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By Matthew D. Bean
Photograph by Jay Mangum

The first computer game created by David Smith, AB’81, almost featured an Indiana Jones–like character and the U of C’s Oriental Institute. But necessity forced him to change his plan when, he allows, “I realized I couldn’t draw faces.” The story line morphed from one idea to another until Smith arrived at characters more amenable to his drawing skills—aliens. He set to work on his answer to a gaming world trapped in two dimensions—a 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 Smith’s computer gaming career 12 years ago. Soon after, he founded Cary, North Carolina–based 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.

Smith’s 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 company’s first title, Timeline, is scheduled for release in summer 2000, following the publication of Crichton’s book of the same name this fall.

Smith is confident that the company’s 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 don’t 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, not violence.

Smith came to gaming by way of his interest in artificial intelligence (AI). Working in a U of C lab, Smith concluded that AI—not scraping and analyzing the gray matter of lamb brains, as he was doing—was 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 interactive—approximating 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 Smith’s 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 hardware.

“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. “It’s almost a compression method,” he explains. “You build a model and turn it into an image that’s viewed from a particular position. Then you move the position and reconstitute the image.”

Smith’s 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 Colony’s 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 Colony’s technology and story line that he asked to become an investor in Smith’s next project. In 1990—backed by Clancy, his own family, and profits from The Colony—Smith 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 product—the company’s first—won the 1990 MacUser choice award for breakthrough product of the year; the Windows version earned the PC Computing MVP award and Window Magazine’s 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 company’s Tom Clancy’s 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, Virtus’s OpenSpace 3D architecture can be used to create 3-D Internet sites, 3-D catalogs, and 3-D sales and marketing materials—all 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 game’s world—inserting or repositioning different objects and characters in a scene, for example—without 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, I’ve noticed a lot of 3-D games have featured large environments—big worlds, a few monsters, some puzzles—but 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, Smith’s ideas are again constrained by conventional hardware. “The hardware, bandwidth, and architectures aren’t there,” he says. “OpenSpace offers an ideal platform for doing something like a 3-D operating system, but it’s going to be a while before the user-interface side truly evolves to a point where it’s 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 I’ve 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.

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