1996 Digital Ditch Digging

Digital Ditch Digging & Sweet Rewards. Web Review Magazine, Bleeding Edge Column, 10-1996header-edge-cjc

head-digitalBefore I get into a neato Web thingie (virtual toys) here’s a thought for your mulling pleasure.

Last Saturday I woke up at 6:51 a.m. I resolved to stay in bed until 10 a.m. and server push some dreams of women, trees, food and fast computers. The last such dream before my server broke was about me sitting between a Pentium 166 and a Power Mac, where I was making GIFs on the Mac from screen shots on the PC. Once in Photoshop it was the old Marquee, Copy, New, OK, Paste, Index color, OK, OK, Save As, GIF, OK, routine. In other words, I was digital ditch digging.

I woke up and a thought blind-sided me.

We spend our days as crutches to computers, helping them do what they cannot yet do. In a sense, we become powerful peripheral devices to help the poor things along. This forces us to speak to the computer on its terms, for hours, patiently, since it hasn’t learned our language yet. Even if we’re a peripheral device that, like a cat, occasionally likes to stare out the window at nothing whatsoever.

For all our raving about this wonderful future we’re living in, we spend a good part of our days as computers, compensating for their shortfalls. This is not too cool, in my book, and even approaches something like degradation.

After a few hours of digital ditch digging, my mind has to wipe away the bits and bytes of sweat before interacting with another person. You may have seen this at the coffee machine, when you say hi to someone who then stares blankly back, sees that you have no keyboard, and has to switch to human speak.
A friend sent me an email the other day that simply said, “I got you a present” and there was a URL. I felt happy all over and hopped right on my snazzy surfbrowser. A Live3D window greeted me. The sound of a helicopter’s blades broke out over my speakers and a chopper appeared in the window with clouds behind it. As it turns out, my present was a toy helicopter! With mouse movements in the window I discovered that I could make if fly away, flip, turn, spin or become a wire frame, or hit a button and hear machine guns. Pretty silly, but it was my toy and I liked it, and I showed it to all my friends who were jealous because they didn’t have a toy as a bookmark. Ha!

I had a toy, it was mine, mine, mine and I could play with it whenever I wanted to, which turned out to be mostly during my digital ditch digging water breaks. I soon tired of my little chopper and since I couldn’t seem to break it I gave it to a friend who had helped me out with a nasty nested table browser problem. I still think fondly of the little guy now and then, but I’ve moved on to more breakable toys.

Turns out this is from The Virtual Toy Shoppe from Byron Priess Multimedia, and it only costs $1.99! This is high emotional quotient, without high technical/financial overhead if I’ve ever seen it.

Byron Preiss Multimedia’s 50-odd employees pump out CDs, interactive games, children’s multimedia and desktop tools and toys and such. You may have heard of their early CD-ROM projects, Isaac Asimov’s The Ultimate Robotand The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright. Nowadays they’re doing Virtual Comics online with some very well known comic authors and artists as well as other projects. But the toys captured my heart.

I rang up Chris Colborn, manager of online services at Byron, about the Toy Shoppe. Turns out it was birthed as an experiment to combine Shockwave and VRML and was up a week after the two plug-ins were distributed. Six toys are now for sale: a biplane, chopper, hip hop chimp, pterodactyl, cutie pie doll and a formula race car. All of them use the same controls as the chopper, using VRML 1.0 and Shockwave for the sound effects.

But imagine where this could go! Toys with ownership (these are open to anyone with your URL for as long as the site is up) for trade-ability, or even cooler, toys with behavior characteristics and true portability. Hmmm…

Buy a virtual sand box and a bulldozer to plow up some bunkers. Plop down 10 bucks for a few soldiers and go at it. Soldiers from one faction could work well together, helping wounded out of the line of fire without prompting. Toys could be used in other games, just dragged down from the Net and set into whole environs with unpredictable outcomes. We’re talking radically different distribution and manufacturing issues here to say the least. The brunt of cost could be put into labor to make the toys come alive. Kids could pool toys to make whole interacting worlds, hell, some toys could even be educational!

My god, making and selling toys on the Net, what a business! What an idea! I better not tell too many people…

I can see a future where lunch rooms echo with lines like, “I’ll trade you my helicopter URL for your chocolate milk.” There could be a whole trading economy based on chunklets of code.

Wouldn’t it be ambrosial if the first currency on the Net was toys?

Caleb out.

Web Review copyright ® 1996 Songline Studios, Inc.
Web Techniques and Web Design and Development copyright ® 1996 Miller Freeman, Inc.

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