A Project of the
Contact Consortium
Virtual Worlds History SIG

Virtual Worlds Timeline:
the Origins and Evolution of Social Virtual Worlds

New for 2009: See the Dipity Virtual Worlds Timeline here!

Developed with the Web History Project and Dipity

New! Preserving Virtual Worlds project with Stanford Univeristy accepts "Damer" archive of 125 historic Virtual Worlds Videos contributed by Bruce Damer available now at the Internet Archive
Complete Virtual Worlds Archive available here (includes game worlds archive also) (Summer 2008).

New: Interviews of Bruce Damer by Henry Lowood of Stanford for the Preserving Virtual Worlds project (April 8, 2009)

Part 1 - Henry Lowood introduces question as to how a computer got to be thought of as a space, early history of Bruce, college, imaginal worlds, board games designs, early computer experience PDP/11, Telidon shuttle animation, Xerox Star, vision of 3D physics worlds in 1982, passion for space, IBM TJ Watson Research Center (1984), USC graphical projects & cellular automata (1985), Annenberg School (1986), Elixir Technologies career, derived from INTRAN on PERQ from Xerox Alto, Elixir Prague (1990-94), Charles University, NAU SolSys MUD, Snow Crash, 1994 van journey, SIGGRAPH/Myron Kreuger, Santa Fe Institute, locating in Boulder Creek near Silicon Valley, to code or to create organizations, Contact Consortium vision (1994) and realization, CONTACT conference (1995) formation of Consortium, Larry Niven, first experience in Worlds Chat (May 1995), Mitra, brainstorming, AlphaWorld & Ron Britvich, demo in Nice, France (May 1995) installing WC at Internet cafe in Nice/Derrick de Kerckhove.

Part 2
- Derrick de Kerckhove/McCluhan Program, Worlds Chat in 1995, the rise of the use of the term Virtual World and why it is not Virtual Reality, Pavel Curtis and LambdaMoo, Paul Saffo, the term "in-world", VR had negatives, Virtual Worlds are about people, Myron Kreuger and Artificial Reality, quote from Avatars book (1997), Second Life, Philip Rosedale and the rebirth of the term Virtual Worlds and Avatars, glossary of terms, science fiction connections, Ivan Sutherland & mathematical worlds, Sutherland at the LINC, Galen Brandt as one of the first avatars in Videoplace, crossover of communities (VR to Earth to Avatars conference in 1996), the influences of VWs from MUDs, Doom, 1980s flight simulators, SIGGRAPH, VRML,

Peer stakeholders:

The Web History Project

How they got game, Preserving Virtual Worlds, (wiki here) a research project at Stanford University

The Internet Archive
providing storage for the virtual worlds history materials

The HUMlab at Umea University, Sweden.

Preserving Virtual Worlds
is supported by the Library of Congress NDIIPP program

We are looking for volunteers and sponsors, please contact us!


Open Letter of introduction by project initiator Bruce Damer

In the summer of 2006 to mark the tenth anniversary of the first Contact Consortium conference Earth to Avatars Allan Lundell and Bruce Damer (that's me!) started to digitize all the video taken of that and other significant events in the virtual worlds community of the mid to late 90s. This archive quickly grew to over 3000 hours of material and gave us a renewed understanding of the importance of those pioneering days and the people who made it all happen. As we spread the word about this effort, an expanding group of people emerged and offered to help us chronicle the birth and evolution of social virtual worlds (worlds in which the main activity is creative or social versus structure game play). This group of people included the pioneering inhabitants of the spaces; employees and developers from the original companies; and the designers and artists who crafted the first generation of avatars and environments. We then started to realize the unique opportunity (and the size of the task) before us: that we had the means, the materials and the people contacts to make possible a comprehensive history of the medium of "social virtual worlds".

Bruce Damer, Philip Rosedale of Linden Labs - SLCC2006, San Francisco

Bruce Damer's book
Avatars - 1997

As 2006 progressed, the impressive successes of Linden Labs' Second Life was putting avatars back in the news and convinced me that the earlier work needed to have a forum to be recognized. I was invited to the Second Life Community Convention in August 2006 and decided to bring some copies of my original 1997 book "Avatars, Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet" to hand out to a few people who might be interested in what had happened back in "the old days". Much to my amazement I was very warmly received and there were even a number of "old timers" who helped bridge the generations. As I handed out books, everyone asked "are you going to write another edition?". My on the spot answer was "well... yes, but it should be an online wiki or timeline or something to capture and represent everyone's history, including Second Life, because there is too much history to fit in one book and it is being added to too fast to even consider writing a book about it". And hence was born the virtual worlds timeline project (VWTimeline for short)!

Lecture Tours and Writings

New! Latest version of "Meeting in the Ether"
for intellect books (2007).

From that first presentation at Linden Lab in October 2006 through to today, I have been presenting a series of highly illustrated talks on the "Origins, Evolution and Future of Social Virtual Worlds" at venues ranging from the US, Canada, the UK, Netherlands and elsewhere. My upcoming speaking schedule is here and slides of the first talks are included here. I have also been engaged in writing a series of papers and contributed chapters for publications such as this one for intellect books. I have also been invited to write for (first as a guest and then as a regular contributor) to Terra Nova, the premier academically-oriented virtual worlds blog. You can see a number of my postings here.

The Use of Visual Timelines

Example of a SIMILE-based graphical timeline

Virtual Worlds Timeline Beta, using SIMILIE

See the Dipity Virtual Worlds timeline here

A major goal of this project is to create a comprehensive interconnected timeline of artifacts on the history of Social Virtual Worlds (SVWs). The project is focusing primarily on social virtual worlds and not attempting (at this time) to include game play worlds. We define social virtual worlds as being spaces in which the primary activity is communication between users on topics of their own choosing (which may include building and gameplay as secondary activities). The project will first focus on the large scale collection of artifacts, followed by the development of a taxonomic classification, then curation and other analysis, and finally the building of a graphical scrollable timeline. One technology we have been investigating is MIT's SIMILE timelines and the commercial Dipity timelines, in which there is a nice example of a virtual worlds one already. These timelines will permit researchers and the public to have easy access to the archive. All artifacts referencing the medium are being sought including: stories, imagery, chat logs, video of "in-world" and "real life" events, technology, artistry/objects, company materials, academic studies, etc. Backing up the timeline effort, we are looking at building an open contribution technology (a Wiki or other back-end database) that can create a channel for the contribution of artifacts and other resources (such as expert curation) by the community at large. Which technology to use remains an open question.

Time Span and Scope for Collections

Maze War

Lucasfilm's Habitat

Scene from Avatars99

The time span of the collections will commence at or before the first 3D networked virtual world which represented users to one another: Maze War (1974) and then continue on through early multi user systems like Plato (1970s and 80s), take us through the rich textual worlds of MUDs and MOOs to the late 80s graphical online experiments with Habitat, and thence to the first wave of Internet-based social virtual worlds in the 90s (including such platforms as Worlds chat, Alphaworld, The Palace, Blaxxun, WorldsAway, and the groundbreaking Avatars cyberconferences) and on up to the present day, documenting the second generation platforms like Second Life.

Project Partners and Call for Input and Resources

I was thrilled when in January 2008 Henrik Bennetsen and Henry Lowood of Stanford University expressed an interest in having the VWTimeline effort collaborate with and contribute to the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, a Library of Congress grant to Stanford and others to develop methodologies for the capturing and representation of the history of virtual worlds and gaming environments. Back at the project start in 2006, Patrik Svensson, director of the HUMlab at Umea University in Sweden, offered to support the project and as he has close ties to Stanford it made sense to combine efforts with this group of institutions and existing projects. The original Contact Consortium, which I co-founded in 1995, was experiencing a rennaissance and a Virtual Worlds History Special Interest Group (SIG) was also formed to provide an organizational home for these efforts. The physical artifacts are being stored at my existing Digibarn Computer Museum. Last but certainly not least, I teamed up with long time Burning Man and computer history pal Marc Weber, who runs the Web History Center, to come up with ideas for representing our artifacts on timelines (as described above). Marc has brought Dipity into the picture and has also worked to bring Stanford, the Computer History Museum and others into this collective effort. We are now working together with Marc, Henry Lowood and others planning a special event at the Computer History Museum in March or April 2009 on the subject of virtual worlds.

Get in Contact, Join Our Group!

If this is of interest to you feel free to reach me at any time through our contact form. If you want to join or contribute in any way to the VWTimeline project please let me know!

We have set up a Google Group on Virtual Worlds History, sign up here.

Thank you for your attention!

Bruce Damer (initiated December 3, 2006, last updated: October 1, 2008)

For some more background please see:
Materials related to the start-up phase of VWTimeline:

Bruce Damer's next (final part, July 2008) Terra Nova guest column "Virtually Eternal: A Positive Pathway to a Healthy and Sustainable Virtual Worlds Industry?"

Bruce Damer's new (first part) Terra Nova guest column "A New Virtual World Winter?" for June 2008.

New! Lucasfilm's Habitat & Club Caribe, video recorded Summer 1988 (thanks Randy Farmer for providing)

Damer archive of virtual Worlds Videos now available for viewing at the Internet Archive.
(Summer 2008)

Lecture slides and schedule of Bruce Damer's current "Road Show" of talks. If you would like this talk to be presented please contact us.

A new article on the origins, evolution and future of virtual worlds "Meeting in the Ether" by DigitalSpace founder Bruce Damer. This article will be published in a number of upcoming books and journals. A shorter version was featured in a guest piece for columnist Jonathan Grudin in the September 2007 issue of ACM interactions magazine.

In Spring 2007 Bruce Damer wrote four columns for the Terra Nova academic blog on virtual worlds about the history and evolution of social virtual worlds. The four columns are: Maze War, the first multi user 3D virtual world, next we have From Maze War to Habitat, Alphaworld and the mid-90s explosion of avatars, after this we have Worldstruck and other In-world terms, and lastly Meeting in the Ether.

The original CNET Newsmaker interview where the project was announced worldwide A brief history of the Virtual World (Nov 9, 2006)

Personal Historical Sites including inital source materials:

The Contact Consortium at: www.ccon.org

Avatars and other conferences: Contact Consortium Events

Catalogue of writings at Digitalspace on the virtual worlds medium (1995-present): DigitalSpace Publications

The Avatars (1997) book homepage: Avatar Teleport: Avatars! Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet

and more about Bruce Damer and current projects and research for the past decade or so at: www.damer.com

Sites from Other Historians and Practitioners

Terra Nova's Blog on the History of Virtual Worlds (a version of this letter was posted to the Terra Nova blog on December 2, 2006).

Excellent timeline of online worlds by Ralph Koster (covers Plato, MUDs and more).

Mauz's Active Worlds Pages: History

PlayOn, a blog exploring the social dimensions of virtual worlds (Parc, Inc).

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