Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future 
The road to virtual reality goes back to 15,000 B.C.E. and a game from id Software (no, not Doom).
This post is part of a longform project I’m serializing exclusively in my newsletter, Disruptor. It’s a follow-up to my first book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Built an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, and it’s called Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future. To follow along, please subscribe to Disruptor and spread the word. Thanks!
id Software took baby steps into virtual reality with their 1991 one game, Hovertank.
Greetings newsletter readers. I hope you’ve been enjoying my Tuesday installments of Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future. In the first part, we traced the evolution of the metaverse from the yellowed pages of old sci-fi novels through Facebook’s rebranding as Meta this year. In the second part, we took a “shortcut to the future,” as he puts it, with id Software co-founder and Oculus consulting CTO John Carmack in a series of in-depth interviews.
Starting today, we’re going to head into the next section, tracing the long strange trip into virtual and augmented reality. It’s a story I’ve been following for decades, and I’ll share my insights and encounters here. Among other things, we’ll go behind-the-scenes at a top secret military simulation developer and see how a teenager Doom fan brought VR goggles mainstream. I’ll kick it off next week by checking back in with id Software co-founder Tom Hall, who’s developing VR games today at Resolution Games.
But first, let’s look back at how this got started, and how id Software ignited the modern VR age with their 1991 game, Hovertank. This is an excerpt from the chapter “More Fun Than Real Life” from my book Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Built an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture.
While the other guys were pushing their envelopes, Carmack was pushing his own, specifically, into 3-D. Because he was a craftsman engineer, 3-D was the obvious next step for him. Three-dimensional graphics were the holy grail for many programmers as well. To split hairs, the games weren’t really three-dimensional in the 3-D movie sense of the term; the term meant that graphics had a real sense of solid dimensions. Often these games were created from the first-person point of view. The whole idea was to make the player feel as if he were
Though Carmack was not aware of it, he was joining a pursuit that had begun thousands of years before. The dream of a realistic, immersive, interactive experience had consumed humankind for millennia. Some believed it to be a primal desire. Dating from 15,000 B.C.E., cave paintings in Lascaux, in the south of France, were considered to be among the first “immersive environments,” with images that would give the inhabitant the feeling of entering another world.
In 1932, Aldous Huxley described a futuristic kind of movie experience called feelies in his novel
Brave New World
. Combining three-dimensional imagery as well as olfactory and tactile effects, the feelies, he wrote, were “dazzling and incomparably more solid looking than they would have seemed in actual flesh and blood, far more real than reality.” Ray Bradbury imaginea similar experience in his 1950 short story “The Veldt,” which presented, essentially, a view of the first virtual reality room. A family has a special room that can project any scene they imagine on the surrounding walls. Problems arise when an African vision becomes entirely too real.
Soon technologists began efforts to realize these immersive environments. In 1955, the Hollywood cinematographer Morton Heilig described his work on “the Cinema of the future,” which, he wrote, “will far surpass the Feelies of Aldous Huxley’s
Brave New World
.” With a novelty machine called the Sensorama, which combined sights, sounds, and smells of urban landscapes, Heilig’s aim was to create an illusion considerably more immersive than those of the tacky 3-D movies of the time. The goal, he said, was a situation “so lifelike that it gives the spectator the sensation of being
in the scene.”
Convincing immersion was not just a matter of multimedia preening, it was a matter of interactivity–an essential ingredient and allure of computer games. Interactive immersive environments were the pet project of a University of Wisconsin computer artist named Myron Krueger. Throughout the 1970s, Krueger created Veldt-like experiences, sometimes achieved by projecting the images of audience members–even those in remote locations–on giant landscape screens. “The environments,” he wrote, “suggest a new art medium based on a commitment to real-time interaction between men and machines… This context is an artificial reality within which the artist has complete control of the laws of cause and effect… Response is the medium!” One such project, called
, let audience members try to navigate through an image of a maze that was projected in a room.
By the 1980s interactive immersions had taken on a new name: virtual reality. The author William Gibson coined the term cyberspace in his influential 1984 novel,
, to describe an interactive online world that existed between computer networks. In the late 1980s, Scott Fisher, an engineer at the NASA-Ames Research Center, combined a head-mounted display and data-transmitting hand gloves in what became the archetype of the virtual reality interface. Through these tools, users could enter a virtual world in which they could manipulate objects and proceed in a first-person three-dimensional point of view.
The end effect, Fisher wrote in 1989, is a “kind of electronic persona. For interactive theater or interactive fantasy applications, these styles might range from fantasy figures to inanimate objects, or different figures to different people. Eventually, telecommunication networks may develop that will be configured with virtual environment servers for users to dial into remotely in order to interact with each others virtual proxies… The possibilities of virtual realities, it appears, are as limitless as the possibilities of reality. They can provide a human interface that disappears–as a doorway to other worlds.”
Carmack’s research into 3-D computer games was on a more intuitive level. Though he was a fan of science fiction, enamored of
’s Holodeck, his focus was not on chipping away at some grand design of such a virtual world, but, rather, on solving the immediate problem of the next technological advance.
He had been experimenting with 3-D graphics since making his wireframe MTV logos on his Apple II. Since then, several games had experimented with first-person 3-D points of view. In 1980, Richard Garriott employed this perspective in his very first role-playing game,
. Two years later an Apple II game from Sirius Software called Wayout wowed gamers and critics with a first-person maze game. But it was flight simulations, putting the player in the cockpits of a variety of airplanes, that exploited this kind of immersion. In 1990, Richard Garriott’s company, Origin, released a space-themed combat flight simulator called
, which became a favorite around the id lake house.
Carmack figured he could do better. Flight sims, he thought, were painfully slow, bogged down by their heavy graphics and leaving the player to snail through the game play. What he and the others preferred was the fast action of arcade games like
. While the other guys worked on
Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion
, Carmack tried to see how he might do something that hadn’t been done before: create a fast action game iThe problem, he found, was that the PC was not powerful enough to handle such a game. Carmack read up on the topic but found nothing adequate for his solution. He approached the dilemma as he had in Keen: try the obvious approach first; if that fails, think outside the box. One of the reasons for a 3-D same’s slow speed was that the computer had to draw too many surfaces at once. Carmack had an idea. What if he commanded the computer to draw only a few surfaces at a time, the way one would put blinders on a horse? Rather than draw, in this case, arbitrary polygons, he designed a program that would draw only sideways trapezoids–in other words, walls but no ceilings or floors.
To get the computer to draw at the fastest possible speed, Carmack tried another nontraditional approach, known as raycasting. Instead of drawing out a large slab of graphics, which required a lot of memory and power, raycasting instructed the computer to paint a thin vertical strip of graphics at a time, based on the players point of view. The bottom line: raycasting meant speed. Carmack’s final challenge was to add characters in the 3-D world. The solution was to incorporate simple though convincing graphical icons or sprites.
had used a calculation that told the computer to reduce or scale the size of the sprite depending on the player’s location. By combining these so-called scaled sprites with his limited polygons and raycasting, Carmack was able to brew up a fast 3-D world.
Carmack emerged from his research after six weeks, two weeks longer than he had spent on any other game. When Romero saw the technology, he was once again impressed by the Whiz Kid. They discussed what kind of game could best exploit the new engine. They settled on a futuristic world in which the player, driving a tank, had to rescue people from nuclear Armageddon. Released in April 1991,
was the first fast-action, first-person shooter for the computer. Id had invented a genre.