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very nervous system (vns): vn bedfellows
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Very Nervous Bedfellows
David Rokeby and the commercialization of VNS
by Tom Keenan

David Rokeby has been selling the technology behind his very nervous system installation as hardware and software since 1993. Tom Keenan talked to him about some of the challenges, and contradictions facing ethical artists who market their virtual art.

Virtual Art and Virtuous Flakiness
Cross a hard-working artist with a powerful technology and you sometimes get interesting bedfellows -- or non-bedfellows. In 1982, Toronto-based artist David Rokeby built a motion detecting video processing system as a hardware/software hybrid, because he had to. He was designing an audio installation called Very Nervous System (VNS) that strove to engage the human body and create an intimate experience using the cold, objective technology of a computer. To make it work, he needed to be able to analyze motion from a video signal. Was it possible at the time to purchase this kind of technology straight off the shelf? "Maybe, if I had a mole inside the U.S. military," says Rokeby, "but certainly not without, and definitely not for a sum of money I could afford."

Nevertheless, Rokeby was successful in building the system himself -- maybe even a little too successful.

"I was at the SIGGRAPH conference in 1986, and it was a banner year for graphics technology so it attracted lots of people. The first data gloves were on the floor, and some of the pioneering VR systems. I was next to the SGI (Silicon Graphics) people, and we all had those standard pipe-and-drape trade show booths. This strange looking guy kept watching the people at my booth interacting with the VNS system. He was kind of 'fake casual' -- he had this extreme Marine haircut but he was wearing civvies. Finally he came over to me, put his face right up to mine, drill sergeant style, and said, 'Immense defense possibilities.' That's all. Then he walked away. A few minutes later he was back with five admirals and three generals, and all their handlers. He pointed to my booth and said, 'Imagine, gentlemen, instantaneous personality detection.'"

What was a self-respecting artist to do?

"I didn't really want to deal with these people, so I developed a sudden case of flakiness," laughs Rokeby. "When they said, 'OK, let's see the Big Iron that does all this,' I briefly considered opening the drape and showing them millions of dollars worth of SGI equipment with three technicians working on it. But instead I showed them my Apple II and home built electronics, and they all hustled out of there."

Killer Applications and their Help Desk Weenies
Rokeby's experience raises a tantalizing, tail-wagging-dog question. If an artist builds some technology for an installation piece, is that likely to be the end of it? What if it's so good that others want to use it? In Rokeby's case, the VNS system -- now fully realized in software format as softVNS -- is presently being used by about fifty other people. Some of them are artists like himself, but VNS is also being applied by medical centres to help rehabilitate patients with Parkinson's disease, paralysis, and other disabilities.

There are also some far more sinister potential applications of VNS. For example, it could be used for clandestine surveillance to track human movements. Security camera systems already have an "activate on motion" capability, but Rokeby's latest version, softVNS 2.0, has about a hundred other functions. The artist denies knowledge of anyone who's using VNS for evil-doing, but notes that he was troubled by one "shady character" who seemed far too interested in how the system was built. Rokeby was sure the guy wanted to take it apart and reverse engineer it, so avoided selling him one by turning on that "fake flakiness" again.

An even bigger threat to artists who make useful technology is that they will be diverted into becoming Help Desk Weenies and CD Box Stuffers as they try to handle the business side of their creations. Rokeby says that this is really the limiting factor on how big he wants to let softVNS grow. "At one point I thought it was going to be the thing that puts bread on the table," he says, "but then my core artistic work picked up again." So now Rokeby sells the system in a rather desultory fashion via his Web site. Pay him $350 U.S. and you can install softVNS on up to three machines. (Macintoshes, bien sur.). You can also take it on the road for gigs. And like most good software writers (are you listening Microxxx?) Rokeby allows a thirty-day free trial period before you have to buy. He says he spends a fair amount of time exchanging emails with new purchasers, not because the software is finicky or hard to install, but because they're often pushing it in interesting new directions that he wants to know about.

Rokeby's marketing budget for softVNS is effectively zero. "There are a small number of listservs that hit a well defined target audience," he notes, "mainly the artistic community, and that's enough for me right now." He does use an e-commerce partner to save him from total dog-work, like putting credit cards through the bank. Rokeby has also done other things right: he knows about standards and related products, even brand new ones like Jitter 1.0 He also allows easy integration of third party objects. In other words, if you run his system you can also benefit from the work that others are doing with it. (Are you still listening Microxxx?) Rokeby doesn't expect to get rich from selling his software -- but he says that it has become a nice budget-gap filler.

Extreme Programming
In a sense, Rokeby -- way back in 1982 -- foreshadowed the hottest new idea in systems development: "Extreme Programming." The idea behind that buzzword is that the people who make systems should (imagine this) listen to users' stories and build what they want -- not what the programmers imagine that they want. Driven by frugality and need, Rokeby built himself a system that did the job he wanted it for. Because he authored it, he knew exactly what it was capable of, and what he'd better not try to ask it to do. A lot of effort went into making it robust, non-quirky, and usable by others. And of course, once people are relying on your product, you have to keep adding features, and matching advances in other software such as operating systems.

Therein lies the Acid Test for projects of this nature: Are there enough people out there, preferably with a little cash in hand, to justify spending your time gussying it up? For David Rokeby and softVNS, the answer seems to be "yes".

Tom Keenan is a computer scientist and award winning science journalist. He is presently Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary.

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