A Window into the Future

A Window into the Future
Ashley Road, Bristol – Age 29

This entry is taken from a work in progress collection of memoirs:

The old Cybertown welcome banner

During the period of Spring to Summer 2001, I had become well ensconced in web-culture. I’d learnt a lot of new computer skills by virtue of being generally addicted to being on the web most of the time.
This had been fine by me, I’d been made redundant from my call centre battery-hen job, working for B.T, the prospect of getting lost in some other low skilled, mind-numbing role held little appeal to me.

I’d been doing call centre work for a couple years, which had felt like a small eternity.
Instead, I celebrated my freedom to have no agenda other than get up in the morning, sit at my computer and (to my mind) learn some valuable new skills for the coming millennium.

As I didn’t have sufficient finances to go out and meet up with actual normal people, the web became an easy portal to talk with strangers, especially ones who shared my technological and musical interests. With hindsight, this was both a good and bad thing, but more on that in another entry!

Someone (probably Dave) introduced me to a new browser based experience called Cybertown. This was, at the time, a revolutionary glimpse of the future of the web.
Cybertown offered simple citizen accounts allowing users to log in, choose a 3D avatar, then choose a 3D location to talk with other users in.
When I say talk, I mean, there was a window showing a virtual world and played somewhat like a game, minus guns, violence and beneath it was a chat window where users could type messenger style to each other, which was then converted into a strange robotic voice which resembled what I would have imagined the late professor Stephen Hawking would have sounded like, if someone had slipped him a Mickey.
Under the hood of all this 3D content was a computer language called VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language) I won’t bore you with the techie stuff, but it wasn’t a million miles away from the script that runs all web pages, it was just that this one had 3D space programmed into the code.

Given the state of connectivity and download speeds of the era, Cybertown was by modern standards a fairly low-res affair, prone to the occasional crash as servers overheated due to its massive popularity with geeks and other net-newbies wanting a piece of the cutting edge. Upon reflection, this was my first experience of social media before the term had been coined.

I wasn’t content with just visiting. I made it a mission to learn how to make my own chat environments and content. The main tool for achieving this was probably the worst software title to ever grace the world of apps; Spazz 3D, It had to be an American software developer, someone who’d never watched Blue Peter or been present in a 1980’s UK school playground.
Shitty title aside, once I’d learnt how to get around its UI and manipulate objects, I began a feverish spell of generating content for 3D web. My designs had the added benefit of being something I could bolt onto my website, so for a year or two, hiab-x.com contained quite a bit of my technological imagination in the form of models and environments that allowed for interaction and communication.

I wrote in a diary at the time “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life”
It is now the year 2020, my Oculus Quest wireless VR headset has conjured up the same kind of excitement that I felt nearly twenty years ago. I cannot deny that I recently said to my wife, “This is how I want to spend the rest of my creative life” It’s impossible for me to not draw parallels

Rewinding back to 2001, It transpired that I had become something of a visionary champion of flogging dead horses.
For example, I pitched the idea of The Sandman VR to Neil Gaiman, who was doing a book signing tour for his new book American Gods and happened to be in Bristol. He seemed to like the idea, but mentioned that as he didn’t own the rights to his own work The Sandman, I was better off pitching it to the owners, who were DC Vertigo comics. He gave me an industry contact to get in touch with, which I did, but found that there was little interest in developing it further. The web was still quite a niche market and I don’t think that Vertigo could see a suitable way of developing one of their top-selling titles into a ‘Chat room?’ This was partly where my pitch had failed, I had the models, I had an environment or two but how did this make use of the story? Cosmetically, it was good, from a functionality perspective, it was ill-conceived. VRML wasn’t sophisticated enough to tell stories in a meaningful way. I had some notion that events could be organised where particular key characters from the anthology could make an appearance as a for of fan service, beyond this, i didn’t really have a clue as to how the idea could sustain itself.

My next project was making 3D musical chat environments inspired by the band The Shamen. On a plus side, they’d waxed lyrical about the future of VR and the web, so seemed likely to embrace some bespoke content that might underline their psychedelic visionary ideas. On the downside, the band had just announced their retirement, which meant as far as anything new was concerned, music or otherwise…nothing was going to happen. NOTHING!

Animated Shamen virtual record sleeves with musical remix abilities.

This was a pity, as I’d made some interactive musical objects based on some of their records, these were translucent cubes which had animated versions of their sleeve art. When the user rotated the boxes in various directions, it would allow the song to play different sections in a crude kind of virtual dj remix. I made a chat space inspired by the art for the track Boss Drum, which really pushed the boat out in terms of being a fairly faithful version of the original artwork, moving around in the space allowed a visitor to remix by simply being in various locations within that space. It was all quite pointless given that nobody was going to get me to develop it further. Band break-ups tend to dampen all enthusiasm for reprisals in any form, especially when the time frame from disbandment can be measured in months. At the time of writing in 2020, I still think that the ideas I explored would have been fully suitable for use on their website Nemeton.com, It was unfortunately a case of the right idea at precisely the wrong time.

Look at the lovely speedboat you could’ve won.

I decided to try another avenue of fandom tie-ins. I created some content for the TV series Twin Peaks. I really enjoyed recreating locations as seen in the series. The only problem here, was that it had ended on a sour note for its creators; David Lynch and Mark Frost, who saw their show pulled after two seasons in 1991.

The room above the convenience store
No actors lost revenue in the making of this scene.

I don’t remember how, but I somehow got into dialogue with a budding new film director called Eli Roth*, who was interested in my work and said that he’d show it to David Lynch. I pitched Twin Peaks VR* in an email conversation with Eli, who in turn took it to Lynch, who apparently had zero interest in the project.

[Don’t bother trying to type the URL, it has been dead for a long time]

By the time I got to 2002, having had several bubbles popped, I began withdrawing from attempts to pitch VRML content to people I admired. Every door I knocked on seemed nonplussed by my offerings. I piddled around with a few of my own creations for entertainment purposes but found that the combination of rejections, a limited technological audience, limited technology etc just took the proverbial wind out of my sails.

VRML slowly died a death over the next couple of years*. It didn’t catch on or evolve, setting it up for inexperienced computer users was a perpetual headache. Cybertown saw its user population slowly decrease, by the mid-naughties, web 3D content barely had anything resembling a pulse.

I’ve been inspired to write about these past creative cup-de-sacs now as I’ve witnessed a new technological wave begin to swell in the digisphere. Having recently acquired the Oculus Quest VR headset, I’ve witnessed first-hand, a recalibration of old ideas resurface and present themselves as just the sorts of things that my younger twenty eight year old self was dreaming of. I knew that this day would come but I had no idea what technology would enable it.

The Shamen never reformed

Twin Peaks VR became salt on an old wound because the creators of the show somehow managed to revive their old series and in doing so, generated enough fan interest in its new incarnation that some software was released and it was called ‘Twin Peaks VR’, which allows VR users to enter locations from the show in virtual reality and play a game based on the narrative surounding it.

*Eli Roth went on to be an infamous film director for movies such as Cabin Fever and Hostel.

**VRML -Died a death, transforming into a newer format called Web3D, which also never caught on.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics have yet to debut as any kind of virtual reality project, though I note that in the modern age, the parent company have outsourced a few of their I.P’s to software developers, who in turn have begun delivering immersive, story-driven VR content such as Batman Arkham VR. It is quite conceivable that one day, VR users will be able to enter the ‘Virtual Dreaming’ because the tech has found a respectable sweet-spot where immersive experiences are achievable within the digital domain.

The most modern equivalent of Cybertown is now a platform known as AltspaceVR. Headset owners can now occupy a virtual meeting space and see each other’s avatars as they did before, but now with this wonderful technology, have the sense of presence when interacting with each other, because In VR, If someone from Scotland is talking with you to your left, whilst someone from New York is part of the conversation and in front of you, simplified avatars aside, this feels like a genuine human to human interaction, to a point where you forget that you are looking at a headset embedded screen. My younger self would have been delighted.

As for me in the present?

Well, I have the hardware necessary for VR immersion. I have yet to nail down the path In which I can begin creating and sharing content again. A strong contender for an all-in-one package would be Media Molecule’s marvellous Dreams software, which debuted on the PS4 earlier this year. I’m still ver much at the beginner stage of skills in using it and am keenly awaiting its much anticipated VR capabilities to be launched; Due July 22nd 2020.

Lesson’s learnt from past misadventures means that I’ll be very sure to avoid working on any creative project that isn’t inspired by my own imagination, even if I get a tempting idea about developing someone else’s creations. It just isn’t worth the investments of time and effort. Fortunately, I’ve built up a legacy of my own creations to draw upon. Preliminary experiments in VR have proven to be a blast. Recently, I found a sketch in the back of a diary from around the time I was teaching myself VRML. The sketch was a doodle, but I liked it enough to cut it off the piece of paper it was drawn on and stick it in the back of my book as part of a bank of undeveloped ideas.

Recently, I recreated the sketch in some excellent software called SculptVR. This allowed me to make a 3D model of the sketch with the unexpected benefit of being able to treat the model as a kind of environment that I could then wander around and explore. The power of VR is that it can allow an artist to do this. You can fashion an object, which may have elements that could translate into a kind of scene or environment. You can then shrink yourself down to a minuscule size, which in turn makes your creation become unbelievably massive. This allows a user to be able to sculpt or illustrate at a microscopic scale, even if that hadn’t been the original intention.

To me, this sets a standard for an infinite potential for future artworks. What would the great artistic masters have created if they’d had access to such tools?! The time for a reimagining of what art, sculpture and music can be is finally here.

The time is now.