Monday, September 21, 2009

PLATO: The Seed that Grew into Today’s Virtual Worlds

In the few weeks of the semester that have passed thus far, I’ve had the opportunity to begin researching a subject that has intrigued me in recent months. Virtual worlds were an entirely foreign concept to me until last year’s conference of the Society of Technical Communication, where I attended several presentations on the future possibilities of technical communication in these 3D immersive environments. The concept of a persistent (in existence 24 hours a day, year round) virtual environment, where people from all over the world interact in ways very similar to the ways people interact in the “real world” has incredible potential in the field of technical communication and beyond. I had my first virtual world experience last week, as I created an “avatar” in the popular virtual world, Second Life. I’ve probably spent a combined total of 15 minutes wandering this virtual world, and at this point everything is brand new to me. However, as I thought about a potential subject for a historical study, it occurred to me that the concept of virtual worlds cannot be a brand new one. I decided that it would be extremely interesting to determine when exactly people started to congregate online, for social purposes. At some point in time, people started to build relationships via computer (or some other electronic medium) with people who they had never met, and were not likely to ever meet in person. Communities of “friends” were established within the realm of some sort of network, and before long people were immersed in their interactions with these communities. But when did it all start? Who were the pioneers of virtual worlds?

I began my research by studying the history of virtual worlds. I read about the first web-based virtual worlds, and was disappointed to find that they have apparently only existed for a few short years. I decided to branch out in my research and see if I could find another area of research that my have indirectly led to the creation of virtual worlds. That path led me to virtual reality hardware, first created in the form of Morton Heilig’s “Sensorama.” However that wasn’t close enough. Virtual reality hardware is rarely used in combination with “virtual worlds” like Second Life, so I felt like I had reached a dead end. Apparently virtual worlds simply appeared a few years ago, with no clear pioneers or historic projects that laid the foundation for them. Then it occurred to me that virtual worlds are really an evolved version of online social networking communities. I determined that there are a few key modes of communication that make online socializing possible, and that was were I should focus my research. It wasn’t long before I found PLATO.

In the years following World War II, and more specifically the early years of the “space race” between the United States and the U.S.S.R., it became clear that the U.S. higher education system was insufficient. The U.S.S.R. had managed technological advancements that the United States could not, and had managed to launch the first Sputnik satellite into space, a feat which the United States had unsuccessfully attempted to accomplish on more than one occasion. The US government determined that improvements were needed in science and engineering education in America, and in 1958 a conference was held to determine how best to move forward with these improvements. The conference, led by the U.S. Air Force’s Office of Scientific Research, decided that computer-based learning had the potential to provide better education for a reduced cost.

By 1960 a group of scientists from the University of Illinois has launched the PLATO I system. PLATO was a computer-based curriculum delivery system, which allowed instructors to develop content using the system’s proprietary TUTOR programming language. Initially the system could only instruct one user at a time. In 1961 the system was expanded to instruct two users simultaneously, and by the late 70’s the system could handle nearly 1000 simultaneous users.

Initially, funding for the project was limited, but in 1967 the National Science Foundation determined that the project was sufficiently valuable to warrant constant funding. With this grant from the NSF, Donald Bitzer, one of the scientists from the University of Illinois, created the Computer-Based Education Research Laboratory (CERL). Research conducted at CERL allowed PLATO to be enhanced with innovative features, including “advanced” bitmap graphics, a speech synthesizer, and local terminal program execution (as opposed to all programs being executed on the mainframe). In 1972 the PLATO system was demonstrated to a group from Xerox PARC. The group was so impressed with some of the unique features that the PLATO system was capable of that they adopted many of them for their own systems. The PLATO system included a “Show Display” program for generating images. This was later adopted as the “Graphics-Draw” program on the Xerox Star system. The PLATO system had a “Charset Editor” for drawing new characters to be used by the system. This program was adopted and improved to create the “Doodle” program used by PARC. Other features were also adopted by the Xerox PARC team and many of them eventually found their way into Apple computers. Other PLATO innovations included the first plasma display, and the first touch screen.

While the PLATO system pioneered a great many innovative technologies, many of which are still in use today (in some form), the most interesting innovations (in my opinion), and the most pertinent to my research on the genesis of virtual worlds were largely unintentional innovations. PLATO included several communication tools, which were designed to allow students and instructors to communicate for collaborative learning. An application called PLATO Notes was similar to modern message boards, and was eventually developed into Lotus Notes. The tool was intended to carry education-related messages, but as the PLATO user-base expanded around the globe, students began using the message boards for other things. One particular student, known in the PLATO community as Dr. Graper began using the message boards to post short stories, which soon became exceedingly popular. Initially the stories were viewed as inappropriate for posting to an education tool, but interest in them was so great that a message board was eventually established exclusively for the posting of his stories, known as Grapenotes. In addition to the message board feature, PLATO had a chat feature called Talkomatic, which allowed up to five users to have a conversation together. Each user’s screen was split into five boxes (or up to five boxes). The text that the various chat participants typed appeared in real time (character by character) in the box assigned to them. That way multiple users could type at the same time, without creating a jumbled mess of text. Talkomatic even included a small set of emoticons, which are common in modern chat and instant messaging. Talkomatic was the first known instance of chat rooms, which I consider to be the driving force behind people socializing online and forms remote online communities. Talkomatic did not allow users to request chat sessions with particular people, so users would just hang out in the chat rooms to chat with whoever dropped by (much like today’s chat rooms and even virtual worlds). PLATO also had other communication features designed for educational use, which were “misused” for social purposes instead, such as Term-Talk (an instant messaging application that allowed users to send messages to a specific person), desktop sharing, and Personal Notes (an early form of email).

Student users of PLATO quickly realized the social and entertainment value of the PLATO system and before long, these students also realized the system’s potential to host online, multiplayer games. During the 70’s and 80’s, games like Airfight (flight simulator), Empire (a 30-person online space simulation), Spasim (much like Empire), Pedit5 (the first dungeon-based graphical computer game), dnd (Dungeons and Dragons), Panther (3D tank simulation), Build-Up (maze game), Avatar (dungeon-based role playing game), Freecell, etc. had been developed by students. Students became immersed in these games (much like people become immersed in online multiplayer role playing games today), to the extent that instructors and administrators of the PLATO system has to put a background process in place, called “The Enforcer” which could block game play to prevent students from being distracted from their educational pursuits.

Driven by the widespread use of PLATO’s communication tools for social purposes, as well as the increasing participation in the many 3D immersive multiplayer online games available in the PLATO environment, online social communities quickly grew out of this tool designed exclusively to deliver educational curricula. Before the internet ever existed, people were using PLATO to immerse themselves in virtual environments (such as the games mentioned), which allowed them to develop relationships with users around the world who shared similar interests. If this all sounds strikingly similar to today’s social networking environments and virtual worlds, I believe it’s because PLATO was the birthplace of these computer-based communication/interaction tools, which even today seem new to novice users like myself. The last PLATO system was retired in 2006, but the PLATO community had disappeared long before that. In 1989 the PLATO name was sold and active development was stopped. Corporate infighting, as well as poor fiscal planning had prevented PLATO from being a real commercial success. Elements of the PLATO system were later developed into educational software produced by Pearson Digital Learning, and other educational software companies. However, PLATO’s real contributions were made use of in the internet, which was developing in parallel with PLATO, and which began taking shape as a social networking/interaction tool in the 1990’s. Even today, the social aspects of the internet and more specifically of virtual worlds are not that different (under the skin) than the world of PLATO.

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