Be Now Here
14 Oct. 2009
It's October 1995, and I am working at a research lab running their prototyping shop. I have about 8 people working “with”, actually “for” me to design and build equipment other researchers will need.
One of those researchers is Michael Naimark, a curly-headed fellow who looks younger than his years and has a massive reputation in interactive video media. In 1980 he had produced something called the Aspen Project, in which four cameras were mounted on top of a Jeep looking out in each direction. A device like an electronic odometer was mounted on the wheels of the Jeep to record how far it travelled and to give a signal when it had moved a certain distance. This signal triggered the cameras and produced a string of four images whenever the jeep traversed that distance, regardless of speed.
Naimark took the Jeep to Aspen, Colorado – a ski resort in an old western town - and ran it back and forth over the grid-patterned streets of the town, covering every street. He then took the photos, scanned them to video and recorded them onto a videodisc. It was rather like like Google Maps' “Street View” without the Internet.
A word of explanation is needed here. In the '70's “laser videodiscs” were supposed to be the coming thing, at least according to IBM. They would be the medium whereby everyone watched movies in their home. A single videodisc could hold 60 minutes of high-quality video, which could be presented as still pictures as well as continuous video. “Like DVDs?” many young people today would ask. The answer is, yes and no. Like DVDs they were read by laser beams and could provide frozen frames. Unlike DVDs they could be produced only at centralized facilities, like LP records had been (there's another technology that's gone into obsolescence).
IBM loved the centralized production aspect of laser videodiscs. Everyone would sit at home, they hoped, getting all their information needs met by these discs, which IBM would happily crank out for a fee. The discs would provide video catalogs of everything people wanted, allowing them to shop from their own living rooms, by “interacting” through a single “BUY” button - the purchase information would be routed through the phone lines to the vendor's systems, also manufactured by IBM, who would take a percentage of the price.
In 1978 I was paid to join a group of luminaries (including Ted Nelson, the prophet of personal computing, and Murray Turoff, a pioneer in online conferencing) at an austere resort in Rhode Island for several days to discuss these wonderful devices and their part in the information economy to come. The consensus of this conference was negative on videodiscs – we felt that computer networks were the proper technology to foster (and we were right). IBM, which sponsored the conference anonymously (a fact to which many participants had been tipped off in advance) was said to be mightily disappointed in this outcome and, true to form for a large organization, they ignored the results. IBM supported the Aspen Project through the M.I.T. Media Lab, where Naimark was on the original team.
The interesting part of the project came on playback. Because the discs could show one picture at a time and seek those pictures randomly (unlike a VCR) the user could, using a joystick, navigate their own path through the town and look in any direction as they did so. It was a sort of “Virtual Reality” in that you could define a unique path that had never been followed and see the scenery in the correct order - “interactive video media”.
Naimark went on to explore in the field of “location-sensitive cameras”. He tapped into a worldwide network of geographers (a concept worthy of a Thomas Pynchon novel) and, by the time we worked together had secured grant funding from UNESCO to record detailed imagery of several sites designated as “endangered heritage sites” by the UN cultural organization. He had committed to taking sets of stereoscopic, high-resolution 3D panoramas of these sites, several over the span of a day, and presenting these scenes to audiences in the most realistic way possible.
He asked my group to build him a rotational platform mounted on a tripod and holding two 35-mm Panavision movie cameras. He wanted to have a motor turn this platform under precise control, so that the cameras would shoot exactly 360 pictures per rotation – one per degree around the circle. We did that, using a precise quartz crystal oscillator divided down by a counter circuity I designed, producing an accurate 360 pulse-per second reference signal.
We connected a motor to drive the platform through a gear train having a 360 to 1 ratio – thus the motor would turn once for each picture taken. A simple “exclusive-or” comparison circuit would look at the 360 Hz reference signal and a signal sensed from the motor shaft. When the two were in a “quadrature phase relationship” the transition of each would split the “on” or “off” portion of the other exactly in half, and the average coming from the comparison circuit would be zero.
If the speed of one signal started to drift from that ideal point where one signal split the other equally the proportion of “high” to “low” in the comparison signal would change. Instead of zero, the average of the compared waveforms would move in the positive or negative direction. Converted into motor speed, this average comparison signal would cause the motor drive power to adjust for any change in external conditions, such as resistance from friction, and the platform rotation would proceed at a speed dictated by the rate of the oscillator signal - and quartz crystals oscillate at very, very precise rates.
We packaged the whole thing up so there was only an on-off switch and an LED and Naimark took it around the world – to Jerusalem (the “Wailing Wall”), to Dubrovnik, Croatia's main square, to the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia, to the center of Timbuktu in Mali, and finally to the park outside the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, where the system would later be exhibited. Panoramas were recorded in all places five times in a single day, each at the same hour of the day, and the pictures were transferred to a laser videodisc.
But how to exhibit it? The videodisc played back a picture that seemed to move in a straight line, although the viewer might realize it had been viewing a circular panorama when the picture returned to the same point at the end a minute later. But that was a minute too late – the audience had to understand in their viscera that this was tracing out a circle as they watched it.
Naimark and I hit upon the solution at the same time – rotate the audience at the same rate the camera had rotated. A revolving platform was bought – the type typically used to display automobiles at trade shows, adjusted to turn at one rotation per minute and set up as the place on which the audience stood. The 3D image was projected on a stationary screen (the audience put on polarized 3D glasses when they stepped onto the platform). The whole thing was placed in a blacked-out room so there was nothing but the screen to look at. This way, every member of the audience would be shifting their position on the turntable to keep the screen in front of them – in one minute they would all turn 360 degrees relative to the platform surface.
In this way the visceral understanding was created in each viewer that they were turning – they were each shuffling around in a circle as the turntable ran underneath them. The view on the screen seemed to be a window to the outside world that tracked with the viewer's body's own rotation and thus revealed the panorama. It worked!
A few days before the exhibition I led Mike through the intensive process of writing a patent on the system under deadline – the exhibition would “disclose” the method and render it unpatentable afterward. I added my own contribution – a one-person audience on a swivel chair having a rotation sensor, and we both signed as inventors. Since this was Mike's first patent I encouraged him to take the status of lead inventor – he certainly deserved it – and it went through the US Patent Office in record time – clearly the examiners could find nothing anywhere like it.
The system was exhibited in several venues under the title Naimark gave it - “Be Now Here”. At one point I walked into his office as he was talking on the phone and wrote “Be NowHere” on his whiteboard, connecting the last two words into “Nowhere”. Mike broke from his phone call to say “you're the first one to get it”.