Why build Virtual Reality when living
one's life already seems unreal?
Daniel Joseph Pezely
First Draft: 29 December 2015
Edited: 15 November 2021
Getting a key to the CSL involved the simple matter of having a Computer Science professor sign a slip of paper acknowledging your existence. Most faculty for first year were among the willing.
It was a windowless classroom originally used for storage until earlier students converted it to a makeshift computer lab. Faux woodgrain tables pushed against the off-white walls encircled the room like a wagon roundup. More tables huddled in middle of the room. Each held an outdated but functioning green or amber screen Hewlett-Packard dumb terminal or a Sun Microsystems workstation. In a word, it was gritty, and we loved that it lacked polish.
Nearly all equipment retired here came from different time periods. Most recently, the Suns were from professors' offices after replacing theirs with latest SparcStation 1 “pizza boxes.” A Symbolics workstation hummed away without much use since the AI Winter of 1989 was lingering more than a few months this time.
Jennifer said, “Write me from Seattle then!”
Mike entered the CSL in time to catch that last bit. “Seattle? Who’s going to Seattle? And what’s there anyway?”
“I’m going,” I said. “HITL is there. All I know about the place: it’s hilly, it rains a lot, and I have a job there for the summer.”
“‘Hit-el,’ the Human Interface Technology Lab,” I said. “You know, the Virtual Reality people I’ve been talking about all semester. Since winter session.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Mike said, “Necromancer.”
“I was talking about the character, not the book’s title,” scrunching his nose and cocking his head back and forth mimicking a child. Mike fashioned himself as an eccentric maverick. Many of us envisioned ourselves to be more than mere university students. His ran deeper. He likely saw himself as a twenty-something version of Calvin from Calvin & Hobbs. Any further affinity would have made him an early adopter of cosplay. Mischievous depictions from the comic strip emblazoned many of his XL sweatshirts.
For my replacement within Lab Staff earlier that year, I recommended Mike. We had several common aspects to our work experience: each had customized AutoCAD for a civil engineering firm, each had prior professional programming gigs, etc. Such consistencies made for camaraderie within the small population of the CS department and its subset of Lab Rats.
I said, “Anyway– I’ll be there for the summer.”
Mike asked, “How’d you get the job?”
I said, “My interview was entirely through email with their Chief Scientist.
We had been in contact earlier from threads on the
Jennifer said, “You didn’t talk on the phone?”
“Only to confirm details about the plane ticket.”
“That was after accepting.” Reflecting briefly, I admitted, “I’ve never lived away from my parents' house before. It’ll be nice to be out from under them.”
Jim chimed in, “I couldn’t imagine living with my parents through college.”
Two within the room glanced at one another the way that couples at this age do, chuckling in unison.
I continued, “That’s all I could afford. My scholarships stayed with that stupid junior college I attended before transferring here.”
Mike asked, “Why did you go there first?”
“I wasted time looking at art schools. When finally realizing that I should just study computer science and write my own 3D program… Well, that other school seemed like a good idea at the time. Minimal– wouldn’t interfere with my actual education of working on my own project.”
“That school was a little too minimal. Let’s leave it at that! I completed transfer paperwork by mid-semester, started here winter session of ‘88.”
Jennifer asked, “What schools did you consider for 3D?”
“Brown– their recruiter liked my portfolio but early submission deadline. Missed it. MIT– not art but still 3D. Pretty much needed straight A’s since middle school, oops. Rochester Institute of Technology– too far away, so my parents wouldn’t let me go. Pratt Institute in Brooklyn– my mother grew up in the South Bronx and wouldn’t let her 17 year old go to school in New York City, even though she has relatives near the school. There were a few fine art schools in Philly and Baltimore, but none had computer graphics, let alone actually doing 3D.”
“You were still 17 when you started college?”
“Yeah, I was 17 for my entire first semester. My parents still had veto power over where I applied. If I waited until 18, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to quit working. The pay from that AutoCAD job was quite nice–”
Jim stomped on that last part with, “A youngin' we have here!”
A little embarrassed by that, I brought the subject back. “Virtual Reality is more along the lines of what I’ve been wanting to do since high school. Back then I thought of it in terms of AutoCAD with animation. Version 2.6 started adding 3D.”
Jennifer smiled and said, “I’m so happy for you!”
* * *
The summer of 1990 in Seattle with HITL was my bliss.
William collected me from SeaTac airport. The evergreens and moss along the highway were moist and lush from months of daily drizzle, glowing a vibrant green. After the S-curve on I-5 when the Seattle skyline came into full view, it glistened on the horizon. Later learning that its nickname was The Emerald City seemed spot on.
After he dropped me at the Mercer Hall dorm that would be my home, everyone seemed so nice as I walked around the University District. Various people said hello everywhere I went, so I felt that I belonged there. By end of summer this became “home” and that place from where I came was “out east,” or it wasn’t mentioned at all.
Heading to HITL the morning of my first day, I had never before seen such blue skies between the disappearing clouds. I mused whether the deep blue was due to being so far north. While the latitude of Seattle is lower than that of Paris, it was the farthest north on this continent that I had been so far.
HITL’s location was within the two smaller structures of Wilson Annex. The interns and the Silicon Graphics IRIS with VPL Eye-Phones were in one building. Full-time staff had offices in the other.
William in his Hawaiian shirt, faded bluejeans and snakeskin cowboy boots gathered us together. With interns seated in a circle, he raised his arms like a preacher at the pulpit and said, “Build us VR!” He leaned back, crossed his arms and smiled.
There was a moment before anyone spoke.
Each of the interns until this very moment had a different perception of what that summer might be— the closest common theme probably being that each was here to be a grunt programmer under the guidance of William as Chief Scientist.
The crew brought related yet diverse backgrounds: David, an older student at the local university, returned at forty for a career change; Dav had graduated from Brown a few years earlier, specialized in computer science and art, and he was already living in Seattle with his girlfriend; Geoff had recently graduated from Dartmouth, similarly specialized in computer science and graphics; Bill was in finals week at UC Davis at that moment and would arrive in a few weeks; myself, the youngest, was just halfway through a Bachelor of Science program.
Dav broke the silence, “I want a light-seeking cube!”
The conversation quickly covered rules, pattern-matching, sensors and receptors, etc.
I interrupted, “But what is a reality, in the generic sense?”
William’s smile grew bigger.
Discussions covered dreams being a type of reality, more so if you’ve ever had a lucid dream. Everyone except David had one. Descriptions of drug trips emerged followed by clinical sounding analysis of intoxication, and I remained silent on that matter.
Quickly the direction settled onto a few basic definitions with ground rules for going forward. The concept of an entity was the foundation. Some entities were spaces. Spaces were that which contained other entities, including nested spaces.
We called our data structure a grouple as a pun on David Gelernter’s “tuple.” Renaming was necessary because at the time, his definition disallowed nesting. After a brief email campaign with him and hearing from others as well, he eventually expanded his definition.
(The word object was avoided due to its use elsewhere within computer science. Strictly speaking, the s-expression from the Lisp family of programming languages would have been a far better match, but such understanding would come only at end of the summer. I described it to William as approximately “deriving” the semantics of Common Lisp’s Lambda lists as the foundation of our programmable protocol, so we agreed that we should just begin by using a Lisp system instead. The others were less familiar with Lisp at that point, so it took further explaining. Thus, “grouple” remained.)
From these basic ideas, a conceptual model was created.
As a sanity-check, I captured each day’s efforts within a file of high-level
C++ code, essentially
main.cpp. The conceptual data structure was
reduced to actual code with functions and methods to manipulate the
structure identified but not yet implemented.
Each week, I wrote a summary and sent that to the entire HITL staff: over a dozen people. Once Bill and his girlfriend, Dana, arrived they each felt caught-up based primarily upon those emails.
I took this role of internal archivist upon myself being the outsider.
The others either already were living in Seattle or were busy establishing themselves there. However, I knew that I must return at the end of a mere twelve weeks to finish school and therefore dedicated myself completely to the mission at hand.
* * *
There were only a few escapes from the U District for me that summer.
One evening’s excursion was to the Gravity Bar, a quirky raw juice restaurant on Broadway, with Dav. Who knew that sheet metal and metal stools could be used for interior decoration?
There was lunch at the original Cyclopes Cafe with an acquaintance from my same town out east. They had the curvy molded fiberglass booths from an earlier 1960’s theme diner, or maybe these were original hand-me-downs. There, we caught the last of its view: sighting the Olympic Mountains before construction on the other side of Western Ave would obscure it after a few more days.
The other escape was a road trip with Geoff to Dallas for SIGGRAPH ‘90 in August.
After each Friday’s email, I returned to the dormitory which HITL had arranged for me. It was the usual fare for its 1970’s time period: dark red brick, maze-like floor plan to thwart people who didn’t belong there and standard issue florescent lighting. The room that I shared looked up at the underside of the charming U District drawbridge.
A quick meal and nap later, my usual routine was dancing at The Underground on The Ave until it closed at 6:00 AM. Donald Glaude would consistently spin a very danceable mix of industrial, alternative rock and house music with just enough 1970’s disco to freak-out the purists. Donald scratched The Smiths into house or other tracks, so the various subcultures dressed in black had to come to terms with one another. His genre-blending worked beautifully.
Dancing became my therapeutic release for balancing the body to match the mind’s workload earlier in the week. Donald’s music selection would get faster throughout the evening with slower periods to bring people back onto the dance floor. Each round would go a bit further and faster and harsher. By 5 AM, the floor would be nearly cleared due to the breakneck pace of at least 140 beats per minute. Only Junior and his boys in red doing their synchronized routine remained– along with me in my own little world keeping pace with one motion per beat that only a 20 year old can maintain merely through the body’s own adrenaline.
* * *
Weekly reports continued throughout the summer. In late July, the email subject line was “Week 7 - Everything.”
The design was complete enough to begin coding the platform.
With permission of respective parties, William revealed a C++ file written by the “Cyberia” project of his former employer, AutoDesk. He placed it side-by-side with the one I had been maintaining.
There were just under three printed pages for each, as I recall.
The two documents were almost identical.
Wording within block comments were naturally varied, but data structures, their fields and in-line comments were matched perfectly. Names of methods and functions were synonymous with identical sequences of parameters. There was merely one addition in the older source code: scaling factor. This however was addressed by our version later in its pipeline.
Dumbfounded for a moment, I merely thanked William for sharing this.
Thinking to myself and recalling the prior few weeks: William only facilitated discussions. He intervened with comments like, “That’s a solved problem,” and “We can buy a commercial database with those features.” Nothing even remotely resembled impropriety on William’s behalf, regardless of whether he had previously signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement with AutoDesk or not. Since they made AutoCAD, I was respectful of that relationship as well.
Therefore, he didn’t steer us to this point. He guided us through questions.
After reflecting further on all that, I sent email that weekend to Mark. We had been physics lab partners in high school, did an independent study C programming project in tandem and worked on the school arts and literary magazine.
In contrast to Mike’s Calvin, Mark fancied himself as an eclectic hybrid of scholarly knowledge yet relatable to everyone. He espoused descriptions somewhere between Jack Kerouac’s and Thomas Pynchon’s. His forte was picking up computer science concepts based only upon personal studies and suggested readings. It was in this regard that I reached out to him.
In the email, I wrote, “The matching files means we haven’t gone deep enough, but this is a good first step for now.”
More work was required for what to build on the platform. Those discussions continued out of necessity in part due to lack of computer workstations. A few weeks later, Sun Microsystems provided a SPARC 4/480 server and several 4/110 diskless workstations, even though the SparcStation 1+ was already in circulation. The machines were named after nonsense words from Jaberwocky of Through the Looking-Glass. No longer was there contention for the sole 68030-based NeXT Cube.
Meanwhile, mundane activities included fielding phone calls from people such as John Perry Barlow. He was still possibly best known then for his affiliation with the band, Grateful Dead. The Electronic Frontier Foundation had just been founded that summer.
Companies such as IBM pledged that one of their newest supercomputers would be dedicated for us. This was contingent upon demonstrating a working prototype.
It was clear to us and many others that we were building software for hardware yet to come.
Early August was allotted to SIGGRAPH ‘90, the Special Interest Group on Graphics’ annual conference. All things Virtual Reality became darlings of the press. William along with others from HITL were on various panels, one being “Hip, Hype, Hope: Three Faces Of VR” moderated by Bob, then Director of HITL. On that stage, William announced that our source code would become publicly available once complete– to much applause, notable for a time long before prevalence of open source, free software.
Being a conference, however, you didn’t count unless you had custom printed tee-shirts.
Ours had a repeating-projection map of the world’s continents. It somewhat resembled a soccer ball. The slogan around the image was “Stop the World(s).” It played upon Stop the World– I Want to Get Off. In VR, you really could stop and exit since it was entirely under your control.
In that regard VR was unlike any drug trip, and that was the topic of many discussions in the world at large.
During that era of VR, there were many vocal advocates for “electronic LSD,” not just within pages of Mondo 2000 magazine. Among the more notable personalities was former Stanford professor and LSD researcher, Timothy Leary.
William sat with Timothy having a conversation in a lounge area at the conference. They sat in comfy chairs chatting the way old friends do, and we interns stumbled upon the pair. After brief introductions, an enthusiastic Timothy asked me, “You’re the one with the drugs, right?” I was apologetic.
For my final two weeks at HITL after the conference, workloads were divided
and assigned. I extracted myself from coding beyond integrating my
inetify Internet sockets C library, a precursor to netcat. I was intent
on not producing legacy code for another to maintain in my absence.
A minimal “main loop” version was running and left in the very capable hands of Geoff and Dav.
The dream of bringing VR to the masses– a single logical virtual environment inhabited by hundreds or thousands of people simultaneously– was one step closer as I stepped away from the action.
David returned to finish his undergraduate work, albeit on the same campus hosting HITL. Bill headed to Vancouver for graduate school at UBC shortly thereafter. Another Mark than my high school friend arrived. (There would ultimately be several people named Mark at HITL in the summer to come. Each played a very important role there and far beyond but elided from this telling of the story for brevity and to avoid confusion.)
* * *
After that fantastic summer in Seattle at HITL which blended metaphysical philosophy with deep systems architecture, I worked remotely for them while back at my own university on the East Coast.
Beginning another school year working for a university again would not cover full tuition. These esteemed institutes of higher learning exploited labor laws. Both schools treated undergraduate staff members as interns, paying close to minimum wage by using labels like “work-study” project. Therefore, my junior year was split in two for financial reasons.
Former boss from my first job starting at 15, Dick joked that I was “cramming four years of college into five.”
Located on the second floor above a dentist’s office, Dick’s consulting shop looked like a nerdy den with its dark beams, yet it was tidy with lots of tables and lots of alcoves. Each niche contained a thin client: a diskless PC workstation connected to a central server down the hall. Many of the same books from years earlier lined the same shelves, yet newer versions of familiar volumes were added such as Turbo Pascal 4, and newcomer Turbo C already reached 2.0.
In addition to working remotely for HITL, I re-established part-time work at the consulting shop. Light duties there were a continuation from when I started as my first job. Mainly, they needed someone they could trust with keys for after-hours janitorial tasks and assembling the occasional i386 PC or latest i486 based models. I was happy to help them in any way that I could, and Dick was happy to have me back even if just temporarily. He was sympathetic to my needs, as I was to theirs.
While I had been away for the summer, my father had been using my 8086-based Victor PC during an electrical storm. It hit a little too close to home and fried the power supply while he was crafting a business plan for a client. Once again, Dick stepped in to assist his former apprentice. He contributed a surplus Digital Equipment Corporation VT102 dumb terminal– thick keyboard and all. It doubled as space-heater that winter when my parents were too cheap to keep the heat up during cold spells.
The terminal was connected to local campus dial-up with a 2400 baud V.32 modem.
I wrote design documents, specifications and experiments in code using Emacs
18.53. Files were shared on HITL’s internal server, Jabberwock, via
over the Internet.
Because technology only goes so far in vetting ideas, having another human directly engaged was priceless.
Same friend since high school but at another university since, Mark was used
as a sounding board through email and Unix text chat utility,
This continued conversations from high school about large scale software architecture. One component discussed with Mark started before I enrolled at the university. It provided the means to have many servers appear as one logical unit (one public IP address). I called it a “front-end distributor” as analogy to the distributor cap on an engine. It later became generally known as a network load-balancer.
That was just one component in the mix.
Similarly, Mike was brought in for closing the conversational loop. Some things required a chalkboard for shared, interactive illustrations. As the saying was well known at the time: you don’t really know something until you can explain it to your grandmother. Since all my grandparents were deceased, Mike would have to do.
He asked lots of questions that implied he wasn’t getting it, but I accepted that maybe I wasn’t articulate enough. Mike would later describe aspects of those conversations to a journalist as “commandeering a classroom” in Smith Hall one floor above the CSL. I wrote C structs on the chalkboards and drew network maps, sequence diagrams and finite state machine graphs as visual aids.
(If we had tools like today’s pandoc, graphviz and plantuml at that time, I would have put those diagrams and graphs into my LaTeX documents. Using LaTeX alone to make diagrams during the 1990-91 school year was out of reach due to time constraints. Many published papers of the time still relied upon hand-drawn or ASCII line art images.)
Following each session, I withdrew to reflect and return another day with refinements. When reflecting how to better explain something, that led to discovering simplifications or abstracting common elements from seemingly different components.
An elegant design is one that can be described in simple terms yet builds upon powerful abstractions or metaphors. That was always a goal. It was like beauty in art through symmetry or asymmetry.
Therefore, I pushed on with design iterations.
This cycle continued until discovering the interconnectedness of everything.
The system had an elegant self-similar quality. Metadata became first-class data, and the principal data payload would be handled as arbitrary information. It would use late binding of schema, so data types would get applied when building an index rather than when loading principal data. Etc.
For inside the virtual world itself: There would need to be placeholder content while assets were loading across the network. That implied each entity would need to identify itself by being assigned something like a Platonic Form. It also meant much of the graphical 3D data would need to be decoupled from tracking its position and orientation. This in turn must be separate from tracking changes to an entity’s geometry, position or orientation. For efficiency, communications would need to be abbreviated with a programmable protocol, like crafting Common Lisp macros on-the-fly. And so on.
Business concerns would come later. My intention was entirely focused on satisfying people designing virtual environments and people who would ultimately use the system.
Ideally, they would take it in directions beyond what I could have imagined. Had I known of affirmations, however, I would have added: “in a perfect way, under grace and for the good of all involved.”
* * *
Like dragging a needle across a vinyl record, Mike would inject seemingly random topics into our conversations. I would wonder if he had been paying attention at all. History would show that he indeed was. Maybe it was only at a subconscious level, absorbing implementation designs of components such as the network load-balancer.
His contribution one day suggested setting my sights higher.
He told the story of also having worked for a civil engineering company. The culmination of that boy genius story had the owner suggesting that Mike continue working there. “See, I drive a Porsche. Stick with me, and you will one day too!” Mike rounded out his parable with, “I want my Porsche,” but he was keen on getting it his own way.
That was quite a different perspective from my near-ascetic upbringing. Because my parents were born during the Great Depression, their mindset was pervasive while growing-up. They only purchased a computer for their children because my uncle, a school teacher in London, kept nagging. He lobbied for getting the ZX81-based Sinclar marketed in the US under the Timex brand at its debut. It was made to fit within the family budget. At USD$100, it initially cost less than half of anything from Commodore or one tenth of an Apple computer.
Mike’s tangents often left me at a complete loss for words.
Another gem introduced by Mike began with, “I know what your problem is.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Negative target fixation,” and that’s all he would say on the matter.
“Is that like negative space? You know, in art?”
Attempts at getting an explanation were met with only the phrase repeated, a shrug or his familiar mischievous grin.
Investigating a subject such as that during early days of the Internet before the Web and modern search was challenging. Through the university and municipal libraries where I had access, that topic was not listed as a subject. While the university library’s old paper base card catalog system was mostly on-line, it was still based upon archaic principles. If there had been no subject card, title card or author card for an item, it would not be found by its electronic equivalent either.
The word fixation wasn’t enough of a clue for possibly being a psychology reference. I had no time for games, so I moved on and forgot about.
I learned much later that it is something taught to aircraft pilots. Mike’s brother was becoming one at the time presented with the enigma. That little context would have made finding the explanation quite simple even before searching the Internet for general topics was available.
A practical version of it gets taught when learning to skate. If you focus on your feet, you’ll fall. Instead, focus on where you’re going. Keep your gaze on the horizon, at eye level.
However, in appreciation for making themselves available as sounding-boards, I added both Mark’s and Mike’s names to the white-papers, including one submitted for SIGGRAPH ‘91. An invitation to submit came through HITL, but wires were crossed somewhere. Design papers were not accepted, so this one was rejected with genuine interest and request to resubmit. They asked for adding a mere paragraph indicating whether the design worked or not.
The software was too incomplete for confirmation.
Through these interactions, the collection of unpublished documents continued to grow. Each document was conceived to be a chapter within a larger tome, and that collection came to be called “the book” version. Official versions at HITL included placeholder pages where Mike and Mark promised to add their contributions.
With their names now familiar to those back at HITL in Seattle, I requested Mark and Mike be considered for positions next summer. I wanted to share the experience there with my friends. By the time summer arrives, the list of candidates grew to include various other Lab Rats from the CSL.
Many from the CSL graduated that spring including Jennifer, Jim and others that if included here would have easily turned this story into a novel.
Many of the Lab Rats– including Mark who by this time was an honorary member after many visits when home during holiday breaks– all go to Seattle for the next summer.
* * *
My second summer was far less dazzling than the first.
The least of which, HITL moved from the wood-sided “shacks” on Northeast Mason Road overlooking Husky Stadium. No more physical keys. No more design meetings while earthing on the adjacent lawn among old growth shade trees.
The shiny new facility at the Washington Technology Centers building of Fluke Hall was first class. It had newfangled high security card-key controlled access. The nearest green lawn was essentially the crowded grassy mall of main campus, and that required many flights of stairs straight up the hill. Despite the roof being easily accessible, a quality without a name was lost.
In addition to the new building was new branding: HITL became The HITLab, and hitl.vrnet.washington.edu dropped the “vrnet” subdomain.
Tom, USAF/Retired and founder of HITL, asked me to guide the new batch of interns. He knew I wanted nothing more than to write code that summer. It was later revealed by others that he drank the Kool-Aid about moving people beyond their “comfort zones.” That was an emerging trend according to management consultants.
New interns included Johan from Sweden and (yet another) Mark from New Zealand who later would run HITL NZ, with many others from places in between.
Teaching the design was less than straight-forward.
Former CSL Lab Rats, Johan and the various Marks all picked up on everything quickly. Others took longer. A few who shall remain unnamed never quite grasped important nuances.
It didn’t help that the new building had inadvertently mislabeled its hot water feed as “cold” for the building’s cooling system. Attempts at increasing the air conditioning actually made it hotter. We joked about it being a sweatshop until mid-summer when that was corrected.
Meanwhile, Mark (high school friend) and Mike each arrived about a week after I acquired a room in shared housing. It was near where the U District transitions into University Heights. It was a spacious place that fit several single futons and a couple of bicycles. Mark stayed there for the summer, but Mike found additional housing on campus. The room in shared housing became the crash pad for many new to Seattle that summer. There were those associated with HITL and one or two “strays” that Mark invited.
Despite wanting to contribute directly to the core software, that was apparently not meant to be for me.
Instead, little self-contained projects needed to be done.
First, I was integrating open source
xlisp into HITL’s C code since
William’s promises of embedding a commercial grade Common Lisp engine such
as Allegro fell through. For the time period at least the embedded engine
used was a respectable one. (The ANSI X3J13 subcommittee on Common Lisp
would take another few years, and efforts at CMU would take another decade
before SBCL would emerge from those roots.)
A couple of weeks into the summer, HITL announced that there was a problem with payments to interns. I was still being paid from the Industrial Engineering budget from the prior year, so I was immune. Dav, Geoff and other grad students received stipends from another bucket, so they too were unaffected.
I would not let my friend suffer. From my meager pay which hovered above minimum wage, I gave Mark roughly a quarter of my take-home pay each period. Mike said that he would be okay, as did other former Lab Rats.
The second time I gave Mark money he said, “Don’t give it to me all at once. I don’t know how to manage money.” The eternal optimist within me thought he was joking. Apparently, he bought a round of drinks at the bar that evening.
They would be paid later that summer in two lump sums. His car then needed a clutch, so that consumed one of those installments. The other arrived in time for SIGGRAPH ‘91 in Las Vegas. Blackjack– enough said. He repaid me from his salary five years later.
Despite advances with its public relations, HITL still struggled in similar ways as its first year. Once again, there were more people than desks or computers. We worked in shifts.
Some days I worked from the general computer lab on campus via green screen terminal instead, negating utility of being present in Seattle.
New people meant new dynamics.
Having the night shift for computer access meant competing against the audio system. On a good evening for radio, they blasted KCMU’s eclectic mix. Other times they insisted upon new albums from Sound Garden, Mudhoney and other emerging Grunge bands one hour and assorted sub-genres of hip-hop and rap the next. Asking for the volume to be lowered, I was often outvoted N:1. Chalk one up for tyranny of the masses.
“It helps me debug in the evening after writing code all day,” Mark said.
Despite all that, I felt fortunate having an opportunity to contribute and for the collaboration on scale that HITL provided. “Everyone must be here because they wanted this to succeed,” I thought to myself. However, its dysfunctions baffled me.
It had not yet occurred to me that I could pick and choose. I later learned: be grateful for the bits you want increased in your life, but add nothing beyond a fleeting thought to the rest. If you must, acknowledge and release those with “So be it.”
* * *
This second summer was more social and adventurous for me. I brought my bicycle and attempted to lose myself among Seattle’s hills. The city is often compared to Rome in number of hills, and sometimes compared to San Francisco for also having one hill leveled and its sandy soil used for large-scale construction projects.
The city’s grid-within-a-grid scheme for its streets became immediately apparent. Unlike cities of Europe or neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, Seattle’s streets were on a perfect grid system with an occasional road that deviates due to terrain. If one street’s view wasn’t to your liking, just go a few blocks.
From that, I discovered the best places for training as a “hill climber” cyclist were 48th NW starting from the Ballard side of Phinney Ridge and 64th NW starting up from vicinity of the tiny original PCC grocery store.
My sport was riding to the top of one hill and then spying an interesting feature on another for where next to go. Features that became my new destination included heritage buildings, large clusters of trees, and sweeping views in time for sunset. By end of summer, it was safe to say that I traversed each block of the city north of Lake Union and much below it.
As my world expanded, I shared newfound knowledge of the terrain with friends regarding fun or challenging bicycle excursions and walks to hidden destinations. One was the model airplane airport in Carkeek Park and its tiny beach accessible by the narrow pedestrian bridge crossing railroad tracks. The park itself was green and lush with natural air conditioning on warm summer days.
In an attempt to encourage others to join me dancing all night, I advised, “Just don’t stop for more than ten minutes– enough to drink some water! Otherwise, adrenaline subsides and will be hard to start again.”
In response to all who balked at the idea of dancing all night, I concluded, “Cycling keeps me in shape for dancing, and dancing keeps me in shape for cycling.” They also compared to me a Whirling Dervish, as dancing was my meditation in motion, albeit arms flailing about in different ways. I was humbled by the comparison.
Mark opted for being a spectator and bumming cigarettes as conversation opener. Smoking indoors was still legal. It had yet to become a matter of serious public debate in the US at large during 1991.
That would be one of the few occasions where we saw each other outside of HITL or the apartment. Mark eventually revealed his personal policy, “I don’t hang-out with roommates. It’s just assumed that we’ll see one another at home.” Instead, he went with new friends and new girlfriend to explore his new city.
One of Mark’s other games was constructing a map of Seattle in his head without looking at anyone else’s map. He also neglected observing time-based parking restrictions. He had his car towed upon several occasions. We would have made light about observation skills of the physics major. Towing, impound and ticket fees killed the humor.
My other pastime was sipping tea in a coffee shop. “You always have enough pocket change for a cup of tea,” as one CSL/HITL member put it. That was 65 cents to be exact. Roma at University Way and 42nd was a fishbowl with nearly floor to ceiling windows and lots of light, great croissants and sufficient selection of tea. It made for a nice place to read something from one of the resale book shops in the neighborhood. Sharing a table with strangers and talking about what we were each reading defined the rest of my social life that summer.
Walking by the cafe’s kitchen door after dancing all night, the smell of croissants baking was a promise made to return as soon as I would wake. At mid-summer sunrise, the cafe had not yet opened for the day.
Saturday afternoons were promises fulfilled.
* * *
Returning to finish undergraduate work after that second summer, I experienced an entirely different point of view. Hills or bridges over railroad tracks back at school now looked like traffic speedbumps compared to Seattle’s hills.
All my computer science classes were completed the previous school year. Having saved most general electives for the end, it was solid philosophy for the new school year. Many classes carried cross-over credit within the Anthropology department. Those may be described as cultural philosophy or ‘philosophies for living.’ They were the most interesting.
Translating two dozen or so chapters of Tao Teh Ching from ancient Chinese was the most enjoyable for me because of this cross-over. There were just a handful of us in the cozy lounge of a wood paneled library within the Philosophy department’s mansion-turned-office.
In an equivalent Indian philosophy course, Vedic concepts of atman and anatman contained echos of the ethereal nature of VR for me. However, avatar would become the word of choice within the VR community at large. They missed the mark in my opinion.
Other classes built upon metaphysical implications of what is a reality in a generic sense? from that first summer at HITL. Traditional topics also appeared on the menu: critique of René Descartes for sport, Hegel’s dialectic, identifying arguments from fallacy in a course on pseudo-science, etc.
That school year, I became friends with many people from those classes; reestablished friendships with several former classmates from high school; dated for a few months until she continued adventures living in France and I, Seattle; and continued getting to know Kat, a bio-mechanics Master’s student whose Hatha Yoga class unlocked an old soul’s door. I met Kat when taking her skating class with Jennifer the prior school year.
As mentioned earlier, “If you focus on your feet, you’ll fall. Instead, focus on where you’re going.” That beautiful wisdom came into my life from Kat during her skating classes.
It applied on many levels. In terms of physics, it meant that proper posture resulted in less fiction and yielded more graceful movement. In bio-mechanics, maintaining center of gravity while on skates increased agility to do maneuvers that looked like magic. As metaphor in daily life, frame your intentions on what you want in your life, rather than what to avoid.
Her other guidance was self-explanatory. “Don’t think so much, just feel it,” she would yell across the skating rink at me. I am forever grateful to Kat for all these!
The rigor of Iyengar method in Hatha Yoga as Kat taught were quite agreeable to me. Same applied for Pranayama. Visualization exercises at the end of class were enlightening. The ease by which all of these came to me indicated many lifetimes endeavoring towards that goal. That is the most logical explanation– applying Occam’s Razor of least assumptions.
Applying one of Kat’s visualizations on my own at home led to having an amazing experience during meditation. The short version: it began by “visualizing the center of one’s mind or center of your brain, if that’s easier,” she said. “Visualize it expanding with each inhale and collapsing back to an infinitesimal nothingness with each exhale. Let it expand into a starburst, and contract; expand, contract, …”
I followed those simple instructions at home. Facing due north sitting in the full lotus position on the floor next to my bed, I must have matched the requisite breath rate perfectly. Within the experience, I encountered another soul. Silently asking, “Who are you?” I received no answer. Realizing that I might be in too deep, I exited.
Explanations of the experience had been validated many times by multiple sources. This was how I came to learn of its name, the “blue pearl.”
One confirmation came from a new friend, Zoe. I had met her and her twin, Chloe, two weeks earlier. While Chloe traveled, Zoe and I spent time getting to know one another. The twins were Anthropology majors, so we had much to talk about. Zoe asked if I had been doing yoga or meditation specifically that previous Saturday. She asked because later that day her grandmother talked about a letter that Zoe had written describing me, my particular outlook on life, etc.
However, Zoe had written no such letter and for those two weeks had no contact with her grandmother who was confined to a Care facility. She was there following a diagnosis of a psychiatric condition. Hers was consistent with those who had “the sight” or other abilities. (Unfortunately for her at that time, there was no CIA disclosure yet, no government website for its FOIA releases, let alone its sections on parapsychology, remote viewing or related documents since mid Twentieth Century. As such, her perceptions were dismissed as delusions.) Not being believed would probably drive anyone to madness.
My question of who are you? was answered, delivered through Zoe. The direction from which I sensed this other soul matched perfectly with where her grandmother resided.
Outside of class and while not at the Malt Shoppe chatting or studying with one of my new friends, I worked late into the night. Typing at a very rapid rate on the VT102 terminal, modem lights flashed like fireworks, and a cat slept yet purred on my lap. She was an adult calico mix– mostly rust, brown and reddish tones– and friendly but shy.
The cat was my niece’s.
My brother’s children were residing with us while he was deployed. He was at an intelligence station on base in Turkey during the first US Gulf War. (Let’s just say that the tech from the Snowden “revelations” was probably proven first in a ‘theater of war,’ and that one was as good of a candidate as any.) My brother never revealed details or even how high his security clearance level was, and for those who know, that in itself tells you enough.
Since I previously worked as Lab Staff in the CSL at a school with DoD contracts and DARPA grants, recruiters within the DC beltway initiated soft inquiries. I flat-out rejected.
By the time of their asking, I knew my destiny. I had decided, if only Destiny went along with the plan.
Mark, Mike and I already began discussing a VR company. Aware that I couldn’t do it all myself, I needed cohorts. While I had doubts about the partnership, it was a combination of suppressing that intuition and a default lack-mentality from my upbringing. My faulty logic was based upon the sunk cost of time already invested with these two.
The company was to bring our implementation to market. Others who remained in Seattle– each having already graduated– would be brought in eventually. At least, that was the plan.
Our trio met during holiday breaks from school. Several conversations degraded into arguments between Mike and Mark over which one should be CEO. Neither had any such experience.
Some discussions revolved around technical considerations. Mike was concerned about performance and wanted to streamline the kernel specification. Mark wanted more abstractions for maximum flexibility in scientific visualization as well as rendering in a French Impressionist style, alike.
I believed my design accommodated all those requirements. This was due to a research paper I wrote the prior year comparing micro-kernel architectures of various types of robust systems. It was an independent study project under guidance of an Internet pioneer. His house was better connected to the Internet than our entire university campus, by way of punctuating his credentials. Suffice it to say, my paper was well scrutinized.
However, a problem persisted since submitting my paper for SIGGRAPH ‘91. I hadn’t implemented enough yet to demonstrate it.
* * *
Mike had been on his modem, so my calls were met with a busy signal. We lived within easy walking distance, but skateboards abbreviated it. Five minutes later, one of his housemates let me in. “He’s on his computer. Just go up,” she said.
He had been living in that townhouse for a couple of years. It was a modest two storey structure of the so-called colonial style common for the town.
His bedroom door was open, but he didn’t see me from his peripheral vision. Still at his doorway, I knocked.
He jolted as if given an electric shock. After several blinks, he said, “I was going to surprise you.” After a few more blinks he added, “For your birthday.” It was the only time I saw his face flush other than from drinking at parties.
He was translating to code the informal spec within the papers that included his name.
After the semester ended, I never received anything from him for my birthday that year or any other.
* * *
As if three generations under one roof (again) weren’t enough, that winter session Mike slept on our pull-out sofabed in my parents' finished basement. My mother said, “What’s one more? We’ll barely notice he’s here.”
He had one class to finish his degree. At least, it closed the loop even tighter on conversations for the few days each week that he’d be in town. For the remaining days, he returned to his own parents' house about an hour away.
By end of winter, Mike’s graduation was assured. He began working in DC and continued living with his parents.
The plan for the summer was to go back to the apparent epicenter of VR– Seattle– and build our company there.
Our trio intended to rent a single apartment for living and working. (Little did we know, this became the classic Silicon Valley approach for startups, but even the term “startup” had yet to enter common parlance.) Between the three of us, one would work a day job while the others built the system. For fairness, we were going to rotate who had to take that job.
Bootstrapping by taking an outside job was always intended to be temporary, very temporary.
I wrote the business plan based upon having been a proof-reader for that aspect of my father’s consulting work. Our plan was in the 12-15 page format conventional for the era: one topic per page. Most importantly, the business model was sufficiently validated. We had an agreement to become the platform for WorlDesign, Bob’s company that already spun-off from HITL. They would handle sales, support and content; we would do the platform. An ideal match!
We could resolve matters like incorporating the business only when absolutely necessary to do so. Those details would have to wait until after readying our first viable product.
It was nearly time to begin.
With airplane ticket in hand, email arrived from Mike. “Hey, parents are making me pay off credit cards, so I’ll continue working in DC for USDA.”
My first thought: How did a college kid get a credit card in the first place? That was extremely rare for 1992, let alone however many years earlier he would have acquired it.
I asked, “What’s your ETA for Seattle, then?”
“Dunno,” and something to the effect of “will get there when I get there.”
Mark who was CC’d on those email messages, was silent during this exchange. That made sense since he would be studying for finals week at about that time.
I returned to Seattle on a flight while most were still taking exams. Having all philosophy classes, I had term papers in lieu of tests. That abbreviated my semester by a week or two. Much to my mother’s disappointment, the discounted plane ticket precluded any opportunity to attend my own graduation ceremony.
Upon arrival, I began exchanging handwritten letters with those from the school year of philosophy and yoga classes. Despite all having access to email which would still be relatively rare for another few years, something would have been lost without that handwritten component. We remained in contact this way for years to come.
After a week or two, I secured a room in a shared house near the peak on Phinney Ridge. It had a peekaboo view of Green Lake, which is a smaller version of Manhattan’s Central Park but for the north half of Seattle. The lake itself isn’t actually green, the land encircling it is.
The house was a Craftsman style single storey “builder” with a spare bedroom in an attic shed-dormer, typical for the neighborhood. The house had been painted a constant vanilla color that probably replaced an original pink and gray theme from its time period.
Catching the sunrise reflecting off the lake and filling the house with light was amazing after coming home from dancing all night. I moved on from The Underground and was going to warehouse parties instead. Raves were big, yet Grunge still wasn’t my thing.
The arrangement was on a month-to-month basis. Ready for when Mark and Mike would arrive, another bedroom was currently available and one more would be soon.
But that day never came.
Mark fell off the face of the planet. After weeks turned into months without word, I inquired with every mutual friend possible. “At this point, I’d like to just know that he’s alive and well.” Contact between us resumed the following year after Mark broke radio-silence. He wrote announcing his relocation to New York City as of Clinton’s inauguration day. He cited that it seemed a foregone conclusion of being too difficult with just two to start the company.
Mike arrived in Seattle many, many months after our initially agreed upon time-frame. It was after a casual drive cross-country touring every facility slightly related to VR.
* * *
Many years later, I met Mark at his communal loft in Brooklyn. He admitted finally reading the book that included his name as contributor. “It was well written,” he said and noted being as impressed as he was surprised.
The loft was a not-so-former warehouse with freight elevator that took longer than taking the stairs. Instead of interior walls, there were large sheets and tarpaulins strung from the high ceiling. These divided the space giving each inhabitant a degree of privacy, for some definition of private. The place would have benefited from being painted, but that would go against the motif of that part of town near the Williamsburg Bridge.
He eventually credited me regarding relationships. Many that I considered friends saw me as socially inept, despite knowing that I had been raised with Old World immigrant sensibilities. Mark said, “I gave you two maybe a year,” in reference to me having married long-time Manhattan resident, Emily. This was around our five year anniversary. He admitted needing to reconsider his approach to relationships instead.
As a gesture of good faith, he brought me into a tech startup for building a system that could benefit from components cannibalized from the VR system design.
It was a skunkworks effort, and we were sequestered away from the company. Founding members of this group bickered regularly. Witnessing the pounding of desks to punctuate an argument never sat well with me. A few months into the engagement, Mark was removed. The table-pounding fellow had more clout. I left a few more months after an equally ridiculous exchange with another who was an inexperienced manager and out of his depth.
A miscalculation on my part meant that I forfeited employee stock– missed it by one week. Mark’s liquidity was enough to reside in Europe for the next few years on visitor visas. With his lifestyle, that represented a tidy sum.
* * *
Mike eventually started a VR company. It was with others who intersected both the CSL and HITL and who had been in Seattle since my second summer there.
He picked the name based upon a fondness for one from a floor tile company on 65th Street. He would have passed their sign almost every day.
Without bringing my share of funding at least to cover my own living expenses, I wasn’t able to join them. I wasn’t wealthy enough.
Still, I wanted the former Lab Rats to succeed at bringing VR to the masses. As I prepared to move far away, I gave them my share in the (first) Seattle People’s Internet co-op. An affordable dedicated Internet connection was still uncommon in early 1990's. I received nothing in exchange. This was largely because I was unaware that I could have– should have– received equity.
Much of their time, expense and effort went into renovating their office where East Olive Way meets Bellevue Ave. The painted cornice throughout the interior was a tasteful detail. The color theme kept with the 1920’s time period. The custom wall cut-out for containing the video projector for daytime use seemed extravagant for an upstart. All those resources would have been better placed on matters more relevant to functions of the business, but no one asked my opinion.
Their company was short-lived.
Co-founders parted ways. Mike had nothing good to say about the other two. However, his stories attributed to each of the others were later revealed to be projections of his own deeds. One published account allowed reconciling his different tellings.
Early on, one sees mundane aspects of friends struggling in their business. However, it was largely a mess of their own making, let alone missing a trend that was emerging.
By 1995, VR was forgotten by the world at large. All but a few medical or military related VR companies vanished. With the initial public offering of stock for Netscape, the Internet and the Web became synonymous. The US officially decreed in their 1996 Telecommunications Act that they would refrain from regulating the Internet. No license required to operate. Web based businesses became the next big thing.
After a few more years, financial success came to Mike during the windfall upswing of the dot-com bubble. It was accompanied by much drama. This was later revealed by a journalist originally invited to capture anticipated moments of genius.
Articles that involved Mike appeared in the first year of Fast Company magazine. It was followed by a scathing “where are they now?” retrospective for that magazine’s tenth anniversary. In between were books by that same author.
I realized my good fortune having dodged much mischief and mayhem, despite a few bruises during earliest days of that particular venture.
As my wife put it, “Sometimes you feel as if life threw you under the bus but in fact were thrown clear, and those scrapes and bruises were nothing compared to what could have happened.”
* * *
In retrospect, I finally understand her wisdom and came to see everything that happened to me– or not– as having been for the best. My grandmother from Europe had long advocated this point of view. It was common for Balkan Peninsula cultures, from which she came.
As with many proverbs, it took life experience to fully appreciate.
Early on, I picked people based upon opportunity and circumstances rather than allowing the right collaborators to enter my life. This created an imbalance.
I had chosen to see the best in others– at times to my own detriment– rather than seeing each as they truly were. More than that, I probably didn’t allow them to show themselves for who they really were. That exacerbated the imbalance.
“It’s not what they say, it’s what they do,” is a cliché indeed because of its recurring truth.
One can only imagine how it may have been different, had I held-out for partnerships grounded in healthy collaboration, one continually demonstrated by action. Saying no to a situation doesn’t mean that it’s rejecting all of it. No, they might not be the right individuals this time. Yes, healthy collaboration remains the goal for having the right ones come into one’s life.
However, that might be my particular lesson in this life. Maybe it’s not yours.
I also learned to appreciate how in retrospect one can see past events and their outcomes more clearly. At the time, each appeared to be an anomaly. When taken together, a clear pattern emerged.
This pattern indicates each person continued revealing himself or herself all the time. By allowing it, this frees one to see how everything indeed happens for the best. That makes life stranger than any virtual reality could ever be.