Monday, June 15, 2015
It's easy from the lofty heights of our present day, Marty McFly style futuristic 2015 to forget the past of VR and what we’ve had to do to get here. It's been a difficult birth, all things considered, and long one. As bizarre as it may seem our personal old favourite computer here at VRE, the Commodore Amiga, played a pivotal role and it’s easy to forget that too. I thought I’d redress that balance a little bit by going back to those halcyon . . . well okay weird, naive, glossy and yet technically spartan days.
The time when VR first became a thing was about 1990 . . . it was before the Internet, before social media, iPods, iPhones, Facebook, etc. way before hundreds of things we now rely on and take for granted on a daily basis. It was a long time ago. How long?
Well check it out: the new digital 2G GSM cellular network (wooo!) was just launched that year and the popular so called "mobile" phones were the Motorola 3200 and the Nokia Cityman 900, both of which weighed the thick end of a kilo and allowed you to talk for an impressive 50 whole minutes after a four hour charge. No texting, no video just calls.
The Internet was alive but the Web was in its infancy. Email was the preserve of Compuserve and CIX users all of whom were frowned on by normal people as being annoying computer geeks.
Compuserve itself was just being overtaken by Prodigy, GEnie and AOL, the MSX computer was launched, and Windows 3.0, Photoshop 1.0 and PowerPoint 1.0 too. Also launched was NewTek's Video Toaster on the Amiga which revolutionised the world of TV production and Computer graphics on TV and in cinema.
Yep, it was the start of the modern age but in technical terms it was the Stone Age.
But two other significant things were launched that year which would signal the first VR revolution, the Amiga 3000 and the Virtuality VR system.
The promise of VR
Virtual reality had been around as a concept for some time before the early 90s. With science fiction writers like Philip K Dick and William Gibson fantasising about computer driven realities from the 60s to the 80s. It was no mean feat in the pre computer age to imagine whole worlds within the confines of human imaginations and computer networks because nothing like it existed in the real world. Literally, it was a paper and pencil world, a typewriter world. But still a lot of what we do on the internet and how we do it was imagined in these times.
We were promised virtual worlds which were indistinguishable from reality, and this all came to a head in Neal Stephenson's smash hit 1992 novel "Snow Crash" which depicted a virtual world, the Metaverse, where everyone who had the means all over the world networked together, a future vision of the then infant Internet.
At the time this was truly science fiction, because although as we all knew at the time, the potentiality existed for such things, certainly it did. But the reality of computer hardware available at the time fell horribly, woefully short.
The Lawnmower Man (also 1992) showed us an impressive new world of virtual reality and while it stimulated interest and the growth of VR as a medium, it's unrealistic depictions of the quality and speed of VR graphics (and later movies which aped its style) would later ultimately contribute to VRs downfall. But while the wave rose, interest in VR in the first few years of the 90s reached fever pitch, and in the midst of the popularity of these fictional worlds some companies started to plan VR products for real.
Chief among these was of course, W Industries or Virtuality as it was later called.
Although launched in Leicester in 1990, the first W Industries “pod” units were not ready till 1991 at Jonathan Waldern's company. The Series 1000 units were based on the brand new Amiga 3000 which was the newest in a line of fast multitasking computers. It seemed like everything was coming together.
While virtual reality was originally intended to have serious uses, it was decided by Waldern that the best way to develop the technology was to float it to the mass market as an entertainment platform. This is not a bad thought, as in the intervening years this has been the way computer technology has advanced, to provide complex and immersive experiences to gamers.
I actually interviewed Waldern around this time myself. I visited the factory in Leicester and one quiet Friday late afternoon he showed around the factory himself, even rigging up a 1000SU for me to try out. I played Dactyl Nightmare for 10-15 minutes or so, far longer than any arcade goer would get. It was exciting sweaty fun.
The Visette helmet was heavy, although beautifully counterbalanced, and being inside it was mildly claustrophobic. After running around for a while you did get truly immersed, strange to say it in these days of hi-res displays and fast processors. The immersion came from the head tracking, as you would guess, and not so much the quality of the graphics. But it was exhausting to play, and you couldn’t really do it all day.
Of Waldern himself I got the impression of a smart, young entrepreneur, a rarity in those days. In the 80s and 90s most businessmen, even high tech ones, were older men trying to get their heads around computers. He was one of the first wave of young guys, only in his 30s at the time, who made businesses from technology.
He was the precursor of his brethren soon to follow, those who took what he tried to do and made it work. At the time he was clearly a man excited by the possibilities and was also by the sounds of things fielding phone calls from all over the world from people anxious to pounce on the VR bandwagon.
Check out this rare Swedish video about W-Industries for a flavour of the golden years
At launch in 1991 the first units produced by W Industries were for BT labs for use in early experimental telepresence applications. Shame the BT telepresence phones never came out though, eh? Then they began producing the arcade units.
The Virtuality machines came in two flavours, the stand up SU and sit down SD versions. The screen resolution of the initial units was a massive 276 x 372 per eyeball. Why would anyone need any more than that, eh? The two massive Panasonic LCDs in front of your eyes were too big to be in front of you so they were sort of flown in from above using prisms. And the HMDs were tethered to the CPU using two really thick Romex style cables so mobility was free although in real terms limited. The elegant but heavy headsets were magnetically tracked by a huge circular Polhemus sensor around the player which was pushed up on a hinge for player entry and lowered down around you once the attendant had fitted your Visette and put the “Space Joystick” in your hand.
The choice of games was modest, five for the stand up machine and four for the sit down version.
Stand up games - Dactyl Nightmare, Grid Busters, Hero, Legend Quest and VTOL.
Sit down games - Battleshpere, Evorex, Total Destruction and Flying Aces.
There were later games, as Jon Waldern rightly knew that software was where any new platform sank or swam, so new games were a big part of their development scheme. The later, better titles appeared too late to save the company though, as we’ll see in a moment.
The Amiga 3000 was built into a large box with two DVI graphics cards to drive the HMD and a Polhemus circuit board on top to read the sensors in the ring and helmet. They called the resultant CPU rebadged as “Expality” and okay it was a whole new machine with all the custom boards etc., but inside it was a stock A3000. There was precious little mention of Amiga in the technical manual, but of course you had to mention it if you had to mend the computer within so it’s grudgingly mentioned a few times.
For giggles you can read the Virtuality tech manual here
Why the Amiga?
At the time in the early 90s the Amiga was at the forefront of the emerging games and graphics scenes. Vista and later VistaPro were creating artificial terrains and landscapes in the computer almost good enough to pass for the real thing. Lightwave was creating broadcast graphics for movies and TV, like Babylon 5 and Star Trek Voyager.
For the graphics hacker and underground VR community largely on the west coast of America, reading magazines like Wired and Mondo 2000, the Amiga represented a potential VR hackers dream. A case in point was Andrew Tyler's 1992 book "Amiga Real Time Graphics: Build Your Own Virtual Reality". If you haven’t got it, you should read it. Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, eh?
For those of us around at the time the Amiga was the obvious choice, and not just because we were huge fans. It was a multitasking computer in a time when most weren’t. It had graphics capabilities far in advance of anything else available domestically. It had a large and energetic development community. The Amiga was a fast affordable, graphically sophisticated computer with a fully formed and vehement developer community. It was a ripe place to sow the seeds of the future of VR.
The Amiga 3000 itself was a quantum leap in computing power. Oh my goodness, I still vividly recall the thrill of it. Being the owner of a 500 and a 2000 at the time the 3000 seemed to me like something out of Star Trek. A 32 bit 68030 processor running at a blistering 25MHz and a graphics coprocessor. It had four Zorro III expansion slots. Oh and the ECS chipset, enabling access to incredible levels of colour and detail in graphics.
This was a machine that meant business, and speaking of which there was even a UNIX version - the A3000UX for more, you know, “serious” applications. Add a bridgeboard and you could even add ISA slot compatible PC boards to it. And it was a beautiful machine, iconic you might say. The 2000 was a “proper computer” but the 3000 was also sexy.
It’s a controversial thought but I always preferred the A3000 to the A4000. The 4000 was a compromise to the pressure from PC types to standardise and integrate. Yeah it was fast, but it wasn’t nearly as attractive or cool as the 3000 or as much of a quantum leap. Just my 2p.
Besides for me the A3000 meant video, Deluxe Paint in millions of colours and fast enough to scribble on, and 3D graphics with the Toaster.
What Went Wrong?
So despite all this success and power, the future for VR we all envisaged in 1990 never happened. Why?
It was a combination of things. The bold visions of VR in movies and TV that the public were used to were a blessing when they kicked off interest in VR in the early 90s, but by the mid to late 90s they eventually became a millstone. Perception is everything.
At the time real time graphics capabilities were disappointingly underwhelming when compared to the flashy pre-rendered movie graphics. In the movie Disclosure (1994) for example they showed a photorealistic VR environment running on small light glasses looking like high tech sunglasses and over the next few years that became what the people wanted. The public grew tired of waiting for existing technology to catch up to this absurdly unrealistic fantasy.
See the Top 10 VR movies of the 90s for evidence of their crimes
Virtuality’s plan wasn’t a bad plan, the plan itself was not why Virtuality and the original VR boom failed. The idea of making VR a games platform to drive development was a good one (and one that still persists now) but it suffered from trying to launch too early. Gamers at arcades wanting to try the new technology had to be tutored in it by permanent attendants, watchful of the expensive equipment. Gamers couldn’t explore in their own time and to add insult to injury had to pay four times as much for a measly three minute taste of VR as they would for 20 minutes of conventional arcade gaming. Arcade owners needed to put people through as fast as possible but Virtuality needed to let people explore and understand VR . . . neither aim could be served by the compromise. As a business model this was never going to fly and fly it didn’t . . .
Virtuality went into insolvency in 1997, seven years after launch. Their really game-changing app, Buggy Ball, an amazing multi player car and ball game that could only be played in VR https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZMakL1Wl-U came too late to save the company. Waldern sold off the name and everything else but the technology rights and diversified into helping other companies like Sega and Atari develop their own headsets, most of which also suffered from the late 90s VR backlash. The Nintendo Virtual Boy came and went amid similar technical and marketing difficulties. People just didn’t know if they wanted it or not.
Bottom line? It wasn't the right time – the technology wasn't really there yet and neither was the market.
Plus, the DotCom Bubble was in the process of bursting taking down many speculative technology companies in its wake; investors getting in on the new tech investments boom were all going bust. People became a lot more risk averse with regards to new technologies. It was over. Virtual Reality remained just a virtual dream.
The Dark Times and Rebirth
Lots has changed since then. We’ve all been busy building the internet, multiplayer games and
Computer power has hiked by about 1000 times since the 90s VR boom. Lag is a fast disappearing problem (the best way for lag to disappear is FAST) and now graphics engines are bigger, brighter and more detailed than we could have possibly imagined back then.
In the meantime the interest in recreational computing has been virtual, but 2D. Second Life and other virtual worlds rose and fell. MMPORGs became one of the dominant game types in the market. Social media, mobile phones and the web became ubiquitous and cheap.
It took 20 years for the technology to become truly possible and affordable, and for the social and technological landscape to become fertile for VR again, but it's arrived. Oculus Rift and the various other VR and Augmented Reality devices from Microsoft, Apple, Samsung and Sony have made this the year of VR.
Gaming drove the need for speed and realism, and we now have real time graphics which are almost indistinguishable from reality. The Internet gave us the connectedness we need for true virtual and social worlds inside the network. We have all the things we were promised. Now all the companies driving this progress have to do is not screw it up.
Oh and the serious uses for VR that were intended from the start? Oculus Rift is blazing a trail into military, medical, educational and scientific realms, realising the dream started all that time ago.
And what about the Amiga? Is there any place for the original platform in the rebirth of the VR medium? Quite possibly so. AmigaOS has not been idle in the last 20 years, taking the time out of the spotlight to go cross platform and reemerge as AROS.
With its logo designed by Amiga darling Eric Schwartz, AROS is 100% Amiga steeped (like us here at VRE) in the tradition of Amiga technical innovation we've known and loved. But more than this it's an OS waiting for a killer app, toiling away in the background, getting better every day. Like the original Amiga’s it’s fast, efficient, capable, multitasking and ready to go for 3D with new linux 3D drivers.
So I hope so. Let’s wait and see.
1991 US News item about VR
the Net 1991 BBC TV item
Rare footage of Exorex in play
Recent outing for a vintage 1000CS
A 1991 visit to the VIrtual Reality arceade at the Trocadero