched in 1995. In Active Worlds, users can assign themselves a name and explore 3D virtual worlds that others have created. They also provided web browsing capabilities, voice chat and instant messaging. Another one of the most significant achievements in 3D virtual worlds came with the arrival of ‘Second Life’ in 2003. The virtual world was designed by Linden Labs and it allowed users to create visual avatars and they could also socialize, shop, trade or even build content across the virtual world. The software is built in with a 3D modeling tool that is based on simple geometric shapes and this allows users to create virtual objects. The application level of Second life is so vast that it is used across Social networks, Educational institutions, Workplaces, Science Projects etc.