Battle Stars 

In the Virtual-Reality Arena the Techies Are the Real Warriors

By Bill Mahin

Ken Olsen sat in a dark room, his body scrunched in front of a computer screen jammed with numbers. Occasionally he hit a sequence of keys, hitting them very fast. The screen emptied, then filled again with line after line of new numbers.

He hadn't been outside for three days and two nights. He didn't know it was dark out, that it was raining, that a freight train was rumbling by across the street.

It was last April, and this pretty much had been Olsen's life for 11 months--ever since he came to the renovated southwest-side factory that is the headquarters of Virtual World Entertainment. VWE designed the BattleTech Center that opened at North Pier in 1990, and since then it's opened 24 more in the U.S., Japan, Europe, and Australia. A "50 to Watch in Cyberspace" article in Newsweek last year claimed a new site opens every month--an exaggeration, Virtual World folk admit, but not a big one.

How Ken Olsen, 31, had gotten here--leaving behind a computer consultancy in Atlanta and a wife with a teaching contract to complete--was one of those accidents of proximity. In Orlando, growing up, Olsen knew J. M. Albertson, who's now Virtual World's manager of software research and development. In 1994 Albertson convinced him to come to Virtual World.

Back in high school, Olsen told me, "we were the geeks." So when their school got one of the early Tandy computers, he and Albertson were the ones designated to set it up. That being no big deal--"OK, so it runs"--they tried to come up with a way to make the "clunky" airplane game that came with it perform better.

It didn't take them long to devise a program. The first time they tried it, it worked. "From that instant on, we were programmers," Olsen said.

"I had a flash at that moment," Albertson remembered. "I knew what I wanted to do for a living."

Albertson eventually dropped out of a computer science program at the University of Central Florida--like many of the software designers at Virtual World, "I can't stand school"--and wound up working for TRW, which had a contract to build simulated launch sites for air force missiles. His team had to simulate everything that could go wrong, "anything where human error could have catastrophic effects." He was 21. The job bored him. "There was absolutely no cognitive demand to it," said Albertson. "All it was was a collection of walls and desks and blinkies. I really try not to remember too much about it."

Three years ago Virtual World hired Albertson as a consultant to work on three projects. He finished all three in seven weeks. Only after that did they tell him they'd have been happy if he'd finished one. He began working full-time 80-hour weeks. He knew he'd finally "hit a wall" when he got into three fights in two days and realized he was wrong in two of them. So he joined a health club and cut back to 40 hours for a week or so. Up to 80-plus again, he said he was so tired he could sleep for a month. What he really wanted was for "the pressure to be off and my job to be fun again."

It wasn't fun anymore because of System 4, the new version of Virtual World's game software. If VWE could get it to work, System 4 would radically upgrade the visual and audio authenticity of BattleTech and Red Planet, the two "virtual reality" adventures offered at the Virtual World centers.

But System 4 wasn't working.

BattleTech is Virtual World's original game of make-believe mayhem--"a cavalcade of carnage," to quote the introductory videotape. Red Planet at least pretends to offer an alternative to triumph by sole survivorship. A pilot can conceivably emerge victorious not by destroying his opponents but by moving the most ore through the convoluted canals and passageways of a martian mining colony. The idea is to pilot your craft as fast as possible while avoiding not only rapacious adversaries but also such obstacles as mammoth randomly closing containment doors and the suspended steel bridge that lurks just out of sight beyond a long incline.

What's key to these adventures is that they're interactive. Players at Virtual World sites compete against other humans, not against a computer or arcade game with a fixed repertoire of responses. VWE provides players with a scenario for the game, a rich visual and audial environment, and an array of tools. The players do the rest, including determining the course of action.

Jordan Weisman and Ross Babcock, the two founders of VWE, dreamed up these games. Ten programmers, five artists/animators, and a couple of software engineers made them happen. At the moment, though, just about everyone's time was devoted not to developing new adventures but to upgrading the ones they had to System 4. As the nights wore on last April and May, you began to sense the first whiffs of tension, the beginnings of desperation.

Virtual World had missed so many deadlines already that the word had almost lost its meaning. Two, however, were inflexible. One was the August 15 opening of a new System 4 center in Montreal. Why was Montreal so important? "We don't have any [of the existing] System 3s to put in," said Weisman. It would be System 4 or nothing. "We've painted ourselves into a corner. We always do this. It's like a corporate ritual."

Back in the early 80s, Weisman and Babcock began trying to raise funds to build a prototype cockpit. Even though they already ran a lucrative business publishing science fiction board games, they were unsuccessful. "Nobody could conceive of what we were trying to do," Weisman said. They concluded that "if you're doing something no one's ever done, no one will understand. You've gotta do it out of your own hide."

So with "enormous amounts of our own money," the partners underwrote the research and eventual construction of the first BattleTech Center at North Pier. When it opened in 1990, said Weisman, their idea was finally recognized as "the beginning of a new entertainment medium." (An indication of its viability is that two years ago Weisman and Babcock sold a controlling interest in Virtual World Entertainment to Tim Disney, one of the Disney heirs, for many millions of dollars. As "chief creative officer," Weisman maintains creative control of the organization.)

The other deadline facing Virtual World had more to do with esteem than commerce. This was the SIGGRAPH convention in Los Angeles starting August 6. Most of the VWE team would be going.

An acronym for the Association of Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, SIGGRAPH, said Wired magazine last summer, "has come a long way from 1973, when it was just a bunch of academics trying to figure out how to draw realistic-looking images. This year's conference will attract almost 30,000 people and will have . . . an exhibit hall full of bleeding-edge interactive entertainment systems."

This is where VWE would present its work, not to the ticket-buying public but to its peers. If the system was ready in time, and if it was received with as much enthusiasm as everyone at Virtual World thought it should be, SIGGRAPH would be payback time for all those hours, all that pressure. It was, said Albertson, a "serious glory shot."

It was also a chance for VWE to respond to its critics. "VWE has a stigma for low-quality graphics," said director of technology Bill Redmann, who'd come to Virtual World from Walt Disney Imagineering. "Our underlying technology took some criticism in the technical press for being kind of lowbrow. They were right. SIGGRAPH is an opportunity to erase that perception. We've got current tech, and we've done really well with it. But if there's glitching, crashing, and the system seems unreliable, it's not going to help our argument at all."

And with two months to go before SIGGRAPH, that's how the system seemed. The primary difficulty with System 4 was obvious: the amount of data being transmitted among the eight cockpits (the minimum number at a VWE site) was overloading the system. According to one engineer, the size of the data flow was in the neighborhood of 8 times 8 factorial thousand bits of data per second. That was 8 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 x 1,000, or 322,560,000 pieces of information every second. "This is not your typical application," one engineer said. "We're pushing a lot of things beyond the limits to which they've been tested."

This was the worst possible place to have a major problem. Until the network was operating, none of the warships could be checked to see how they handled (each class of ship should handle differently), how they looked and felt when a pilot fired a booster rocket, even how they crashed. None of the new BattleTech 'Mechs ("the most powerful war machines ever built," according to the BattleTech operations manual), none of the collision systems, none of the backgrounds, none of the weapons, none of the sounds could be tested. Everything everyone was working on hit this network bottleneck--and stopped.

Trying to come up with an analogy to explain how the basic system worked--be it System 2, System 3, or System 4--J.M. Albertson said that if Virtual World had designed my laptop computer, then Dave McCoy, VWE's creative director, would have been the one primarily responsible for the design of its type fonts. Once the broad parameters of a VWE game had been determined by the game designers, McCoy was responsible for the look of the adventure, from the overall martian setting for Red Planet to such specifics as the pitted concrete bunkers of BattleTech.

McCoy was supposed to go into medicine. "My course was plotted out for me from when I was very young," he said. "My dad's a doctor. I was going to be a doctor." So he enrolled in a premed program even though "it sucked." Because both he and his wife were in school and someone had to start paying the bills, he began working part-time for a local print shop that needed somebody to do computer graphics and typography. Eventually his wife told him, "You're not enjoying your studies, but you're loving your computer graphics." It was a telling comment. Up until that point, he said, "nothing in life worked. Everything that could go wrong did. Until I decided to do this."

He's been VWE's creative director five years.

Continuing with his analogy, Albertson said that when I strike a key on my computer, a message goes from the keyboard to my Mac's operating system, which "massages and packages" that information. Similarly, "when a player moves the joystick to turn to the left, the game's software takes the math established for the vehicle and rotates it through space, doing the equations that implement turning left."

Nothing has changed yet on either screen, my laptop's or the cockpit's. The processing for both operations is still going on in a "virtual universe," Albertson's term for "the invisible space that the code operates in.

"You really have to think of it as a place almost," he said, "as an invisible bag holding the invisible things you're sorting. You have to look at it this way or it doesn't make sense." As the person "primarily responsible for writing the actual guts of the game," said Albertson, "I work totally inside that invisible bag." It's here that the data relevant to the operation, in this case the vehicle turning to the left, are given a structure and an organization that make it possible milliseconds later for the results to be seen on-screen.

Albertson said that when Microsoft Word, my word processing system, receives a message from the operating system (the software in my computer's "invisible bag"), "it does something internally. It in effect says to itself: got this cursor thing to move, have to shift this block of text to the right, have to display this new letter [the one corresponding to the key I struck]." In the cockpit, a piece of equipment known as a "renderer" does the same thing: it interprets the processed information, the numbers indicating that the pilot wants to turn his ship to the left, and represents the movement on the screen.

"It's all done with polygons," said Ken Olsen. He's the one who takes the art prepared by Dave McCoy and the other artists and animators and prepares it for their operating system. "A triangle or a four-, five-, or six-sided polygon is the basis for all the objects that you see.

"In older renderers," he said, "they didn't have enough processing power to do anything but display polygons as polygons. You'd look at a tree and say, "That's not a tree. That's a bunch of polygons."' Now, better software and faster, higher-capacity computers allow VWE designers to add texture and "smooth shading" to their creations, so "what you see doesn't look like a bunch of polygons. It looks a lot more like an actual object being represented."

The problem with texture is that it uses so much memory. "The more performance and the neater it looks, the more it costs," Olsen said. "To texture the surface of this Blackhawk"--the type of 'Mech he was testing at the moment--"takes over a meg of memory." Eventually there could be up to ten of those figures on the screen, and "there's only enough texture for eight."

But this was a problem the "real-time simulation industry" had solved years ago. Taking advantage of the human brain's eagerness to "see" what it thinks should be there even when it isn't, Virtual World replaced detail with the illusion of detail. The "glory model" of the Blackhawk, for example, consists of 16 more polygons than the simplest version. But the glory model is necessary only when the 'Mech looms in the foreground. When it retreats into the distance fewer polygons are required to suggest it. "The brain fills in the details," Olsen said. He demonstrated with a joystick, sending the Blackhawk loping from foreground to horizon.

I didn't see the polygons "fall off." I saw the figure itself, vicious and menacing and lethal. Only when Olsen repeated the movement and pointed out when it happened could I, by squinting intently, spot the polygons vanishing as the 'Mech receded.

Normally Greg Corson, VWE's chief software engineer, would be using data Olsen and the artists and animators had created and Albertson had processed in his invisible bag to write the final code that makes things actually appear on the screen. But tonight, and for so many nights now that they must feel like years, Corson had been trying to get the network working. Of all the problems VWE has faced, said Albertson, this was "most heinous," an "ongoing nightmare" for three months.

As yet another evening ground by, Corson tried to find the cause of an error message that had suddenly begun appearing. "I only made one small change and I took it back out again when it started," he said. But the message continued to reappear, even after he went back over everything several times. He began talking to the screen. When the message showed up yet again, he muttered, "Still hates me."

Then the message went away. "Works. Don't know why," he said to himself.

Corson, like most Virtual World designers, became a full-time employee only after a period of consulting with the organization. Another college dropout, he had been in an experimental interdisciplinary engineering program at Purdue. "They screwed up with their prerequisites, so I would have had to have gone for another year. I had job offers. They didn't care if I had a degree. So far no one else has either."

It's the same with founder Jordan Weisman. Because of what he called his "romantic vision of what it would be like at sea," he attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy for a time. What he discovered was that for the first six months the academy historically "makes life hell for the new cadets" in order to reduce the size of the class by 30 percent. Weisman made sure he lasted through the probationary period, then resigned. He said both the academy and the computer science program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which he also attended for a time, "are places to go for a good career." The way he said it made "good career" sound about as appetizing as cannibalism.

Greg Corson had a good career going also--automating steel mills. He hated it. "Automation," he said, "is an evil occupation." What he was doing was controlling the movement of tons of red-hot steel. "These are extremely dangerous processes. If you do it wrong, five, six tons of steel go flying off the end of the conveyor belt." It got to the point, he said, where "I didn't want to drive up to any factory that had a sign with the number of days since their last death on it.

"It was very evil. I didn't want to do that anymore."

"I was working really late Saturday," said Garth Hermanson. "It must have been about 1 AM. I had the door to my office closed. All of a sudden I heard this crash. I stuck my head out of the office and saw these policemen in the hall."

Hermanson is the software engineer responsible for programming the Macintosh computers used at the Virtual World sites. They put Macs there, he said, because they're so user friendly. The site staff use them for scheduling, assigning players to pods, and providing postgame printouts.

"The police," said Hermanson, "had gotten ahold of J.M.'s collection of Nerf weapons [which includes bazookas and Gatling guns]. They were shooting each other with the Nerf weapons."

When they saw Hermanson, they were "a little bit startled."

He said, "I had to prove that I worked here. So I ran some of the equipment, gave them my ID card." He also pointed out that the nameplate above his monitor matched the name on his ID. "I said, "I don't think a burglar would have brought a nameplate.'

"Eventually they asked what kind of work we did here. When I told them they wanted to see.

"So we went into the pod bay. I gave them a demonstration and they played a whole ten-minute mission.

"They were going nuts, kind of like the Keystone Kops. "This is so cool,' they kept saying."

After they'd finished, they told Hermanson, "We're going to let the dogs loose now, so you'd better stay in your office."

"They were supposed to be looking for this burglar," Hermanson said. "They told me that somebody had forced entry into the building, and that's why they were down here."

People become obsessed with these games. Some have played them hundreds of times. According to Phil Stenson, former manager of VWE's North Pier site, the "most experienced vets" have played more than 3,000 games.

It's a worldwide phenomenon. The first international BattleTech competition was held two years ago in Japan, their best players and teams against ours. In the individual competition, Jordan Weisman said, "the U.S. had only one guy place in the top four." In the team competition, "we did badly."

In the second competition, held last year in Las Vegas, the U.S. fared better. A CPA from San Diego--code name "Hunter"--won the individual BattleTech competition, but the Japanese again won as a team. Weisman's assessment was that "the Japanese were incredibly well disciplined, always in formation, while the U.S. guys were like rogues." On the other hand, the U.S. team--from Chicago--won the team competition in Red Planet (which was part of the championship for the first time). In Red Planet, Weisman said, "Our guys' strategy was better. Our running and crushing was more coordinated."

Weisman's assessment was that "it didn't seem as much culturally different this year as it did guys who really knew their shit."

In mid-June VWE set BattleTech aside in order to get Red Planet--with its new graphics, new animation, new weapon systems, new backgrounds, and new sound effects--ready in time for SIGGRAPH and Montreal. This decision did nothing to solve the problems with the network. Night after night Greg Corson sat slumped in front of his monitor looking at code line by line. Late one night I came in while he waited for his computer to process some data. He was fast asleep.

Two weeks later I returned. It was the night of June 26 and SIGGRAPH was 41 days away. The minute I walked in several designers came up and told me, "Right after you leave something cool always happens."

The problems with the network--they said--had been fixed. Not perfectly, but well enough that this was the third evening of play testing. I could hear shouts and whoops coming from the pod bay as the invited experts--a consumer electronics salesman, a waiter, and a programmer for the Department of Transportation--took on some of the even more experienced staff from North Pier.

"Eventually," said Dave McCoy, "it came to the point where there was a cockpit, and there was a game, and there was sound, and all of a sudden the pieces came together and we were blown away. We who were so incredibly jaded. To have finally reached the peak of Kilimanjaro--after the 32nd avalanche you finally start to doubt ever getting there."

The network problem was resolved--everyone said--when Albertson came up with a way to drastically reduce the flow of data by introducing a system of dead reckoning. Instead of constantly monitoring a ship's progress, every so often the computer would compare its predicted position to its actual one and make corrections as required. The change reduced the network's flow of data from hundreds of thousands of pieces of information per second to several thousand.

The system still wasn't perfect. The lingering trouble, Corson said, "seems to be network-related," which sounded like Sigourney Weaver discovering that maybe they hadn't killed all the aliens after all. To celebrate, some of the designers and engineers decided to play a series of games after the testers left. There being an empty pod, I got to play with them.

I signed on as code name "Disaster."

It was immediately apparent that this was radically different from the early System 2 version of Red Planet I'd played at North Pier. There was vastly more detail. Now I could actually see ore moving on conveyor belts as my ship screamed by, bouncing off walls and canal bottoms. The sound effects were right there--the engines, the clanking machinery, the painful scraping whenever I hit something.

"Basically what happens with the audio," said sound designer Eric Huffman, is that "as opposed to having finely sculpted sound samples that sound the same every time you play them back, our system has got like a big vat of samples that have been carefully designed to be combined and edited together in real time to produce something that sounds like a real entity. As another craft moves by you the sound actually passes from the rear to the front [of the cockpit]. You also hear Doppler shifts. You have this real sense of movement."

Less than a minute into Red Planet, I took a grade too fast and hit a suspension bridge head-on. I crashed, burned, and died. The nice thing about Red Planet, though, is that no matter how badly you screw up or get creamed you get "reborn." And I got lucky--I was reborn right on an opponent's tail. I fired, kept firing, on and on, over and over. The ship in front of me fell away in flames and smoke.

But one game later my ship had no thrust at all. All I could do was wallow in a canal, powerless and vulnerable. The other players blew me apart as they blazed by. And I came back again just as helpless and immobile.

This was more than one player's humiliation. Something was wrong. By the end of the next game an array of problems had cropped up in other cockpits and it was clear that at least one major bug still remained in the network, one error especially nasty and hard to find because it was cumulative, a bug that didn't appear every game but built to crippling force after a series of games.

It was around 11 PM and everyone--Weisman, Albertson, McCoy, Corson--stood around trying to figure out the new catastrophe. They all looked exhausted, ashen. Perhaps they'd met their true enemy--their own hubris in thinking they could accomplish so much, so quickly, with so few resources.

It would take enormous skill and obsession to find this bug. And yet, Albertson would argue, unearthing a problem in code, which is where this bug must be hiding, was a challenge of a lower order than trying to master a concept. Like the concept of long division, when he was a kid. Or the concepts required to design a System 4.

He'd tried to figure out long division for months. Then one afternoon, "I was sitting at my dad's desk in the basement of his church working on it, and all of a sudden I realized what they were doing. I finally got it. That was a defining moment. The first time I felt the "Eureka' feeling."

Such breakthrough moments had been the high points in his life. One was when he and Ken Olsen reprogrammed the airplane game in high school. Another was at Virtual World. "I'd been trying to figure out why collisions in Red Planet were sticking all the time. What was happening was the computer was viewing the different elements of the crash as separate pieces rather than one event. What we had to do was get the computer to look at all the disjointed parts as one. I'd been working on it a good six or eight weeks. Everything I tried broke something else. Then one night I went to the store to buy cheese. As I grabbed the cheese out of the bin I saw how it was arranged. The idea began to form as to how I could solve this problem. The next day I'd solved it.

"They're extremely rare, but these are powerful moments, these moments of clarity. They can never be taken away."

To Albertson, then, this new problem with the network, regardless of its difficulty and complexity, was of a significantly lower order. The network, he said, confronted him on the level of, "I know what it's supposed to do. I know something's gone wrong. Let's go find it."

Albertson spent a Saturday searching for the bug. He was working in what Bill Redmann called "a dark realm of software, a very low-level, primitive realm where you really have to be very careful and have to know what you're doing. A little ignorance will render you completely inoperable."

"The problem," said Albertson, was that "you could follow what was going on to a certain point. Then you would reach a point you could not follow, where you couldn't see what was happening. You were moving from one area of your application--Red Planet--into the network driver [which allows the computer to talk to the network]. It was in that interface that something was going wrong."

And at that interface, said Albertson, "you couldn't see anything. You could only do it by logic." Other software engineers had searched the operating code for errors by throwing the code's endless lines of numbers on his screen. Albertson hunted blind. "It's like working with a watch and trying to find out what's wrong without opening up the watch."

But by the end of the day Albertson had found the error.

As might have been expected, given the history of the network, correcting those hidden lines of code turned out to be what Bill Redmann called "the lifting of a curtain that was masking a number of other errors." But the new bugs seemed of a different order from the old--not so malevolent, not so hidden, more easily fixable.

So while work on System 4 continued with a measure of deadline-induced desperation, the gloom had lifted. Virtual World now had a fallback version of Red Planet they knew would run a fair number of times without crashing, probably enough times to get them through SIGGRAPH.

But Corson kept working on the bugs that remained. One of the thorniest he hoped to correct before taking off for Los Angeles was causing the system to crash occasionally when it started up. Solving this one meant that Corson had to devise a way to capture data from thousands of files for several hundred start-ups (since the system was crashing roughly once every 25 starts, he had to have data from at least that many start-ups from each of the eight cockpits). With that data as a reference he hoped to be able to diagnose the problem the next time the system crashed. He was waiting for that to happen.

One thing that concerned him was the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. He couldn't be sure that the code he was inserting into the program to capture the data wasn't changing the nature of the problem, or even creating a new one.

Bill Redmann was already out on the coast, overseeing the mounting of the VWE exhibit at SIGGRAPH. Albertson, McCoy, Olsen, and Huffman would straggle in later, bringing discs and hard drives loaded with last-minute fixes and changes. Greg Corson showed up even later with his solution to the start-up problem.

Each time I dropped in on the VWE exhibit over the next several days the excitement was palpable. The lines to play Red Planet never dwindled, and the network never crashed. "SIGGRAPH went pretty much the same every day," Albertson said later. "Lines were long, crowds were big." The experience put him through "head swelling and all that good stuff."

Corson said he had fun telling people there wasn't an Onyx or even a Silicone Graphics (superexpensive computers) running the system. When people wouldn't believe him, he'd say, "Here, look behind the counter."

Huffman said several people told him the sound made the game.

Dave McCoy said a financial reporter specializing in interactive media told him, "OK, you've set the standard."

There was a different kind of reward for Ken Olsen. "I had previously thought about what we were doing in terms of handicapped people, who can't necessarily play any sport they want, who can't necessarily ride a horse or race a car. I recognized virtual reality as something they can possibly participate in on an equal plane with nonhandicapped people.

"We had someone come by in a wheelchair. He was a middle-aged man. He had only minimal problems getting into the cockpit. He did well. He had a good time."

Of the hundreds of exhibits at SIGGRAPH, Virtual World's was the one mentioned by the New York Times:

"Thomas Dolby, the British electronic music wizard, dropped by because, he said, he just had to have a try. Beside him was Peter Schneider, the elfin head of the Walt Disney Company's animation studio, who also wandered in uninvited for a spin. Within minutes both had been transformed into delighted intergalactic virtual warriors.

"There was much to inspire awe and amusement at the huge Siggraph computer graphics trade show here last week, but what had piqued the interest of these two men was Virtual World Entertainment, the creator of a theme park in a box, a new vision of what a video arcade game can be."

After SIGGRAPH, the System 4 version of Red Planet opened successfully and on time in Montreal, and it's since been installed at North Pier as well as in Kyoto, Sydney, and Indianapolis. But the System 4 version of BattleTech remains a work in progress. Getting it ready has been "an uphill climb, a long process that continues to drag on and on," says Weisman. An acceptable version is at least several weeks away.

Douglas Trumbull is one of Dave McCoy's heroes. McCoy, who says, "I've read every detail published about him ever since I was a kid," calls him "the preeminent guy in special effects forever. Stanley Kubrick came and found him when he wanted to do 2001.

"All of a sudden," McCoy remembers, "the guy shows up at the booth. I've met famous folk a few times, but not one I've had any particular reverence for."

"Of course he brings an entourage," says J.M. Albertson. "I'm way back in a corner watching his face [as Trumbull watched a game on a monitor], and there's this one spontaneous moment when something happened, and there's this slow smile of genuine amusement coming over his face." It was perhaps not unlike the one on Albertson's face as he tells the story.

Greg Corson told Trumbull how the game was played, Albertson explained how the operating software worked, and McCoy described the history of the project.

"As I was doing this," says McCoy, "Ken is whispering in my ear that one of the pods has blown up. The computer has died. I'm talking and thinking how ironic this is--just before the VIP shows up, that's exactly when the system will fail. Albertson and Corson and Olsen and the site guys are struggling to bring it on-line, and I'm stretching things with Trumbull in hopes they'd get it running.

"Finally I gave up. I turned around just as J.M. was closing the door on the pod. He said, "It's all set. Who wants to go in?' and Doug says, "I'll go in,' and immediately steps into the pod that had just come back on line.

"He came out of the pod smiling like crazy," Corson says.

"He commented on some things that he felt needed improvement," Dave McCoy says, "so I don't think he was just saying things to be courteous. I think he was legitimately impressed.

"I was pretty charged up afterwards. It was sort of like, it's one thing to play at Carnegie Hall and get good reviews--which is what we were doing--and it's another thing to have Jascha Heifetz come backstage and say, "Wow, this is really impressive.'

"Then the angels and seraphim disappeared and it was all over."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Steven Arazmus.

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