Nov 14 2008

My Life in the Trenches

Published by at 5:40 pm under technology,virtual reality

When I was 23 I had the amazing fortune to get introduced to Eric Gullichsen and Patricia (Pat) Gelband who recently left the CyberWorlds project at AutoDesk to start their own company called Sense8.   Back in the early 90s, starting up a company was very different than the times to follow.   Investors with millions of dollars were not hiding behind every tree ready to throw their money at you.  No, in those days starting up a company really meant setting up shop in your garage or your living room.

When I was 23, I was working for a company called PBM Engineering, a wholey owned subsideriary of Bechtel.  I had just graduated from the California College of Arts and Crafts (now known as the California College of the Arts).  At PBM, I was building a CASE tool to facilitate the building of the UI for our applications – realize this was back when Windows 2.0 was only just released.  I was working on X11R3 at the time.

Well, as I said, my fortune led me to be introduced to Eric and Pat at their home in Sausalito.  Entering into their livingroom was an amazing sight at the time, computers everywhere.  After introductions, Eric took me on a tour of their realtime graphical environment – within an instant my life was changed.  And trust me when I say I had no idea what a wild ride it would become.

More on this later, in the meantime the following is an except from “Cyberia, Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace” by Douglas Rushkoff. If you are interested in the complete text, click here.

Loading Worlds

We’re at Bryan Hughes’s house, headquarters of the Renaissance Foundation, a group

dedicated to fostering the growth of the VR interface for artists and educators. Bryan has just

unpacked some crates from Chris Krauskopf at Intel, which include a computer, a VR system

designed by Eric Gullichsen called Sense8, and the prototype of a new kind of helmet-goggles

combination. As Bryan searches through the crates for an important piece of connective

hardware, the rest of us, who have been invited to try out the potentially consumer-grade VR,

muse on the possibilities of virtual sex.

Dan, an architecture student at Berkeley with a penchant for smart drugs,” begins.

“They’re working on something called `smart skin,’ which is kind of a rubber for your whole

body that you slip into, and with gel and electrodes it can register all your body movements

and at the same time feed back to you any skin sensations it wants you to feel. If you pick up

a virtual cup, it will send back to you the feeling of the texture of the cup, the weight,


So this skin could also imitate the feeling of … ?” I venture.

A girl,” answers Harding, a graphic designer who makes hand-outs, T-shirts, and

flyers for many of the acid house clubs in the Bay Area. “It would go like this: you either

screw your computer, or screw someone else by modem. If you do your computer, you just

call some girl out of its memory. Your cyber suit’ll take you there. If you do it the phone-sex

way, the girl–or guy or anything out there, actually–there could be a guy who’s virtual

identity is a girl or a spider even–”

You could look like–be anyone you wanted–” Dan chimes in. “And then–”

Harding nods. Every command you give the computer as a movement of your body is

translated onto her suit as a touch or whatever, then back to your suit for the way her body

feels, the way she reacts, and so on.”

But she can make her skin feel like whatever she wants to. She can program in fur,

and that’s what she’ll feel like to you.”

My head is spinning. The possibilities are endless in a sexual designer reality…. But

then I begin to worry about those possibilities. And–could there be such a thing as virtual

rape? Virtual muggings or murder through tapped phone lines?… These scenarios recede into

the distant future as Bryan comes back into the room. The chrome connector he has been

searching for is missing, so we’ll have to make do with masking tape.

We each take turns trying on the new VR helmet. Using the latest sonar technology, it

senses the head position of the operator through a triangular bar fitted with tiny microphones.

The triangle must be mounted on a pole several feet above the helmet-wearing user–a great

idea except the little piece that connects the triangle thing to the pole is missing. But Bryan’s

masking tape holds the many-thousand dollar strip of hardware safely, and I venture into the

electronic realm.

The demo tour is an office. No virtual sex. No virtual landscape. But it looks 3-D

enough. Bryan hands me the joystick that is used in this system instead of VPL’s more

expensive glove controller. Bryan’s manner is caring, almost motherly. He’s introduced

thousands to VR at conventions with Tim Leary across the country and even in Japan, yet it’s

as if he’s still sensitive to the fact that this is my first time.” It seems more like a video game

than anything else, and I flash on Craig Neidorf wandering through mazes, looking for

magical objects. Then Bryan realizes that I haven’t moved, and gently coaxes me to push

forward on the joystick. My body jolts as I fly toward the desk in front of me. Bryan watches

my progress through a TV monitor next to the computer, which displays a two-dimensional

version of what I’m seeing.

That’s right,” he encourages, “it only needs a little push.” I ease back on the virtual

throttle and guide myself around the room. You can move your head,” he suggests with calm

reassurance. As I turn my head, the world whizzes by in a blur, but quickly settles down.

“The frame rate is still slow on this machine.” That’s what accounts for the strobelike effect

as I swivel my head too quickly. The computer needs to create a new picture every time I

move, and the illusion of continuity–essentially the art of animation–is dependent on flashing

by as many pictures per second as possible. I manage to work my way around the desk and

study a painting on the wall. Remembering what I’ve been told about VR, I walk into the

painting. Nothing happens. Everything turns blue.

He walked into the painting,” remarks one of the peanut gallery watching my

progress. “Push reset.”

That’s not one of the ones you can walk into,” Bryan tells me as he punches some

commands into the computer. “Let’s try a different world.”


blinks on the screen as the hard drive grinds a new set of pictures into the RAM of

the machine.

Now I’m in an art gallery, and the paintings do work. I rush toward a picture of stars

and galaxies, but I overshoot it. I go straight up into the air (there is no ceiling here), and I’m

flying above the museum now, looking at the floor below me. With Bryan’s guidance, I’m

back on the ground. Why don’t you go into the torus,” he suggests. “It’s neat in there.” A

torus is a three-dimensional shape from systems math, the model for many different chaos

attractors. Into the doughnut-shaped VR object I go.

Even the jaded VR veterans gather around to see what the torus looks like from inside,

I steer through the cosmic shape, which is textured in what looks like a galactic geometry of

clouds and light. As I float, I feel my body making the movements, too. The illusion is

working, and an almost out-of-body sensation takes over. I dive then spiral up. The stars

swirl. I’ve got it now and this world is mine. I glide forward and up, starting a loop de loop



Shit.” Bryan punches in some commands but it’s no use. There’s a glitch in the

program somewhere.

But while it lasted, the VR experience was like getting a glimpse of another

world–one which might not be too unlike our own. The illusion of VR worked better the

more I could control my movement. As scientists have observed, the more dexterity a person

experiences in a virtual world, the sharper he will experience the focus of the pictures. The

same computer image looks clearer when you can move your head to see different parts.

There is no real reason for this phenomenon. Lanier offers one explanation:

In order to see, you have to move your head. Your head is not a passive camera

mount, like a tripod or something holding your eyes up. Your head is like a spy submarine:

it’s always bobbing and looking around, performing a million little experiments a second,

lining things up in the environment. Creating your world. That level of interactivity is

essential to the most basic seeing. As you turn on the head-tracking feature in the

Head-Mounted Display [the feature that allows you to effect where you're looking] there’s a

subjective increase in the resolution of the display. A very clear demonstration of the power

of interactivity in the lowest level of perception.”

And a very clear demonstration of the relationship of human perception to the outside

world, casting further doubt on the existence of any objective physical reality. In Cyberia at

least, reality is directly dependent on our ability to actively participate in its creation.

Designer reality must be interactive rather than passive. The user must be part of the iterative

equation. Just as Craig Neidorf was most fascinated by the parts of his Adventure video game

that were not in the instructions, cyberians need to see themselves as the source of their own


Get Virtual with Tim!

Friday. Tim Leary’s coming to town to do a VR lecture, and the Renaissance

Foundation is throwing him a party in cooperation with Mondo 2000 magazine–the voice of

cyber culture. It’s downstairs at Big Heart City, a club south of Market Street in the new

warehouse/artist district of San Francisco, masterminded by Mark Renney, cyber culture’s

interface to the city’s politicians and investors. Entrance with or without an invite is five

dollars–no exceptions, no guest list. Cheap enough to justify making everyone pay, which

actually brings in a greater profit than charging fifteen dollars to outsiders, who at event like

this are outnumbered by insiders. Once past the gatekeepers, early guests mill about the large

basement bar, exchanging business cards and E-mail addresses, or watching Earth Girl, a

colorfully dressed cyber hippy, set up her Smart Drugs Bar, which features an assortment of

drinks made from neuroenhancers dissolved into fruit juice.

Tim arrives with R. U. Sirius, the famously trollish editor of Mondo 2000, and is

immediately swamped by inventors, enthusiastic heads, and a cluster of well-proportioned

college girls. Everyone either wants something from Tim or has something for Tim. Leary’s

eyes dart about, looking for someone or something to act as a buffer zone. R. U., having

vanished into the crowd, is already doing some sort of media interview. Tim recognizes me

from a few parties in LA, smiles, and shakes my hand. You’re, umm–”

Doug Rushkoff.” Leary pulls me to his side, manages to process the entire crowd of

givers and takers–with my and a few others’ help–in about ten minutes. A guy from NASA

has developed 3-D slides of fractal pictures. Leary peaks through the prototype viewfinder,

says “Wow!” then hands it to me. This is Doug Rushkoff, he’s writing a book. What do you

think, Doug?” Then he’s on to the next one. An interview for Japanese TV? “Sure. Call me at

the hotel. Bryan’s got the number.” Never been down to Intel–it’s the greatest company in

the world. E-mail me some details!” Tim is “on,” but on edge, too. He’s mastered the art of

interfacing without engaging, then moving on without insulting, but it seems that this

frequency of interactions per minute is taking a heavy toll on him. He spews superlatives

( That’s the best 3-D I’ve ever seen!”), knowing that overkill will keep the suitors satisfied

longer. He reminds me of the bartender at an understaffed wedding reception, who gives the

guests extrastrong drinks so they won’t come back for more so soon.

As a new onslaught of admirers appears, between the heads of the ones just processed,

Bryan Hughes’s gentle arm finds Tim’s shoulder. The system’s ready. Why don’t you come

try it?”

In the next room, Bryan has set up his VR gear. Tim is escorted past a long line of

people patiently waiting for their first exposure to cyberspace, and he’s fitted into the gear.

Next to him and the computer stands a giant video projection of the image Tim is seeing

through his goggles. I can’t tell if he’s blown away or just selling the product–or simply

enjoying the fact that as long as he’s plugged in he doesn’t have to field any more of the

givers and takers. As he navigates through the VR demo, the crowd oohs and ahhs his every

decision. Let’s get virtual with Tim! Tim nears the torus. People cheer. Tim goes into the

torus. People scream. Tim screams. Tim dances and writhes like he’s having an orgasm.

This is sick,” says Troy, one of my connections to the hacker underworld in the Bay

Area, whom I had interviewed that afternoon. “We’re going now. …” Troy had offered to let

me come along with him and his friends on a real-life crack” if I changed the names, burned

the phone numbers, etc., to protect their anonymity.

Needles and PINs

Troy had me checked out that afternoon through the various networks, and I guess I

came up clean enough, or dirty enough to pass the test. Troy and I hop into his van, where

his friends await us. Simon and Jack, a cracker and a videographer respectively, are students

at a liberal arts college in the city. (Troy had dropped out of college the second week and

spent his education loan on army surplus computer equipment.)

Troy puts the key in the ignition but doesn’t crank the engine. They want you to

smoke a joint first.”

I really don’t smoke pot anymore,” I confess.

It proves you’re not a cop,” says Jack, whose scraggly beard and muscular build

suddenly trigger visions of myself being hacked or even cracked to death. I take the roach

from Simon, the youngest of the trio, who is clad in an avocado green polyester jumpsuit.

With the first buzz of California sensemilla, I try to decide if his garb is an affectation for the

occasion or legitimate new edge nerdiness. Then the van takes off out of the alley behind the

club, and I switch on my pocket cassette recorder as the sounds of Tim Leary and Big Heart

City fade in the night.

I’m stoned by the time we get to the bank. It’s on a very nice street in Marin County.

Bank machines in better neighborhoods don’t have cameras in them,” Jack tells me as we

pull up.

Simon has gone over the scheme twice, but he won’t let me tape his voice; and I’m too

buzzed to remember what he’s saying. (Plus, he’s speaking about twice the rate of normal

human beings–due in part to the speed he injected into his thigh.) What he’s got in his hands

now is a black plastic box about the size of two decks of cards with a slit going through it.

Inside this box is the magnetic head from a tape deck, recalibrated somehow to read the

digital information on the back of bank cards. Simon affixes some double-stick black tape to

one side of the box, then slides open the panel door of the van and goes to the ATM

machine. Troy explains to me how the thing works:

Simon’s putting our card reader just over the slot where you normally put your card

in. It’s got a RAM chip that’ll record the ID numbers of the cards as they’re inserted. It’s thin

enough that the person’s card will still hit the regular slot and get sucked into the machine.”

Won’t people notice the thing?” I ask.

People don’t notice shit, anymore,” says Jack, who is busy with his video equipment.

“They’re all hypnotized.”

How do you get their PIN number?” I inquire.

Watch.” Jack chuckles as he mounts a 300mm lens to his Ikegami camera. He patches

some wires as Simon hops back into the van. “I’ll need your seat.”

I switch places with Jack, who mounts his camera on a tiny tripod, then places it on

the passenger seat of the van. Troy joins me in the back, and Jack takes the driver seat.

Switch on the set,” orders Jack, as he plugs something into the cigarette lighter. A

Sony monitor bleeps on, and Jack focuses in on the keypad of the ATM machine. Suddenly,

it all makes sense.

It’s a full forty minutes until the arrival of the first victim at the machine–a young

woman in an Alpha Romeo. When she gets to the machine, all we can see in the monitor is

her hair.

Shit!” blurts Simon. “Move the van! Quick!”

We’ll get the next one,” Troy reassures calmly.

After a twenty-minute readjustment of our camera angle, during which at least a dozen

potential PIN donors” use the ATM, we’re at last in a position to see the keypad, around the

operators’ hair, shoulders, and elbows. Of course, this means no one will show up for at least

half an hour. The pot has worn off and we’re all hungry.

A police car cruises by. Instinctively, we all duck. The camera sits conspicuously on

the passenger seat. The cop doesn’t even slow down.

A stream of ATM patrons finally passes through, and Troy dutifully records the PIN

numbers of each. I don’t think any of us likes having to actually see the victims. If they were

merely magnetic files in a hacked system, it would be less uncomfortable. I mention this to

Troy, and Simon tells me to shut up. We remain in silence until the flow of bankers thenin to

trickle, and finally dies away completely. It is about 1:00 a.m. As Simon retrieves his

hardware from the ATM, Troy finally acknowledges my question.

This way we know who to take from and who not to. Like that Mexican couple. We

won’t do their account. They wouldn’t even understand the withdrawal on their statement and

they’d probably be scared to say anything about it to the bank. And a couple of hundred

bucks makes a real difference to them. The guys in the Porsche? Fuck `em.”

We’re back at Simon’s by about two o’clock. He downloads his card reader’s RAM

chip into the PC. Numbers flash on the screen as Simon and Jack cross-reference PIN

numbers with each card. Once they have a complete list, Simon pulls out a white plastic

machine called a securotech” or “magnelock” or something like that. A Lake Tahoe hotel that

went out of business last year sold it to a surplus electronic supply house, along with several

hundred plastic cards with magnetic strips that were used as keys to the hotel’s rooms. By

punching numbers on the keypad of the machine, Simon can write” the appropriate numbers

to the cards.

Troy shows me a printout of information they got off a bulletin board last month; it

details which number means what: a certain three numbers refer to the depositor’s home bank,

branch, account number, etc. Within two hours, we’re sitting around a stack of counterfeit

bank cards and a list of PIN numbers. Something compels me to break Troy’s self-satisfied


Which one belongs to the Mexican couple?”

The fourth one,” he says with a smirk. “We won’t use it.”

I thought it was the fifth one,” I say in the most ingenuous tone I’ve got. “Couldn’t it

be the fifth one?”

Fine,” Suddenly Troy grabs the fourth and fifth cards from the stack and throws them

across the room. “Happy?”

I hold my replies to myself. These guys could be dangerous.

But no more dangerous or daring than exploits of Cyberia’s many other denizens, with

whom we all, by choice or necessity, are becoming much more intimate. We have just peered

through the first window into Cyberia–the computer monitors, digital goggles, and automatic

teller screens that provide instant access to the technosphere. But, as we’ll soon see, Cyberia

is made up of much more than information networks. It can also be accessed personally,

socially, artistically, and, perhaps easiest of all, chemically.

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