An Interview with Dave Gobel,
(Part 1)
Chairman and Founder of Worlds Inc

Steve Steinhardt, Online Magazine:
How does the general computing community see this technology? For use as a game? Or as a new UI [User Interface]? And will this technology evolve into a programming environment that can be used to develop applications by mainstream developers? To give you an idea of what I'm getting at, we all know that what made the World Wide Web happen was HTML, simply because anybody could do it.

Dave Gobel:
This is a morphing product. Before you can have a house, you have to have plumbing. Ron [Britvich, Author and Programmer of Alpha World] is doing the plumbing for the Metaverse, along with the team. In addition we have people making lumber, bricks, fire hydrants, the lowest common denominator objects that everybody has to have in order to represent a world. Alpha World is a product. It's a product designed to make possible a terrarium, an aquarium of human activity that is directed and undirected,depending on who built the city. You can have a continuum from anarchy through libertarianism to democracy to republicanism to benevolent dictatorship to martinetism to an ant colony's total rigidity. People can choose where they live and how they wish to live, virtually.
So this is a product that people can use to create whatever they want in. Right now, we are deciding, in a sense, what art gets in there. As the plumbing gets completed and we are able to distribute zone servers, people can create their own worlds which are connected to Alpha World. People can walk through a portal and there they are in whatever land they wish to be in. So it goes from being a product to being the beginnings of a platform -- if people fall in love with it, it actually becomes a platform.

In terms of a product, which is something that you sell to people, i.e. the servers or software, what do they see as the optimal content? Stuff for gaming and entertainment or something like on-line banking?

The answer the business people hate to hear is: you can do pretty much anything. Let me tell you what I see. What I see is a place where "Spiderman" can live. I see a place where you can do virtual banking. I see a place where you can go to virtual school and go to virtual libraries and work with and talk with virtual researchers across the planet or actual researchers as represented by avatars. Teachers who are no longer constrained by the safety and muffling aspect of unionism can get to be stars and have their talents be bid for.

Who's the market right now? In other words, who are you finding are the people that are most interested?

We're taking a pincer approach to the market.
Worlds Inc.'s Headquarters in Alpha World
We are making Alpha World available to anybody and everybody. As people become enamored with the concept -- because it is pretty breathtaking -- they say to us, pretty often, "How do we get involved?" And what we say to them is, "You can become a sub distributor of servers. Build your world. Bring in other folks. Become the real estate developer for your town." And in addition, we are developing our own content, Internet World's Fair, which should be out very shortly. And I can't pre-announce, but comic book characters with their own cities where you get to be, for instance, a super-hero. And games. Teen games.

Like soccer.

Things like that, yes.

Like, for instance, I was talking with some people at American Express today and I brought up Alpha World. I said, "How would you like to have a virtual environment where your customers could walk in the door into a lobby and see, you know, cashiers on this side, a brochure rack over there and the manager that they can go talk to?"

They could also have their travel agency there and you could sort of walk into a representation of Yosemite or Hawaii and walk into the hotel that happens to be there, and pick out your view, and bid on the view in the hotel.

Right. And they said, "Oh, nice concept. Makes sense but gee, I don't know." On the other hand, I mentioned it to some people who write gaming software and they said, "Oh, yeah, we gotta get onto that thing." So we find that the gaming and entertainment people are ready, to start trying to leverage the technology immediately. Others, though, are looking at it and saying, "This is a great idea but do we understand it?"

I agree with you. I agree that the popular element has to come first and that's where consumer multimedia type applications and gaming applications are strong. In fact, one of the first tenants of Alpha World decided to build the Adrenaline Vault, which is a building where you go in and you click on the various elements in the building and it leads you to every single 3D game demo on the Internet that you can download. So he's created a store, if you will, for adrenaline addicts. So he would be the first party in the gaming area to license a server, jump start commerce, and start selling software through it.

Going back to Worlds, Inc. in contrast to Alpha World itself, you guys are pushing the VRML and the VRML+ modeling language through Moving Worlds. Do you want to tell me a little bit more about that?

Sure. We were represented on the VRML Advisory Group [a gathering of over 50 companies to discuss VRML] and contributed the multi-user component. We called it VRML+. We understand that there are some folks who have picked up on that. We are developing a platform that incorporates the Moving Worlds' 2.0 specification and the Java language, with a very, very tight focus on 3-D multi-user virtual worlds, which we feel that we have the greatest vision for and certainly the longest learning curve. That is, we've gone through a lot of the scaling issues over the last two years and we're able to literally deal with tens and hundreds of thousands of users. Some folks are only in the 8's and 20's stage of users.

So do you see VRML really being used? Let me put it this way: Where do you see VRML really being used today?

My viewpoint is that VRML is, at this point, a lot like window dressing for the Web. Like most things, it's being used as a horseless carriage rather than a car. And a very, very long time ago in theorizing and thinking about 3D worlds, the very first thing that came to my mind was the importance of community. At this point, VRML is kind of like an "Omega Man" experience. If you remember that movie, it's about being the last person on earth, all alone; it doesn't matter how good the place is, you're alone. And so we're coming at this from an entirely different angle than the classic VRML approach, which is just scene descriptions, which makes sense because it was promoted by Silicon Graphics. Their focus is 3-D modeling, not people. It's modeling, Virtual Reality Modeling Language [VRML alternately stands for Virtual Reality Markup Language]. So as we develop what we are calling our "Gamma Platform," we are going to include in it our fully articulated character animation, our multi-user servers, and essentially build in the community part that had been previously been left out. And we already have that.

That's Alpha World.

That's right.

Now, seeing how far Ron [Britvich] has taken Alpha World, which he's done completely without VRML, why would you try to bring VRML into that when the C language or even C++ takes you so far? Why even fool around with this stuff?

Keep in mind that VRML and C are sort of like apples and jet planes. There's really no intersection of description here. VRML is a way of describing 3D stuff. C is a programming language, a general programming language. No doubt we will built in the ability to read VRML file descriptions so Alpha World can display VRML. Am I being clear? And C is an extremely versatile, albeit arcane language, that gives you very high performance, memory and management capabilities, designed to squeeze the very greatest performance that you possibly can out of a platform. I don't know if Ron [Britvich] said this but I think it's true. He's told me that he could use a processor a million times more powerful than what we already have and still have things that he'd like to do. So that's why we're using C. So VRML is a file description language and the Moving World's standard or specification also describes some behavior specifications that we can add in. So that helps.

Tell me a little bit more about PeopleSpace -- Mitsubishi Corporation's People's World project in Japan.

O.K. We did some work for a Japanese company called Escot. If there was a Japanese Club Med, that's who they'd be. We did a virtual cafe for them and the people at Mitsubishi got wind of it, liked it, and decided that for their People's World they wanted to have an advanced form of Worlds Chat. And so they've contracted with Worlds to build it for them.

And is the project near completion?

I believe it's about half way through. We didn't start that long ago, as you'll note from the press release so we're about half way through and it will be a valuable offering for people. Yeah, it'll be cool.

From my understanding -- never having been in Tokyo or Japan -- culturally, the environment there is very much more graphically oriented than it is here.

Absolutely true.

Does that show through in the project itself?

It does. All of the characters are in kanji so you're looking at the real Japanese language and I would say it's much more fanciful. There is more freedom, artistic freedom that our artists are given. They enjoy the flights of fancy there. Whereas, to some degree, some of our North American contracts have been very buttoned down, shall we say.

Graphically conservative.

Graphically conservative. And I think there's a place for both but, obviously, one's more fun to do than the other.

As the chairman of an organization in North America, how do you bridge the cultural gap of having American programmers work in kanji?

The programmers don't work in kanji. We have a production group in-house and the production group has integrators and artists. The programmers make using kanji possible while the producers, artists, and integrators do the work for our friends in Japan. And the best way to make such a system work is to hire people who have already got a strong knowledge of the Japanese culture, which is, in fact, what we've done.

I noticed when I called Ron [Britvich], he was in San Diego. You have an office in Palo Alto, I believe, and one in San Francisco. So you guys are really taking advantage of the Internet.

We are, and I'm in Virginia.

Perfect example. So it's one thing when you have a culture of doing things on the Internet. But you're doing everything within a generally North American culture. It's another thing when you have to now take your Internet connectivity and your culture of working via the Internet and deal with a huge room full of people in cubicles in a factory row, clicking on their mice, writing code, you know.

I'm completely in harmony with what you say. On both sides of your argument.

How do you cross the international barriers of all this?

The way you do it, on one level, is with an Alpha World-like product where you make it possible for anybody to add art objects to the virtual world and then be able to sell those objects. And another way you do it is by acquiring Japanese partners and giving them the opportunity to sell within their geography to their own client base and to build their own production capability. So we're taking both approaches.

Disregarding the product side of it and looking more at the service and server side of things, how does one deal with trying to engage in international-type relationships with that? Because it's one thing when you say, "O.K., I'll get some people in North America who can understand the Japanese culture." But doesn't that get very top heavy as you start expanding into other international markets?

Yes, it does. So what we're doing, for instance, in Japan, is we're not going for a lot more partners but, instead, we are working through our current licensee to foster propagation of the software and the concept over there. And we will do the same thing in Europe, probably on a language basis rather than on geography.

The reason I ask all these questions is because you're one of the first companies I've come across who really, from the ground up, is telecommuting-oriented. Most companies are really the old fashioned assembly line corporation, where everybody works at one place and you just try to modify the culture a little bit and do a little bit of telecommuting. And that's why I'm very curious.

What I can say is that until an Alpha World-like product becomes more complete, it's still very difficult. When we went with our new CEO, we began to centralize more in San Francisco. I can easily see us, maybe three years down the road, spreading out. Certainly on the coding side, we are already spread out. But on an administrative basis, we found it necessary to concentrate.

Tell me about the Outer Limits and MGM. How is that project coming along?

Well, they found us. One of their folks found Worlds Chat and was pretty excited by it, contacted us through our Hollywood representative. So they came in and we brainstormed the idea. We're in the early stages on that one, having finished the design document, and MGM seems to want to do it right, which I'm happy about. And so it's going to be at least a year. I mean, if you think about Myst...I think Myst was in production for two years. So it may be a year, year and a half before you see a product hit the light of day.

Is this going to be an online environment or just a stand alone local LAN type environment for MGM?

What I can tell you is: we're not interested in local area networks unless they're connected with the great big mama in the sky.

That goes back to your whole concept which is "People can interact through their computer, rather than simply with them." And to do that, you have to bring everybody together and that's what the Internet does.

Exactly. We want to make the computer practically disappear.

Click here to continue to Part 2 of the Interview.

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