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Virtual-Reality Check

Bill Buxton is the chief scientist at the company that helped create the computer-generated characters in the film “Final Fantasy.” We asked him to speculate on what our world will look like 10 years from now. Here are his predictions.

Will the computer animation used in the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within make actors obsolete? Will we all flock to holodecks to play virtual-reality games instead of playing in the real world? Are robots and computer-generated environments what we have to look forward to in the not-too-distant future?

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As the chief scientist at Alias/Wavefront, the Silicon Graphics unit that helped bring the characters in the recent sci-fi movie Final Fantasy to life, Bill Buxton is accustomed to fielding questions like those. And, given his position, you’d think he would be a spirited promoter of the brave new virtual world.

But his perspective on the future of virtual reality is less sweeping than the vision — often portrayed in movies — in which we live in a world populated by computer avatars or robots.

“Virtual reality will change dramatically in the next seven years or so,” says Buxton. “But it’s likely to be a mixed reality, where computer imagery is mixed with the real world.”

This year at Siggraph, the premier annual meeting for the computer-graphics industry, Buxton chose to team up with other exhibitors, such as Hewlett-Packard and Fakespace, to show off Alias’s new technology: the Portfolio Wall, a 15-foot-by-6-foot Internet-enabled sketch pad.

“My message is this: The hot thing isn’t any single technology, but relationships among companies,” Buxton says. Buxton controlled the displays on the Portfolio Wall using a wirelessly enabled bar code-scanning PalmPilot. “The idea was to show how technology — like wearable computers, wireless devices, bar-code scanners — can have a huge impact on interaction,” Buxton says.

Buxton also demonstrated a new design tool for automakers by asking a designer from the audience to sketch a car on the Portfolio Wall — just as the designer would sketch a car on a piece of paper or on a laptop using design software. But in this case, the designer could sketch the car full-scale. Buxton’s message? Design for specific uses, and make tools simple to learn. “Something like the Portfolio Wall should have a learning specification that says users must be comfortable using 80% of the wall’s potential within five minutes of training and have a 90% retention of it a week later.”

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Buxton’s pragmatic view of virtual reality stems more from his training as a musician than his training as a technologist. “Musicians have been taking code (notes on a page), putting it through technology (a guitar, for instance), and creating something new (music) for centuries,” Buxton says. Indeed, Buxton didn’t start out life with a plan to be a technologist or a futurist. He just wanted to play music.

In 1970, he was already using synthesizers to create music, but by around 1975, he was frustrated with what he could buy on the open market. So he discussed the problem with some professors at the University of Toronto and soon was recruited as an artist in residence at the university. Buxton ultimately went on to graduate school in computer science for what he claims were purely financial reasons.

“I’d never thought about being a scientist,” he says. “But I had this obsession with music and with new instruments to play music on.” In the 1980s, he became a consulting scientist at Xerox PARC. Then, in 1994, he joined Alias/Wavefront, a technology firm that develops graphics software for the film, video-game, automotive, and interactive-media markets. There, instead of creating instruments to make music, he helps create instruments to make art — or, at least, very cool movies.

The company’s rendering and animation program, Maya, was used not only in Final Fantasy, but for special effects in a variety of movies, including Men In Black, Titanic, A Bug’s Life, Contact, The Truman Show, Mighty Joe Young, The Avengers, Star Trek: Insurrection, and Stuart Little.

In Final Fantasy, which was based on a popular Japanese video game, the characters are not actors, but computer-generated, photo-realistic human beings. While critics deemed the movie’s plot clunky, most were dazzled by its special effects, with Roger Ebert rhapsodizing, “The look of the film is revolutionary. Final Fantasy is a technical milestone, like the first talkies or 3-D movies…. It exists in a category of its own, the first citizen of the new world of cyberfilm.”

Despite the accolades, Buxton’s take on the movie is decidedly reality-based. “Final Fantasy is about digital makeup,” Buxton says. “There are still actors doing all the movements. Actors will always be cheaper and faster than computers, but putting digital makeup on them is easier than having them sit in a chair for five hours.”

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But Buxton does believe the film — with its very lifelike computer-enhanced cast — will be considered a landmark film in a few years, although not because of the computer work it showcases. Buxton contends that its strength is its combination of storytelling and technology, which he considers a fundamental breakthrough in computer-enhanced films.

He is fascinated by the idea of what he calls “interactive storytelling” — which he believes Final Fantasy foreshadows. He envisions a time when viewers could create stories as they watch a film — using the idea of an interactive video game, where your actions force corresponding reactions in the game — to create personalized movies. “You could choose your own adventure,” he says, but that adventure would meld you, other real actors, the real world, and virtual-reality technology to create a “mixed reality.”

Beyond deconstructing films and music, Buxton is also pondering how to make the Internet more engaging and accessible — with ideas that take some thoughts from virtual reality and others from art.

“We’re not going to interact with the Internet primarily from our desktops for much longer, and that means we need to really think about how we get the Net to be far more interesting,” he says.

Buxton was recently inspired by a walk through an art gallery in London. There, video artist Bill Viola had hung large flat-panel displays with no exposed wires to exhibit his slow-motion videos. “It was like looking at huge paintings,” Buxton says. “There was no question that it was art.”

He says that people creating Web sites need to think about far different ways of presenting content, instead of simply scrolling through pages and pages of print and graphics. “We have to think more in terms of visual computing,” he says. While some of that work is being done with smaller displays on phones and personal digital assistants, Buxton says that huge room-sized displays will also be a part of the Internet future.

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He describes a day — not more than seven years away — when we will meet in conference rooms outfitted with the types of giant displays he describes. We will be able to interact with the displays — bring up briefing reports, meeting notes, and more — and then take the new data we created with us as we leave the room. “I’ll be able to use my Bluetooth-enabled wristwatch to grab references and information and to take them with me,” he says. “What I won’t want to do is scroll through data on a huge screen.”

When it comes to envisioning the future, Buxton says the best bet is just to look around. “To do any predicting, it’s healthy to take a look backward,” he says. “I can’t think of anything going on right now that I didn’t know about 10 years ago. A lot of innovation is more about prospecting than inventing. A lot of technology is out there; you just have to look for it.”

Fara Warner (fwarner@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Learn more about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within on the Web.

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