Worlds Inc. Worlds Chat and Time Warner's The Palace: Life in Two Graphical Chat Environments from 1995-2002 (Part 1)
This article and the three that follow it are very different from my usual ones. Rather than being about some vintage hardware or software project, this piece is more personal and somewhat nostalgic. The narrative documents a period in my life when Internet Chat was a major hobby. I wouldn't go so far as to call it an addiction, but it did feature largely in any spare time once work and family obligations had been satisfied, for both me and my wife, Annette.
It was interesting, informative and enjoyable part of my past life so I'm writing it down before I forget it. I've recorded these recollections on the web in the hope that those researching the early Internet will find them useful. Also this blog may be of interest to people I engaged with in those years if they stumble upon it. I'm sure it will be as much a nostalgic hit for them, as it was for me writing it (-:
Beginnings - Discovering graphical-based chat
I first came across my first graphical-based chat program, Worlds Chat, in June/July, 1995.
I was over in the U. K. for two months on a mini-sabbatical at Silwood Park, which is part of Imperial College of London. I was there to do some preparatory work for my PhD, which was to incorporate a decision support system for pest and disease management in apple orchards. One of my supervisors was based at Silwood park. He specialized in decision support for pest management, and I found myself working in a big old open office with other junior academics and post graduate students.
Modelling was part and parcel of this kind of research so the computers were state of the art consisting of fast Pentium or 486 PCs with plenty of memory and graphics capabilities. One day, one of the guys showed me something he had downloaded…a 3-D graphical chat program. He was about to go home, and said I was welcome to play around with it before I retired for the evening myself.
Image 1. Worlds Chat Space Station. This contained the rooms but you had to select an avatar first!
I started the program and was amazed. I’d never seen anything like it! I knew of Internet Chat, through playing with BBS’s and Internet Relay Chat (IRC). I’d also dabbled with first shooter games like Doom and Wolfenstein, but I had never seen anything like this. This grabbed me like nothing before. It was the futuristic concept of beaming into a station floating in space, with arty graphics and sound effects and populated by quirky looking avatars; human, animal and the fantastical, each with a name tag. In fact, I didn’t even know the meaning of the word “avatar” until that night.
Image 2. Dressing for the part. Before beaming in, you could select your avatar from a selection of representations.
Image 3. A penguin suited me fine for a while. At least I was smartly dressed!
I explored and chatted most of the night, meeting people from all around the world (well, at least the developed world!). It felt like you were there! I tried on male avatars, female avatars and various animals (the penguin was a favourite). Beaming into the space station put you in the central hub, where you could meet all kinds of recently arrived characters (Image 4). From there you could move up to the pods and a variety of themed virtual chat rooms. Good thing I was living on campus, because I don’t think I got to bed that night until the wee hours the evening.
Image 4. A typical scene once you've beamed into the main hub
(Image borrowed from https://www.ccon.org/papers/interart2.html)
For the rest of my stay at Silwood Park, I worked on my PhD plans, but I made a note to really explore Worlds Chat when I got back to New Zealand. I did just that.
The Worlds Chat Beta days (mid 1995 to mid 1996)
In the beginning, although I didn’t have a home PC, I did have a top-of-the-line work laptop (Toshiba 486 50Mz with active colour screen) running Windows 3.1. Of course the laptop travelled with me from work to home and back again. At home, Internet access wasn’t yet mainstream but I could log into the Internet by dialing into the University network via modem. I would use this facility for working at home, but also to access Worlds Chat when some leisure time was called for.
The version of Worlds Chat available at that time was 0.6, which was essentially a free Beta Version. It was still a little buggy. No matter, it was wonderful. I introduced the program to my wife, Annette, who took to it as much as I did.
Image 5. Annette (aka kiwi) with her custom avatar and a friend
In 1995 the Internet was a hot new concept in New Zealand as it was everywhere! Pretty soon local providers gave residential areas Internet access and once connected we bought a home Windows 95 PC. Over the next two years, Worlds Chat was a major hobby. Annette and I built custom avatars for ourselves, and became part and parcel of the Worlds Chat community. We tended to meet and interact with those from the West Coast of the USA and Canada, Hawaii and the east coast of Australia, mostly because they were closer to our time zones. Worlds Chat would have had the fewest number of people visiting at that time and because of that (and it's then limited size) you tended to get to know most “Evening Pacific time" regulars.
Among the people we got to know by their handles (off the top of my head) were Katt, Caz, Hex, Cold Feet, Daphne, Frode, garfield, Nermal, silvermane, zombie woof, Suz, Tokie D Bear, Vega, zomby woof, Ph's horse, Kiwired, Sir Questor, Nuf, Minew, Suzy, Lunar, Lily, Sabrina, Roxy, muffy, shooter, sassycat and Isky. There were many more.
There were some key people in WC, regardless of timezone. “Sting” was one of them. He was from the Netherlands and his first name was Rene. Sting had a web discussion board , which became a de facto asynchronous communication channel for Worlds Chat culture. Lots of news and discussion regarding the Worlds chat community appeared on this board. Early in our chat experience Annette, whose pseudonym was “Kiwi” was cyber bullied in Worlds. I wrote a piece on cyber bullying which was pinned to Sting’s board, and was often cited as a good way to deal with it. There is still a reference on the web to that article, having been reproduced in a web book found here: https://digitalspace.com/avatars/book/fullbook/chwc/chwc5.htm
Image 6. Yours truly as Terry-NZ hanging out on one of the platforms
A guy called “Hook” (who eventually developed LOL chat) and women called Katt were influential figures and often organized social initiatives. Two women (from Hawaii I think) called “Lily” and “Vega” encouraged my wife to start her own business in web development. That wouldn’t have happened without them.
As with all chat environments there was some deception, dramas, turf wars, betrayal and manipulation. People will be people. However, there was also friendship, creativity and fun. There were parties, competitions and events. There was even a “gossip” column (on Sting’s site) with roving gossip reporters looking for (light-hearted) dirt to report!
Once relationships had been established, users supplemented World’s Chat interactions with good old email and messaging apps like Powwow, then ICQ.
Image 7. ICQ. An early type of messaging app, similar to Meta's Messenger today.
Developers were sometimes seen in World’s Chat and they seem to monitor Sting’s board to get the feel of the community. I had a couple of issues running specific versions and the developers were quick to respond to my request for help.
There were some clever bits of code. For example, there was a hidden room called “The Basement” where those regulars “in the know” would gather. Getting to the room wasn’t obvious. The entrance was through a tiny piece of guard rail/rope around the edge of a platform in one of the pods (the Sadness Pod I think). A few pixels of the rope looked just a little different and by lining your avatar up just so, you could go through this doorway and drop down into this hidden room. It became a great spot to hide from newbies. (lol)
Image 8. Spot the hidden door!
Image 9. The hidden basement in Worlds Chat 0.9
Being represented by avatars and communicating by text alone did allow personality to shine through without judgment on looks or voice, although being fast on the keyboard did help. However, in the early days (1995) the population of Worlds Chat did reflect a certain segment of society. Most people you would come across at that time were professionals, often from academia, the computer or design industry. These were the folk that could afford high end computers with fast unlimited bandwidth, often because their employer was paying for it. They tended to be people who were passionate about technology and 3-D worlds. This changed quickly in 1996 and 1997 as the price/performance of computers improved, Internet access became easier and cheaper and America Online (a major US provider) bundled World Chat into their client CDs. The masses (and their children) arrived, resulting in a more diverse culture.
Image 10. Free promotional AOL CD-ROMS containing Worlds Chat beta meant a flood of new visitors
During the latter half of 1995 and first half of 1996, the versions of the client software gradually increased from 0.6 to 0.9, offering bug fixes and refinements in the code and the artwork. Some of this artwork was wild, alkin to an acid trip or Salvador Dalí painting. Here is one of the more subdued examples from version 0.9.
Image 11. A flamingo maze
All this development was leading towards the launch of a saleable product, Worlds Chat 1.0, also known as Worlds Chat Gold. Here is how they announced the product (in typical quirky fashion) to existing users on the 9th June, 1996...
"As a registered user of Worlds Chat, we wanted to inform you first that Worlds Inc. will premiere the new version of Worlds Chat within the next few weeks. For further news and periodic updates, please see our website at http://www.worlds.net/wc/news.html
At our website, you'll not only find factual info, you'll encounter the intriguing reports of Captain Javinda Ushad and her reconnaissance team as they explore the new Worlds Chat space station. Capt. Ushad will send her Observations Reports three times each week. Check them out at http://www.worlds.net/wc/story.html
(You didn't really expect Worlds to send out the usual "new product announcement," did you?) "
So ends Part 1 of this narrative. The next episode covers Worlds Chat Gold (including the famous "Ends of Worlds" party).
Terry Stewart (Terry-NZ or Tez)
15th December, 2022
P.S. If you have got this far, congratulations! You are a stayer and it shows you're interested. Here's a bonus item. If you want to wander around Worlds Chat in your browser, thanks to the Internet Archive, you can! The link is here . You'll need to do it in single-user mode though, as the server connecting all users is no longer operating. You'll get a Windsock connection error when you start the program. Ignore that, and wander around as a guest in Single-User mode. It's a cut-down version of the "Gold" edition which I'll discuss next chapter, but this demo build is not too dissimilar to the Beta version.
If you just want a quick, static look, here's a tour of parts of the WC space station, written by one of the designers themselves!
Click here to go to Part 2 --->