Thursday, October 28, 2004

Slashdot interview with Neal Stephenson

On Slashdot there's a great interview with Neal Stephenson that I recommend to anyone fond of geek fiction. For those that don't know, Stephenson's brilliant novel "Snow Crash" was the primary inspiration for "The Matrix" movies. (Though William Gibson fans might contest that). I became a Stephenson fan when I was in the avatar business about ten years ago, and even had a brief but distant brush with his work.

In the mid-late 1990's I was invited to Industrial Light and Magic to give a presentation and demo of the state-of-the-art in PC-based avatar technology. My company, a London-based simulation developer, was at the time way ahead of the industry in producing photo-realistic 3D avatars that could run in real-time over the internet on an unaccelerated PC. ILM's virtual characters were all high-end SGI-based graphics that took hours of processing time just to render a few frames. ILM built for the hi-res silver screen; we built for a pixelated 14-inch monitor. They had been tasked by a company that had just acquired the movie rights to Stephenson's Snow Crash to come up with a production design for a movie to star Keanu Reeves, during much of which he would be an avatar, a virtual character existing inside cyberspace. ILM needed to know what the near-future would actually look like.

In those days ILM's San Raphael premises were well-camouflaged, looking for all the world like a furniture rental business. On walking through the door the full-size Empire stormtrooper parked in the reception area dissipated the illusion. The place had bits of movie models strewn around everywhere: the death star model was sitting on a bookshelf in a passageway, the chunnel train from Mission Impossible gathered dust on top of a filing cabinet. Out in the back lot were some less-shabby models for current productions that I was asked not to notice.

I walked into the boardroom in my NY-LON look: dark suit, tie and shades, and discovered the CEO and everyone else on the production design team in shorts, sandals, and polo shirts. Somebody politely said they were expecting someone more weird, and that I looked like an anti-geek from the bizarro world, dude. Perhaps I inspired the look of Agent Smith. Perhaps not.

The Stephenson interview is interesting, as is his writing, because he is not an author trying to imagine a sci-fi future: he is first and foremost a hacker, with a geek's understanding of technology.

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