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The whole ability to be amazed is slowly being taken from us

With Mike Smithwick



I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Smithwick, one of the first generation of “app” authors going back to 1985 with his desktop planetarium software Distant Suns, one of the longest-lived consumer software titles still on the market. The iPad version was one of the two apps featured by Apple on the iPad 1 launch day. His most recent version has both Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality, (AR). He’s also done consulting for Apple, Cisco and Huawei, collects incredible early NASA memorabilia, is an amateur astronomer, eclipse chaser and knows how to make a mean chocolate pie with laced with chipotle chili powder.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up during the Apollo era and became enamored with space and astronomy early on in the San Francisco Bay Area. In fact, if there was a launch any morning during the week my teachers knew I’d be coming in late. My penance was to bring in my models and show the class what would be going on with that mission. 
 
 So the country was “space crazy.” I loved planetarium shows as a way to get into space of sorts on the cheap, in fact did my own show for my 5th grade class. During the shows, performed at local colleges, I loved sitting in the back row. As the mechanical projectors would move and rotate they would have weighted shutters that would act as an artificial horizon blocking out the light when it came below the lip of the dome. Sometimes those would get stuck and the “stars” would come down on the back wall. I’d try and “catch” them or at least look into the beam of light. Needless to say, I always wanted to have my own planetarium one day. The Spitz planetarium company that did many of the professional level projectors also created a “Spitz Jr.” for about $10. But that wasn’t quite the same thing.

In the meantime, I went on and got a degree in astrophysics, CS and even art, wanting eventually to go into space illustration or become a syndicated cartoonist. I would end up at NASA’s Ames Research Center working with flight simulators, very much the state of the art in VR at the time, using the legendary refrigerator sized main-frames. We did simulations of the Space Shuttle once every 6 months and all of the shuttle pilots would stream through those times testing out new landing profiles.

It 1985 Commodore released the Amiga, an amazing machine for the time and price. One thing that set it apart was that the programmer would specify what colors were needed for their application, instead of being forced to use a small and ugly selection of saturated primary colors dictated by the graphics card company, usually Hercules. The Amiga let me create a color palette of my own. The day I brought the machine home I realized I could do a small planetarium program and create a realistic sky using the custom colors, several intensities of white for the stars, and a few extra in colors for the UI and planets. I prototyped Distant Suns with a 21-line BASIC program that would draw a bunch of random dots on the screen and different intensities. Distant Suns (originally know as Galileo) came out in 1987 and I’ve been “refining” it ever since.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One of my all-time favorite films is 2001-A Space Odyssey, written of course, by the late and great Arthur C. Clark. I had numerous books of his, saw him in person when I was 10 or 11 and had him sign one of my books. I would go on a lose that copy.

Years later I got a letter from Sri Lanka, a fan letter from Arthur! He thanked me for Distant Suns and told me I could use anything he said for advertising. We started a correspondence relationship that would last for years until his health started to decline. He sent mostly audio letters that were very charming and whimsical. I did tell him about my lost book and was delighted when he sent me a replacement.

Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

There have been several spasmodic attempts to realize a viable form of VR, Virtual Reality, over the years. But the same hurdles came up time after time: Poor display technology, CPU speed and supporting software to generate the 3D worlds. The affordable technology was little more than a novelty, poor resolution, no head-tracking to speak of, little or no supporting software. The useable VR was only affordable to government and military purposes, largely flight or tank simulation. Around 1988 I got to fly in what was then a cutting-edge simulator. The visuals were projected using two GE Light Valves, worth typically $100k and could weigh hundreds of pounds, one for each eye. The video was sent via a 1-inch glass fiber-optic light-pipe and projected onto some mirrors mounted on a 10 lb. helmet that needed to have it custom counter balanced for each pilot and handle both head and eye tracking. All on a motion-based cab. High resolution insets would be provided wherever the user was looking with simpler visuals for peripheral vision. Nowadays much of the same could be done with a Google Cardboard and an iPhone. That’s why things are different now than the previous times. Everything is converging. All of the elements needed for usable and affordable VR tech have come around as a result of filling various needs outside of VR. Very little, and I mean, VERY LITTLE technology had to be invented specifically for VR, so it could grow organically from the existing technological base. Frequently, the “breakthrough” is just knowing what pieces can be put together for a completely new use.

Growing up here in Silicon Valley we in effect get previews of what the rest of the world will see in a few years. What others consider breakthroughs might be old hat to us as the next shiny toy comes down the road.

So as the whole notion of VR is starting to return to the public consciousness, the best quality still requires relatively sophisticated equipment specifically designed for the task such the Oculus Rift or Magic Leap. However, I like doing what can be done with small equipment. What do I need? A hi-res display only a few inches in size, head tracking, high-speed graphics processing, low power-consumption, and a self-contained programmable operating system. Hey! Sounds like an iPhone! As such it was a natural to do a version of Distant Suns for Virtual Reality. While the earlier version is fine at night for use under the stars to show you what constellations or planets you might be looking at, a VR version immerses you in space at any time of day or night, it’s perfect for lazy astronomers who don’t want to go to the nearest hilltop on a freezing night while schlepping a big telescope with them just to get away from the city lights. All I needed to do was simply to split the screen into two, one display for each eye, add in a touch of 3D perspective, some UI enhancements and a set of VR goggles now costing between $5 and $50, suddenly you are surrounded by stars. My planetarium! Not as cool as an old optical projector but about 1/1000th the weight. And I think one of the most beautiful iOS apps out there.

Whenever I demo Distant Suns VR to someone, I set the viewpoint to be hovering over the earth. I then hand them the goggles, but without earth in the field of view by about 100°. I then tell them to turn right and they do so a little, looking up or down, and I tell them more to the right (or left), lather, rinse, repeat, and suddenly they’ll say, “Oh my God!”

Heh. Happens every time.

Then they ask where then can buy a copy.

How do you think this might change the world?

I’m not sure if a VR planetarium on a cell-phone is necessarily a world-changer, but I think about the very first version for the Amiga. The first beta-tester I had told me that after work he’d come home, pour a glass of wine, turn out the lights and simply star at the starfield on his screen. So he found a nice respite from a busy day with this. And I hope others do to. I’ve always wanted to have a program that would collect old unused telescopes to schools in the third world, but an App is considerably more cost effective and can almost do the job as smartphones, even old ones, become the home-computer of choice in the poorer areas of the world.

I don’t think it will bring world peace. I don’t ever expect to hear a conversation such as “Hey! Infidel! Which constellation was supernova 1987A in? Allah be praised!”

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

We get out of VR/AR and into something I call Virtual Travel. It’s an amazingly powerful concept to set up a 360-degree camera on some place on earth or even off earth and be able to travel there with merely donning a set of VR goggles. Except it’s not “virtual.” It’s real as far as the visuals. Imagine having a VT station on the top of the Eiffel Tower, Mt. Everest, the Great Pyramid or at the Apollo landing sites on the moon? For as amazing as that is, I think each time that kind of experience becomes easier and easier, we lose just a little sense of wonder along with its twin, curiosity. If the only way to really see and experience the Great Pyramid was to go thru the effort to go to Egypt itself, one appreciates the experience far more and the adventure it brings. If all it takes to “go to” Egypt now is to merely don some goggles with a phone in it, suddenly it becomes an everyday experience, mundane, been-there-done-that-ism. The moon flights were so amazing in that it took an incredible amount of effort to go there. And once there, the images were fuzzy, communications full of static, danger very real, and it was so distant, so foreign, it was majestic as few things have ever been. On November 29 the Mars InSight will land on the smooth plains of Elysium Planitia. I wonder how many people will think, “oh, another Mars landing? Say, Beastmaster is on Netflix!”

I think the whole ability to be amazed is slowly being taken from us. I’m not complaining, as this is the natural progress of things.

For example, San Franciscans rarely take the cable-cars. Why? Because they are always there, there is no rush to take them.

And last week I came across some photos of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Growing up here, all “real” Californians have earthquake stories, and know that “the big one” could hit any time. Heh. Whenever an earthquake hits, the recent transplants go running around in terror and the Californians take wagers as to how strong it was. I’ve seen most of the photos of San Francisco immediately after the quake. They are grainy, scratched, sepia-toned. In short that time was a time remote from us now, what being grainy, scratched and sepia-toned. Then I came across some color photos! They were not hand tinted, they were real honest-to-goodness color photos! I never knew there was any understanding of color-theory was good enough back then to make color pictures. It was hard, could only be done by real experts, but suddenly the city looked like yesterday. Except for the smoke and rubble and other unpleasantness. The alien nature of 1906 was removed.

(As far as Black Mirror is concerned, I could see an episode in yet another post-apocalyptic earth in which many of the great sites exist only in VT/VR form. But few know that and can continue under the impression that only they live amid devastation. On that cheery note…)

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

If there was one, I supposed putting on the DP1 of Oculus and seeing how relatively high resolution of the display aided in the very real visual motion cues my mind sensed. I could get vertigo. Now that was something!

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

Maybe. For example, I’ve added in a Tesla Tracker hoping that Elon might see it and mention it on his Twitter feed. Either that or if someone at Apple remembers the title from the early days of the Appstore when Apple gave it a lot of play and references it in the weekly App newsletter. And this article of course.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

A friend of mine in Denmark, also Mike, who was a Distant Suns “super fan.” I’ve had a lot of people over the years promise this or that to help what is for me, a one-man operation, only to fall away. Michael has stuck with me for over 20 years. Doing tech support, maintaining a European website for Distant Suns, QA, and all sorts of other things that I wouldn’t have had time to do. That kept me at it even during the times when only a few copies were being sold. Without Mike, I would have given up on this 15 years ago.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Still working on the “success” part. Did I tell you about my killer chocolate pie with Chipotle chili powder?

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Buy low, sell high, squirrels aren’t that cute when chewing on your patio furniture, hoard coconut M&Ms as they won’t be out too long, ensure your app’s name is trademarked, and for real, don’t try to do too much. Every once in a while, I’ll come up with a killer idea that no one else seems to have done much with (such as selling empty glass frames along with sets of lenses, so a person could pick and choose which lenses work with which eye for specific tasks. Saves the cost of hundreds of dollars for custom made glasses, especially as one’s eyes start to shift focus). And it’s easy to be distracted by that. Unless of course a person “has people” who can do that. I don’t have people. Just a couple of cats, (fun, but they make lousy coders without opposable thumbs). However, ideas are cheap, follow-through is what costs.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Well, I hope that the first person to Mars got their start from Distant Suns.

And I’m always looking for more cool apps to work on. Contact me via www.distantsuns.com

You can see Mike’s handiwork in this video:

And in the Appstore at:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/distant-suns-vr/id1283996860?ls=1&mt=8
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