by Jeff Minter
I have been out of work this month; I have finished Defender II,
both versions, all funky and no bugs, but for various reasons I
can't start my new project just yet. I've had a bit of time off,
been to see the Grateful Dead, bought the latest Inspiral Carpets
CD, and seen the edge of cyberspace.
A couple of months ago, I predicted that in a couple of years'
time we might expect to see Virtual Reality in the arcades. Well,
working in the computer field for a few years you get used to
things happening fast; processor power and memory capacity
increase more rapidly than even the most enthusiastic chiphead
might imagine. (Playing with our Commodore PETs and TRS-80s ten
years ago, 8K RAM and a tape deck, who could have imagined groovy
stuff like the Lynx, or a PC-Engine with CD-ROM and games taking
up 550 Megabytes?)
So I wasn't unduly surprised to find, going to a computer
graphics exhibition in London last week, that arcade virtual
reality is here, happening, now. The hardware's there; I've been
in there, headset and all. The software's almost ready. 50p-a-go
virtual reality is virtually real.
The system is called Virtuality, and it's based on a couple of
severely hot-rodded Amigas (the spec mentions 68030s and
TMS34020s, which is pretty severely hot-rodded) and a CD-ROM
drive hooked up to input devices (proportional joysticks) and a
headmounted display. I queued for over an hour to have a go on
one of the prototype games, a flight simulator. The unit looks
very Darth Vader, flashy-looking headgear and a sit-down unit
which looks like it ought to be hydraulic but isn't. You sit
down, grab the two joysticks which control the sim, the dude
bungs the helmet on, press the FIRE button to start the engines.
So far, so conventional, except that you have a stereoscopic 3D
view. You dump the throttle and roar down the runway. Pull back
on the stick and you're up. The sim's OK but you've probably seen
just as good on a vanilla Amiga; the frame-rate's good but not
50Hz, so what?
Then you hear an enemy jet coming from behind. Instinctively,
you move your head and look around. Only at that point do you
blow your mind. Because as you turn your head to look out the
side of the canopy, your 3D view tracks your head motions, and
you really do look out of that window. You can turn your head
and look behind, to the side, down at your instrumentation, up at
the sky, and the display follows, just as if you were really
there (albeit with a slightly lower frame-update-rate than
reality). The resultant effect is just as fundamental to 3D
computer graphics as stereo was to audio, as colour was to TV.
Once you have experienced virtual reality even on this simple
level of playing an arcade flightsim, going back to a
conventional flat display screen just isn't the same.
The Virtuality system appears to be complete, at least as far as
the hardware goes. The flightsim I played had an unfinished
feel; it wasn't a 'true' flightsim, more of an arcade game (no
flying inverted, no loops) a bit like a slightly more advanced
version of Afterburner. The frame update rate could have been
faster, but I suspect that the game was probably a demo written
in C or somesuch anyway. If they were to get hold of some of the
best 3D programmers from the ST and Amiga market and get them to
write games for the system, Virtuality could be mindblowing. The
system is obviously aimed at the leisure market, with its Vader
styling and (relatively) cheap £20,000 price tag, and if they can
give the hardware the software it deserves and get it out there
they could get it established before the wily Japanese get in
there. You can bet that Sega and Nintendo are already on the
Impressive though Virtuality is, it is still basically a 'toy'
Virtual Reality. If you want the Real Virtual Thing, the guys to
watch out for are an outfit called VPL Research, based (where
else?) in California. Wandering through the exhibition with a
couple of mates, we came across an unassuming stand in the centre
of the hall, no crowds at all, indeed when we arrived not a soul
except a slightly harassed-looking American gentleman with a Mac
II and a Silicon Graphics workstation display, both of which are
displaying nothing more interesting than Desktop. Still, the
sign says VPL Research, so we saunter up and ask whether there's
any possibility of a demo.
No demo, as it turned out: apparently UK Silicon Graphics
beasties speak a slightly different lingo to their US
counterparts, and couldn't speak to the DataGlove. Which turned
out to be great for us, because our man from VPL, the only
representative of that illustrious company to be present at the
show, had nothing better to do than talk to three hippies for an
hour. And if Virtuality blew my mind, then an hour of input from
VPL's Mr. Zachary left me in a state of total neural meltdown.
As an example of the difference between the Virtuality stuff and
what VPL do, consider this: The Virtuality rig costs £20,000.
They are keen on the Amiga as a basis because it has a nice sound
chip to drive the audio side of the simulation. VPL are hot on
audio too: the sonics processor of their reality has 120 separate
CPUs and costs £250,000. That's just the audio! They call it
Audiosphere and it can locate a sound anywhere, 360 degrees all
around you, in audio space.
Apparently, the next innovation from VPL is to be live video
inside virtual reality. They're already talking about
Videosphere.. (can you imagine a lightsynth in Videosphere? don't
your neurons start to sizzle just to think about it?). In five
years' time there will be photo-quality Virtual Reality. In ten
years' time you can bet that you'll have that in the home, and
when you've got photo-quality VR, who needs TV? Who needs movies?
Why watch Luke Skywalker when you can BE Luke Skywalker?
He talked of many zarjaz and amazing things, like the idea of
post-symbolic communication (using VR as a basis for a more
effective means of communication than the 'thin alphanumeric
stream' humans have been using for centuries) and visual
programming languages (like an extension of the idea of icons,
programming by manipulating virtual objects in VR space, a way of
communicating with the machine which smashes the tyranny and
intimidation of the alphanumeric keyboard forever). Particularly
interesting to me was to learn that VR started with the
DataGlove, a device which came into existence when someone wanted
to build himself an air-guitar! That's a very Trip-A-Tron kind
All this is well and groovy, but you lot are probably wondering
what's the use of all this stuff if you need to save up for 3.9
million years in order to get set up. It's true that at the
moment you need half a million quid to get serious about VR, but
that's bound to change. One of the nicer things about computing
hardware is the reassuring way that with each passing year
performance goes through the roof and prices through the floor.
The technology needed to produce cheap head-mounted displays is
already here (colour flat-screen LCD displays - check out the
Lynx!). And VPL has already produced one spin-off from its VR
technology: the PowerGlove, a vastly simplified version of
DataGlove, which costs $89 in the USA and plugs into yer bog
My prediction is that by 1999 both Atari and Commodore will be
producing VR-capable systems. And Paul Woakes will be putting the
finishing touches to the cyberspace version of Mercenary!
See ya there!
-- Y a K Nov '90
To tell you that Jeff Minter wrote this specially for ST NEWS
would be a lie, no matter how fond we wished it would have been.
Actually, it is a column that Jeff originally wrote for the
British magazine "ST Action" and that they never published. Good
ol' Jeff's columns were published each month until, suddenly, they
stopped doing that.
With that happening, the only reason for me buying "ST Action"
fell off so I have never been buying the mag since.
Anyway, Jeff still had this one roaming on his harddisk so he
sent it to us together with his neat 3.5 Kb sample screen for the
And that's why we have been in the position to offer it to you!
The text of the articles is identical to the originals like they appeared in old ST NEWS issues. Please take into consideration that the author(s) was (were) a lot younger and less responsible back then. So bad jokes, bad English, youthful arrogance, insults, bravura, over-crediting and tastelessness should be taken with at least a grain of salt. Any contact and/or payment information, as well as deadlines/release dates of any kind should be regarded as outdated. Due to the fact that these pages are not actually contained in an Atari executable here, references to scroll texts, featured demo screens and hidden articles may also be irrelevant.