It Goes Full Circle


Google diving into 3D mapping of oceans | Tech news blog – CNET News.com

Back in 1997, I left a fun job at Disney R&D making VR rides and interfaces to move back to Seattle at the behest of an old friend of mine. He had a "hot internet startup." Frankly, I wasn’t too keen on internet startups, even at that point — I figured the bubble would burst "any second" (it took three and a half more years) — but the promise was to use the "proceeds" from their "revolutionary" internet "load balancing" "product" to "spin-off" a "VR company," of which I’d be a "co-founder."

The quotes in that last sentence were all discovered after I’d made the move, which gives you an idea of how it turned out.

However, if things had actually turned out as planned, the first thing I was to do was to write the "Sea floor Visualizer," based on a demo that friend had written on the old Kubota 3D workstation, which I was going to greatly expand for the PC and the first real crop of 3D video cards. The idea was to let you virtually fly over underwater terrain, at least for a very small swath of sea floor, given lidar and other reconstructed "elevation" data. Cool stuff, and very cutting edge for 1997.

Of course, it never happened. The hot internet product wasn’t even close to finished. It was, in fact, astoundingly late and non-functional. And I was drafted to help out. My old friend had spoken a bit prematurely about that and a number of important things, including the spin-off company. In fact, it was even worse than that — the CEO had just "lost" one co-founder (and apparently acquired his stock at bargain prices), was about to fire their viking-helmeted lead hacker, and would have sidelined my old friend, the third co-founder and CTO, if they thought I’d finish the job in his place.

I bolted once the investment banker/CEO finally admitted there was never going to be a VR spin-off. I also left my stock on the table. And I didn’t get to work on virtual worlds or geographic visualization again until Keyhole, three years later.

So it gives me great pleasure to see Google Earth finally getting to underwater visualization, and to see oceanographers embracing it as a common spatial framework for hanging their own important data. That’s huge, and more than I ever could have wished to occur, with or without my help.

So it’s gone full circle, and I can finally check off that item on my list of "things that must be built," thanks to the GE team.

And I guess the only place left for GE to go next is the "underground layer," which I’ll save for another day…

BTW, you’d think that after my Seattle experience, I would have learned to never trust an "old friend" with a "hot startup" who promises interesting work "down the road." Either go in it for the money or don’t. But apparently, some lessons need to be learned twice. The other lesson was to never leave stock on the table, even if this company is "bad company." I don’t regret leaving that horrible startup for one second. But in retrospect, I should have probably hired a lawyer. Amazingly (to me), the company’s stock peaked at $150/share before the bubble burst in 2001, not that I would have kept the money anyway, but I could think of a few better places to spend it.

Footnote: my former friend wound up getting screwed by the company anyway, not long after I left, but apparently still managed to make several tens of millions off the IPO. But I don’t think he ever did that VR startup, even now. The CEO made hundreds of millions in the deal, wisely replaced himself with competent managers, and is probably off flying airplanes and yelling at squirrels to get off his lawn.

 

 

 

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