As previously mentioned, I’m a closed-beta tester for “Project X”, a virtual world with the hugely ambitious goal of mirror-mapping the entire planet Earth. Think of it as the final steps of zooming in on Google Earth/Google Maps: from the highest-resolution aerial photo to the street view, except you can walk around in it. The first distribution of the viewer software was emailed to the testers Monday evening; as of this writing (13 May), the closed-beta phase* is three days old.
Its developers, Micazook, are not the first to try this; there’s Twinity, which has been in open beta since September 2008, and has (as far as I can tell) ‘realized’ portions of three cities so far: Berlin, Singapore, and London. And there’s Near, which so far only reproduces London’s West End… but Near London isn’t a virtual world the way we have come to think of it.
Near London shuns humanoid avatars; visitors are instead represented by a colored shaft of light. “If you give them bodies, it gets in the way of the experience,” says Alex Wrottesley, founder of Near Global, the firm behind the London site. Because you’re shopping for yourself, not your avatar. Moreover, he adds, humanoid avatars “really don’t look very good.” You can also access Near London through Facebook, which means friends can browse and shop together in real time. (Talking to strangers is not allowed.) [source]
Micazook/Project X have promised three different cities — New York, Washington DC, and Los Angeles — as their beginning. However… the primary thing one must keep in mind when evaluating Project X is, according to Micazook’s co-founder/managing director Michael Fotoohi:
The project is a self funded project with a small team of 4 developers and a single graphic artist.
… who have been working on it in their spare time (that is, they all have day jobs) since 2004. And they are being very cautious about scaling up, testing their server-side a bit at a time, pushing the envelope very gently. The result, at least in these initial days:
|Times Square and surroundings
The star indicates the avatar rez-in point;
Back in October, Michael (in-world name “Mikey”) was interviewed by Victor Keegan of The Guardian. In addition to the print interview, there’s a video (now on YouTube) in which Keegan was given a small demonstration. The “world” of Project X, as it stands today, is little different.
What it has:
- Avatar customization: three ethnic types (Asian, European, African); facial feature tweaks; limited but very high-quality wardrobe choices. You can find some screenshots of the process, among other things, here.
- Reasonable default animations (walk, run, and stand). The female walk may be a bit too “sexy” for some (Blue Mars had that problem, too).
- Chat bubbles: so far, the only way to communicate.
What it doesn’t have:
- Resizable window: it’s currently fixed at 1024 x 768. No full-screen mode, either.
- Persistent chat history: if you miss the bubble before it fades, too bad… which means there’s no way to preserve the answer to a question, either. You also can’t paste from your computer’s clipboard into chat; that is, no easy way to share a URL without typing it from scratch. [Note: the first day, any text entered was displayed in the bubble as a single line, which could quickly became longer than the screen could display. By day 2, they had tweaked the code to make multi-line bubbles, which was immediately dubbed “bubble wrap”.]
- Camera controls: despite the demonstration video linked above, you cannot detach your POV from the fixed point behind your av. All you can do is tilt up or down. No pan, no orbit, no zoom. The only time you can look at your own face is in the Customization “dressing room”. The only way you can look at someone else face, close up, is to walk past them.
- ‘Friends’ list
- Private messaging
- Snapshot function: the only way to capture images is “ctrl+PrintScreen” to your hard drive.
In short, this first iteration of ‘closed beta’ is the ‘alpha’ demonstrated last October, less the ability to change POV. As I said, they’re scaling in a cautious and controlled manner, beginning with simple login concurrency — that is, how many avatars the world can handle. Everything else is “Coming soon!”
Part 2 will speculate about what they might be scaling into.
* – Near as I can tell, they’re still accepting beta-test applicants, so “closed” isn’t exactly precise.