Vision of the future: Voxatron's high-priced gamble

One lonely New Zealander in a Tokyo coffee shop is creating the future of video games, one voxel at a time.
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You know this person. The coffee shop guy. The nondescript 30-something pecking at a netbook, occasionally whispering for a refill or making a beeline to the restroom.

What if all this time, while you thought he was refreshing his email inbox or Tweeting at celebrities or Googling himself, the man you pass every day without so much as a passing glance — what if he was creating the future of video games?

Joseph White is that man. A bald white male with a small laptop, a scraggly beard and a soft voice. He's coding a game for the future; a game designed from its foundation to be displayed on a technology so expensive, so unreliable and so unusual that White once wondered if he'd ever have a chance to see it.

He pushes aside a coffee mug and turns on his computer. "Here, want to to take a look?"

Three words:
voxel, volumetric, Voxatron

On Joseph White's laptop screen is a video game level editor filled with what appear to be three-dimensional bricks. He calls them voxels.

"The strict definition of voxel," White says, "is a volumetric element. In the same way, a pixel is a picture element. A voxel is like a 3D pixel." The voxel aesthetic is familiar to anyone who's played Minecraft.

Voxels, White explains, are easier to render than polygons — the most common fabric of digital worlds — but they're more difficult to animate. That's what's prevented them from attaining a similar degree of ubiquity in 3D video games.

Voxels are often used in visually complex games like Crysis to create highly detailed surfaces. Like the walls. Or the dirt. Most people never think about the ground. White obsesses over it.

He recalls his first time playing with a voxel demonstration by Ken Silverman, the designer of the Duke Nukem engine and a godfather of 3D technology. White zoomed in on the surfaces, looking at each individual voxel. He imagined little, blocky voxel characters running around the rigid terrain, like an abstract Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

In 2004, White set out to create the first version of Voxatron, a voxel-powered game slash level editor. But he was hung up on how to best display voxels.

If 2D pixels were made for 2D displays, White wanted his 3D voxels to run on a 3D display. Not the visual illusion of 3D seen at the movies, but actual 3D, viewable from all sides.

The common example of a volumetric display is the holographic chessboard from Star Wars. Though first postulated by French scientists Emile Luzy and Charles Dupuis in 1912, the creation and application of volumetric displays has been gradual and costly. Available since the 1960s, they cost tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars.

White didn't have a volumetric display. He had a netbook.

Containing multitudes

Dummy_2

There are a few quirks you should know about Joseph White and his coffee shop.

For one, White owns Pico Pico Cafe with his wife, Natsuko. The cafe is located in the heart of Tokyo. It's a recent development. Previously he worked in coffee shops across Japan and his native New Zealand.

Now White is a cafe owner, independent game designer, musician and futurist. Pico Pico Cafe is a coffee shop, indie game studio, meeting space and mini-retro game arcade. The cafe doubles as the home of Lexaloffle Games, White's one-man game studio.

It is quite ordinary from the outside, occupying the eighth floor of an office building. A New York real estate agent might describe the L-shaped space as "homey" and "sun-drenched." Others might say it's "like the inside of a warm blanket." To the left of its entrance is White's nook, with a piano, a long wooden desk and a tall window overlooking the street. This is his "office," and from it he can watch the entire place.

To the right of the entrance are a couple of small tables facing the coffee bar, which itself is just a tiny home kitchen: a coffee pot, a sink, a plate of snacks.

Extending beyond that are couches, a shelf full of books on games and art and a large rear window that overlooks a suburban area of Tokyo, replete with squat homes and dense patches of trees.

"It's probably not what you imagine, because the typical image of a cafe is that it is noisy and people are bumping around."

White seems to have a subconscious interest in fitting a lot of things into a tiny space. There are the retro games and the tiny library and CDs for sale by the cash register. It's tempting to think White can't decide what the cafe is, but in time it's clear he does. He wants it to be a little of everything. (No wonder he designs engines and level editors; things that provide the tools and materials to make whatever one wants.)

This is the office of a quiet game designer. And yet, White also wants Pico Pico Cafe to be a place where Tokyo's indie developers can come work together. Or, at least, together-but-alone. Like an indie design beacon tilting just off the beaten path. A hill for likeminded ants.

Around the Tokyo Game Show or the occasional game jam, this creative community squeezes into the room. But most days, the cafe is calm.

"It's probably not what you imagine," says White, "because the typical image of a cafe is that it is noisy and people are bumping around. But it is pretty quiet most of the time and we don't need many costumers to justify having the place. I sort of enjoy working in the corner because it is like a shared work space. Quite often costumers will show up with laptops doing something else. [It] just feels more like a shared work space than a cafe."

White works a mix of open and closed hours, his wife running the space when he's away. He usually shows up around 3 p.m. and works deep into the night, long past the turning of the open sign to closed. Often, he catches the first morning train of the following day. While strangers go to work, White goes to sleep.

Before the store opens, Pico Pico Cafe feels like a fairy-tale garden, replete with little potted plants and sheets of natural light. But instead of fairies, the flowers and windowsills house itty bitty action figures.

It takes a while for the eyes to adjust, but soon enough it's clear to see the venue is a blend of White's various worlds. White points to a coaster, emblazoned with a plastic pixel image of a young woman. "That's the protagonist of Voxatron," he says, "except she's made of voxels, not pixels."

Fake it till you make it

Before White could begin work on Voxatron, he needed a way to replicate a volumetric display.

It was 2004 and White couldn't afford an expensive future machine,. He would instead hand-code a virtual one. His volumetric display would be simulated, or visualized, on a 2D screen. And Voxatron would run in the simulation on the screen.

Admittedly, it's easier to understand after seeing a demonstration.

"OK, so this is Voxatron," says White, loading a demonstration. "Everything in this scene is drawn onto a [virtual] voxel display. And you can see it a bit better if I rotate the camera. So the camera I am moving is not the camera in the game world. It is a camera looking at the virtual voxel display."

Voxatron is like a world within a world: The setting, the characters, the menu — everything — is drawn in voxels into the virtual volumetric display which itself is drawn onto the computer's screen.

The voxel playfield is microscopic compared to its triple-A contemporaries. "It is only 128 voxels." A modern game's ground can be made up of thousands if not millions of voxels. "If you could run the virtual [Voxatron] display in Crysis," White says, "it would fit on a small rock."

By the end of 2004, he had a working version of the engine that would lead to Voxatron. But it ran at a syrupy pace. A working version of the game wouldn't exist until October 2010.

Indie at age 12

"So there wasn't a period in my life before game development," says White.

At 8, White and his twin brother John played arcade game Elevator Action and it was "the most wonderful thing I'd ever experienced in my life." He wanted to know how it was made.

At the time, White's father, a psychologist, was performing experiments on pigeons involving boxes and flashing lights. The tests were controlled by a BBC Microcomputer. On off hours, the machine, which cost 335 pounds, became the boys' favorite toy.

By their 10th birthday, the brothers were programming in his father's lab on a daily basis. John would help conceptualize the game and design background artwork, then Joseph would tear into the program.

Joseph coded with brute force. For his first game, he wrote a comically lengthy program that would print the letter "O" in various points on the screen, animating the vowel's arc over a static letter "X."

When his father explained mathematical variables, Joseph's young mind detonated into a plume of understanding: "Why doesn't everyone know about this?" In return for the math education, Joseph wrote programs for his father's experiments on human memory.

The White family treated Joseph's computing like a hobby; secretly, Joseph made it his lifestyle. At 5 a.m. he'd wake and squeeze in a few hours of design before school. During class, his mind would draft designs he could implement as soon as he returned home.

Discovering "tricks" like programming parabolic movement — necessary to create realistic jumps — had positive real world side effects. Though he didn't care for homework or class, Joseph managed to ace math and physics. No one at school knew what he could do with computers. His instantaneous comprehension of complex math was not questioned, just appreciated.

The White family soon began to worry about their boy who had all but given up on the practice of sleep. Each day at the computer was an adventure, each program a series of discoveries. The clockworks of the universe were revealing themselves in a computer as powerful as a graphing calculator.

In 1993, the high schooler finished his first puzzle game. Without modern internet access — only a proto-internet bulletin board system (BBS) — the teenager had to list the product in a shareware catalogue. The magazine contained short descriptions for dozens of games that could be ordered via mail. Sales were small and slow. That didn't matter. He'd become an indie developer.

This was it. This was what he wanted to do. White's focus calcified into something singular and intense.

Joe_computer

Meanwhile, in modern-day New Jersey

Joe_walking

Sean Kean was a flight attendant before Microsoft's Kinect changed his life.

A lover of digital art, Kean was fascinated by the artistic potential of Microsoft's 3D camera technology. Hoping to learn more, he founded the New York City Kinect Group, inadvertently launching himself into the world of technology. As the founder, he had the opportunity to speak at MIT, attend Microsoft-sponsored workshops and eventually write the book Meet the Kinect. And he still had a day job serving soda in the sky.

At panels, Kean was often asked what he thought the future of Kinect should be, and after months of thinking on it he came to a bold conclusion: volumetric displays. If Kinect is a consumer-grade three-dimensional camera, goes Kean's logic, then the future of Kinect is a consumer-grade three-dimensional display. Most people brushed off the idea and Kean understands why. "The [volumetric display] field is littered with frustrating attempts at creating the future," he says, "that didn't find resonance with the market or people in the time they were in."

So, he decided to make it happen on his own.

During a February 2011 meet-up at General Assembly, a creativity incubator in New York City, Sean Kean pitched the idea of creating a consumer-grade volumetric display to a room of 10 people.

For a second, there was silence.

Then an older man named Alan Jackson began to ask questions. Jackson was interested in using Kinect to help robots prepare hamburgers for major food chains. In 1988, he'd helped build a $40,000 volumetric display that solely depicted "The Quantum Atom" for the New York Hall of Science.

Kean hoped they could create a display today for $400. Jackson agreed to help try to make that happen. Eventually, the idea would get a prototype and a name: the Voxiebox.

Voxatron

The power of the BBS

Voxatron has allowed White to merge modern day with "the good ol' days."

The voxel aesthetic echoes classic pixel art. The limited game field is reminiscent of retro video games. Even the community that's sprouted alongside the game is a throwback of sorts.

An alpha version of Voxatron has been available since 2011, most notably as part of a Humble Indie Bundle. The program includes a demo level along with White's level editor, which has allowed thousands of early users to easily create games, artwork and experiments inside the virtual volumetric display.

He calls the system through which users create and submit levels the "BBS," now a nostalgic nod to the bulletin board systems of his childhood. The Voxatron BBS is the digital equivalent of his cafe, a meeting ground for fellow game designers and code tinkerers.

In 2011, White went full time on Voxatron, begging a "deep state of engine redevelopment." Chunks of the community broke off from the BBS. What remains is a crowd of roughly 200 individuals who use the editor for everything from designing their own levels to creating voxel models and running artificial intelligence simulations.

White hopes it's the editor's low barrier of entry that has kept its fan base around. "You don't have to know to push polygons or vertices around [...] You can choose things from a palate of objects and just plot them into the world."

In theory, anyone should be able to build everything.

"If you showed [the prototype] to a random person, it might not look like much."

While collecting research for Meet the Kinect, Kean came across the Voxatron community. At the time, Kean and Jackson were beginning preliminary work on the Voxiebox. Kean wrote White an email introducing himself, the book and the possibility that Voxatron could run on the theoretical display.

He didn't receive a response, so he took to the Voxatron BBS and posted the display. Again, silence.

Nearly a year after the first email, Kean received a response from White. The coder would be visiting America for the Game Developers Conference, hitting a few cities while he was in the country. Would it be OK if he stopped by New York City to see the prototype?

"He's got no phone," says Kean, "so we make an old school arrangement to meet outside the Apple store on Fifth Avenue. He indicates he has a big beard; I say I will have a white car. We meet and smile and are on our way across the Hudson to [Jackson's] house in Little Falls, New Jersey. [Jackson] sets up the current version of the display on his kitchen table and [White] indicates it should be easy to get Voxatron running on the display with our reciprocating approach — because [White] had designed the game imagining a display like this would one day exist."

"If you showed [the prototype] to a random person," says White, "it might not look like much. Like this thing flapping up and down making a lot of noise and it looks dangerous and you see a very stale image. But I could see immediately that it was only going to take another half year and they would have something looking very beautiful, which they did."

Over that time, White would write new display drivers to help Kean and Jackson create their volumetric display halfway across the world. White hoped one day the duo would return the favor by making him a Voxiebox that could sit in the cafe.

He could finally see his game how it was meant to be seen. The future was so close.

Present day (aka the future)

At NY Tech Day on April 25 of this year, Kean and his company (now called Voxon) announced their joint partnership with White's Lexaloffle Games, along with plans to debut "the first volumetric 3D arcade table cabinet machine that will allow glassesless 3D gameplay for up to eight players at a time seated 360 degrees around the interactive color image volume of Voxatron."

They call it the "Voxatron Table," and it's outfitted with eight joysticks plus buttons. The game can be played with four players, Kean says, in the fashion of the 1982 arcade game Robotron: 2084 — a heavy influence on Voxatron's design.

The table has a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $29,800 and is available for purchase now. The company's still working on a more consumer-friendly volumetric display.

White's father is the first to applaud his son's successes with Pico Pico Cafe, Lexaloffle Games and a happy marriage to Natsuko.

"Although it might be unpredictable," says White's father in regards to the income of an independent game designer, "I've always had huge faith in [Joseph] and the fact that it will work out. Now for Joseph and his wonderful wife Natsuko, [Tokyo] is their home. They are very happy with their new adventure, Pico Pico, and I'm exceptionally happy about the prospect of being a grandfather!" The couple's first child, Joseph tells me, is due this September.

After presenting at NY Tech Day, Kean feels confident about the future of the Voxiebox display. So confident that he hopes to send a display to White in the coming months.

"We are pooling together our resources to get a new class of Voxiebox development kits ready for the journey to Tokyo," says Kean. "It's a pretty long and expensive trip if repairs are needed, so it's kind of like preparing a mission to the moon for us — we've only got enough cash to get it right the first time.

"We are trying to figure out what the most effective way to get it there will be. We could just ship it and hope he can get it set up once it arrives — but it would be more fun and more of a fail-safe if someone gets on a plane to bring it there by hand. We'll have to figure it out in the next week or so. If one of us goes with it, we could potentially walk it into the Tokyo arcades and see if we can get Taito to make some orders — or at least invite some folks to the Pico Pico Cafe to check it out."

Pico Pico Cafe: the only game development space, T-shirt retailer and coffee shop with a volumetric display in all of Tokyo.

"Yeah," White says, laughing, "and hopefully a bunch of other stuff." Babykayak

Natsuko

Joseph White's wife and business partner, Natsuko White


White and Natsuko met at a T-shirt shop. Relatively new to Japan, he couldn't understand the kanji on the printed tees. Natsuko, one of the store's designers, explained it. This was three days before the annual Tokyo Game Show, at which White was presenting. Natsuko, who grew up conquering role-playing games with her two brothers, was amazed.

"I wanted to know about him and about his work," she says. "I wanted to know how he creates games from zero."

The relationship developed rapidly, leading to their marriage. A few months ago, Natsuko left her job at the T-shirt shop to focus on the cafe. She's continued designing shirts. In time, the couple hopes to sell the clothes at Pico Pico Cafe, adding another function to the tiny shop.

Natsuko's a little shy about the cafe, worrying that customers won't like the coffee or snacks, and will never come back. She attributes some of the success to her mother's banana cake.

Natsuko's mother worried about her daughter playing games as a child, but now, Natsuko says, she is proud that her son-in-law creates them, even if she doesn't quite understand how.

Natsuko herself is still learning how games are made. Sometimes, her husband's complex explanations cause her brain to "shut down." But Voxatron has proven to be different. It's 3D world is constructible with simple tools, like a LEGO set that can be clicked into place. "I think I've always designed towards [Natsuko]," says White. For the first time, Natsuko's modeling her own levels. She's building worlds from zero.

Correction: In the included video, Mr. White is described as an Australian. He is actually from New Zealand. The video will be updated accordingly shortly.


Images: Jimmy Shelton, Tom Connors, Lexaloffle Games
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan

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