The year is 1999, and my company has just been hired by some sexy new dot-com venture.
I’m sitting in our conference room, fidgeting nervously. I’ve already forgotten everyone’s name and the complex relationship of businesses at work here. All I know is that the papers have been signed and fabulous sums of money have changed hands. These guys weren’t happy with being just clients, so there was some sort of exchange of stock that happenedI got some. At this point in our story I’ve got a bunch of stock options that, if I could actually use them, would make me a very rich man. Spoiler: I’m not going to get to use them before the crash.. I don’t understand the new power structure looming over my head at this point. We’re still the same company in the same office doing the same stuff, but now we’re publicly traded and some of the controlling power has been distributed to the new people in the room.
I’ve been ignoring the business drama for the past year. It bores me. As long as I get to push my polygons and cash my paycheck then I’m more than happy to trust my bosses to worry about all that bullshit for me.
In any case, at this point we are committed to a new project. This project is larger than anything we’ve taken on before. This meeting is where I’ll find out what we’ve just committed to and work out how we’re going to make it happen.
Anyway, back to me-from-1999…
The presentation begins with an expensively produced pitch video. These guys are too serious for bush-league stuff like Powerpoint. The pitch video wasn’t really made for the people in this room, but for prospective investors. But we’re watching it now because it’s a good way to introduce the project.
The video shows various views of a modern shopping mall. The narrator describes the difficulties of modern shopping: Crowds. Parking. Inconvenience. Noise. The video shows someone riding an escalator in an upscale shopping mall and then fades to the same scene as rendered in 1998-style CGI.
“At last, virtual reality malls are now possible,” the narrator assures usNote: In 1999, when someone said “virtual reality” they weren’t talking about the VR headsets we’re using these days. At the time, “Virtual Reality” was a catch-all term for anything made of visible polygons. These guys would probably describe Quake as “Shooting people in virtual reality”..
A camera sweeps through the blocky mall as flat-polygon patrons walk stiffly in the background.
I am now very uncomfortable. I knew this company wanted to hire us to set up some kind of store, but I had no idea what that would involve or what form it would take. But now I’ve seen the concept video I have to say this sounds like ten different bad ideas rolled into one.
I can see the thinking behind this. They’re looking to combine “chat room as social experience” with “shopping as social experience”. The presentation shows ladies shopping together, and they really do seem to be aiming this experience at everyone, not just tech-savvy young guys. You can see they’re sort of aiming for a place where people can congregate and chat like you do in Everquest, but when you get restless you go shopping for real goods instead of killing mobs. It’s a plausible concept on the surface, but there are major technological, cultural, social, and practical obstacles that would need to be overcome to make it happen, and nobody is talking about those problems.
In short, I don’t think people will want to shop in “virtual reality”. I don’t think the average person is going to be willing to type their credit card into something that looks like a “video game”. I don’t think socializing in a virtual mall will sound appealing when the alternative is socializing in a dungeon, a castle, or any of the other locations you might find in Everquest. If the standard web-based storefronts out there are having trouble attracting customers, then how much harder will it be to attract them to a storefront where you need to download and install the equivalent of an MMO client? How much harder still will it be to get them to navigate the 3D environment using controls and conventions are probably unfamiliar to them?
But I’m not here to analyze their business plan. In fact, it would be an unforgivable breach of etiquette for me to question the decisions of literally everyone else in the room. I’m here to answer technical questions, and telling them the entire idea is flawed to the core would probably just get me fired. These people are all older than I am, have run successful businesses for decades, and they believe in this idea so strongly that some of them just plonked down millions of dollars of their own money to make it happen. I’m just a dumb kid and the lowest-ranked person in the room. Their business is none of my business. Voicing my concerns would be like an orderly second-guessing the necessity of an operation and asking the doctor pointed questions during the surgery.
The meeting covers some financial and logistic concerns that don’t apply to me, so I mindlessly shuffle my deck of new business cards and wish I could go back to my desk and do something creative. Eventually they come around to questions about the “presentation” side of things and it’s my turn to answer questions. To them, it’s a cosmetic issue, like working out what color scheme and font to use on your website. To me, it’s at the very heart of the problem with their idea.
A Few Tiny Questions
John Business seems to be the most important guy in the room. He’s also the guy who narrated the pitch video. He’s seemed happy so far. But now he turns to me and asks, “Can we start visitors outside of the mall? We have this grand entryway and we want them to be able to see it before they go inside.”
I scrunch up my face. “Yeah guess you can. But people like to teleport because it’s more convenient…” I trail off. John Business looks confused. Did I mess up and give him some jargon?
“Shamus means they like to appear and disappear in different places rather than walking.” My Boss is clarifying things for me. That doesn’t happen very often.
John Business nods. He gets it now.
Holy shit. This guy doesn’t know what teleporting is? I guess the whole video presentation he just narrated made him seem a little more tech-savvy than he really is. Okay, I need to step this all the way down to neophyte language. How the hell did someone with such a limited understanding of virtual worlds end up in the deep end? This guy doesn’t seem to know enough to launch a web-based business, and he’s going to oversee the construction of a virtual one?
I nod at my boss. “Right. One of the advantages of virtual space is the way people can move instantly to their desired location. Making them ‘walk’ for a long distance before they can begin using the software will just make them reluctant to log in. And unless we change it every few days, they will quickly tire of the entrance.”
John Business looks annoyed. My boss shifts nervously in his seat. I’ve messed up again. I’m evidently offering guidance above my pay grade. John Business asked me a simple question about a simple task and now he seems to think I’m trying to weasel out of doing it. Possibly he suspects I’m a slacker. They don’t want my artistic input. These guys have already designed the place. They just want me to answer the question.
My boss steps in to smooth things out. “We’ll have them start outside and see how it works out. We can always change it later.”
I nod. Fair enough.
John Business also nods, perhaps ticking off a mental checkbox before moving on to the next question.
It goes on like this for half an hour. He keeps asking me to do simple things that would be impractical, annoying for the end user, or harm usability. He’s trying to make a world not just for people playing “a videogame” for the first time, but people who are overall new to the internet. I want to educate him on why the design is wrong, but I can’t seem to do so without violating some sort of unexplained social order. Usually I pride myself on being able to smooth out misunderstandings and bring people up to speed, but right now I find myself falling into the role of the “obtuse, obstructionist engineer” and I can’t seem to break out of it.
What’s wrong here? Our company is typically good at this stuff. We’re usually pretty adept at bridging the gap between what the customer asks for and what they actually need. But this meeting is running sideways and the power dynamics are all wrong. For some reason, John Business seems to regard me with… is it suspicion? I don’t know. But there’s a communication problem here and I can’t seem to solve it.
I didn’t notice this until doing this write-up all these years later. At the time I was just confused and frustrated.
Without trust, every time I say “no” or “Yes, but…” it irritates John Business. And that makes my boss nervous, which eventually makes him frustrated with me. So it feels like the room is against me, which makes me nervous and panic-y, which makes me stammer and vacillate, which makes me sound even more untrustworthy.
The meetings will continue until morale improves…
 I got some. At this point in our story I’ve got a bunch of stock options that, if I could actually use them, would make me a very rich man. Spoiler: I’m not going to get to use them before the crash.
 Note: In 1999, when someone said “virtual reality” they weren’t talking about the VR headsets we’re using these days. At the time, “Virtual Reality” was a catch-all term for anything made of visible polygons. These guys would probably describe Quake as “Shooting people in virtual reality”.
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