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Cybermom on the run: this week in tech, 20 years ago

Cybermom on the run: this week in tech, 20 years ago


June 16th, 1998

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This week in 2018 has been dominated by video game news, since the E3 conference in Los Angeles just wrapped up. The most exciting game I could find from this week in 1998 was the Nintendo 64 puzzler Wetrix, which essentially combined Tetris with terraforming. You can dig up the game itself through emulator sites, and Nintendo Life wrote a great piece about its weird development history — it was the accidental byproduct of a completely different project called Vampire Circus, which was sadly never produced.

Otherwise, the news this week tapped a rich vein of anxiety over digital avatars, online privacy, and having your baby on the internet.

'Cybermom is on the run’

Earlier this year, around 628,000 concurrent Twitch viewers watched rapper Drake and superstar gamer Ninja play Fortnite together. That’s over 578,000 more people than the first live streamed human birth, which was broadcast on America’s Health Network’s website 20 years ago today, with mixed results.

AHN teamed up with an Orlando, Florida family to broadcast the delivery of a baby named Sean. The birth — which appears briefly in a 1999 AHN hype reel — apparently went fine, and the network boasted that its site had gotten 10 million hits the day of the stream. But the server was only equipped to handle up to 50,000 viewers, and the video quality was was abysmal. The stunt even backfired on the family, after law enforcement realized the “cybermom” had an outstanding warrant for writing bad checks. Fortunately for her, the statute of limitations had run out, and the charges were dropped.

‘A Mikey that won’t age, a Mr. Whipple that won’t die’

Filmgoers in the ‘00s and ‘10s have watched nearly lifelike “virtual actors” slip firmly into the uncanny valley, from the entirely animated cast of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within to the resurrected and de-aged versions of real actors in Rogue One. In 1998, when ZDNet published a three-part series of articles about the phenomenon, the technology was too crude to be creepy — as you can see with the digital W.C. Fields above. But actors still worried about these characters replacing them, or about losing control of their likenesses.

The first part of ZDNet’s series covers the state of virtual acting, including a 1998 “Virtual Ed Sullivan Show starring an impersonator in a motion capture suit. The second covers a company founded by Alyssa Milano’s mother to fight faked celebrity nudes, echoing today’s attempts to suppress “deepfakes” celebrity pornography. And the third covers a Screen Actors Guild attempt to get stronger protections for actors’ eerie, doll-like digital selves.

Online privacy violations: 1998 edition

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) provides some of the clearest US regulation around kids and the internet. It passed in 1998, a few months after the Federal Trade Commission released a report detailing the dire state of privacy on the web. The June 1998 survey determined that 85 percent of commercial websites collected personal data, but only 14 percent provided information about their data use, and only 2 percent had a comprehensive privacy policy. Kid-focused sites were even more likely to collect personal data, and less than a quarter told children to seek parental permission before providing it.

Congress and the FTC are still struggling with how to regulate data collection 20 years later, and some of the report’s recommendations didn’t quite work out — lots of sites have privacy policies today, for instance, but nobody actually reads them. But lawmakers and citizens have used COPPA to go after major companies like Disney and Viacom, especially since its scope was expanded in 2013.

America’s invasion continues apace

Today in 1998, TV audiences could tune in for the third episode of science fiction miniseries Invasion America. Invasion America, backed by Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks, was supposed to prove that an animated show could be serious prime-time material. The series begins with its teenage protagonist David Carter discovering that his absent father is an alien from the planet Tyrus, which has sent a number of citizens to live in disguise on Earth. An evil faction of Tyrusians is now planning to conquer the planet, and over the course of 13 episodes, David (naturally) gets pulled into the fight against them.

Reviewers praised the work of Invasion America’s Korea-based animators, and Wired called the show a potential hit. Other outlets, like Entertainment Weekly, offered measured compliments. But reviewers at the Los Angeles Times and New York Times were openly derisive of its plot and characters: “the assault on Earth begins Tuesday, the assault on your intelligence tonight,” snarked the former. Invasion America is mostly forgotten today, but the site Animation Artist published a story about its most fervent fans, and episodes have been unofficially uploaded to YouTube.

The TigerDirect Cinema PC
The TigerDirect Cinema PC

The $1,399 PC for your television

Do you like watching DVD movies? Do you like surfing the web? Do you have $1,399 to spare? You might be a fan of the TigerDirect Cinema PC, a custom computer that could be plugged into a monitor and a television simultaneously. The Cinema PC was a combination media center and Windows computer meant to ease users into the then-new DVD video format, putting a twist on computer-television hybrids like the Gateway Destination, Microsoft’s WebTV set-top box, or Apple’s short-lived Macintosh TV.

The Cinema PC didn’t feature the built-in screen that Gateway and Apple’s products did, and it undercut their multi-thousand-dollar price tags. PC Magazine was a fan of the system, although one of its commendations was that “most DVD disks played without a hitch,” so the bar wasn’t incredibly high here. It took several more years for computers to make sense as home media centers; The Onion even wrote a (very funny) parody article about PC-TVs in 1998. But the idea is taken for granted today — and you can basically get the Cinema PC experience with a $35 Chromecast.