Q&A: Disney Rides and Magical Gnomes, CTO Discusses the Early Stages of VR
Brick phones in brief cases, the Spice Girls praising girl power in their hit “Wannabe,” or Will Smith’s neon outfits in “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” For others (and we’re talking about a rather niche group of techies), the 1990s are also synonymous with a virtual reality boom. Magazine like Popular Science ran cover stories on VR. Companies like SEGA and Nintendo tried to sell “lightweight” head-mounted displays and gaming consoles with 3D capabilities. Unfortunately, consumer VR in the 1990s was a short lived fad. This early VR boom somewhat died out due to equipment expenses and a concern surrounding a need for advanced computing technologies.
As time passed and technology moved forward, the 2010s sparked a new interest in VR. Despite the improved headset resolution and graphics power, Brennan McTernan argues that there is a knowledge gap between the early-stage VR pioneers and today’s developers. McTernan would know. Back in the 1990s his company, 3D Creations, developed consumer and industrial VR experiences for PBS, Disney, and Marvel. Although McTernan’s VR career may have been put on hiatus when the early technology boom of the 1990s busted, he continued his work with software and media.
McTernan is an Emmy-award-winning computer graphics developer who has led a number of software teams and 3D graphics companies. Itching to get back into VR, McTernan joined The Glimpse Group in 2017. The Glimpse Group is an innovative VR/AR platform company based in New York City. Glimpse’s current platform includes 10 unique VR/AR subsidiary companies. For many at the Glimpse Group, McTernan is the all-knowing physical and digital handyman. Given his industry experience, McTernan serves as the Chief Technical Officer for two Glimpse Group subsidiary companies: Mezmos and D6 VR. Mezmos specializes in VR and AR marketing experiences and event-based activations. D6 VR takes data analysis to a new level by providing tools for multi-dimensional data visualization.
The Glimpse Group’s Marketing Manager, Elena Piech, spoke to Glimpse’s “Grandfather of VR” about immersive tech in the 1990s, his thoughts on Augmented Reality, and his experience creating a ride for the now defunct Disney Quest.
Elena Piech: Brennan, when I said I wanted to do a Q&A series about Glimpsers and the VR/AR industry, you said you wanted to talk about your history with VR and AR. What can you tell me about that history?
Brennan McTernan: The history of AR is actually remarkably brief, comparatively speaking. I was lucky enough to get into VR back in the early ‘90s — VR was everywhere. It was the super hot and next big thing… And then it really kind of just died out. [VR] didn’t rise again until about 2010 or so.
EP: VR in the 1990s died out? What happened?
BM: There was tremendous hype around VR, but [what] wasn’t happening on the other end is that the devices were incredibly expensive. For “Ride the Comix,” (a VR Disney Quest ride made in part by McTernan’s company 3D Creations) you needed an Onyx which was a $250,000 machine. The graphics card alone was a $30,000 part. Each headset was $50,000. These were just fantastically expensive things. They weren’t going to make it into the consumer space. So that [died] away and it [did] so remarkably quickly.
“There was tremendous hype around VR (in the 1990s), but [what] wasn’t happening on the other end is that the devices were incredibly expensive…you needed an Onyx which was a $250,000 machine. The graphics card alone was a $30,000 part. Each headset was $50,000.” — Brennan McTernan
And frankly, that death now is in some ways the dot-com bust that happened in 2000. All these junk bonds were being floated on the notion of how huge the internet was going to be and you had dot-coms popping up all over the place and just getting ridiculous amounts of money. Eventually some kind of sanity finally took hold and all that money disappeared overnight. A huge crush to the industry in VR largely went down with that.
But like now, back then there was a reality to VR. VR was still very useful in training — like in the Department of Defense and in places where you could afford to have these fantastically expensive pieces of equipment.
EP: How does the VR era of the 1990s differ from today?
BM: For me, personally, what’s interesting about VR and its history [is that] there was a lot of good things that were developed over that decade of the ’90s. I feel like some of that knowledge died away because of that decade gap between when that effort started and when the new effort came about.
I would argue that we had to learn at that point in time, for instance, a lot of the hardware issues. What makes for a comfortable headset? [Back in the ‘90s’] it took a while to finally settle on headsets that would support the weight of the headset using the crown of the head as opposed to the cheekbones. And there’s a couple of things about [old headsets] that just weren’t comfortable. Half the population wears makeup, and when you’re wearing makeup, you don’t want to be dragging a headset across your face. Little things like that were really important then.
It took us towards the end of that period to realize how important audio was to what we were doing. The great thing [about audio] is that your ears tell your eyes where to look. That’s something I think the current incarnation of VR is still getting wrapped around. Lots of little things like that. Lots of UI that I think is being rediscovered.
EP: How did you find yourself working VR in the ‘90s?
BM: So the pathway in was interesting. At the beginning of the 90s we’d (McTernan’s company 3D Creations) started this boutique that was working on motion capture. One of the projects we won involved getting this little character to interact with people that were shot live. It was for a PBS series (“Backyard Safari”). And this little character would look at and talk to humans who were part of its world. Our actor was about 5’6’’ or so. And we tried all kinds of techniques to get him looking at the background footage of the people that were in the scene. It was very difficult to get [the human actor and the animated characters] in line. Somebody had the Epiphany to say, ‘Well, let’s put this VR headset [on him].’
So we put the headset on the actor and the first thing we said was, “Okay, look in the [animated character’s] eyes.”
And he said, “Where do you want me to look?”
We said, “Look at her eyes.”
He says, “Which eye?”
Which gives you right off the bat how good it was working. But then the epiphany, the unanticipated epiphany. When you ask an actor to portray something, they’ll think about what it is. And they’ll do their best to try to frame it. But that’s different from being that character. Our actor was about 5’6’’ or 5’7’’, so he’s not short, not tall. Our actor played the character Crinkleroot, who was a little 3-foot magical gnome. So between takes [our actor kept on the VR headset and] he started doing things [from the point of view] of his little character. All of a sudden the playfulness and the reality of him being this little character just happens.
EP: Can you tell me a little bit more about this show?
BM: Sure it’s called “Backyard Safari.”
EP: “Backyard Safari” may have lasted for one season, but what else did your company do with VR?
BM: We had done a bunch of interactive things. We worked on Hasbro’s home VR system, “the VR Toaster,” and Disney was going to start with Disney Quest. Disney Quest was going to have a bunch of [interactive] things going on. They wanted to have a game that involved all the Disney villains. Disney had seen what we were doing with the VR stuff and they had seen a shader that we’ve created that did this really awesome looking animated outline sort of thing. At the time, that was really neat.
EP: Was this early ‘90s? Mid ‘90s?
BM: ’95. So they contracted us to do this game that was called “Ride the Comix.” It would be you and five other visitors that would be sitting in these seats in this spaceship sort of thing. You’d lower the VR headset down. You had a lightsaber type of wand in your hand. You had the seat thumper that would be giving you a kick in the butt every time something happened.
It was actually a pretty fun experience. The interesting thing from a production standpoint was it was two years in the making. I think we got right up until about four months away from release, when somebody finally decided to show Roy Disney this thing. He was like, “What are you doing? You can’t have Disney kids fighting Cruella de Ville! You can’t do that.” So we had to reskin everything as all these different bad guys. There was still this kind of black and white-ish lady that had these angry dogs — but she wasn’t Cruella de Ville! It was supposed to run for two years or so and it ran for 14. It was not bad, there was a little bit of success there.
EP: At the time of creating “Ride the Comix,” did 3D Creations have AR on their radar?
BM: AR wasn’t even in the picture yet, because you couldn’t even conceive of a piece of hardware that you could look through, or you could wear and look out into the real world and have the tracking with it. And then be able to composite the footage on top of it. It just wasn’t happening yet. Today you could use your phone to manifest this stuff — to make it happen. Now we’re in a different cycle. I think that we still have the same set of problems. I do not believe that a consumer solution is close.
This is what a lot of people have talked about in the past. I’m just kind of reading the party line here. You go back to the Lumière brothers, right? They start with what they know, which is to take their cameras out, shoot some film, show it into these tea houses around France. But there wasn’t the concept of a cut frame or dissolve, or fading to black, or any of these other things that we just accept now. We know what they mean when we see them in a movie. It’s not, “Hey, the movie just went black. Did the machine break?” That’s not part of the expectation. We don’t have any of that yet for VR. VR is very much an active interface of creating this world around somebody. There’s no standard. We have a ways to go there.
EP: Ever since the 1990s you’ve been working on creating that standard with VR. Right now you’re the CTO of two subsidiary companies at The Glimpse Group. The first is Mezmos, a company based on VR/AR marketing and branding. The second is D6 VR, a company for VR and AR data visualization. How would you describe your role at Glimpse?
BM: Digital Janitor? For those two jobs I am very clearly that Chief Technology kind of guy. How [are] we going to do it? How are we going to chase it down? How are we going to get it done?
For Glimpse as a whole, I think myself and several other of us all have this history that allows us to at least offer our opinions — whether they’re valuable or not. Fortunately for me, I think people at least humor me enough to listen. On a personal level [it] always feels nice to have somebody say, “Hey, what do you think about x?” And to have a big long history, where I can say, “Oh, I ran into that. Oh, there was that landmine. Don’t do this.” [When discussing the history of VR] I think I may have given a sense that there’s a little bit of why are we learning this stuff from the very beginning? This is an opportunity to at least not have to do that. To kind of correct that a little bit. It’s been fun.
EP: I definitely have fun working with you. This is my last question and I always try to ask something that’s a bit more of a curveball. You are a fan of your ties and you have an assortment of professional and unique ties. For people who are reading an article and are unable to see a picture, please described to me in detail your favorite tie.
BM: Let’s first just talk about why the shirt and tie. Not a lot of people have that walk around here [at Glimpse]. For me mentally, it’s my uniform. I don’t wear this on the weekends.
EP: The white button up shirt and tie are a key part of your office attire. I saw you in jeans once and I thought, “Whoa, who is this person?”
BM: That’s right! Now, the downside of ties is that they can be a little bit pompous. Right? I like to wear it because I’m not in the corporate hierarchy, which is good. I’m happy about that.
I used to run a company. I used to be a CTO, I used to be a CEO. And you get to do so little, ironically, so little technology as a CTO, you get to do so little technology as a chief architect. Not that I don’t like people, but I really love working on the technology. I’m very happy in this technology position.
As a higher up though, I always like to take the edge off a little bit. I wouldn’t show up with the power ties. I would always show up with the very goofy ties. I had tons and tons of the silliest ties. One of them is Marvin the Martian. That one was my favorite and I seem to get the best reaction from people. Like, “Oh, I love that guy!” It’s just a great tie.
Brennan McTernan is a computer wizard and also the Chief Technical Officer for Mezmos and D6 VR, two Glimpse Group subsidiary companies. Mezmos specializes in VR/AR marketing experiences and event-based activations. D6 VR takes data analysis to a new level by providing tools for multi-dimensional data visualization, while facilitating collaboration and presentation in Virtual and Augmented Reality.
Want to know more about the history of The Glimpse Group? Read our previous Q&A with Lyron Bentovim, the CEO and President of the innovative VR/AR company.