The article below comes from a 1996 issue of Wired
Soviet science and Western commerce spawn electronic fish.
Years ago, before perestroika, Russian scientists worried about fundamental problems. Now we think of practical applications," says Vladimir Pokhilko, a research-psychologist-turned-computer-programmer, describing the development of a wonderfully inventive, but hardly practical software program called El-Fish.
It seems America is ready for some Russian practicality. The program, used to create and display beautifully rendered and animated electronic fish, is slated for release by Maxis in the US this spring. For those accustomed to traditional action or adventure computer games, El-Fish will be a revelation.
Users will be dazzled by the realistic colors and varieties of fish they can generate with the program, and by its tools for creating lifelike aquascapes. And then there's the prospect of playing God with the genetic code of artificially generated piscean creations.
Pokhilko's journey into Western commerce began in the mid-1980s when he first applied computer software to his field of constructive psychology. Using low-power PCs and Russian development tools, he wrote various programs for use in psychological testing and classification.
By 1989, the Russian economy was in turmoil and many academics were turning to computers as funding for scientific research declined. That's when Pokhilko met Alexey Pajitnov, a mathematician and programmer who had made a reputation (though little money), from his game Tetris, which had been successfully published and marketed in the US and around the world.
Finding a common interest in software games based on scientific theory, they founded Intec, a Moscow-based company with four people and two computers.
The team had an American patron, Henk Rogers, founder of Bullet-Proof Software, a Redmond, Washington game-cartridge publisher. Rogers funded a joint venture between Intec and Bullet-Proof, and AnimaTek was born.
With Rogers' financial support, Pokhilko and Pajitnov were able to employ other programmers (most of them former researchers like themselves), to put their ideas into practice. They liked the idea of a program based on the concepts of genetics. AnimaTek began with the idea of exploring genetic combinations for flowers, then moved on to butterflies, and finally settled on fish. Specialists were assigned for the program's various components: population genetics, solid geometry, color modeling, animation dynamics, graphics, interface design, and sound.
As the program came together, the partners realized they needed a Western publisher. Since Bullet-Proof Software is not in the personal computer software business, Rogers felt that he could not properly market El-Fish. In 1991, Esther Dyson, an American computer industry pundit with extensive contacts in Eastern Europe, arranged a meeting in Moscow between AnimaTek and Maxis president Jeff Braun. Within five minutes, Braun offered to publish El-Fish, Pokhilko recalls.
It was a perfect match. Maxis, based in Orinda, California, had risen to the top ranks of entertainment software companies on the success of SimCity and other simulation programs.
"Our whole idea is to create software that rewards a player's experimentation and creativity. With a software toy, a player doesn't win or lose, but instead has an enriching experience through risk-taking and exploration," Braun says.
Maxis shaped the AnimaTek software for the American computer market, advising AnimaTek to simplify the user interface and eliminate the computer-intensive process of environmental modeling from the program.
The result is a DOS version of El-Fish, a $59.95 program scheduled to ship this spring. A Mac version and a possible CD edition with extensive fish libraries are in the works.
With its sophisticated 3-D graphics and animation, "El-Fish is a technological tour de force," says Braun. "This is the first commercial program that lets users produce their own fully rendered characters. Today, it is fish, but this technology could be used in any computer game."
Indeed, the technology in El-Fish is impressive. At the heart of the program is an algorithm for manipulating 56 genes which define more than 800 parameters of shape, size, coloring, and behavior. By combining "offspring," users can generate an infinite number of fish varieties. Users first "catch" pre-made varieties stocked in the program's metaphorical lake. They choose two that appeal to them and proceed to spawn genetically correct offspring. They can then breed and cross-breed until they produce phenotypes that suit their fancy.
The program renders each new variety into highly lifelike 3-D images - the fish appear to be alive as they swim around in the aquarium on screen. The program also supplies a vast variety of tools and objects for constructing tanks. Users choose from among 72 colors and textures for the aquarium background and bottom, and can access libraries of rocks, shells, coral, plants, and other objects. Some tank objects, like a bubbling air tube, sprinkled fish food, and a whimsical cat's paw, have their own animations. Users may also import scanned images to further customize their tank creations.
Computer-generated music in hundreds of styles and rhythms can be attached to an aquascape. The program allows multiple tanks to be looped together in a slide show, and it also has a built-in facility to capture individual screen images.
While El-Fish offers stunning physical representations of genetically manipulated fish, in its current form the program does not attempt to
represent an ecosystem. The program does not account for environmental factors such as predators, population density, or changes in water temperature.
Though Pokhilko and his team are interested in modeling fish to the environment, they will have to wait for desktop computers to evolve - PCs don't have enough horsepower just yet to pull off such a feat. Maxis offers a different product, SimLife, that accounts for natural selection, and Pokhilko envisions someday combining the physical representations of fish in El-Fish with the environmental modeling of SimLife.
For now, the market for El-Fish will be constrained by the program's substantial minimum power requirements: an 80386 PC with at least four megabytes of RAM and VGA color. For optimal performance and visual display, more processing power, memory, and graphics resolution are recommended.
As fascinating as El-Fish is, people are likely to ask, "What do you do with it?" The simple answer is that you design tanks, create fish, and watch them swim around. But users will find that El-Fish is more than a live aquarium minus the dead fish. In the end, El-Fish is an outlet for creativity. It is an educational tool for learning about genetics. And it is a relaxing and meditative experience.
Perhaps only the sensibilities and experience of Russian programmers could have produced such a combination of beauty and non-utility. "Russian programmers couldn't write successful accounting programs because they don't know the cultural content of Western business. But they [do] write great algorithms for games," says Esther Dyson.
Today, AnimaTek's 60 employees, including 37 programmers, are applying their vision to a host of new programs, from modeling dinosaurs to rendering artificial landscapes. For Pokhilko, El-Fish is a milestone in the journey from the fundamental problems of Soviet science to the practical applications of Western commerce. "El-Fish is for creating something beautiful," he says. "Dostoevsky said that we need beauty to help us survive. El-Fish is software to lift the human spirit."
Dan Ruby is the editor in chief of Nextworld.
Copyright © 1996 Wired Ventures, Inc. Compilation copyright © 1996 HotWired, Inc.
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