Ben Delaney asked me recently if I could write down a memory from the early days of Virtual Reality. Here it goes:
I was in college in the early 90s when Virtual Reality first rose to prominence. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and immediately started plotting schemes for getting my head into a VR helmet. I badgered the good folks at VPL Research, the inventors of the DataGlove, until they gave me an internship (and my first, unforgettable VR ride). A summer internship at Autodesk followed, working on their Cyberspace Developer Kit. At that point I was completely hooked on VR. In my last semester at college, I met a grad student by the name of Bill Chapin. We hit it off, and when I visited his office I noticed a bunch of VR gear. Turns out he was doing consulting for various VR firms, including Scott Foster’s Crystal River Engineering (CRE), the pioneering firm that invented 3D audio – a way to render real-time sounds in three dimensions, the exact way we hear them in the real world where we can close our eyes and pin point the location of a plane above our heads or a voice behind us by using just our ears. CRE was building 3D audio systems for all the major VR installations and they needed a software developer. Bill introduced me to Scott, and that’s how I got my first job. I was now an official, card-carrying member of the small, tightly knit VR community. I got to work on amazing projects with companies like Fakespace Labs and Interval Research and with great people like Brenda Laurel and Scott Fisher whom I had idolized from afar. I got to show off our VR systems at conferences like SIGGRAPH. Along the way I met Ben Delaney who was chronicling the ins and outs of our community in Cyberedge Journal. It was pretty much the most amazing three years of work I could have wished for. We tried many VR related ideas, at NASA, in university research labs, with architectural firms, the MoMA, Disney World, you name it. The one area that took off the most was gaming. Doom had just come out and first person 3D gaming was born. Our audio technology was a great fit for it, and CRE ended up working with several of the early 3D game developers which later led to CRE’s acquisition by Aureal Semiconductor where we put 3D audio into chips, sound cards, and PC motherboards. As the VR sector went into hibernation, my career went from sound cards to a digital music startup, to an email start up that was acquired by Yahoo, and then to blogging for the last eight years as CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. All along, I was hoping that VR would make a comeback. I’ve got a couple of Oculus Rifts on my desk right now, still getting a thrill every time I stick my head into a new VR world.