Creepy-crawly Web things

A British design shop unleashes another utterly engrossing way to while away hours at your computer when you should be working.

By Katharine Mieszkowski
Published April 7, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Attention clock watchers: You'll find a gaggle of creepy creatures to play with at the latest delightfully distracting URL making the rounds in e-mail.

The spawn of British design shop Soda, these elegant two-dimensional models are made of simple lines and dots that march and sputter across the screen. There's the Hairy Caterpillar, a meandering mass of squares and triangles held together with crisscrossed lines; the Dainty Walker, which most resembles a cross between a lunar lander and a ladybug; and the Breaking Wave, a more abstract rendering that basically amounts to a crashing blob. The Constructor program animates the creatures using virtual muscles, mass and springs.

Ed Burton, 27, a director at the five-person shop, created Constructor two years ago when he was learning Java: "I wrote it purely as a toy for myself to have a bit of fun as I was learning a new language," he says. "In some ways it relates to my research activities. I'm doing a Ph.D. in something related to artificial intelligence."

What makes these critters true time suckers is that you can mess with them. Constructor lets you play God. You can adjust the force of gravity exerted on the screen pets -- even reversing it or turning it off -- as well as tinker with the speed with which they move, or how much they bounce. You can even manipulate the creatures' individual muscles. It's strangely satisfying to simply speed up, say, the Wiggly Worm, so it frantically spazzes out in a wild gyrating mass.

You can also make your own little virtual Frankensteins, creating and animating new models with your mouse. Apparently, I don't have a designer's sense of balance; as soon as my lopsided creations were given life, they plunged immediately to the floor, spending their short existences as a messy jumble of sputtering lines.

The sad part: No matter how long you spend making your little virtual friend, you can't save it when you leave the Constructor site. Just as we always suspected: Logging off = death.

Constructor has been online for two years now, but three weeks ago, after Burton tweaked the user interface to improve the design, this "productivity virus," as he calls it, hit epidemic proportions, with hits on the site going from 100 to about 200,000 per day. "It's just sucking in people's time all over the world and gaining more momentum as it goes -- it's feeding off its own audience," Burton marvels.

Popularity is sending Constructor into gyrations, too: The site is getting so much traffic that "it's potentially costing us a lot of money -- our host is being bombarded," says Burton. Soda plans to spin off Constructor as a "new brand" on its own time-wasting site filled with similar toys: "Where you go to have a play when you want to kill a bit of time late in the afternoon at work and you're getting a bit bored," he says. Oh goodie, a playroom for grown-ups.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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