Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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A conversation with Brenda Laurel, proto-VR pioneer

A conversation with Brenda Laurel, proto-VR pioneer

Brenda Laurel spent her time at Atari Corporate Research designing an entertainment system that would never sit on store shelves. During her tenure at the lab, she conceived of the Interactive Fantasy System, a room-size virtual theater intended for a Jetsons-like home of the future. The interface for the pseudo world-generating computer was elaborate, even preposterous, making use of all the backroom technology that a nascent Silicon Valley had to offer. According to her notebook, the room would include speech recognition, speech synthesis, touch displays, videodisc, videotape, body tracking, eye tracking, real-time animation, and olfactory and thermal effects.

And though her radical invention went by the wayside when Atari drastically reorganized its corporate structure in 1984, her fingerprints are all over the shiny medium of VR, which was still a blurry speck on the horizon at the time. Now, nearing her 70th birthday, Laurel reflects on the first VR boom, her coterie of cyberpunk authors and far-out technologists, and the humble origins of proto-VR at Atari’s R&D department.

her fingerprints are all over the shiny medium of VR


Versions: How did you get your start at Atari?

Brenda Laurel: I think I was the first woman in the home computer division. I was the Director of Software Strategy. This was in 1979. When I came to work at Atari, I had a cubicle and a telephone, no desk, and the women’s room. The first time I used the women’s room, it was filled with guys smoking marijuana. Game programmers. I said: Dude, this is going to have to change, because I’m a woman and I need to use the restroom. Y’all can’t be in here for that.

I remember being asked to port all the videogames from the console over to computer. Then the Warner acquisition happened. Warner was pretty stupid. They thought home computers were a fad. Around that time, Alan Kay was hired as the director of the Atari Lab. Do you know who he is?

Yeah, I’m familiar with him. [Alan Kay is the computing pioneer who foresaw tablet computing in the ‘70s and helped invent computers with graphical interface at Xerox PARC. Steve Jobs made quite a killing usurping his ideas.]

I ran over there and said, “Please, hire me, please, hire me!” And he did.


What was it like working at the Atari LA Lab in Sunnyvale?

We had this gorgeous Herman Miller furniture. Everybody had private offices or roll-top desks. But it was open at the top so you could hear what was going on in the environment. And then there were big open rooms.

Atari was being turned into a pretty nasty corporation by the Warner guys. I hate to say it, but there was a real cocaine epidemic at Atari. I think that did some mind-flattening on the game side. Not in the labs, on the game design side. The game designers were so constrained. Warner was all about throwing licensees to programmers and giving them three months to make a game. These guys were snorting cocaine to get the work done. They didn’t have enough time to do a good job. A lot of those guys burnt out.

But the lab was a special retreat place. A lot of good ideas were hatched. We talked about VR incessantly and did some experiments. In the Atari Lab days was really where I was hatching a notion of VR.

Looking through your notes for the Interactive Fantasy System, it strikes me that it was very ahead of its time. It was in first-person. You play the role of another character. Players making ethical choices. You write of games in terms of aesthetic value. There’s a section about playing games with dolphins.

John Lilly actually did have dolphins playing games.

Did you ever meet John Lilly?

No, but I was very close to Timothy Leary. He was sort of my stepfather, I guess. His daughter died and my father died at about the same time. I was his producer at Activision and we became really close and stayed close until he died.

What was Tim Leary like?

He was incredibly smart and enthusiastic. An eternal optimist. He could see a whole world connected in a different way. And he was funny as hell. I loved being on the road with him. We would have such a blast. Oftentimes we were with Bill [William] Gibson. Bruce Sterling [author of Mirrorshades]. It was quite an interesting little gang running around to VR events. Tim was a doll. I just loved him. I think what really did him in was alcohol. What really did in John Lilly and Alan Watts [author of The Way of Zen, one of the earliest Buddhism guides in the West] was alcohol.

So what exactly was Interactive Fantasy System?

It was a bunch of ideas. My dissertation was towards a computer based interactive fantasy system. It was actually accepted as a Ph.D. in the Ohio State University Department of Theatre. Ha! ha!


Polaroid photograph of Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and John C. Lilly, M.D. by Philip H. Bailey

How important was theater to Interactive Fantasy System and, later, your ideation of VR?

It was totally important. These were the time of Hair on Broadway and Dionysus in ’69 where interactive theater was becoming a thing. There’s a short distance between that and improv. I think my VR work falls somewhere in the middle.

All we were really doing was a kind of improv in a magical, responsive world. The notion of putting your head in a different character, or constructing one . . . this is my fantasy. That is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid! I used to round up the little boys in the neighborhood and make them be dwarfs so I could be Snow White. I built a little set. The dominatrix of Brookside.

So how exactly was Interactive Fantasy System to enable that?

Looking back, there were some serious flaws in what I proposed. The idea was to build a virtual environment where the player could push the story in one direction or another. I designed an expert system based on Aristotle’s Poetics that would evaluate and generate next incidents that would create a dramatic arc. The fly in that ointment was that an expert system was a bad idea. Now we use a different form of AI to do such a thing. By the mid-80s, I began thinking of Interactive Fantasy System as something that would happen in VR. You want to have total surround and all the sensations. I wouldn’t call it a game. It’s an interactive fantasy!

VR wasn’t a properly formulated idea at the time. Virtual reality didn’t have the name “virtual reality.” How did you first become aware of VR?

One of the formative things for me was that I went to NASA’s Ames Research Center in 1986, to visit Scott [Fisher], because he had a VR lab at Ames. In those days VR was just vector graphics. Phosphorus and green on black. He was developing training systems for astronauts. I got my head in it. I had a conversion experience. I raised some funding through Tim Leary and Joi Ito’s mom [Joi Ito is director of MIT Media Lab]. Then, I persuaded Scott to leave NASA to start the Telepresence Research Lab. We had a pretty good VR demo up and running. You could actually move around and do stuff. We showed that at Cyberthon in 1990. Tim Leary came. Everyone was all excited! Fake Space was showing the BOOM.

I designed an expert system based on Aristotle’s Poetics

It was a pretty neat time, but I think we were just crash-test dummies. The equipment was so expensive that there was no way to monetize it, outside of Japanese showrooms. There was interest from Las Vegas, but you couldn’t make money in it.

Many of your colleagues at Atari LA Lab went on to become major players in bringing VR to reality. There was you, Scott Fisher, Rachel Strickland, Jaron Lanier. [According to Laurel, Lanier was only a contractor with the lab.] Why did so many instrumental people come out of this workshop?

I think it was Alan [Kay]. He gave us permission to be far out. Alan had this philosophy that if you wanted to achieve a goal, you made it a little vague and set it far enough out in the future that people from different perspectives are drawn to it magnetically. I think that’s what we did. So there was this shimmering little image out there of the kind of experience we were interested in building and everybody vectored into it.

What was Alan Kay like? What’s his personality?

He was gone a lot. He was easygoing. He’d get very excited. He was very approachable. His ideas were mind-fucking. He was so absent-minded. I remember I was in his office one time. He was talking to someone on the phone. He set the handset down to talk to me. Then he forgot he needed the handset to continue his conversation. He was talking to someone as if he had picked up the phone but hadn’t.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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