Sunday, June 17, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 4 - Virtual Africa Office

“What a load of crap!” howled Douglas Adams as he threw open the lobby doors of the Empire Leicester Square. He’d just sat through 109 minutes of Congo, a jungle adventure story about a trained gorilla that’s taken back to the wild. I caught up with him at the after party, in the basement of the Royal College of Art on Kensington Gore. He and Storm Thorgerson were standing next to a scale model of a volcano spewing day-glow lava from its top. “Sorry if I was a bit vocal back there at the theatre,” said Douglas. He was an imposing man, both in stature and imagination. 

“No, you’re right,” I laughed, “the movie stank. I’m amazed you stayed until the end. But we did well out of it. The studio paid us for our radar image (even though it was in the public domain), used our literature in their set designs, and gave us the London premiere, which really boosted morale at the charity. Besides, the gorillas stand to earn a pile of dough from the on-pack video promotion, so…”

“So it’s good for something,” said Storm. 

“I thought your film of Arthur looked great up there on the big screen,” I said.

“I thought it was corny,” said Storm, casually surveying the room for familiar faces. “Hard to imagine I earned a masters here. It was a lot groovier back then.”

“Oh, by the way, Douglas,” I said, jingling my bourbon on the rocks, “I’ve got an appeal going out next week to coincide with the movie’s release.”

“Another one?” asked Douglas. “Don’t you ever tire of writing appeal letters?” I looked at him aghast. “Nothing wrong with them, as such,” continued Adams. “It’s just this tendency to continually put bandaids on the problem that bothers me. I mean, you put all that effort into asking for donations, but only ever raise enough to keep the gorillas safe for a few more months. What would it take to draw a line under the issue? I know some wealthy people. How much money do you need to make sure, as much as is humanly possible, the mountain gorillas are saved forever?"

“Now there’s a challenge,” I laughed. “Let’s see, the annual cost of gorilla protection is around a quarter of a million dollars.”

“So you need an interest-bearing lump sum to pay for that in perpetuity. How much is that?” 

“$5-6 million,” said Storm. 

”To save a species?” smiled Adams. “A bargain.”

“We should continue this conversation at my office,” I smiled. “The prospect of raising a sum large enough to ensure I never have to fundraise again is very appealing.”

A week later he visited our office in Primrose Hill, brought along Richard Harris, CTO of The Digital Village (TDV), an online entertainment company where Douglas was Chief Fantasist. We sat at a large round table in the basement next to a wall sized map of central Africa. 

“Tell me about your conservation work,” said Douglas. “How does $250,000 a year save gorillas?”

“Shipments of bananas,” I joked. “No, most of the money gets spent on anti-poaching patrols, equipment, salaries of the park rangers, and running the research facility.”

“Do you have researchers out there now?” asked Richard.

“Not at Karisoke. They were all evacuated. That’s twice in two years we’ve had to evacuative our American staff from Rwanda. And security in the region doesn’t look like it’s going to improve anytime soon.” 

“What you need is a digital hub,” said Richard, “an information resource that can be accessed from anywhere.” He looked at our network of desktop PCs, shook his head in dismay, then added, “And some Macs.”

“I should be able to get those donated,” said Douglas. “And I am happy to donate the proceeds from Hitchhiker. Theatre groups often stage amateur productions of it, and I’d be glad to send you those royalty cheques.” I smiled. “TDV, however, is heading into new territory in digital media, adapting Hitchhiker’s worlds into interactive forms. Meantime, I’m meeting people who are sitting on pots of money. You can be the parrot on my shoulder.” 

The next day he sent an email to Apple Computer:

We are planning to do a major TDV website with them and in the long term have even more ambitions plans - realtime gorilla tracking in virtual models of the Virungas on the Web. The Fund already has use of a satellite for transmitting data back from Africa. They desperately need equipment right at the moment, and I have been strongly advocating Apple to them.
- Email from Douglas Adams to Apple Computer

Apple donated a PowerMac 8500/120/16/2GB, Multiple Scan 1705 Display, Colour StyleWriter 2200, and a PowerBook 5300C/100 8/500 - about $8,000 worth of gear. 
PowerMac 8500

In Nicholas Negroponte’s book Being Digital he talks about an early prototype of a machine that pushed back at you, a force-feedback device. I wrote to him to ask if such a device might be used to support our anti-poaching efforts: plotting poaching activity on the 3D map we’d made from JPL’s data set of the gorilla habitat to determine the path of least resistance for the gorillas. 

Negroponte had founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, in Cambridge, MA, one of America’s foremost research facilities. The Media Lab was a perfect partner for the conservation education centre we planned to build somewhere between Bwindi and Virunga (the two remaining Mountain gorilla habitats are only 35 kilometres apart). Such a facility would be an ideal naming opportunity for the donor to Douglas’s once-and-for-all fund. 
Wiesner Building, MIT Media Lab

My letter prompted an invitation in November 1995. The Media Lab’s Building E15, a.k.a. the Wiesner Building, was designed by I.M. Pei. On the outside it resembled a shiny new gift box, or the packaging to a futuristic games console. Inside the four-storey building was a warren of studios and workshops. Prof Michael Hawley, who studied under Marvin Minsky, gave me a tour of the facility. Things that Think, Toys of Tomorrow, and GO expeditions were all projects he was working on at the time.

He showed me a large room that had been entirely blacked out and was lighted only by LEDs. “Nike are sponsoring this project,” said Hawley. I can’t remember what they were doing in there, but the venue reminded me of being backstage at the Pink Floyd concert.

“This is a haptic device,” said Hawley, grasping a shiny metal pen attached to a mechanical arm, “the technology you asked about in our letter to my boss. It takes advantage of my sense of touch to simulate objects, applying forces, vibrations, or motions to my hand. Here, give it a try.” Floating inflexibly next to the device was an invisible cube. I could feel its presence by moving the pen over its surface, or knocking it against it. Magic!

“Come, let me show you something else you might like,” he said, leading me down the corridor to another workshop. “A couple friends have built a holography research group.” Suspended from the ceiling were some interesting full colour holographic portraits, sharp and beautiful. On an optical bench full of lasers was a holo-video system. “Not exactly Princess Leia beamed from R2D2,” laughed Hawley. “Have you thought about making a hologram of a silverback?” 

“Wow,” I gasped. “That would be amazing.”

“There’s a lot of equipment involved,” smiled Hawley. “How would gorillas react to having lasers in their midst? Also, the silverback would have to stay perfectly still, if only for an instant. Any movement by more than a millionth of a meter is enough to ruin your hologram.”

“We could create a soft mockup of the equipment and give them a few weeks to get used to it,” I said. “Then, when we’re sure it’s ok , we introduce the real equipment, shoot our hologram.”

“Ok, here’s what we can offer you,” said Hawley. “At the Media Lab your charity will enjoy the same privileges as our corporate sponsors. That’s a benefit worth $100,000 a year. You can look in on any of the technologies we’re developing and see what suits your conservation efforts.” 

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