How we created a "Metaverse" 25 years ago (and why it didn't work)

It was 1998. We were working at the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan, leading their recently founded digital department, and we got in contact with the Polytechnic of Milan because we got news that they were developing a very interesting technology that would allow the creation of 3D collaborative online worlds.

We spoke with prof. Paolo Paolini, who was running the project, and he showed us a demo. It was based on VRML, a 3D modelling language to create 3D environment that could be visualised in your web browser via a plugin, and a complex Java infrastructure to make avatars of online visitors see and interact with each other and with virtual object in the 3D world.


We were mesmerised by the possibilities unleashed by this system, even if it was at a very early prototype phase, and immediately offered them our full support in terms of content and commitment in order to create a "virtual copy" of the Science Museum. Of course it had to be a simplified version of the museum, whose collections span from trains to physics instruments, so we decided to focus on Leonardo Da Vinci's machines, one of the most visited and appreciated areas of the museum.


a virtual reconstruction of the museum, showing a cloister with three avatars walking into it
Screenshot from Virtual Leonardo (1999)

In a few months, a beta version of the museum was released. It had many interesting features: avatars could walk or fly around the cloisters of the museum, enter rooms and activate some Leonardo's machines.


an avatar stays in front of a machine resembling an aerial screw, one of Leonardo's flying machines
Screenshot from Virtual Leonardo (1999)

There was a guided tour mode where visitors could follow a guide, and even see what the guide was seeing; a "gaze exchange" mode that facilitated explanations. Avatars could chat with each other upon entering the system.


We presented the system at the Museums and the Web 1999 conference in New Orleans, and raised a lot of interest, won some international awards and an article on the New York Times wittily entitled "At this Virtual Museum you can bring a date".


The online version of the New York Times article on Virtual Leonardo

Still the system had many technical and usability problems. It required users to download and install a VRML plugin and Java support, something which was possible only for technically savvy users on high-end machines.


In 2000-2001 we worked with the Polytechnic University on a new release, based on Java 3D, with better performances and improved reliability. We worked on the user experience too: the system had better graphics, a more interesting and complex environment (it was a reconstruction of the Ideal City imagined by Leonardo da Vinci, with canals, streets and buildings). It offered all the features of the previous version with some new ones, like automated avatars showing the human avatars what they could do in the Ideal City.


a reconstruction of buildings with columns with a Leonardo machine
Screenshot from Leonardo's Ideal City (2001)

This was happening years before Second Life, the most universally known example of early 3D world, and one of the few still existing today. So, we were there early, with some interesting projects which got international attention. Then why we say it didn't work?


Because despite some very encouraging data, such as the huge quantity of time spent by the few visitors able to make it into the system, there were still too many obstacles to a smooth experience to make it mainstream, mainly due to the still immature technologies we had to use. And secondly, both the museum and the university lacked the will and the structure to go from the prototype phase to the real production phase.


A machine by Leonardo da Vinci similar to a crane with in front of it an automated avatar in form of a person wearing a cylinder hat
Screenshot from Leonardo's Ideal City with an automated avatar (2001)

There are some lessons to be taken from our experience. One is that museums and universities are great places to invent ideas, because they are places of cultural freedom and with plenty of visitors and students to test solutions with, but they are not good places to develop those ideas into final products. They lack the vision, the funding, the patience and the mindset to go through all the boring and costly phases that make a difference between a prototype and solid, reliable, easy-to-use product; so it makes sense to create joint ventures with companies or stimulate spin-offs to propel those ideas into reality.


Having said that, experimenting with technology in museums can be incredibly fun, at least as much as it can be frustrating. You can inspire others and get to know much better your visitors, their needs and their idiosyncrasies, as well as your organization and your mission. You could even end-up creating your own ante-litteram metaverse.


PS: We apologize for the catchy title. It is true that we built an online 3D collaborative environment, which meets some criteria for being a metaverse. But in fact nowadays nobody is really sure about what the metaverse really is...

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