Which brings us to Jurassic Park, the potential virtual reality. Several weeks after seeing the movie, two days after Disneyland, I found myself at Discovery Park, part of the Silicon Graphics booth at SIGGRAPH '93. It was here that I had a chance to reconsider what I had thought to be one of the most sublime or subliminal elements of the film: the overarching, fractionally dimensional, and ultimately recursive theme best expressed by the main scientist in the phrase "you'll never look at birds the same way again."
If I remember correctly ... at the beginning of the film, we're in the Badlands with the main scientists, digging fossils. The shotgun shell has gone off, revealing the subterranean velociraptor skeleton on their outdoor, but not particularly mobile, computer screen. In the midst of a violently imaginative fleshing out of the dinosaur's previous body and behavior, the scientist says, "You'll never look at birds the same way again." This phrase, stranger than it seems, and said with awareness of its effect, echoes through the film in hundreds of ways, becoming, as if by default, a main theme. Moments after the fatal pronouncement, Richard Attenborough arrives by helicopter to take the scientists to Jurassic Park, where it is their job to judge whether this high-entertainment concept can fit in our world. The park implodes, the dinosaurs riot, and the scientists barely escape . . . but they do, in the belly of a helicopter. At the film's wordless end, the main scientist looks through the clear window, or dead eye, of his artificial bird, and finds what appears to be the sublime in the image of a pelican winding its wings over the ocean beneath him, which, except for an exterior shot of the helicopter in flight, is pretty much the last shot in the film. Despite all the emotion on his face and in the soundtrack, I have to say that I really don't know what it is the scientist sees, but it certainly is a bird.
At SIGGRAPH, the day before I actually did find my way to SGI's Discovery Park, I was standing two halls away in line at the Virtual Reality Laboratory, part of a virtual reality museum ride created for an exhibit called Imaging, the Tools of Science to be installed at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The visual interface was the Fakespace Boom 2C, a boom-suspended periscope-style cube with a high-resolution stereoscopic display inside . . . more vividly, something like a large, swivelable, realtime ViewMaster at the end of a very fancy articulating lamp stand. Virtual Reality Lab was essentially a fly ride through several surreal and constructed worlds.
First you find yourself in a bare, circular room, with your previously grabbed portrait on the wall, and a polygonally crude Fakespace Boom 2C recursively in front of you. Back in the real world, with the real boom, you can swivel around and look at the room, all the while inexorably advancing toward your portrait, which, at a certain distance, shivers into fragments that flock together and fly through the hole left by their disassembly. You have to follow them, through the hole, to find yourself floating in the clouds. The birds that were ,you, depart ahead and above. To the side is a girder-thick red wire-frame cow, a sort of surrogate cloud, and directly ahead is a structure that once again you are inexorably heading toward and then through, a sort of open-ended floating skyhouse made of four circuit boards in extreme perspective, and a fifth right ahead. The moment before colliding with the fatal frontal board, you can see the image of a flower, and by the miracle of modal change, you find that you have passed through to emerge out of a patch of flowers in the center of a park, a main natural space in a Potemkin village made of textured flats.
All this, seen from the particular angle chosen by the Fakespace user, is also projected on a video screen behind the person standing with head up to the swiveling box. I didn't actually get to put my head up to the box that day, as the line was quite long. Time is always a consideration at SIGGRAPH, and since I didn't have a watch, I turned around to ask the fellow behind me what time it was. Before he started to speak I could see he didn't have a watch, and so I stopped in midsentence, just as he started to say something that I couldn't hear. Out of politeness, I said, "What?" and he said, "Right now," so I said "What?" and he said, "You asked me what time it was, and I said it's right now." I agreed.
Twenty six hours later, just before finally getting to Silicon Graphics' Discovery World, I found myself waiting in line to pay for my lunch at the International Food Court. Again I needed to know what time it was, so I turned around and asked the person behind me. I recognized it was the same fellow just before he inevitably said, "I said, it's right now. Don't you remember?" surprising both of us, as it had been estimated there were 10,000 other people with us in the Anaheim convention center. So, to be polite, as we obviously had something in common, I read his shirt, which said "The Virtual Museum," and asked, "What's the Virtual Museum?" He didn't really want to answer, and I didn't really find out until the next day, when I came across the actual Virtual Museum, back in "Machine Culture," as the art show was known during this SIGGRAPH year. The Virtual Museum being sort of a common interface for inexpensive, individually created virtual worlds, a sort of museum atrium through which one could enter, under arches, any compatible virtual world module you might pick up from the Internet, or a floppy disk. The Virtual Museum describes itself as therefore allowing anyone to explore ancient Egypt, pre-Columbian Peru, and Atlantis. None of this information being offered by my space-time companion at the International Food Court, I decided to push the situation, so I read his convention badge, which always has one's name and job function printed on it at SIGGRAPH . . . apparently he worked for a company called Earth. So I asked, "What's Earth?" and he said, "That's where I live."
After that and lunch, I was off to Discovery Park, where the line was too long, so I talked my way in the back door. "Discovery Park is an Interactive Entertainment and Virtual Reality Experience!" was written on the brochure, and inside, there were birds.
First was a pterodactyl-shaped, user-mountable ride, where a canyon environment appeared on three large high-definition screens in front of the viewer, who steered the flying machine from its virtual back, with wing tips and pterodactyl-head occasionally visible. Everyone in the room could see the screens, and there was a bit of ambiguity whether or not the rider was actually the bird having an out-of-body experience, with the annoyed bird-body continuously attempting to catch the eye of the floating oversoul. Networked to this was the private, two-million-pixel Fakespace Boom 3C, which apparently allowed you to look around while the pterodactyl-person did the steering through the inevitably progressing air. No one else could see what the person at the Fakespace boom saw. Third node on the network was yet another viewpoint, embodied in a high-resolution and also resolutely private head-mounted display from Kaiser Electro-Optics.
People were also looking at birds differently in the Evans and Sutherland booth, which had SIGGRAPH's other user-mountable flying demo ride, a sort of Sports Simulation Gym where your body was a hang-glider spaceship in an extraordinarily complex and enclosed high-definition city space. In the Reagan-Bush years, we would have immediately thought of the military as the buyer or maker of such flying rides, as well as flying things, and uncontrollable carnivores. But now is the time when we instead remember that Link, inventor of the flight simulator, came to that device from his work designing rides for amusement parks.
Link's flight simulator took the roller coaster off the ground using pneumatic motion, making the rider into a bird in a box. Before computer graphics could match the realism of that motion, miniature landscapes were built, reconstructions of appropriate countrysides, which the flight-simulator pilot could see through a motion-controlled camera that floated on a grid above the model board. In this time before computer graphics, many people identified visual simulation with such physical miniatures, so that there it was no great associative leap from the model board to Disneyland. Of course, at that time, one of the logical associative paths leading out of Disneyland was the idea of government-inflicted simulation, presented "In Technical Stimulation," as the Firesign Theatre put it. And certainly, visiting Anaheim's ancient Disneyland, it is very easy to arrive at an idea of the intimate linkage of entertainment and death, especially in New Orleans Square, where Pirates of the Caribbean begins, after establishing the cave, with skeletal pirates guarding gold, and then proceeds through torture and rape to end with an ecstatically drunken pistol duel held in a gunpowder storage cellar.
In Jurassic Park, the single skeptical scientist, overhearing Richard Attenborourgh say that a mechanized tour of Jurassic Park is as safe as any amusement park ride, then volunteers: "But on the Pirates of the Caribbean, if the pirates get loose, they don't eat the tourists." So what should we see when we look at birds flying free as a tyrannosaurus rex through the air?
In WAX or the discovery of television among the bees, Jacob Maker works on a simple, local network of flight simulators, a 1983 precursor to what in 1986 or so became SIMNET, a wide-area simulation networking scheme that allowed a group of pilots sitting in flight simulators somewhere in Tennessee to train with people driving tank simulators in California, all together in the same limited, synthetic environment. This sort of networked simulation prepared the way for the raid on Libya, the invasion of Panama, and ultimately for the Gulf War. The proposed successor to SIMNET is called DSI, or the Distributed Simulation Internet, if I have the correct acronym, which combines broader bandwidth with new graphics and networking standards, literally allowing an army of linked individuals, spread across the globe, to join each other in that military amusement park. Not formally different from what some people propose for interactive, navigable, immersive cable-TV games. Of course, what does program content mean in the context of this DSI?
Or what is history? One of the first implementations of the DSI was a minute-by-minute, foot-by-foot reconstruction of a Gulf War skirmish known as the Battle of 73 Easting. As you might expect, it plays the battle forward and backward, and allows you to view it from any angle. It also allows you to create alternate battles from this reality base. Considering how much history has already been prepared in cyberspace, it is truly metafictional that 73 Easting was presented to the Senate as the first example of virtual history.
Unfortunately, this is a normal theme in the history of the history of technology. Television is an excellent example. According to Steven Spielberg's â€˜Raiders of the Lost Arkâ€™, it was possibly the God of Israel who invented both television and virtual reality. But according to the Nazis and some others, it was Paul Nipkow who discovered television and virtual reality in Berlin in the 1880s. His fascinating electromechanical telephone for the eyes coupled unique spinning-disk spiral scanners, known as image dissectors, with magnetically controlled crystals that occultly served as light valves.
Nipkow worked for the city railroad company during the electrification and "transportification" (a deliberate rhyme with fortification) of Berlin, designing a streetcar semaphore signal system. It is a not so odd fact that his television system mainly resembled the axles and wheels of a railroad car . . . two spinning-disk scanners synchronized by a fixed axle between.
By the 1890s, the signal system was apparently in place, the job had probably settled down, and in his private inventing life, Nipkow had moved on, bypassing further development on the television to focus on his new obsession, the invention of a working helicopter.
More than thirty years later in Weimer Berlin, construction began on the Funkturm, the Eiffel Tower of radio, defining what became the communications heart of Berlin, an area so important that it later was given the name of Adolf Hitler Platz. Nipkow was an old man, and practical, low-resolution, mechanical television systems based on his scanning scheme had come into existence in Germany, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. This was television with less than forty lines, but it was a commercial television, with regular scheduled broadcasts from the Funkturm by 1929. At that moment, it became clear that the real challenge for television engineers lay in high-resolution television. Breakthroughs in high-frequency research promised broadcast systems and receiver sets with over 400 image lines.
Certain people knew that this same technology would also make possible a practical system of radio-wave-based detection and ranging of distant flying objects â€” what we know as radar. As a result, as mechanical television died a natural death, due in part to the worsening financial situation worldwide, a decision was made in the three main television-producing countries to promote the creation of a popular, entertainment-oriented high-definition television system; the goal, never publicly stated, was to create both the industrial and human resource base necessary to design and manufacture a practical air-defense system.
This created a peculiar situation. Germany provides the best example. First, Hitler declared all German television research a state secret. Then the public search began for facts that would establish German priority in television research â€” historical priority. Paul Nipkow was snatched from obscurity to become a new national hero, the Father of Television. England replied, or maybe they started it all, with the Edisonification of John Logie Baird, who became the Other Father of Television.
In every country, television history, like television itself, was discovered, or invented. Books were written, and in other places, factories were built. In 1941, not long after the radar machines were switched on in England, Holland, Germany, and elsewhere, Paul Nipkow died, which triggered his greatest honor. Paul Nipkow's funeral was broadcast live on Fernsehsender Paul Nipkow, the Nazi high-definition television station named after him and broadcasting from atop the Funkturm in Berlin.