Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Demo conference is going on right now and the blogosphere is abuzz. Certainly, Demo doesn’t have the same glow that it did during the dotcom bubble, but I’m hearing more about it this year than I have for a while. This got me thinking about Demo 2002, when LindenWorld was first showed to the public.

I don’t recall why we picked Demo 2002 as the venue for our launch but we started pushing in January — Demo that year was in February. A lot of the pieces of what would be Second Life were in place. Primitar had finally been replaced with human avatars. Those humans even had some rudimentary customizations, mainly around t-shirts. Using LSL1 we had built a small city with operating doors, an elevator, a slide, and music mix table. As the planning came together, we spent a lot of time debating exactly how to use our 6 minutes. If you aren’t familiar with Demo,you have 6 minutes on stage, with a big timer. They give you the hook when it gets to 6:00.

Someone had uploaded scans of US coins and we realized that a very cool effect was to alt-zoom onto a coin on the ground then back the camera up into the sky, past the clouds and the space station, before zooming in rapidly. We decided to have the coin on the floor of a copy of the hotel Demo was being held at, so we all scoured the Web looking for source images. Soon, a rough approximation of the grand ballroom appeared, with lighting keyed to switches and huge sliding back doors to fly out.

Meanwhile, Philip was writing out his speech. It was — and as far as I know still is — the only speech he ever wrote out and practiced. It evoked Legos and Tinker Toys before switching to a rolling description that I would fly to. Philip would say “So, let’s turn on the lights, open the doors, and fly out into the world!” and I would click on the scripted objects before flying out the back of the room, over the hills and onto a platform where I road an elevator down to the town’s main street — with Philip joking about the “elevator pitch” — before a quick walk through some LindenWorld tutorials, a trip to a dance club, and then fireworks. We practiced this demo dozens — hundreds — of times, until we had it down.

But, there were problems. We had no idea what kind of net connection was waiting for us in Phoenix, so we packed extra computers to run a local grid. Worse, no laptops in early 2002 could run LindenWorld at all well, so we shipped high end Dells and carried out top-of-the-line nVidia cards. James Cook became the master organizer, taking over several desks in the office to collect everything we needed. He tested and packed spares of everything. Mice, graphics cards, network cables, switches, power cords. He figured out how to spread items between different boxes so if shipments were lost we’d never be SOL. We didn’t trust Dell to deliver w
orking computers, so James and I would went to Phoenix early to test the network, pick up the machines, and solve any problems.

We got to the hotel and after wandering into a lot of random rooms, stumbled into Chris Shipley and the Demo team. We found our computers and their networking gang. They were just getting the network up and initial results looked bad — incredibly high ping times. However, the route settled out during the day and soon we were happily running LindenWorld from the show floor. Sweet! We went to the airport to meet Philip and Hunter Walk before having dinner with Mitch. We were able to do a run through in the demonstration area and it went smoothly. Everything seemed to be going well.

We were the first demo of the conference, so I was up early the next morning and wandered over to the ballroom. Small problem — no network! I woke James up and he and I started thinking through how to run a local grid when the Demo network team found their problem and got their network up and running again. Everybody started getting tense as time ticked down to the start of the conference.

I went into the bathroom and all you could hear were nervous geeks vomiting into toilets. You could smell the fear and tension. Remember, this was February, 2002. We were deep in the crash, 9/11 had seemingly just happened, nobody was getting funding for anything. A Demo performance could be make-or-break for dozens of companies.

Philip and I went backstage and waited. Chris gave her opening speech and then it was us. There were three steps up onto the stage and Philip clipped his toe and nearly wiped out. But, he recovered and launched into his talk. The demo computer was working fine — did I mention that we crashed the demo about 1 in 10 run throughts? — and I zoomed the camera in — “Philip joking about the 30,000’ view” — trying to sync with Philip. I flew out, avoided biffing the landing at the elevator, and watched the time. We were dead on. Linden employees in San Francisco were logged in, too, so we walked past them at the demo area, and headed for the dance club. I tossed grenades and shattered a box textures with a horrible Power Point slide — no Power Point at Demo! — which was especially cool as this was when we briefly had real-time vertex shadows on the terrain, so the tumbling pieces cast shadows. The I hit the Windows key and dumping out of full screen mode.

Yes, after practicing a billion times, I hit the fucking Windows key. I had a moment of panic before maximizing the app and continuing. Unfortunately, the transition from full screen to windowed caused my avatar to stop rendering, so I flipped into first person, hit the dance club, spun some tunes, before going outside, rezzing some fireworks, and launching them as the clock hit 6:00.

We had done it! To thunderous applause, we left the stage and high-fived. Philip was laughing about almost tripping and hadn’t noticed my Windows key snafu. James came back stage and said we had rocked and that the stage dress had hidden the almost trip. We watched the rest of the demos before heading for the show floor to do demos and talk to people for two days, laying groundwork for our private Alpha and some of the mainstream interest that would follow.

In hindsight, we spent a lot of time kicking ourselves for not just showing a movie. Sure, Demo is all about the ballsy, high wire, live demo, but the reality is some people play it safe. We were watching one of the broadband wireless demos — supposedly live — when James noticed the he and I were in the background of a “live” shot outside. Either we had mastered the art of bilocation or those guys were faking it. Different strokes for different folks.

For Linden Lab, it was a huge turning point. We had met an external deadline, had proved that people not at 333 Linden Street would find the idea interested, and had the pieces in place to open for Alpha. All-in-all, Demo 2002 was a pretty important moment in Linden history.

And, from then on, whenever I have used a Windows PC, I’ve ripped the Windows key off the keyboard.

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