inda Jacobson, co-founder of VeRGe, the Virtual Reality Educational Foundation, could only shake her head in wonder. The frenzied crowd, packed solid into an auditorium at San Francisco's Exploratorium back in June, hooted and hollered with all the sweaty fervor of attendees at a religious revival meeting.
Jacobson waved her arms, demanding silence. The hubbub settled.
"Today, dearly beloved," proclaimed Jacobson, "we are here to witness the union of virtual reality and the Internet!"
More pandemonium. The onlookers, a Bay Area-only crowd of hackers, computer company entrepreneurs, journalists and assorted technohip hangers-on were clearly here to party. The line to get in started forming an hour before the scheduled opening, and latecomers had actually been turned away. No space.
That in itself was worth noting. Only twice before in VeRGe's three-year history had the doors been shut to the public. Once, when the topic was sex and VR, and the teledildonic geek freaks came out of the woodwork. And then, a second time, for a discussion of art and VR (the Bay Area is notoriously infested with would-be techno-artistes).
But this was different. Tonight, neither lust nor cultural pretension motivated the assembled cybercultural elite. Instead, their hearts and minds had been inflamed by the most unlikely of subjects - - a technical protocol with the unwieldy name of VRML -- "virtual reality modeling language." A programming language that even Mark Pesce, one of the panelists at the VeRGe meeting, and a man generally considered to be VRML's number one evangelist, readily admits is hardly more than a "generic three-dimensional scene description file format."
Designed as an open standard for integrating 3D worlds into the Internet, VRML has unlimited potential, or so say its advocates. Still, file formats don't usually rock people's worlds. Why had this particular agglomeration of code touched off such a storm of interest?
Cut back to a month earlier, to the living room of an apartment on the other side of town -- an apartment that could be the archetype for the standard San Francisco-style uber-hip crash pad. Funky gothic decor; tendrils of marijuana smoke hanging in the air; techno music pounding out of a pair of large speakers. The only clue that this isn't your average Generation X hangout is the pricey Silicon Graphics workstation on a table alongside one wall.
I had been led to this room to sneak a look at one of the very first VRML works-in-progress -- a three-dimensionally rendered model of the fourth floor of the Variety Arts Center in Los Angeles. In less than two weeks, the Variety Arts Center would become the site of the Interactive Media Festival, a lavish celebration of the latest and greatest offerings in avant-garde high-tech experimentation.
A team of programmers was working around the clock to model the entire building, as well as some key exhibits, in VRML. Opening day was the deadline for uploading the assembled files to a Web server and making them accessible to the general public.
So, by festival time, you wouldn't even have to deal with LA traffic hell if you wanted to attend the festival -- all you'd need to do was log on and browse the VRML simulation.
The demo was cool, and looked great on the SGI Indigo, but I still hadn't quite grasped the significance that VRML was taking on for cyberdreamers everywhere.
Then, with a flourish, the man who was giving me the demo thrust a neatly stapled sheaf of pages in front of my face.
"This is the shit," he said, eyes burning, as if he had just dropped a couple of ounces of prime Humboldt sinsemilla into my lap. "This is the shit!"
Across the top sheet of paper ran the title:
The Virtual Reality Modeling Language Version 1.0 Specification (Draft)
Beneath, three names: Gavin Bell, Anthony Parisi, and Mark Pesce.
I had been handed the "spec." In the software biz, the spec is where the rubber meets the road. The spec defines the coding parameters for a programming language; without it, you can't do anything. Specification drafts are usually pretty dry and this one was no exception, full of clunky definitions of "separators," "nodes" and "fields."
But master the spec, and you become, as one VRML programmer told me, "a Creator of Worlds." Worlds that could be linked together through the Internet for any surfer with Web access and a correctly configured browser.
And there is where the excitement bubbled. A three-dimensional Net would realize one of the most cherished fantasies of cyberpunkdom -- the computer-generated "consensual hallucination" dreamed up by William Gibson in his science fiction novel Neuromancer, and perfected by Neal Stephenson in Snowcrash. The Matrix. The Metaverse. Virtual reality through your modem.
No more clumsy text entry, no more unwieldy hotlists. If you want a quick and easy way to think about it -- imagine the World Wide Web as one endless game of DOOM. Just jack in, start "rendering," and you're off, hyperjumping between worlds, exploring digital cities, surfing virtual waves. It's the future of the Net. And it's here.
Well, almost. It's easy to get carried away, especially if you have access to an SGI Indy and a T-1 connection to the Internet. But unlike Snowcrash's Hiro Protagonist, we aren't about to be waving Samurai swords at those who annoy us in our favorite mailing list right this minute. VRML is not for the low-rent PC user. Rendering 3D images chews up processing power. And even though a new VRML browser seems to be announced nearly every week, and new sites are pouring onto the Net as fast as frenzied hackers can create them, bugs abound. If you're going VR surfing, wear your knee pads. You will crash.
But the browsers are always getting better. And the tools to create VRML keep getting easier to use. And the spec will constantly be improved. That's the way of the Net, so stay tuned.
"I'm totally psyched on this, and I love it," said Adam Gould, one of the members of the team that modeled the Variety Arts Center. "I love the lack of precedent, I love the newness, I love the total bleeding edge. The promise is just so vast, and so huge. This is finally VR for the people."
Hip or hype: sound off on VRML.