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Wizards of Odd

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Christopher Gardner

Virtual Colonizers: The Icelandic whiz kids of Oz specialize in 3-D science-fiction worlds, complete with sounds and multiple users who interact in real time.

Hidden behind the tall dogs like Microsoft and Sun, tucked into the big white tent, the I-net World's visionaries were not in Kansas

By Richard Sine

PERHAPS ONE day we will not be able to tell if we are in Silicon Valley or Virtual Valley, and it really won't matter much. We will wake up on a bleary Saturday morning trying to remember whether we spent Friday night at the Agenda or the Hyperlink Lounge, whether the pounding in our head is from a cocktail or a fractal, whether that strange woman lounging next to us in bed is flesh and blood or just a particularly skillful avatar. Is that a searing noonday sun in the middle of winter, or have we merely forgotten to log off?

Maybe "Internet World" will become a redundancy when the Web has colonized every corner of the Real. But in the meanwhile, we'll have to do with the real Internet World conference that descended last week upon downtown San Jose, its small city of attendees taking over virtually every parking space, every hotel suite, every barstool in town.

This was the largest trade show San Jose has ever hosted, with every inch of the six-acre convention center in use. The conference has grown so quickly that it has outgrown the city; the next show, in March, will be held at the much larger convention center in Los Angeles. However, an Internet World sponsor spokesman hinted that smaller Internet-related shows could be on their way to San Jose.

Forty thousand people did have an impact on this town, and not just through the $5.7 mil they threw at restaurants and other local businesses. Conferees clogged the streets, making left turns when they should have gone right. They wore their tags all over town, trusting that San Jose was the only big city in the country where this would not get them jumped. Yellow-winged biplanes circled the air trailing yellow advertising banners. Most every art gallery in town was rented out for exclusive schmoozes hosted by the biggest tech firms.

Inside the center, the hype rose to such a pitch that the real and the virtual sometimes became indistinguishable. An ad in the show directory advertised, "WebWhirl will allow you to participate in the ultimate unreality. Gradient and other corporate sponsors will turn Paramount's Great America Entertainment Park into the show's coolest live Web site. This is the event to attend at Internet World. The park will be open for a select 2,000 browsers ... all rides will be FREE."

So, do we actually go to Great America for free, or do we just visit a Web page that shows how much fun other people are having? A trip to the Gradient booth revealed: yes, the company was renting out Great America for the night; no, there was no Web page associated with the venture at all. So where, exactly, was the "ultimate unreality" here?

UNFORTUNATELY, much of the real excitement in Santa Clara County last week remained at Great America, leaving reporters in seach of color doomed to wander the floor with an ever-deepening sense of despair. Compared with Atlanta's sporting goods show, which featured Charles Barkley, the 1995 Playmate of the Year and stunt rollerblading, Hitachi's starving college students dressed in gorilla costumes ("Zooworks! Taming the World Wide Web") just doesn't measure up.

If the Web is a revolution on a par with the TV or telephone, as Microsoft guru Bill Gates claimed in his satellite-transmitted keynote address, then it was hard to catch much of the excitement at this generally sober affair. It seems that just as technology is really about to make some mind-blowing things happen on the Net--just when imagination should be more precious than gold--the business world is focusing the best way to sell things online without fumbling their customers' credit cards or their own trade secrets.

Veteran Web conference exhibitors said some of the wild-eyed excitement about the Web was over. Instead, the focus these days is how to turn a profit. "There's less nerds and more businesspeople," confirmed Kevin Cronin of CBT. "Real businesspeople trying to solve real problems."

"People are a lot more sophisticated now," said another exhibitor, Kevin Henderson of WebTrack in Manhattan. "Last year people would ask me what the Web was. This year, they have a product, or they know exactly what they're looking for."

Recently, computer industry analysts have predicted that many companies who set up public Web sites will soon conclude that the still-paltry profits from online advertising and shopping aren't worth the ransom of a gold-toothed Webmaster. So they'll abandon ship, and by the end of the year, the Web may be littered with thousands of outdated "ghost sites." The focus this year, then, has become how businesses will communicate with each other and with their own employees rather than the world at large.

The hottest development at the conference is what's called the "intranet." If the Internet allows you to communicate with the world, the intranet is exclusively for people who work for your company. As Microsoft's exhibition showed, the intranet is beginning to look a lot like the Internet. Your boss may soon be sending messages to your Web page rather than your mailbox. Which means that the Net will soon entangle the life of your average Joe Lunchpail in a way that the external Internet hasn't yet managed to do.

That is actually pretty exciting if you have any idea what, exactly, the Net of the future will look like. Yet the people who actually create what you will be seeing on the Net were hard to find. The few visionaries on hand were relegated to the canvas tent, where the air conditioning was spotty and Clifford Stoll's skeptical screed Silicon Snake Oil was nonetheless the bestseller at the Cody's bookstand.

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Christopher Gardner

Theme-Challenged: Tropical temperatures roasted some exhibitors when the tent's AC gave out.

ONCE YOU get a look at the Oz Virtual exhibit, it is impossible to stop staring. Inside the big, white tent, people are exploring gorgeous science-fiction worlds on their computer screens: a spaceship universe with the dark-neutral, Art Deco feel of a scene from Dune. They choose their own character, or avatar, and travel through the world, chatting, dancing, shopping, conferencing. (The characters look like they're from a Lego set, but it really doesn't matter; a technical limitation is now part of a quite pleasing aesthetic. High Modernism becomes High Tech.)

Then there's the exhibit itself, a black two-story scaffolding draped with a gray metallic mesh. Somewhere in the scaffolding a couple of stereo speakers are pumping house music onto the floor. Oz prodigies (average age: 25) dressed in black t-shirts and jeans are cruising around the exhibit, conferring with each other in Icelandic and with visitors in perfect English. Not all of them are tall, blond and beautiful--it only seems that way. (The other companies hire aspiring models and actresses, known in the trade as "booth bunnies," to lure conferees to their booth. At Oz, these women are the whiz kids' girlfriends.)

A new version of the virtual-reality programming language which has just come out allows programmers to design three-dimensional, moving worlds, complete with sounds and multiple users who can relate in real time. While other companies are designing programs that allow your average Joe to design these worlds himself, Oz took matters into its own hands and created its own world. In the very near future--as in a few weeks from now--anybody with a decent computer and an Internet connection should be able to hook up to a Web site containing one of these three-dimensional universes.

The Oz kids' effortless Eurostyle is not a frill; it's a competitive advantage. Gudjon Mar Gudjonsson, the 24-year-old CEO, recognizes that when your operating system is not a "shell" but an entire world, you better offer something cooler than a blinking cursor. "The line between the content and the software program is really blurring, especially on the Internet," he says. And Oz is prepared: most of the kids have backgrounds in graphic design and music as well as computers. They have offices in Reykjavik and Los Angeles, and plan to be in San Francisco later this year.

At the end of the conference's first day, a crowd of conferees streams out of the convention center into the scorching heat. As they head down San Carlos Street toward the hotels and cafés, they pass Oz's Thor and Sola sitting in a service-delivery doorway of Il Fornaio, dragging hard at their cigarettes, arguing or merely stressing, Sola's black velvet thigh-highs sticking out into foot traffic. It's some kind of international sympathetic connection with San Jose street youth culture, the only difference being the conference tags still hanging from their necks.

VIRTUAL REALITY made only a scanty appearance at the Web conference, but someone has managed to organize a VR seminar at the last minute. It takes place on Wednesday evening after everyone else at the conference has retired to their hotels.

Little start-up companies that don't even have the money to purchase a conference booth are here. They are walking us through a virtual art museum. Then we're flying through a city. Then we're cruising over the Earth from the perspective of a satellite. A Campbell company called ParaGraph, led by a phalanx of Russian mathematical geniuses, leads us around a verdant landscape where a river flows alongside a Gothic castle. The program's creator drops a butterfly into the picture and then shifts the virtual "camera" so we see the landscape from the perspective of the moving butterfly. Then he sends a schooner down the river and shoots a cannonball at the castle. We get a moving view of the castle first from the perspective of the schooner, then from the cannonball as it hurtles towards the castle.

Meanwhile, the Oz kids are dashing up and down the aisles, frantic. They had been working all night in their hotel rooms to set up a demonstration of their pioneering work in motion capture--as in, if you move your arm, your avatar's arm moves too. They also planned a performance of their trip-hop band Bong, hoping to simulcast the performance in 3-D digital splendor. (Yes, it's a virtual reality company and a rock band, but they're much groovier than the "Partridge Family" could have ever hoped to be.)

Alas, technical difficulties got in the way. A cello and theremin lay dormant on the stage as the company's chief technician, a bespectacled chaos physicist named Kjartan, gave us a consolation prize: a 3-D tour of a discotheque floating in space. Bong's performance, which had been planned for earlier that day, was postponed for yet another day.

Oz at least showed us something that night, and lived up to its full promise the next day. Some other demonstrators found themselves staring helplessly at frozen screens for their entire presentation. "The goal is to hog as much bandwith and crash as many laptops as possible," said one VR scenester at the podium as he tried to explain why his frog wouldn't croon. "But it will be cool."

The beta version of Oz Virtual 1.0 is scheduled for release May 15. Download it for free. Also on the web are Plan 9, a hot VR content provider; Silicon Graphics; Black Sun; Dimension X; or Superscape.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro

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