November 13th, 2017

The Virtual Worlds you didn’t know – Early History of 3D Virtual Worlds

The technology that changed it all

There were so many genius brains that contributed to the miracle called computer technology. If someone had told the early developers of computers that one day it will have the potential to generate a parallel and separate existence, they may not have really believed it. But such is the case with many pathbreaking inventions. You just cannot predict its potential. From the initial goal of performing complex mathematical calculations to the modern virtual worlds, computer technologies have come a long way. So, let us see how we reached this far and how 3D virtual worlds shaped up.

Virtual Worlds, Early History of 3D Virtual Worlds

Early Virtual Worlds


The starting point of this technology can be traced back to the American Cinematographer Morton Heilig who created a mechanical device called ‘Sensorama’ in 1962 after five years of hard work. This is one of the earliest known examples of immersive and multisensory experience. Heilig saw theater as a wonderful platform to surround all the senses in an effective manner and draw the viewer’s attention onto the stage. Heilig called it the ‘Experience Theater’ and presented his vision in his 1955 paper, ‘The Cinema of the Future’. He created an exemplar of this vision in 1962 called ‘Sensorama’ that displayed five short films. The Sensorama could display stereoscopic 3D images in wide angle view, enabled body tilting, stereo sound and had separate tracks for wind and aromas to be set off during the film. One of the films depicted a bicycle ride through Brooklyn and the viewers were able to feel the wind on their face, the vibration of the seat and the scent of the city! However, the Sensorama suffered a sorrowful fate as it was considered a costly mechanism. Heilig struggled to get financial backup and so the work on Sensorama had to be ceased. However, it has to be noted that the Sensorama is a machine that works, even today!

Sword of Damocles

The first virtual world created with the help of computers was the work of none other than the ‘Father of Computer Graphics’. Ivan Sutherland, along with his student Bob Sproull invented ‘The Sword of Damocles’ in 1968, which is widely considered as the first Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Head Mounted Display system. In this, a computer program generated output in the stereoscopic display. The interpretation of the program depended upon the user’s gaze and this was why head tracking was essential. The weight of the system and the requisite to track the head movements meant that the HMD had to be connected to a mechanical arm hung from the ceiling of the lab! In case if you are wondering what the Greek mythology Damocles have to do with Sutherland’s system, the answer lies in its formidable appearance!

Maze War

Today, we dwell around in ‘Second life’ or other virtual worlds using avatars but the first use of avatars came during the period of 1973-74, when the computer game ‘Maze War’ was introduced. It was played on Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) funded by United States Department of Defense for the use in university and research laboratories. Maze War provided the base work for numerous computer game concepts that followed such as, first person 3D point of view, observer mode, level editor, network play, depicting player’s position on a playing field map, altering clients to cheat at the game etc. In the game, the players moved around a maze and they were able to move forward and backward and also turn 90 degree right or left. The players were given an avatar known as ‘Eyeballs’.

MUD – The Game Changer

One of the significant breakthroughs in virtual world came with the introduction of MUD. (Multi User Dungeon / Domain / Dimension). MUD was a real time multiplayer virtual world, that was predominantly text based. MUD featured online chat, interactive fiction, role-playing, hack and slash games etc. Users were able to communicate with each other and the world by typing commands in a natural language. Customary MUDs featured games set in fantasy worlds where users can select a particular class, acquire specific skills, complete missions, advance the character and create a story by roleplaying. Besides such common MUD worlds there were many other worlds that were based on famous books, movies and animations too. Some MUDs were designed for educational purposes also while there were others for just chatting. The background of modern day Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, (MMORPGs) like EverQuest and social virtual worlds such as Second Life can be traced back to the MUD era. In fact most of the MMORPG designers started off as MUD developers.

Colossal Cave Adventure

The history of MUDs began with the introduction of ‘Colossal Cave Adventure’, a text based adventure game, developed originally in 1976 by computer programmer William Crowther. In the next year, with the help of Don Woods and other programmers, Crowther expanded the game by implementing numerous variations. The game can be thought of as a computer replica of treasure hunt! Players could control a character via simple text commands to probe into a cave that is supposed to be filled with hidden treasures. The mission was to find the treasure and escape the cave alive and the players who successfully completed the mission earned reward points. Colossal Cave Adventure is considered as the first known work of interactive fiction.

Online Chat and Graphical MUDs

The Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations (PLATO) system at the University of Illinois was the birthplace of first online chat system called ‘Talkomatic’. It was developed by Doug Brown and David R. Wooley in 1973. Talkomatic offered six channels and each of them were able to include up to five users. The unique feature of this system was that each user appeared in their own section of the screen and messages appeared on user screens character by character as they were typed. Talkomatic, along with PLATO notes and a wide range of games created an uprising of an online community that became popular through early and mid 1980s. ‘Talko’, the smartphone app by software entrepreneur Ray Ozzie is named after Talkomatic, one which he experienced during his graduation at the University of Illinois.

Starting from 1975, PLATO systems became a platform for numerous graphical MUDs at Illinois and various other American Universities. ‘Pedit5’, created by Rusty Rutherford was one of the popular ones among them. It is widely considered to be the first dungeon crawl game where the player has to control a character that wanders a single level cell, collect treasures and kill monsters. The dungeon was rendered using on screen computer graphics. A similar dungeon crawl game that became popular during this era was ‘Moria’. The game was an innovative concept and it facilitated ten people to travel as a group and message each other. The game also featured a wireframe first person perspective display. Another popular Graphical MUD of this period was ‘dnd’, created by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood. The name was derived from ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, a tabletop game that was first introduced in 1974. The game was written in the TUTOR programming language for the PLATO system and it is noted for being the first interactive game that featured computer controlled enemy known as bosses. In dnd, players could create a character and then move into the multi level cell in search of two treasures; the grall and the orb. The cell comprised several maze like levels and players could advance to the next level as they complete one. However, players could also come back to previous levels or even move out of the cell altogether, which made ‘dnd’, one of the very first games to make use of non linear progression. The game continues to be played, even today, on the NovaNET system and Cyber1!

The Colossal Cave Adventure inspired a group of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop the interactive fiction video game ‘Zork’. The first version of the game was written between 1977 and 1979 using MDL programming language on a DEC PDP-10 computer by Tim Anderson, Dave Lebling, Marc Blank and Bruce Daniels. Zork was characterised by the sophistication of its text parser and thus the user was not just restricted to verb-noun commands. For example, the player could command sentences such as “put the sword in the case” or “look under the rug” instead of simple verb-noun commands such as “take lamp”, “open mailbox” and so on. The commands such as ‘save’, ‘restart’, ‘restore’, ‘quit’ etc could be given to the game directly instead of pursuing actions within the fictional environment of the game. The game was also noted for its supreme storytelling and its premise centered around the ruins of an ancient empire lying far underground. The player is the adventurer who essays into this world and upon successful completion of the missions, one would inherit the title of ‘Dungeon Master’. During its commercial release, Zork was split into three parts; ‘The Great Underground Empire’, ‘The wizard of Frobozz’ and ‘The Dungeon Master’.

In the later years, MUD came to be known as Essex MUD and MUD1 and it became widely accessible when a guest account was created in the Essex University Network, which allowed users on JANET, a British academic x.25 computer network, to connect on weekends and between morning two to eight during weekdays. Wonder if that was the motivation for modern day internet plans! When Essex University connected its internal network to ARPANet in 1980, it became the first multi player online role playing game. However, the original game had to be closed down by late 1987 due to repeated pressure from CompuServe, the first major commercial online service provider in the US, to whom the game had been licensed by Essex’s fellow student, Richard Bartle. This meant that ‘MIST’, a derivative of MUD1 was the only available option for the Essex University and quite interestingly, it went on to achieve massive popularity. MIST ran on PDP-10 until 1991.

The introduction of Talkers

Stripping away the complex gaming machinery of MUD and keeping just the communication level commands in tact, ‘Talker’, a chat system was introduced in 1980s. This communication system can be considered as a direct predecessor to instant messaging and MMORPGS. Talkers formed an online virtual world where multiple users connected to chat in real time. People could access Talker generally through telnet and they were provided a basic text interface to chat with each other. Many of the terms used by Talkers such as ‘Rooms’ and ‘Residency’ remain in use even in the modern day 3D platforms!

Mark Jenks and Todd Krause, two students at Washington High School in Milwaukee, were the first ones to introduce the concept of Talkers as they wrote a software program to talk among a group of people in the school year 1983-1984. For creating the program, they made use of PDP-11 minicomputers at the Milwaukee Public Schools central office. While going through the files and directories, Mark came across the PDP-11 program ‘talk’ and then decided that they could do a better job. The program was written to carry out several functions such as tables, private messages, moderators and actions all of which can be seen in Internet Relay Chat today! In 1990, ‘Cat Chat’ became the first Internet/JANET talker. The website was created in 1996 and it served as the first platform to sell spaces for talkers. During the booming period of mid nineties, the website had more than 90 talkers on it at one time. As of September 2009, only hosts their owners.


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