Matthew D. Bean
by Jay Mangum
The first computer game created by David Smith, AB81, almost
featured an Indiana Joneslike character and the U of Cs
Oriental Institute. But necessity forced him to change his plan
when, he allows, I realized I couldnt draw faces.
The story line morphed from one idea to another until Smith arrived
at characters more amenable to his drawing skillsaliens. He
set to work on his answer to a gaming world trapped in two dimensionsa
first-person, 3-D adventure through an alien-infested spaceship
called The Colony.
One of the first interactive 3-D computer games, The Colony
launched Smiths computer gaming career 12 years ago. Soon
after, he founded Cary, North Carolinabased Virtus
Corporation, now a leading designer of 3-D desktop computer
technology for business applications, visualization software, and
entertainment. He later helped spin off Red
Storm Entertainment as an independent game company with author
and Virtus backer Tom Clancy.
Smiths most recent venture is another computer gaming company,
Timeline Studios, formed
with author Michael Crichton and Hollywood visual-effects expert
Michael Backes. Named CEO of Timeline in May 1999, Smith hopes to
develop 3-D computer games that establish new standards for realism
and interactivity. The companys first title, Timeline,
is scheduled for release in summer 2000, following the publication
of Crichtons book of the same name this fall.
Smith is confident that the companys games will offer an
alternative to violent titles like Quake and Doom,
called shooters, that some people have linked to mass
killings such as the Columbine massacre. Shooter games are
an industry crutch, Smith says. Easy to make because they
dont require much of a story line, and easy to play because
a player merely targets and shoots as many enemies as possible,
shooters have flourished as game companies have exploited consumer
demand for the formulaic titles.
Smith feels, however, that people are looking for something
new now. With an emphasis on mixing a rich, virtual world
with a detailed story line, he hopes that games such as Timeline
will pull players into a virtual environment using action and adventure,
Smith came to gaming by way of his interest in artificial intelligence
(AI). Working in a U of C lab, Smith concluded that AInot
scraping and analyzing the gray matter of lamb brains, as he was
doingwas the best way to study the brain. After graduating,
Smith went to work for an AI firm in Boston, building a system to
diagnose brain damage. On the side, he began to dabble in programming,
focusing on ways to represent detailed worlds that were truly interactiveapproximating
life, much as AI does the brain. In 1986, following stints at Boston
software and robotics firms, he put the finishing touches on The
Colony after three years of work.
Released in 1987 by a company called Mindscape, The Colony
sold almost 100,000 copies and attracted such high-profile contacts
as Backes and Clancy. Users were drawn to Smiths detailed
storytelling and his novel use of 3-D technology, which created
a fast-paced en-
vironment that let players navigate a surrogate reality as though
they were in the game themselves. Improving upon the suspension
of disbelief required for conventional 2-D games, The Colony plotted
players against a diverse cast of villains and a twisted network
of passages replete with difficult puzzles.
The biggest challenge in designing The Colony, says Smith,
was finding a way to reduce the processing load required to run
a 3-D game. 3-D worlds and characters are composed of skeletal structures,
or polygons, upon which 2-D textures and designs are mapped. The
more polygons that compose an environment and the more detailed
the textures that cover them, the more realistic the environment
appears. Each polygon is tracked and positioned by the computer,
and the screen has to be redrawn each time the player or other elements
in the game move, making the processing load on the computer too
substantial for the slow systems and small memory reserves of 1980s
It was a balancing act between having enough memory to draw
pretty pictures and having enough to make things move around,
he says. But Smith was able to minimize the processing load by using
streamlined sets of data. Its almost a compression method,
he explains. You build a model and turn it into an image thats
viewed from a particular position. Then you move the position and
reconstitute the image.
Smiths 3-D innovation impressed Backes, who was working
with director James Cameron on the 1989 movie The Abyss.
Backes, recently named by Premiere magazine as one of the
top ten contributors to the digital revolution in cinema, offered
Smith a gig with the sci-fi drama. Using The Colonys
program architecture, Smith constructed a virtual, walk around
version of the set, saving millions of dollars in construction costs
by showing that an entire portion of the set would never appear
on screen and thus did not have to be built.
Thriller writer Tom Clancy was so taken with the The Colonys
technology and story line that he asked to become an investor in
Smiths next project. In 1990backed by Clancy, his own
family, and profits from The ColonySmith founded Virtus
Corporation, serving as chairman of the board and chief technology
officer. He remains on the board as its chair.
At Virtus, Smith worked to find new ways to use 3-D technology
for both business and entertainment purposes. With only three engineers,
Smith produced Virtus WalkThrough, a program that gave mainstream
desktop computer users the ability to walk through homes,
office buildings, cities, and other environments. In particular,
he says, architects, landscapers, and set designers could get
a feel for 3-D environments like static images simply cannot do.
The productthe companys firstwon the 1990 MacUser
choice award for breakthrough product of the year; the Windows version
earned the PC Computing MVP award and Window Magazines
Win100 award. This was the turning point for Virtus,
Smith recalls. We were definitely perceived as cutting edge.
We were doing stuff that people had only dreamed about.
Virtus technology has also helped ClosetMaid consultants build
custom closet configurations on their laptop PCs and companies like
Mitsubishi, Simon & Schuster, and The Learning Company produce
entertainment, lifestyle, and multimedia products. And the success
of the companys Tom Clancys SSN, a game simulating
a nuclear submarine, led to the formation of Red Storm.
Smith now plans to apply Virtus technology to projects at his
new Timeline venture. Last year, Virtus achieved an idea Smith had
been mulling over and refining for years: a system architecture
for 3-D programming. Among other applications, Virtuss OpenSpace
3D architecture can be used to create 3-D Internet sites, 3-D catalogs,
and 3-D sales and marketing materialsall from a desktop computer
rather than some other higher-end workstation.
Timeline plans to use OpenSpace 3D to add interactivity to games,
Smith says. A game designer will be able to make changes in a games
worldinserting or repositioning different objects and characters
in a scene, for examplewithout having to reprogram them each
time. With such a drag and drop type of architecture,
Smith says, The amount of flexibility in design becomes tremendous.
Crichton said in a press release that he has big plans for the
technology: As a computer gamer for the past 20 years, Ive
noticed a lot of 3-D games have featured large environmentsbig
worlds, a few monsters, some puzzlesbut limited interaction.
Timeline is going to change this standard through fast-paced gameplay
in a tight, complex, and highly interactive world.
Smith says the new games should clear the way for the average
computer user to become familiar with 3-D technology. He sees the
games as vehicles for his far-reaching ideas: Doing games
again is the right thing to do for the next few years.
Ultimately, he envisions 3-D operating systems replacing 2-D systems
like MacOS and Windows. Windowing systems overlap and hide
information, he notes, whereas an interactive 3-D environment
allows you to see a forest.
As in the 1980s, however, Smiths ideas are again constrained
by conventional hardware. The hardware, bandwidth, and architectures
arent there, he says. OpenSpace offers an ideal
platform for doing something like a 3-D operating system, but its
going to be a while before the user-interface side truly evolves
to a point where its ready to accept 3-D.
For now, Smith is excited to be part of what he calls the new
renaissance of computers. At Timeline, Smith says, I
get a chance to explore some of the ideas Ive kept pent up
over the last ten years about interactive entertainment. I think
we have something to prove, but I think we have something that is
unique and different to offer.
Matthew D. Bean, 00, is a double major in
biology and psychology and a former Magazine intern.