The VPL software is both the best and the worst VR software ever made. It has infuriating limitations and wasn't maintained during VPL's long dark ages of French stupor (1992-1998), but it is also the most inspiring, seductive virtual world creation toolkit I have ever seen (though of course I might be biased).
Most of the first examples of applications of VR were done in this software. It was used by shops like NASA and Boeing and hundreds of others in the mid to late eighties to make early versions of vehicle simulators and brain surgery planners, but it also was the medium by which fifth and sixth graders created virtual world versions of their dreams in an art class. I don't know of any other VR software that has been used in such a variety of ways.
Body Electric is a rare example of a successful visual programming language that is seductive at first approach, but also scales and has been used for industrial strength applications. It was created by Chuck Blanchard. The worst thing about it is that the only viable version runs on... the Macintosh. On the other hand, there are some stunningly great things about it. It is absurdly fast- an incremental compiler. It is also the only programming tool of which I can say that debugging is as much a pleasure as making new stuff. If you are familiar with programming tools, and VR tools in particular, you know this is almost a supernatural claim, yet it's true.
Isaac is an SGI program that works in real time with Body Electric. It was written by Ethan Joffe. The idea of having a Mac and an SGI together isn't as strange as it might sound at first. The Mac does all the work of interfacing to sensors (like the various 6D trackers, midi, a->d, etc.), which is an expensive, cycle-wasting task to do on an SGI. And non-real time development can take place on the Mac by itself, which is cheap.
Swivel is Young Harvil's delightful, quirky modeler, which was once upon a time the most popular 3D Mac program. Not to put to fine a point on it, but Young chose to write this lovely, eccentric masterwork in FORTH, thus guaranteeing no development path for it. Macromedia sold a stand-alone version of it for a while, and might very well still be the exclusive purveyor of it in that form. The only other modeler that might surpass Swivel for fun and quickness is Brown University's exquisite Sketch.
All this software is owned by Sun now. It isn't sold, but Sun is allowing me to engage in some low-level support of the resilient user community. I still use this software for my creative work in VR and music, because I haven't found anything else that can do the same job. I also use it in teaching VR to artists. Amazingly, there are still surgical simulators, cognitive science testing rigs, performance animation studios for television production, and assorted other applications being kept alive in this software.
Here is what's new at present: There's a maintenance version of Isaac that runs on all current SGI machines (the last VPL release doesn't run on IRIX 6.2 and later). There's a maintenance version of Body Electric that handles an unlimited number of moving objects (the last VPL release ran into problems with large numbers of moving objects- but that bug was undetectable at the time because there was no machine capable of rendering enough objects for the bug to show up!). Swivel will probably never change, though it continues to inspire modeler designers trying to figure out how to make seductive user interfaces. All three programs are fairly robust and crash considerably less often than Windows 95. There are also loosely maintained libraries of virtual worlds, including some nice high level tools for animation motion design, cartoon physics, texture placement, morphing control, etc.
Sun and I are still working out the mechanism by which I'll be able to distribute these items, but please feel free to be in touch with me at hello at jaronlanier dot com if you think you might be interested in using these luscious, semi-practical, free tools.
VPL had problems maintaining quality in our hardware- though I still sometimes find our headmounts and gloves in use. But our software was really great and can still offer a lot. A challenge to VRML people: Don't you DARE turn out more VR tools that aren't at least as good as this old stuff!
Happy world-building,

Go back to Jaron's home page.