Interview with Bo Adler

Feb 28th, 2021 at 12:00

I recently had the pleasure to interview Bo Adler, one of the backend developers of the Worlds software. His work spans from before Worlds Chat all the way through WorldsPlayer's development. Bo has been a big influence on the community now, whether they know it or not. He was one of the original patent holders for the technology and Worlds wouldn't be where it is today without him. Here is the interview I had with him, thank you Bo.

Edited 2/17/21: Bo gave some more information to certain questions after this was posted. Updated to include.

1. What exactly was your job at Worlds?

I was one of the original seven founders of the company, back when it was "Knowledge Adventure Worlds". We were a spin-out company from "Knowledge Adventure", a maker of children's educational software. We had a license to use KA's 3-d engine+language (an English-like language called "Accomplish"). I added the TCP/IP networking to Accomplish and built our first "multiuser" demos. Later, the Accomplish dev team joined Worlds and I joined them to work on the Java-based engine that you know as the "WorldsPlayer". My memory is that I worked on adding the network connection to the "WorldsServer", and got the extra layer of "galaxies" (different rooms being connected to different WorldsServers, and being able to see avatars on both sides of the portal) working.

2. How did you land your position? Was there any story behind it?

I was good at perl scripting and got hired at KA as their first "integrator", using perl to build all the data files for their product engine. After a crazy six months with the company, I quit and traveled the US for a month while sleeping in the back of my car. When I finally came back to LA, the rest of the founders had already been organizing to start the company... but I believe I was the first official employee of the company because I was the only one unemployed at the time.

Dave Marvit was a Producer at KA, working on Science Adventure II. It was not considered a prime focus of the company, so Dave was slowly working on it by using excel spreadsheets and pulling together content. He invited me over one weekend to see his work, and when I saw the excel spreadsheet I knocked out a perl script to generate the data automatically -- after that, Bill Gross hounded me until I joined up. I got to work on nearly every product they had going on at the time, because I was so good at automating stuff with Perl. But I'm most proud of the work on Science Adventure II, because it was the largest product KA had ever produced at the time, with the smallest team working on it.

So when I quit and wandered the country, the rest of them were always intending to have me join them at KA Worlds. And considering that Brad and Dave were both joining up, I couldn't say no.

To answer your question, I landed my position by being great at automation but difficult to work with. ;)

3. Any interesting stories about your time at Worlds?

Lots and lots, but here's one that is short enough to tell. Our very first multi-user demo was point-to-point using the KA engine from before Accomplish. Somehow Starbright had heard about us and asked us (last minute!) to fly to Pittsburgh for a demo given by Steven Spielberg. The problem we had was that the engine was prone to crashing unexpectedly, so I prepared a list of "10 things to NOT do" which Dave Marvit relayed to Mr. Spielberg. During the actual demo, Spielberg practically ticked off every single item on my list and I was having a heart attack about whether the demo would crash... And it finally did crash just as Spielberg finished, but no one even noticed because Dave had come up with a clever hack: on crash, we would put up a graphic that said "Thank you for using the KA Worlds demo". Afterwards, there was a celebration and I got to chat with Teresa Heinz about virtual reality and philosophy and how this technology might shape our society in the future, and I was blown away by how well she understood what we were doing and its implications.

4. Are you aware of the "End of the World" event? It was an event signifying the ending of the original Worlds Chat, and it's transistion to Worlds Chat Gold. Did you work on it?

I did not work on "End of the World" although I probably attended. The production folks all worked on that, and by then I was pretty deep in development on the WorldsPlayer.

5. Considering your position, did you work on the original Starbright Worlds?

Nope, I didn't work on that either. Although my position was technically in Production, my job was a lot of helping other people out and making sure all the pieces came together. The Starbright team had everything very well in hand and didn't need any help from me.

6. Did you work on AlphaWorlds aswell?

Haha, nope, I didn't work on that either! I'm sure you'll start to wonder what I actually worked on. :). That was all Ron Britvich and the team we hired for him.

7. This is a question I ask everyone, no matter their position. Who is Holden, the avatar?

I doubt I know, but send me a link to the image. I've never heard of the name, except the obvious "Catcher in the Rye" reference.

After sending an image of the Holden avatar: I think that's the son of one of the employees. I'm pretty sure all the original avatar people were affiliated with the company.

8. Do you have anything like an avatar or easter egg inspired by you in Worlds that you know of?

I think the "Alice in Wonderland" avatar was something I asked for in our initial demos. And one of the early avatars of a middle school girl was a friend that I made sure got into the product. Haha, we had some kind of online fan party for the Hansen brothers once, and I was using the girl avatar just to monitor the event and make sure nothing was broken, and one of the brothers started chatting me up. It took him a while to understand that I was a grown man and not a teenage fan. :)

9. What is something you have learned most from your time at Worlds that you have applied to other development projects aswell?

Learned most? The importance of "user experience".

Before Worlds, I was focused on knowledge and technology. I didn't care about pretty graphics or popular opinion -- I was excited about the potential of the Internet and how much better the world would be when we could share information freely.

Before KA, Dave Marvit taught a class at Caltech called "Media Self-Defense" which started opening my eyes to how my thoughts were being shaped without my awareness, through ads and movies and really everything I looked at. At Worlds, Dave continued my education by taking the techniques of movie making and applying it to our environments and our demos to create compelling experiences and talking points about what the future COULD be. That clever hack I mentioned in Q.3 is just one of many such ideas that Dave had for creating impressions on our audience without all the hard work of making it perfect. Ultimately, a good demo should be like a well executed magic trick: leave the audience filled with wonder and imagining possibilities.

10. How was your experience working at Worlds? Jeff mentioned it was 'probably the best job I've ever had'.

It was an adventure! It had its amazing moments, but also its hard moments; if it were easy, it wouldn't have been amazing. My life has been a series of adventures ever since, but this one was a pretty good one with lots of subplots going on - I'm sure I don't even know half of the crazy things involving this company!

11. Are you aware that Worlds is still online?

Yes. I didn't know that y'all had figured out how to make custom avatars or enable the world-building part -- I've been waiting 25 years for that to be publicly available! I'm bummed that it looks like the auto-multiuser-server part is off, but I always intended for our users to be able to build their own worlds and invite their friends to come see and chat as if it were all one continuous world. That was the part I worked on, allowing the server to auto-create new worlds based on the world url, and also to spill over into other "dimensions" if a single room got too crowded.

12. Anything else you want to mention yourself?

"Be kind."

Thank you Mr. Adler so much for your coperation. This was all very fascinating to read and went way beyond my expectations going into this.