Building a Hologram for Sex

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This continues a series of posts from events and explorations conducted at Burning Man 2009.

Lucille. Photo by Eric.

Over the next few days in a series of conversations with Bill, Lucille and two others who had worked at Pueblo, I filled a notebook. As I assembled the facts and opinions from many small bits and long sagas, I started to get a basic idea of what was created and what had happened; though the elements of the story didn’t fit together neatly. The human side was more interesting than the technical side, though one is necessary as a frame of reference for the other: so let’s start with the technology. That was the setting, and in many ways it defined the mindset. Everything that happened was documented. And, by mutual agreement, everyone saw everyone else’s playbacks.

In 1995, Pueblo Systems set up a new company in Berkeley called Vector Technologies. Vector was funded with the lavish profits from Pueblo’s extremely popular photo software, and its first program was marketed five years later as the first commercial holographic imaging software. There was always a public face of the company, and a vast dimension behind the veil. Products being sold in schools and being used to put out The Wall Street Journal were being funneled into Vector, whose initial mission was to create erotic holography: highly responsive three-dimensional porn, where the viewer was a participant.

Pueblo’s owners knew that this was the future of erotica: something that people could participate in directly, rather than just being a remote spectator. They were correct in predicting this trend. At the time, pornography was a total abstraction of relationships: one would watch the sex rather than experiencing it directly, and rather than doing anything relational with the actors. Indeed, in conventional porn, the actors might occasionally look into the camera, but never talk to the viewer, much less respond. This inverted that concept completely: in holoporn, the viewer was in the scene and the scene was in the viewer’s home.

As the erotica market developed in the next decade, porn followed the interactive dynamic that the rest of technology was moving toward. Live online interaction with individual ‘porn stars’ became the direction the industry was moving. In other words, in the somewhat cold environment of the ‘net, porn was creeping back in the direction of relationships.

The customers were still nearly all men, but Pueblo’s products, at least in the business plan, were designed for women as well. Underneath these ideas was the knowledge gained from hundreds of public surveys, which indicated that the ground was rumbling with discontent over relationships and sex. One study found that more than half of all men did not have sex once a month; and a third said that time factors prevented them from having regular sex with an established partner. Stress was an issue as well. Many people – again, half – reported fear of sexual diseases as a factor inhibiting their sexual experiences.

There was a need for safe sex on demand. Most people said that masturbation was at least tied for their most satisfying sex. In study after study, a significant portion of the respondents said that masturbation was their most gratifying sex both emotionally and physically.

As technology developed and more people had access to it, there would be a growing market for more sophisticated fantasy-based erotic products. At the time, there were no commercial holography products; but it was inevitable that they would become a reality.

Holography is in this sense of the idea a three-dimensional projection into space: a space such as your living room or bedroom. Vector was created first as a kind of extremely vivid dreamlike movie, then evolved as dynamic holography: characters that you could talk to and who would talk to you. While it was impossible to have sex with a 3-D projection, it would certainly inspire the imagination, especially if you could converse with a life-size model in front of you. The psyches of the holograms were based on human models. That was the genesis of the whole thing.

Early in the Vector project, Pueblo determined through its numerous public studies, and from observing Asian markets, that sex robots would become a reality within the next decade. There were issues of expense, technology, taboo and many other factors to overcome; but their research was solid: this was the way of the future. One of the early memos distributed to Vector’s staff said, “If it’s going to happen, we may as well be the ones creating it. Social pressures will abate, specific needs for the products will increase, and the evolution of the technosphere will make it seem like a natural progression. We will not be the first on the market, though we will be the first to make a difference.”

Vector’s engineers, who came from the top of the artificial intelligence field, knew that crude models would be on the market first. This was designed as a longterm plan, perhaps stretching twenty years into the future. During those years, the ridiculously simplistic models of talking sex toys filled up what became known as the mannequin room. A much smaller tech team was devoted to the robots than to the holographic imaging side of the project, for a good reason: the holograms would become the souls of the robots. The reasoning was, it would be easier to work with the personality in holographic format than it would be with a cumbersome robotic body. That part turned out to be true.

On in the first revised timeline created by engineers from both sides of the project – the physical or robotic side and the psychic or holographic side – the personality aspect would take nearly twice as long to develop effectively. The first revised timeline called for eight years to develop the psychic aspect and just five years to develop the physical aspect.

So, in the early 2000s, Vector came to Berkeley and began recruiting models: women between 20 and 35 who would lend their personalities and their libidos to the project.

Bill Engel, the cyberetics engineer who I met at Breakfast Camp, was on the first engineering team. His title was Vector Team Designer. He brought with him an invention that he called the Mosaic: a holography camera. The camera used an array of lenses that, using laser imagery, would partially surround the subject and create the illusion of a 3-D image. Early versions had an array with 12 optics, or cameras, and the later ones had 1,200 optics.

By the time Lucille worked at Pueblo, there were three recording rooms with these full-matrix cameras. Two of the rooms were furnished and painted in a shade of hideous orange, about the shade of a highway safety vest. This was similar to green-screen technology in that the orange would disappear from the image and could be replaced by anything, or nothing. The subject could be presented on a bed, in a chair, or floating in space.

The third array was set up as a reflection chamber. The laser array was behind a curved wall of glass that provided a direct reflection of the subject. The room could also be used as a playback theater for the subject; so could many other places: but this playback theater had one advantage: it could record the model interacting with herself, either in a playback of a prior recording; or in a realtime experience.

No wonder Lucille was so natural in front of a mirror.

This third setup took some persuading by Bill to get the development funds for. It cost about $11 million. Just the two way glass, which was really a form of semi-transparent aluminum, cost one-third the full amount. He got the funds based on one discovery – a segment of playback that lasted about six seconds. Of the many petabytes of data recorded thus far: the model was wearing tiny earphones in which she could hear herself as she masturbated.

(Posted at Book of Blue)

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