E L E C T R O S P H E R E    Issue 1.04 - August 1995

Into Uncharted Territory

By Ivor Benjamin

Jonathan Waldern, 35, is Chief Executive Officer and "software founder" of Leicester-based Virtuality Group Plc, formerly W Industries, the world's largest supplier of those car-sized virtual-reality units you've seen in arcades and cafes. From early attempts to simulate artificial worlds with blocky graphics and boom-mounted TVs in the 1980s, to the current release of second-generation virtual-reality arcade hardware, he has remained one of the key figures in the global VR stampede.

Wired: You have always talked up entertainment as the cutting edge of virtual reality: do you still believe that's true?
Jonathan Waldern:Entertainment is the leading-edge application for computing in the future. I think that many of the applications we'll find in future computing trends will be driven by integration for entertainment purposes - speech analysis, speech synthesis, advanced networking, artificial intelligence. The whole drive of VR as a medium for non-linear storytelling is pushing the envelope. A lot of the major manufacturers in the technology and computing food chain realise this - and are looking closely at innovations in VRfor their direction.

The PC market has been "ramping up" to multimedia and 3-D. Games like Doom and Descent are a taster of things to come. With Virtuality placed very much in the arcade arena, do you see this PC market as a threat to the arcade - or do the two feed each other?
We don't only sell to arcades. We sell to multiple uses, multiple sites. Night clubs, theme parks, cruise ships, supermarkets - we're providing for a broader age group than the Doom players. The PC is a growing market and we have firm plans for our entry into the marketplace.

Do you ever see VR coming to the Internet?
People are looking towards using the Internet much as the French have been doing for years with Minitel. In that respect the Internet, as it is now, propagates the idea of IT being available, applicable and providing a wealth of information services. Except that the product is still way too crude. It's time-lagged - you have to use a keyboard, watch a screen, try and navigate who said what and when they said it, and how you respond to it, and how somebody else has replied to it or how it has influenced the way the conversation's going. To most people it's unrelaxing and completely archaic.

Our concept of entering a cybercafé and chatting with somebody else as you would in a normal café, while still retaining the disparate and international flavour of the Internet, is already well developed. Clearly VR will be the metaphor that provides that realisation. If somebody appears behind you and says something, you aren't going to move your TV set around to look behind you...

So the communication paradigm moves from telephone and text to VR?
I think there is a lot of scope for using VR as the main metaphor. It's about making the Internet easier for people to access, more intuitive in terms of their environment. And why VR? Why not video? Why not some form of alternative "world-visualisation"? Answer:bandwidth. At the end of the day, you ain't gonna stuff broadband content down everybody's phone overnight. With VR, you don't need to send a whole video image down the line. The computer can simulate the scene with a relatively small amount of information about who's moving where and saying what. This has important implications for real-time interaction.

So when did you start to say "this is about linking people - not merely talking to the machine?"
From the earliest times really. In the first databases back in '82, I would have television sets, hi-fi - things like that. Back then, we were just fooling around, but you could see that you could talk to each other and say, "Hi, I'm a robot" - this pathetically stupid wire-frame image strolling around this pathetically stupid world created by half a million pounds worth of computer, which was a lot of money in those days. But you could also immediately see that the object could become a person. Once you caught the concept it was really just a question of time.

Our view here has been to wait until we had the right quality and until we had the right environment. Until we had sites that definitely wanted to be linked up, which was only late last year with the VR cafés in Germany.

There's a move afoot to censor the Internet in the States, heavy handed tactics in the UK...
It'll never happen.

Well, you say that, but The Farm was a big UK-based bulletin board. It was shut down on April 6th for carrying an "adult section".
Really? I think this is an issue of how you set laws and how you police them. Do you shut down a whole medium because you can't find a way of policing it? The issues about morals, laws and the necessary monitoring of society's interactivity are ones that we all face every day, whether you live in Rwanda or whether you live in the American Mid-West. I've started to call governments and law-makers the Luddites of the Information Revolution, because they can see their power base crumbling. Their political power will become disseminated. I have no geographic disposition whatsoever - I don't care for geographic boundaries. Society will change. We're going through the transition.

People in government don't seem to see that. They don't have that sense at all...
Because they're a generation indisposed to it. None of the younger generation are sitting there saying, "you can't get access to computers and the Net". If politicians would get off their butts and get access to it themselves then they'd understand.

This does bring you to the problem that there are things that we can do in interactive media that are quite beyond the kinds of fictions that human beings have had access to up to now.
Every level of every medium - books, radio, television, computer games and VR - delivers a sensory enhancement. Clearly the stakes get higher. At what level do humans lose the ability to differentiate between what is real and what is not? At what level does the psyche resist the concepts being portrayed? Does it have the ability to extinguish what it knows it shouldn't take onboard? That's the uncharted territory.

Are you still at the stage where you feel that gameplay and character is just a little limited; that the range of options that you can allow the user is still a little limited?
The challenge is not to try and replicate anything that in any way resembles a human being. You replicate a construct that is not necessarily too intelligent and build up an expectation of it in the user's mind. If you set the expectations correctly then people don't misinterpret what you're putting in front of them. In that context, we feel that artificial intelligence will provide a level of realism, an "orchestration" of the system, that basically allows you to construct a non-linear story-telling exercise. But time will tell... I mean, why dinosaurs?

Because they're insanely popular with children...?
Nope - because they're pretty dumb. And I think that people will pay to be a Velociraptor I think what we're trying to do is just put people together in the environment and let their innate qualities of inventiveness and determination take over. We're going to stand back and see what happens.

Is there anything that you would not want to see in virtual reality?
Well, I don't countenance pornography or any other anti-family content in our systems God, I sound like J Edgar Hoover here. I think it's counter to what Virtuality stands for. I hope we can chart a territory for both encouraging creativity and encouraging others to exploit virtual reality in whatever ways they're interested - it's a medium that's open to everybody.

If we were to tone down Doom or your own game Zone Hunter to levels that were broadly acceptable 50 years ago, they wouldn't be marketable now, would they?
I don't think Zone Hunter is particularly violent. Doom is quite violent. But we had a version of Dactyl Nightmare called Capture The Flag - it was a "secret" version that only aficionados could switch on - it was so totally violent it was untrue. Much worse than Doom. We're talking limbs flying, hatcheting people to death amidst screams and blood a la Monty Python. We've been there... Even though the characters were obviously cartoons, we still wouldn't release that publicly.

It strikes me that in terms of the public perception of VR, the point at which they look around and see it as something which is not merely about games playing is still a further enormous step forward...
It is, yes. With the first generation, there was only one application - entertainment. It was just good for that. Second generation, I'd say there are four applications: entertainment; situational awareness and training; application development; and marketing. I've always said that - and, sure enough, those are the markets where we are selling. Third generation is where it takes off. Third generation is total immersion. It will involve computing applications that benefit from a simple-to-use human-computer interface... And there'll be quite a few of them.

You've been "immersive" from the outset, yet we're still interacting with computers on a fake "desktop" - even when designing VR. How do you see that changing?
There are a whole variety of technologies that are inextricably linked to the emergence of third-generation VR. Things like eye-slave, peripheral vision, close-coupling in parallel rendering, the whole computation of the view you see. People won't be waving their arms in VR and pulling down menus - they'll be talking. So real-time speech analysis is central to enabling interaction. So much of what we're developing - the "experience" in VR, will evolve through good design. It is such a rich environmHIT) is at the prototyping stage with retinal projection technology.

What else are you interested in for third or even fourth-generation VR?
Personally I think "write-to-retina" is still a little way off, and will miss third-generation. Often breakthroughs in product development don't come from radical shifts in technology but from significant enhancements in existing technology. So we're comfortable that the technologies exist for our third generation: deformed LCD wide-field display, plus 120- degree, wide-field, eye-slaved devices...

What then do you see as the crucial technologies for VR in the next ten years?
I think the graphics technologies are waning in importance. It's the parallel geometry technology - we need awesome, awesome geometry performance. The days when the question was "will the graphics chip write the pixels quickly enough?" are long gone. The demands that virtual reality places on computer systems and software is an order of magnitude greater than conventional applications. You can only see this when you compare some of the microprocessors that we'll be using, with what the current PC market intends to deliver in the next few years. When Motorola manufacture a chip that clicks up at multiple-Cray levels, then they turn around and say, "what can we go and apply that to? What needs it"? Well there is one application and technology that does need it. That's VR.

Ivor Benjamin (i.d.benjamin@city.ac.uk) is a theatre director, systems analyst and is researching a PhD in VR interaction and drama.