Townships' native follows the Internet road

by CAROLINE KEHNE

Brome County News

Architectural designer and web pioneer Eden Muir's studio overlooks hectares of sloping orchards that look down upon rolling valleys of northern Vermont.


A licensed architect in Quebec and New York state, the Stanbridge Station native recently returned to the Eastern Townships for a simpler life after a teaching career at a distinguished school of architecture and a brief but intense career as an Internet pioneer. He, like other Townships' natives, is using the Internet revolution to return home, setting up his own home-based architectural design studio (ateliermuir.ca) and testing the waters for another type of Internet project scaled for rural communities. With his new site (pivot.ca) Muir hopes to provide a fast and cost-effective way for small businesses to establish a web presence.


Muir was present at the birth of the Internet when, in 1992, he was director of computers at Columbia University's School of Architecture. In his job as associate professor, he oversaw the school's computer systems and taught the latest in computer-aided design and graphics technology to young architecture students. He is also the author of a 1998 text on computer-aided three-dimensional modeling and rendering. Muir notes that in 1993, when the first practical Internet browser, Mosaic, became available, architects were some of the first to realize the tremendous potential for the net.

"We were some of the first building Web sites in HTML (a popular Web site programming language)," said Muir. "Columbia started an online archive of students' work that has now become an important historical resource. By looking at the earliest work, you can see how primitive the early efforts really were, and how the web evolved toward photo realism, animation and special effects."

In 1995, Muir's career took another turn when he and a colleague launched cyber sites in New York's Silicon Alley. Its innovative Web site (the now defunct ancientsites.com) featured one of the first 3-D interactive games on the Internet, SPQR, a game based loosely upon the "Myst". SPQR. allows the player to wander through a 3-D rendering of ancient Roman, seeking clues about a mysterious saboteur. The game was an online phenomenon, which, when licensed to Time-Warner for its Pathfinder site, initially drew more visitors than its own Time Magazine page. GT Interactive, distributor of blockbuster games Doom and Quake, commissioned the CD version of SPQR, for which Muir served as producer, employing up to 25 programmers writing code.

"This (ancientsites.com) was a real online community - something that had never happened before," recalled Muir. A faithful online following flocked to the site to play the game. At peak, SPQR had as many as 200,000 registered. The game spawned its own cult following, complete with conventions, friendships and at least 10 marriages between players who met online.

In 1998, venture capitalists discovered Cyber Sites and its astronomical "stickiness" (marketing jargon for site loyalty). Hoping to capitalize on the SPQR model, investors envisaged new "virtual communities", similar to online clubs on AOL and Yahoo, complete with chat rooms, games and persistent identities.

Then came the bursting dot.com bubble of 2000 and the flow of venture capital slowly reduced to trickle. In March 2001, Cyber Sites exhausted its capital, one of countless casualties at the end of a speculative bubble. Muir believes that in the end, what the venture capitalists missed was that the SPQR "virtual community" was a phenomenon unto itself, fuelled by a hard-core group of intellectuals united by a fanatical love of ancient history, a passion not easily translatable to less esoteric endeavours such as selling pet supplies.

On the personal front, three of the Muir siblings were contemplating a reverse Diaspora back to their Eastern Townships home. Eden's sister Susan Muir, an architectural technologist, returned from Calgary to the ancestral farm in Stanbridge Station while Vivian, a chiropractor, moved to Knowlton after living in Toronto.

In 2000, brother Eden purchased an orchard outside of Frelighsburg, converting a small house to his design studio. Susan is co-partner in Atelier Muir, an architectural design company. Integrating the latest in digital technology into their architectural design business, the Muirs' clients can make a virtual visit to their construction site through the firm's Web site, view three-dimensional models of their project, review modifications and see the latest digital photos of work in progress. Muir, still hooked on the web, continues to be involved in Web site design. It was while designing a site for the Brome Home Show that he saw the similarities between his own "virtual community" of the mid-1990s and the structure of small, Eastern Townships communities. The very thing that draws new arrivals in - the beauty and sparse population and isolation - also makes it a difficult place to live. For Eastern Townships businesses, the question of how to reach a scattered population remains an unending challenge. Muir noticed that as global Internet traffic approaches one billion, many small merchants in the Townships still do not have Web sites due, in part, to the high cost of development and the lack of affordable broadband. Without high-speed access, Java, Flash and Shockwave graphics and animations download at a snail's pace, reducing its utility for local users.

In this context, Muir has created pivot.ca, a site that provides "Web sites for ordinary people", an entry-level alternative for small or micro-business owners who want a web presence without a high development cost. His philosophy is simple: keep the graphic overhead to a minimum to provide for fast downloads and cost low, at least until the arrival of broadband.

"There will always be those businesses who will need to employ a private web designer for their site," said Muir, adding he believes there is room for Townships Internet portals, each with its own strengths and the best of which may eventually become linked in an informal network. Muir's site, pivot.ca, is for those who want to get a foot in the door, who do not expect content to change greatly from month to month. After living through the boom and bust days of the 1990s, Muir now foresees the day when many types of technology users will never have to see a downtown core or the inside of a corporate conference room. They will instead draft their architectural designs, write their books or market their products without leaving places like the Eastern Townships.

An optimist, Muir believes "the car was the destroyer of our environment; the Internet may mitigate that damage." The speed and extent to which his dream is fulfilled depends first, upon the arrival of affordable high-speed Internet in remote areas but ultimately, upon a "second wave" of Internet commerce built upon sound business models rather than vapourware.

Call 450-298-1212 or visit Muir's website at ateliermuir.ca.