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

by Matthew Terndrup • April 9th, 2015

Virtual reality is here to stay. It is showing up everywhere – from taking center stage at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco this year, to making a splash at the VRLA Spring Expo in Los Angeles, California. Practically everywhere you look, VR is sliding in to alter every industry it touches; but where did it all come from? Why is virtual reality proliferating now like never before?

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 Tony Parisi who is best known as the co-creator of the Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML) developed in the 1990s. He has been living in San Francisco for the last 20+ years. When Parisi first arrived, he got involved with virtual reality almost as soon as his feet hit the ground. He started working on software technology called VRML, which was the first attempt to transmit 3D graphics over the internet so that anyone could experience it in a browser. Parisi is passionate about 3D visualization and has working in that field ever since. Now that VR has resurfaced in a big way, Parisi has taken a keen interest in it again and is currently working on a virtual reality startup in San Francisco.

We caught up with Tony Parisi at a virtual reality-focused event called the VRLA Expo in Los Angeles, California and recorded a 40+ minute interview. The video is posted at the end. The following transcript is a discussion that takes us back in time to one of the high points in VR during the 1990s. Topics of conversations include the development of VRML, virtual reality meetups that occurred at the time, notable influencers of the culture, current webVR technologies, the bandwidth needed for virtual reality experiences streaming through servers, some potential input solutions for the web, security implications, and much more.

The VRML team (circa the 1990s)

The VRML team (circa the 1990s) – image source

 

So Tony, what got you into VR to start?

I’m a person who is really a believer in visual interfaces. I had always been working in user interface software. I had been in the field for about 5 years already as a professional software engineer, and then I met a fellow named Mark Pesce. I met him  through some mutual friends; I’m from New England originally, and so was Mark.

parisicasualcolor

Tony Parisi – source

My wife and I moved out to San Francisco in 1993. We looked up Mark just to try and know some people locally. He laid this idea on me. He had been coming out of a virtual reality hardware startup called Ono-Sendai, named after the famous Ono-Sendai in Neuromancerwhich was a technology company creating VR hardware. That didn’t work out so well for [Mark], but he still was a believer in this metaverse idea, and the World Wide Web was just coming out. 1993, there was a browser called Mosaic, which is the predecessor to Netscape, which became the first big internet browser. Mosaic came out of a university in Illinois—the University of Urbana-Champaign, where Marc Andreessen worked. Mark Andreesen created the first big web browser called Netscape. He moved to Silicon Valley, investors gave him a bunch of money, and the web took off.

While the web was taking off, Mark Pesce cooked up this idea: “hey, let’s put 3D graphics into it. PCs can do 3D graphics now.” At the time they really couldn’t. They were doing everything in software, it was really slow, graphics were really primitive. We were still getting on the internet using dial up modems, but we actually made the technology work. We created a demo called Labyrinth which let you browse the web with some 3D graphics connected to it. And that was the beginning of what came to be known as VRML.

VRML stands for “virtual reality markup language,” correct?

Yes. It’s been alternately known as virtual reality modeling language as well. I’m retconning it, if you will. I’m just going back the original markup language term, because that was the original term for it. At this point, that’s what matters to me, so I go with markup.

You were working with Mark, and were there other people in your team?

Mark and I were a team building that demo. And then, Mark discovered there was a World Wide Web conference happening, actually the first ever World Wide Web conference happening in Geneva, 1994. And there was a call for proposals for various topics. A fellow named Dave Raggett, who is working with W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium) for the prototype for that; I don’t even know if it was so named in 1993. Raggett put out a call for proposals for virtual reality.

ios8-cyberbanana

The VRML ‘Cyberbanana’ – source

Mark discovered [the proposal], we submitted to it, and we were invited to come present our work in Geneva, 1994. We just sent Mark because we didn’t have enough cash to afford two plane tickets. So we put him on a plane, and he went out there. Dave had this birds of a feather session, and people got together in a room, the size of a hotel room like this, to talk about the topic. Dave said, we’re looking for people who are building virtual reality interfaces, thinking about how we could make that a standard for the web.

And Mark got up, with his typical bombast; and if you know Mark, you’ll appreciate this: he said “We’ve already done it.” And he showed a demo, and what he showed was a demo on a PC of, it’s kind of comical in hindsight, a spinning banana. It was the only model we could find for free in an OBJ file format. We got the banana spinning up on the screen in a little PC program called Labyrinth, and when you clicked on the banana, it launched you into a webpage. So that was the first technology proof you could connect 3D graphics to the web.

So the program was called Labyrinth, and the demo was the banana?

Velvet_Underground_Nico_Andy_Warhol2The banana. And it was a banana in typical 3D graphics of the time, against a blank black screen; which is kind of hilarious because I realized about 20 years later as VR was taking off again, I drunk dialed Mark about a year ago. I said, we just got the background color wrong. If it had the white background color, it would’ve been the cover of the Velvet Underground & Nico album.

So that was the thing, and to me it’s poignant because we’ve always been approaching this as technologists, but it really is an artistic medium in so many ways. I couldn’t help but thinking that if maybe we had the background colored white it would’ve pushed VRML farther faster, at least with the artists.

Interesting. So Dave Raggett also put in a paper at the first World Wide Web Conference, and Wikipedia says that he coined the term VRML. Does that sound right?

That is correct. He came up with the term. Yes.

From there, what happened? It seemed like a lot of people started using VRML  for a few years. One person said Nickelodeon had a little bit on there. What other companies were using it?

So 1994 ended up getting pretty frothy, if you will, for the web. There was an explosion of web things. At the end of 1994, that’s when the company Netscape was formed around Marc Andreessen’s browser technology who is doing work at Mosaic. All of a sudden, everyone wanted to do some kind of web startup. VRML was in that conversation. There’s a company that’s still in existence but has fallen from being a very large company, a multibillion company at the time. Silicon Graphics, had high end graphics work stations and was starting to experiment with graphics in PCs as well.

They heard about VRML, and they got involved in the project. The next significant thing that happened was Mark Pesce and I teamed up with Rikk Carey and Gavin Bell from Silicon Graphics. They had a software tool kit for doing 3D graphics called Open Inventor. We decided to use Open Inventor as the basis of what eventually became VRML.

The first piece of really cool VRML content that was created, we partnered with a 3D production studio and Intel to do a fly through of the graphics chip they were starting to promote which was then called the Pentium.

So to go from our Labyrinth prototype to actually a format you can publish 3D graphics in, we partnered with the Silicon Graphics on that, and Silicon Graphics started running with it and promoting VRML a lot in their PR. This was early 94, 95. There was so much attention on it that I started my own little startup in my garage called Intervista Software, and I had the first PC-based VRML viewer.

I got some seed investment and started a company around that. VRML took off, there was a lot of hype around it from 1995 through 1997. Every major company technology was into it. Netscape was doing something, SGI, Silicon Graphics, Apple, Oracle, IBM, Intel. Everyone was involved. The first piece of really cool VRML content that was created, we partnered with a 3D production studio and Intel to do a fly through of the graphics chip they were starting to promote which was then called the Pentium. I don’t know, your phone can probably do like 100 Pentiums worth of processing now, but at the time it was the big thing from Intel. We did that as a marketing piece, and that was part of the flurry that was happening.

Screenshot of a page in the 1995 book 'InfoWorld': image source

Screenshot of a page in the 1995 book ‘InfoWorld’ – image source

Microsoft got very interested, and my company partnered with Microsoft, and our World View viewer was actually distributed with Internet Explorer for several years. We had about 10 million copies of World View installed on PCs worldwide, which was a pity though because people weren’t really ready to create content for it yet. There was a big gap between what people could do as a business with it. You had to install a plugin. In the case of Internet Explorer, our plugin came with it. Shipped on a disk. You know how they used to ship software on disks? This was pre-download. You had to actually press a button to install it. So there was a lot of friction to having people get the 3D experience in the browser.

And content creation at that point for the web, imagine you got on one side people doing high end 3D animation, or beginning to do 3D graphics for games. 3D games like Doom were just coming out; Doom and Wolfenstein, very early John Carmack stuff. On the one hand, there weren’t that many people versed in creating content for real time 3D, and nobody versed in publishing that to the internet. On the other side, anybody doing development for the internet, they were just trying to get their brains around how to make web pages. So the whole thing fell into a chasm eventually.

3D games like Doom were just coming out; Doom and Wolfenstein, very early John Carmack stuff. On the one hand, there weren’t that many people versed in creating content for real time 3D, and nobody versed in publishing that to the internet.

The tech companies were overspending, building these products in the market, just not being ready. Not to mention again, the computer clock speeds were measured in megahertz, not gigahertz. People were still not connecting with a broadband connection. Yeah, they were using modems. It was all kind of early on the technology infrastructure side. We weren’t in a place where everybody had the internet. It was drastically different 15 years ago.

The browsers that were being used included Arena and Netscape. What other browsers were being used then?

Internet Explorer. So after Netscape made a big splash, Microsoft got into the business pretty quickly. They eventually outpaced Netscape. They were the dominant browser in the early 90s, until Firefox came along. That was a reboot from Netscape, actually, from the same organization. Then Chrome came in and randomized the mix a little under a decade ago. But at the time we were doing it, it was Netscape and Internet Explorer primarily.

Okay. You’ve been doing a few presentations on webGL, recently. In those, you talk about how there were meetups and conferences happening in the 90s that are somewhat similar to what’s happening now. Who was organizing those, and what were they like?

So, there was no formalism like meetups. There was no websites you could go to like meetup.com where you could press a couple buttons, broadcast, and start a meetup group. It was very much through random bulletin boards online, where people were saying that they were going to do an event.

Theatrical release poster for Brett Leonard's Lawnmower Man - image source

Theatrical release poster for Brett Leonard’s film Lawnmower Man – image source

It was primarily software bulletin boards. It was BBS text based systems pre-web. There was a big one called VeRGe, started by Linda Jacobson and Timothy Childs back in the mid 90s. VRML was a big part of those meetings, and they talked about other virtual reality topics as well. It had very much the feel of VR meetups that are happening today. 50 people in a room, all kinds of enthusiasm about the future. Like, “This is the future, we’re going to disrupt everything, we’re all going to be in the matrix soon.

Brett Leonard would show up, and we were all talking about his new video Lawnmower Man. Of course, everybody in the room had already read Snow Crash and Neuromancer; we were steeped in it.

At the same time, there was a lot of trade show activity around the internet, and VRML was a big part of that from 95 to 97 or 98 when we were hitting this down turn. The expos and conferences we are seeing now for VR are very much reminiscent of virtual reality hardware conferences that pre-date VRML. Again, so Mark Pesce came out of the early crop of VR startups from the early 90s. It was very similar feel to what we’re seeing now.

People were excited about the VR possibilities, but there was no way economically it was going to get into consumer’s hands at that point; which is what lead to that early crash of VR.

Of course, the price tag on all the hardware had two extra zeroes on it. The software was much harder to deal with. We’re talking about a radically different deal here. People were excited about the VR possibilities, but there was no way economically it was going to get into consumer’s hands at that point; which is what lead to that early crash of VR. It was too much, too costly, too hard to deal with. We didn’t have supercomputing in our pocket like we did now. Everything is different. But the feel is very much the same. Lots of déjà vu for me, when I attend these events now.

It sounds like the community seemed kind of similar to what is happening now; people with like minds coming together, just wanting to explore, provide feedback, and stuff like that. You also said that hardware-based trade shows and conferences were going on. So, was virtual reality organizing its own events? Was it virtual reality specific or were these hardware parts of virtual reality in a subset of larger conferences?

Both. Before the early VR bust of the 90s, there was VR World Magazine. There was a VR World Expo by a company called Mekler Media. I’m not sure they’re even in the trade show business anymore. I’m telling you, it is déjà vu. There’s was an entire industry springing up, like what we are seeing now with VRLA, SFVR, SVVR and UploadVR, for example. So it is oddly reminiscent of that. Numbers wise, it’s bigger now. It’s bigger in terms of people, it’s leaner in terms of it’s easier to put an event together now. They’re starting to scale up to be big business.

It’s very similar.

The expos and conferences we are seeing now for VR are very much reminiscent of virtual reality hardware conferences that pre-date VRML.

Early Virtual Reality hardware was shown at tradeshows and exhibits in the 1990s

Early Virtual Reality hardware was shown at tradeshows and exhibits in the 1990s

 

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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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