Flashback: Larry Rosenthal talks 3D and VR Projects in the 1990s

by Matthew Terndrup • April 17th, 2015

Virtual reality is here to stay. It is showing up everywhere – from being an integral part in large scale conferences to showing up at small, close knit meetups. Practically everywhere you look, VR is booting up to alter every industry it touches; but where did it all come from? Why is virtual reality proliferating now like never before?

Larry Rosenthal

Larry Rosenthal

In a series of interviews and re-publications, we venture into the past to see where this exciting virtual reality ride began. Today, we interview Larry Rosenthal of “cube3.com” who has worked in the 3D and VR fields since the late 1980s. He has seen the many rises and falls of the virtual reality medium and has documented many trends along the way.

Through several email and Twitter conversations, we questioned Rosenthal about his work in the past as well as asking about his thoughts on VR’s future. We also got information about Rosenthal’s Indiegogo campaign called “The Mediaverse:The VR MuseuCON of POP Culture” which is planned to be a Virtual Reality world for all things pop culture and fandom. There is a lot of exciting stories here, and it gives great insights into the VR communities present decades prior to today. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the interview written below.

So Larry, what got you started in 3D and VR?

I always been involved in design and 3d. I was in my teens in the 1970’s so I was a child of the Star Wars, Lucas/Spielberg Invasion into Pop Culture. Even before them, I read and saw all the earlier sci fi and fantasy movies, books and TV shows. And as the “art kid” growing up, those images flooded my drawings and model making abilities until i went away to college.

In design school, Pratt Institute, in the early 80s I focused on the ‘skills’ the people who had made those films had studied. I became an Industrial Designer and broadened my interests toward all media and design related histories and ideas. When I began Pratt it was as part of the last ‘traditionally trained’ designers. In my Junior year, I lobbied strongly with my chairman to start a class for Designers on the just bought Vax supercomputer that was intended only for film  majors and a few fine artists. He created that class, (gave a start to some well known folk in the industry) and I began it. I quit within 2 weeks when confronted with 6 months of coding to create a single “genie bottle raster render” design.  Suffice it to say 3D wasnt ready for Designers then as much of a creative tool.

The Color Mac II - source

The Color Mac II – source

Three to four years later the first Color Mac IIs came out. I was a creative director at an agency that was known for store and display design and marketing. As the “young guy creative” they put the big color mac on my desk to see what it could do. I got access to the alphas of Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and other software as well as the early Mac based 3d tools.

Swivel3D- which came out of VPLs VR research, and Virtus VR, which was the first real time 3d tool on the Mac. I Would stay late until 10pm each night using these tools and realizing that the GUI of the MAC had met me  ½ way and that finally tools for designers on computers, rather than being a computer user, had arrived. Finally I went out and spent over 6k on the ONLY MacIIX not spoken for in NYC. I bought it from Rick Ocasek of the Cars fame, chock full of software for design and multimedia;) I saw the future that year;)  I started Cube3 to see where all of this new medium would go with another co worker from that agency, by 1990.

What was the virtual reality hardware and software like in the 1990s? How do the tools of the past compare what is being used now?

Over 25 years the hardware always seems to get faster and less expensive and the software always seems to get more expensive, then all of a sudden free, then obsolete. In terms of VR and RT 3D, there were maybe 3 major hardware and software battleground eras that defined what creative projects we as designers could produce.

Photo of the Data Glove along with a couple of other VPL Research devices

Photo of the Data Glove along with a couple of other VPL Research devices

In the late 80s and early 90s, the 3D world first split into the high and low end price markets. Work Stations vs. PCs/Macs/Amigas. And Most VR HMDs since they were expensive devices out of tech schools and science focused engineering places, so they mainly targeted the higher end workstations. There were some PC and Mac based versions of course but most PC based 3D VR was going to be done as screen display for presentations to clients or dev work like at VPL Research.

So while I could use a software called VirtusVR for Store design or set design on a Mac or PC, others would use a Silicon Graphics, or Intergraph workstation if they were doing higher end development using HMDs etc. Most rendering on PCs was all done in software unit the later 90s anyway, so there were limits to what one could do, usually in terms of the size of models and frame rates.

When 3D video cards became common in the later 90s  it ushered in the 3D games market and RT3D finally became an “aesthetic’ people “could” like. Before that it was always considered “rough and aliasing” and only pre rendered Pixar like renderman playback movies/videos were considered “consumer ready for prime time.”

Silicon Graphics was the major player in high end 3D for most of that decade. They created and marketed special software and hardware combos for VRML (O2 and Cosmo) as well as for all thing RT3D. Eventually they lost almost all market share to PCs with accelerated 3D cards from NVidia/ 3dlabs, ATI and others. That plus the abundance of finding a copy of 3D Max on every stray CDROM burn, made tools like 3D MAX and then Maya the mainstays of tools for 3d content creation. There were many outliers, that offered 3D tools for all uses, Caligari, Blender, and of course Lightwave, but Autodesk in the end consolidate the market for 3D tools in the US. Mean while, Dassault of France still owns an impressive library of RT3D tools and technologies.

In RT3D there were many specialized software tools and platforms that all attempted to dominate the markets. Some were part of the VRML world, Vrealms, Vreams, Cosmo, Vizx3D etc. and some were proprietary 3d format based such as Viewpoint, Cult, Axel3D, Virtools, Anark, B3D, Macromedia Shockwave 3D and many more that all kept coming and going until maybe 2006, when then a few Java based tools, Unity3D and now X3D based tools also tried to get into what was the “Second Life and Virtual Worlds” action. At that time the term VR was dead completely, and the politically correct term was “virtual worlds”  or still MMOs if you made games.

Where were people organizing get-togethers to talk about Virtual Reality?

As VRML was getting more interest and looked like it might go somewhere, we formed the NYVRMLSIG. The location we met at was the newly created Alt.Coffee Cybercafe in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I knew its owners and they had given free “server” range over using the place and its backrooms for SIG meetings. They were one of the first cyber cafes with T1 net access in NYC, so it was perfect. We had other gatherings as well there, and even a book on the web projects of many of the regulars was published, including the NYVRMSLIG projects like a virtual coney island. We met monthly, invited technology makers and designers to demo and guest speak. One month during the Melker New Media Show in NY the back room of the Alt.Coffee ended up hosting the first real gathering of the NY and CA VRML crowds. After the Shows planned BOF meeting in the convention hall over 100 or more tried to fit into the small back room of that cafe. It felt like a summer heatwave subway car ride.

As we needed larger spaces I was able to set up space at SGI’s office in NYC for a roundtable I moderated called “Places not Pages: Birth of the 3D Net” which brought together speakers that really ran the gamut from web artsy magazine publishing, to VR, to even nascent augmented reality (AR) being done at ITP school at NYU using video and public access TV!

Were their Virtual Reality meetups, tradeshows, and conferences going on?

In 2002, I used the same format and with the added sponsorship of the Digital Garage and MindAvenue Software (Axel3D). I started the SFWEB group. We met monthly at the DV Garage and had demos from the makers of the web3d tools of that time. There were demos of X3D by Tony Parisi and Joe Williams, Vizx3D by Keith Victor, Demos of Anark, Viewpoint, and Cult3D. Macromedia Shockwave 3D as well as Virtools were other web3d platforms demoed.


Read Tony Parisi’s “Flashback” below

One meeting of note took place in the Class room of new media 3D pioneer/educator Jane Veeder of SFSU, whose class was one of the early beta sites for Second Life. It was at that meeting that the managers of Second Life asked for  and were presented with the strong case for the idea of “digital ownership/commerce” of the content made by the people using the platform.

By 2006 the Second Life craze had surfaced and the SFWEB was forgotten to the fancy parties of the nuevo virtual. Go with the flow.

Flashback: Tony Parisi on Co-Creating the Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML)

You were writing articles for a couple of 3D/VR new publications in the 1990s. What types of topics were you writing about?

I actually wrote the most mainstream media articles about 3D/ Media and Technology in the early 1990s as the Mac design/computer thing took off. I wrote two articles for ID (Industrial Design) Magazine. The first was titled “Can you Sketch on a Computer” and it put forth some thinking about design process, its speed, editing, and how the new tools might/could affect each. Im happy that 25 years later many are finally asking the same questions.

The second one was published and heavily edited. It was called the “Post material Design.” It dealt with interface design and the end of plastic nobs and asked if even the name of our profession and the magazine “Industrial Design” should be looked at being changed as we moved away from our Industrial into a Post Material virtually designed world. The editors kind of took unkindly to my idea, and the article published wasn’t what I had hoped. I didn’t write for them again. A few years later, the magazine rebranded as ID magazine (International Design).

In the mid 1990s I wrote articles for some web publications and VR magazine attempts as paper publications. One article on 2D/3D Interface you’ve just republished on the UploadVR.com website. That one has had the longest mileage. It has been asked for or republished/updated maybe 3 times since 1996.

copyright cube3.com 2015

copyright cube3.com 2015

Flashback: Virtual is Reality Again – Interface vs Interference Design

Who else was writing about VR in the 1990s?

Other than the usual suspects who get mentioned all the time now (Howard Rheingold’s book, WIRED, MONDO 2000…etc), I’ll toss in a few who might be less remembered or known. Great stuff came from New Media Magazine and Verbum also out of SF area, which of course was the epicenter for all things VR Media related. There was a magazine called “Mediamattic” out of Amsterdam that I particularly liked to get in NY. It was probably only quarterly, but it was always smarter and more critical about new media than the SF magazines which always drank too much of their Kool Aid as they say.

MIT Media Lab publications back then had good articles and things and wasn’t also as focused on the ‘start up culture of entrepreneurs’ as it is today. There was a “VR World” magazine that came out in the early 90s during the craze. I had done an illustration for them, a VR Carnival Barker 3D rendering. I might have a color xerox of it somewhere in an older print portfolio. It might have been done for an article on marketing VR. I might have co-wrote the article with John Gallagher, but I don’t remember.

There’s a great Nightline TV debate about VR with Jaron Lanier that someone has finally put on YouTube. Its indicative of the mainstream PR and Press of that time.


Continue Reading on Page 2 – topics include the ‘Snow Crash’ CD-ROM, the “failed” Virtual Boy, and more.

UploadVR’s “Flashback” series is an ongoing effort. We are looking for virtual reality pioneers who worked with VR in the 1990s and before. If you are one of those people or know someone who is, email Matthew Terndrup at [email protected] to arrange for an interview.

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