A technology genius has Silicon Valley drooling - by doing things the natural way

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 6 October 1999

You know the way the horizons in video games are often covered with mist or obscured by clouds? Or have you ever played a racing game and made the car go so fast that you could see the road and railings being drawn by the computer as you moved? That’s because the way a computer or video game console currently renders pictures and landscapes is limited by the processing power of its microchip and the capabilities of its graphics card. Things like horizons are so “far” away and difficult to draw that it’s easier to simply mask them. And since digital graphics like polygons with textured surfaces require so much memory to render, most games draw only the part of the world you are in at the time.

Each new scene or room you enter doesn’t exist until you get there. Enter Tom Barbalet, a 22-year-old Australian technology genius who has been working since he was a teenager on an alternative, much simpler way to get computers to create the simulations on which video games, virtual reality, and, eventually, networked “convergence” environments will depend. He just passed through Silicon Valley last week demonstrating his homemade graphics engine, and everyone from the designers at Nintendo to programmers at Apple has been left in shock. While early computers used to render their pictures using simple math equations to draw lines, curves, and surfaces, the invention of graphics cards and polygon engines moved things in a different direction.

Graphics technology became digital. It was the same sort of shift that occurred in electronic music. Old-style synthesisers used their own circuitry to generate sound waves - those “Moog” sounds from old horror movies. Newer keyboards contained samples of digitally recorded sounds from the real world. The more powerful the machine, the higher the sampling rate, and the more realistic the sound. CDs - a digital recording technology - sometimes sound a little cold to the ear because, subconsciously anyway, we can hear the tiny spaces between the recorded samples of music. Computers now use digital graphics to make the pictures we look at.

The graphics card in your computer or video game console contains the equivalent of “samples”of smoke, clouds, water, and dirt that a program can call upon to draw its pictures. That’s why all video games look pretty much the same. The better the picture we want, the more that has to be stored by the graphics card and rendered by the computer. This is the main reason why Intel developed its Pentium III, and Motorola/IBM/Apple the G4. Using digital graphics requires the processing power of a supercomputer. And it still looks terrible. Barbalet’s method of landscape visualisation, something he calls “the Psi standard”, dispenses with the graphics industry’s obsession with things like polygons, texture maps, and image resolution. In fact, his methods aren’t really digital at all. Motivated by a desire to create high-quality graphics on very low-end machines, Barbalet happened upon the answer: stick with the same analogue graphics that computers used in the old days. He decided to use the Nintendo GameBoy as a standard for how much computing power a machine should have (in other words, very, very little) and developed a series of simple equations that can be used to generate waves, textures, and shapes.

Remember how you used to draw parabolas and ellipses in maths classes? It’s the same basic idea, except Barbalet has learned how to combine these equations and many others to create an infinity of visual forms. Amazingly, many of his simple creations look more like the real world than the combinations of sampled bits used by digital machines. Why? Because Barbalet draws pictures of things in a manner much closer to the way the natural world builds them: by implementing simple commands again and again. For example, in nature, carbon atoms connect with other carbon atoms in little rings because that’s how their electrons dictate. Likewise, fern plants grow and branch off precisely as the simple commands in their DNA tells them. Nature uses simple mathematical equations to turn its matter into the complex forms we find all around us.

By letting a computer iterate simple equations repeatedly, Barbalet has found the secret to creating dense and natural-looking terrains complete with grass, water, sky, vegetation and even creatures. They look so real because they are built from the ground up, just like nature does it. Perhaps even more importantly, Barbalet’s simple graphics routines can be transmitted over modems and wires much more easily than giant digital files. That’s why Silicon Valley is drooling. He has delivered to them the key to creating virtual environments at data rates slow enough to be sent over interactive TV networks or even today’s internet. Taking another cue from nature, Barbalet has organised his entire Nervanet project as a “public access development forum”.

The contributions of enthusiasts from around the world have accelerated his efforts tremendously. His formula for using technology implies a lesson that any of us in interactive media should heed: instead of imitating nature’s results, we must recreate its processes. Only then might a virtual reality be born. You can sample Tom Barbalet’s work-in-progress on his website at www.nervana.com