The Man Behind the MUSE

by Jon Carroll

Lately, armed with only my trusty modem, I have been wandering though cyberspace and spending time in a computer at MIT wherein lives a wonderful new world called MicroMUSE.

I suppose MicroMUSE is one of those virtual reality things; I have come to distrust the phrase "virtual reality" the way, in another era, I came to distrust the word "lifestyle". But it's definitely a computer-based semi-imaginary community, so it must be part of (cross your fingers when you say it) virtual reality.

MUSE stands for Multi-User Simulation Environment; the environment in this case is a space station called Cyberion City. There are 6000 "rooms" in the space station and more than 47,000 "objects"; it's a big place. It's all text-based -- there are no graphics -- but then "Moby Dick" was a text-based adventure, too. It's a pretty vigorous form.

A visitor logs on and begins to wander. Like any wanderer, the visitor stumbles on things a game based on "The Wizard of Oz," say; or a space shuttle to Moscow; or the administrative offices of Cyberion City; or a cluster of private residences.

So fine; so fun. But Cyberion City is essentially an educational device; pretty soon, once you've registered your character, you get to start creating objects yourself. With time and persistence, you could create a whole land -- maybe a game based on "Moby Dick," right there in Sector 7.

That's the Multi-User part; every user is also a builder. It's a playground filled with tools and toys, growing symbiotically and unexpectedly. Sounds almost Utopian, doesn't it? Feels that way, too.

So I was bumbling about talking to people, trying to learn more about the inner workings of MicroMUSE, and I was told that the very inventor of the entire system, Mr. MUSE himself, lived in the Bay Area.

In Cyberion City, he's "Jin" (I'm "Scribe," by the way -- yuck yuck); in real life he's Stan Lim and works at a Prominent Computer Company (hereinafter PCC) on the Peninsula. We made a date; I drove down to see him.

PCC has its own industrial park in one of those towns where you'd expect it to be; there are little paths and gazebos and fountains in between the sleek, anonymous buildings. Stan Lim, I figured, must be one of the superstars of the company, the guy who gets trotted out for visiting dignitaries -- "this is our Mr. Lim, you know, MicroMUSE and all that."

Off by several orders of magnitude.

Stan Lim is 23 years old, an electrical engineer at PCC; he has a small cubicle next to the machine shop. He invented MicroMUSE three years ago, when he was a senior at Cal State Fresno. It's all a labor of love, all volunteer; he's never received a penny from MicroMUSE; doesn't expect to.

Does PCC know about MicroMUSE? "Oh, no," says Stan Lim. "I haven't told them. I don't know what they'd think."

He emphasizes that Cyberion City was a joint enterprise, its directors scattered all over the country. Only one, Barry Kort, a specialist in artificial intelligence working at MIT, is near the actual machine. And many of the key players in Cyberion City are even younger than Lim.

"Our chief code hacker is 14," he says matter-of-factly. "Our youngest citizen is, let's see, 7 now. Kids really get into it fast; they make me feel old." Just when you thought future shock was slowing down...

For more information on MicroMUSE, point your Web Browser to MuseNet Central