A Trip Down Memory Lane with Onlive DigitalSpace Traveler

“Nobody’s 12 and a half on the internet!” my sister hissed.

I remember nodding quietly; I was older than her by six weeks, but she was far more knowledgeable about the internet. Especially about being cool.

“So just tell everyone you’re 13. Or 14.”

It was just after 1am on a Sunday in the middle of the Texas summer. We bathed in the glow of my father’s CRT monitor, watching the wireframe rainbow portal crawl by slowly as we connected to Onlive Digital Traveler.

Onlive! Traveler was a 3D chat program that allowed you to voicechat in REAL time over your dialup connection, it was revolutionary for its time. Up until then we’d been constricted to sites like teenchat.net or Yahoo! rooms where you just text chatted with randoms that may or may not have been actual kids.

But with Onlive Traveler though you *heard* their voices! And you could chat in real time, with real high-def 3D avatars (each 120-350 polygons!) that looked exactly how you wanted them to! You could be a bunny, a parrot, a sad clown, you could be a weird mask. You could even create something from scratch! We’d never known that kind of freedom before.

Just like VRchat today, avatars could explore a 3D space created and hosted by users and corporations alike. MTV even had a special space called The Tiki Lounge that was always full… and I mean full. Each of these little worlds could only handle so many users at a time, so if you didn’t get into the main rooms you might be banished to a room full of anti-social losers.

Why were there so few servers though? It may have been due to the fact that while Traveler was free to users, it could cost over $10,000 to get a license to run a 70 person server.

Once we finally connected, my sister used the arrow keys on the keyboard to navigate the space. We saw groups of people talking, and just like a real-life gathering you heard them better the closer you got to them; I later learned this was because the chatrooms were created with real-life acoustic models. Amazing.

onlive digital traveler utopia gateway
From the Digital Space archives

My sister moved our shared avatar around the area, explaining things to me, telling me that people on the servers could be fussy and not to be too much of a pest. I learned quick you should never move your avatar in front of someone else’s, as it could get you kicked from the server. You didn’t spin your avatar around, you didn’t shout swears while running through a chat area, it was tightly moderated compared to a lot of the other virtual spaces we’d invaded in our late nights exploring the wild west of the 90s Internet.

We’d run into other kids, usually in Europe because of how late it was (most kids were just waking up Sunday morning by the time our father went to sleep for the night and we were able to log on). I still remember both my sister and I marveling at how well the other kids spoke English, most admittedly better than we did.

It was a magical place, a video game populated with other people that you could actually see and hear! We’d creep up on people having very adult conversations, and they didn’t even know we were there. A bit like real life, really; no one pays attention to the kids sneaking around the edges.

Onlive Digital Traveler
From Smiling_Cat’s Tripod archive.

Some servers would kick you if you didn’t talk, some servers would kick you for having a weird avatar. We didn’t have to worry about sounding like kids because the program offered real-time effects that could mask your voice behind a robot noise or shift the pitch. It was all very futuristic, for the mid-90s anyway.

At one point my sister had located a few strange private directories of different servers and rooms, we spent months exploring them all. Some were empty corporate greige headquarters, others were strange user-created rooms with names like “Tomorrow Garden”, “Ebony Tears”, and “500-foot Dominatrix”. No two worlds were the same, it was part of the appeal. The other part of the appeal was people.

Somewhere in the late 90s and early 00s the userbase of Traveler dwindled. People who couldn’t get into populated spaces were left out in the cold, with no choice but to roam the empty abandoned corporate spaces. It was a bit like virtual archeology; I’d kill to have a chance to explore those spaces now but at the time we grew bored of it and moved back to text chat where all the action was.

I think Onlive Traveler will always hold a special place in my heart – it wasn’t the first to do what it did but it was certainly one of the best. After the Traveler community started to fall off other options came along like Adobe’s Atmosphere and Active Worlds (which came along many years earlier!), but none ever seemed to draw people in like Traveler did.

For years I thought that I’d hallucinated the whole thing (I remembered it being called “Digital Live Traveler” until I found a reference to it in an old journal). From there I found dozens of websites dedicated to it, the original website and a documentary about Traveler in its twilight years and the users that kept the lights on.

As far as I can tell the last of the public worlds went offline in 2015, but there are videos up on YouTube of people exploring the remains of a once-vibrant digital landscape. I went digging into the net and was able to find Oz, a much beloved creator and maintainer in the community, but the last mention of him anywhere was a blog comment where he said he was searching for a suitable university to relaunch the OzGate community for traveler back in 2018.

By the by, you can still download Onlive DigitalSpace Traveler. None of the worlds are online but TechWorld still comes prebundled with the program so you can explore it and get a taste of what it was like. I hope this has provided something of value for people looking for history on Traveler, VRML worlds and the amazing boom of VR chat in the 1990s. You can learn more by visiting the Avatars portal here.