Owning an expensive computer was a pre-requisite for virtual reality because of its compute-intensive nature. As you moved around inside a computer world, the computer had to recalculate the 3D scene and present it to you in real-time fast enough to make you feel as if it were real.
A typical user might run his computer monitor at a resolution of 800x600, meaning the computer had to calculate a scene's picture and then render 480,000 pixels and it had to do that at about 20-30 frames per second to ensure that the end user really felt they were immersed in the virtual world -- it was widely believed that slow computers costing less than $50,000 couldn't render scenes fast enough.
We guessed (incorrectly, or at least very prematurely anyway) that if virtual reality were more accessible, it might become the next generation human-computer interface and supplant the current two-dimensional computer interface that we all know and love -- the mouse, the monitor, clickable icons, pull-down menus, etc. We also believed that we could bring virtual reality to the masses if we could get it to work on the common PC, which was quickly becoming ubiquitous.
At that time, machines based on Intel's 386 and 486 chips dominated the PC market. They were considered by most to be much too slow for virtual reality. We thought otherwise. We wrote some really tight code that allowed those slower machines to author and then host and render virtual reality environments. We started selling our authoring tools and the runtime engine that rendered the worlds to a small group of virtual reality enthusiasts.
These customers used our software for architectural walkthroughs, engineering simulations, visualizing data in 3D dimensions, creating 3D games, and all kinds of other applications. One customer used our software to help people conquer their phobias (e.g. fear of heights -- he even used it to treat impotence - thankfully, I never saw that application!). Our tagline was "the applications are limited only by the imagination" and it was true. This little market, which probably numbered 5,000 people worldwide, loved our products and, as a first-time entrepreneur, it was great to see the orders come in.
And the future was on our side. We rode the trend of faster computers -- the Pentium chip was much faster than the 486 and it made our software work even better. We also rode the trend of the mainstreaming of 3D graphics cards, which became increasingly popular as games like Doom hit the market. As the computers got faster and better at handling 3D, more orders for our software came in.
We were very popular. In this pre-Internet era, Intel and Microsoft needed guys like us to sell the faster PCs and new operating systems. They needed to be able to answer the "Why do I need a faster PC when my current PC seems to run my applications perfectly well?" We did demos for Craig Barret (then CEO of Intel) and Bill Gates (then CEO of Microsoft - duh) and they used our demos to show the world what could be done with the newest generation of PCs.
This brush with greatness made us feel that we were on the verge of greatness; I realize now that's a common entrepreneurial mistake of self-delusion -- thinking you are something special based on the company you keep -- but at the time it helped to motivate me and it motivated our team.
This article was written by Ken Gaebler. If you like this article, you can find others like it in the Private Thoughts section of this website. If you have comments or questions concerning this article, feel free to email Ken.