Golden Years

The day was much like any other, get up, kick back, log in… rubbish connection today but Samantha Taylor was used to it. Being a software developer wasn’t all trade fairs and sponsored buffets; there was always plenty of unpaid overtime to be done after hours and not everyone could afford a 50 Megabit home connection. Sam sighed – whingeing about sub-optimal frame rates wasn’t going to get this job done and she was up against a tight deadline. All the more annoying that she should be stuck with this problem, which was going to take her the rest of the weekend to sort out – she had no idea how exactly she could stop multiple alpha channels from noticeably clipping, in a 360 degree view but she was going to have to find some solution, and fast!

Perhaps Bowie would help? Turning up the volume, she frowned… where was her graphics pen? Shuffling through the mess of notes covering her workstation, her wrist knocked against the mug of cold tea, precariously balanced next to the monitor. In horror, Sam watched as, in seemingly slow motion, its contents emptied itself over the system box and standalone data vault. She almost exploded across the room to the power point – desperately trying to minimise the inevitable frying of her system – a little too explosively unfortunately as, with a sickening crack, her skull connected with the solid mass of the wall.

As consciousness fled, the voice of Ziggy Stardust faded, along with her vision: “golden years, golden years…”

The insistent ringing hurt her ears. “Damn alarm clock!”. Groping for the pillow to stifle its strident tones, Sam found nothing, other than a tender lump on her forehead. As consciousness returned – reluctantly – the ringing resolved into something more familiar – the ‘phone: its insistent tones demanding a response. Groggily staggering to her feet, she fumbled for the offending article under the papers on her desk, then stared stupidly at the object in her hand. This wasn’t her ‘phone. The brick lying in her hand was not the sleek touchscreen Android that contained pretty much her whole life. Had she picked up someone else’s ‘phone in error? Fumbling with the unfamiliar keys, she raised it to her ear.

“Where the hell are you?”

“Erm… sorry, who is this?”

“Sam? What the hell do you  mean, who is this? It’s Philip, dammit. I’ve been trying to get hold of you all bloody morning. We’ve got a crisis here and you’re nowhere to be found. Now drop whatever the hell you’re doing and get your arse into gear and into work before I find an excuse to fire you to kingdom-bloody-come!”

The call ended abruptly, the stranger’s words ringing her ears. Sam wracked her brain, trying to match the voice to a face. Philip?… perhaps one of the new consultants they’d brought in for the launch? But who the hell gave him the right to speak to her like that? Damn right, she was going in to work and she’d give this guy as good as he’d given her!

Cowboy boots… what the? Where did those come from – today was going from bizarre to completely surreal, perhaps that bump on the head had messed her up more than she’d realised. Quickly pulling on the boots, she reached for her coat, then thought better of it – since when did i own a faux fur coat? She mused… it’s so not me. Checking the time, she reckoned if she got a move she’d get the 11:00 o’clock bus at the end of the street… she did – just – and panting, cursing the uncomfortable boots, she started feeding the ticket machine with loose change.

“Whoooahh, luv. ‘Ang on a sec… you paying for everyone?”

The bus driver clamped his hand over the coin slot:

“It’s 40p luv, you’ve near enough paid for a whole week’s travel!”

Sam stared at him, bemused, “When did the prices go down?”

“You’re ‘aving a laff, ain’t yer missus? Go down? They bleedin’ well went up last week, had nuffin’ but complaints ever since. Blame the bleedin’ budget for that!”

Sam shook her head in disbelief and made her way to an empty seat. As the bus pulled off, she stared blankly through the window, musing on the strange turn that things had taken since this morning’s disaster. Slowly, the scenes of life in the street outside started to filter into her vision… things looked decidedly odd out there. Odd… well, ‘different’ – there was too much blue denim about, and bare midriffs seemed to have made a comeback. Things just didn’t look ‘right’. Glancing across the aisle, she caught a glimpse of a newspaper being read by a guy in a bomber jacket and cargo pants… the front page confused her: Gordon Brown back as Chancellor of the Exchequer – what on earth?

Damn! Nearly missed the stop. Stabbing the bell, Sam lurched to the front of the bus, hopped off and made her way to the office. Things were still not right when she arrived. The place was full of people she didn’t recognise and all the computer gear was wrong – big clunky grey boxes and old-fashioned CRT monitors. Sam stumbled to her workstation and sank into her chair.

“Taylor! My Office – Now!”

The voice from the telephone blasted across the office. Sam turned to see a guy in jeans and casual shirt, sporting sandy-grey, spiky hair. He pointed at her, mouthed the word‘now’ and jerked his thumb in the direction of the corner office, before disappearing inside.

She had no idea who he might be and now, utterly confused, she wasn’t too sure about who she was herself. With throbbing head and shot nerves, she eased herself back out of the chair and made her way across to the room in the corner. As she walked, she repeated, like a mantra; “this is my office, this is my office”, as if, by doing so, she might bring things back to normal. Ignoring the bemused looks from the strangers around her she continued to chant; “this is my office…”

“No it bloody isn’t… it’s my office, so get your arse in here right now. And shut the damn door behind you!”

The man, Philip, practically yanked her through the doorway.

“What the hell are you playing at, Taylor”, he yelled, “a week until we launch and you’re having a damn lie-in!… When you do deign to turn up, you moon around like a zombie with a hangover! What’s your game? ‘Cos it sure as hell ain’t the damn game your supposed to be taking the damn lead on”

He continued; “You do realise, don’t you, that if this project goes down the toilet, we all go with it? This company’s staked all it has on The Rig… if it goes tits-up, then so do we. We can’t afford to lose our competitive edge, Sam, dammit! Only today, that bloody upstart Jobs has been going on about how his damn iMac is going to spell the end for floppy disks… know what that is, Sam? That’s vision, that’s what – but we’ve got a bigger vision: there’s a whole world out there to be explored and, with The Rig, we’re going to build it…”

He paused.

“That’s if you can be bothered to haul your arse out of bed and do some bloody work on the damn thing!”

Philip glowered at Sam. She shrank back against the closed door behind her, stammering:

“Look, i really don’t know what’s going on here. i bumped my head, don’t feel so good. Everything is really strange. It’s like… like, i’ve gone back into the past or something… i really don’t know what’s…”

“Cobblers!”

He interrupted, heaving an exasperated sigh and looked heavenward:

“You see, this is what happens when you give a woman a project; give a bloke a project, he’s like a kid on Christmas Day… give a bird a project and she’s wondering what bloody shoes she should wear to the office!

Now, you just be a good girl and listen to me, Sam. You may think you’re living in the past and this is the dark ages, but I’ve got news for you…”

He looked at his watch and frowned.

“This is how it is, Sam. It’s 1999, it’s lunchtime – I’m having crispy pancakes. Now get with the programme, get out there and damn well start programming. Comprehendez Muchacho?”

Sam was reeling. Was this all some sort of absurd dream; had that bump on the head been worse than she imagined? The possibility that what was happening could possibly be real was one that she pushed to the back of her mind – utterly impossible, she kept telling herself – although, scarily, it was the only explanation that could account for all the crazy things that had happened that morning.

Get a grip, girl! It’s just a massive wind-up. In her heart she knew that, even if it were possible, something on the scale of what she was experiencing… the way her office looked as it would have over a decade ago; the things she’d seen on the street, through the bus window; the newspaper article and; how she seemed to have developed a rather dubious taste in clothes overnight. Slowly, she made her way from Philip’s office back to her workstation.

“You alright boss?”

“Ummm, yeah. Actually no… not quite myself today… had a bit of a bump on the head this morning and it’s knocked me for six, i’m afraid.”

She looked at the young man stood opposite her apologetically: “i’m sorry, i seem to have forgotten your name.”

He looked back at her, bemusement on his face – “It’s Chris, boss”, he said.

“i’m sorry Chris, of course it is”, Sam grinned at the young man sheepishly, “you’re going to have to brief me on where we’re at on the project, Chris… i just can’t get my head round it this morning.”

“OK boss”, Chris shrugged, “I’ll go and round up the team then”.

Ten minutes later, Sam was sat on the corner of her desk with a small audience gathered around her. How on earth was she going to manage this? Clutching at the first idea that crossed her mind, she decided to run with it.

“Hey guys. You’re going to think i’ve gone a bit crazy today – it’s been one hell of a morning but humour me OK? Umm, well you know we’ve got this big launch coming up? i just want to make sure that we’re pitching things just right for our market, so, i erm, i want you to imagine i’m a punter – assume i know absolutely nothing about what we’re developing… so sell it to me: go on, give me both barrels on what’s going to make me want to part with my cash and buy this product, and make it convincing!”

Sam smiled around at the team; she hoped she was about to learn a lot more about what was supposed to be going on around here in the next few minutes.

Most of the team just looked at the floor or avoided her gaze until one of the younger guys grabbed the bait:

“Yeah, alright, sounds good to me.  OK, well, we’ve got this revolutionary new approach to gaming – it’s called The Rig – you plug it into your computer, put on the gear and away you go. Apart from the drivers – you get those on a floppy – there’s no software… the really cool thing is that we take care of all that, this end, all you have to do is dial up and connect to the web and everything happens online!”

He paused and looked around for support, then ploughed on…

“This is the best bit! – You don’t just sit in front of the screen and blow things up and shoot things, but you can chat to other players too, like IRC, only dead easy… plus the system lets you build your own stuff before you get to blow it up”, the lad warmed to his topic, “In fact, you don’t have to sit in front of the screen at all because The Rig is a completely integrated haptics interface – you can walk around the room, talk and blow things up wherever you want… get a long enough cable and you can play in the garden if you want! It’s 3D, stereo, multiple viewpoints… the whole shebang… it’s awesome!”

He beamed at Sam, who responded with a frown.

“That’s it? – doesn’t sound all that awesome to me. How does this ‘Rig’ work then?”

The kid flushed and looked at his feet:

“Ummm… c’mon boss. You know – it’s your design!”

“Show me!”

By now, the whole team was looking acutely embarrassed and casting questioning glances at each other. Reluctantly, they led Sam to a side room – there, on a workbench, hooked up to an archaic computer by a spaghetti of cables was The Rig. The Rig was an unwieldy contraption of metal and plastic, consisting of a harness, small displays, a microphone assembly and a keyboard attachment.

Gingerly, Sam toyed with the contraption then, shrugging, lifted it onto her head.

“Careful boss!”, Chris cautioned, “That’s a two-man, erm, two-person job – you’ll be yanking the cable out!”

“Cable?”, queried Sam, “We’re not using wireless or Bluetooth?”

The completely blank stares from all the assembled team members answered that particular question. One chap stood at the back muttered something about ‘bonkers’ and ‘Phil’, before excusing himself and leaving the room. Sam ignored him. Determined to get some information to work with from the meeting, she ploughed on…

“OK, so we’re cabled up – it all looks a bit complex…”

“Ah, that’s what we’ve been working on, boss”, interjected Chris. “We think we’ve got that sorted… the production model will just need the power supply cable, a PS2 cable for the keyboard and all you’ll need to connect to the interface box will be a Centronics cable. Of course, you’ll have to unplug your printer to use it – but no-one will be printing and playing at the same time! Then there’s just a final power cable for the interface and you’re up and running!”

Sam carefully lowered The Rig back onto the workbench, flexing her shoulders and neck, which had already developed a noticeable ache from the harness. She traced the cables with her fingers and peered at the back of the PC casing. “Why aren’t we using USB?”, she mused.

Chris coughed, “Umm, boss… no-one’s using USB… it’s just too new-fangled. Half the people out there haven’t got compatible computers or software and, let’s face it, it’s probably just a flash in the pan.”

Sam eyed first the PC, then Chris, critically:

“Just what exactly is the minimum spec for running the rig?”

“Well, most of the features will run OK on a 386, but you really need a 486 to get the best out of it… We’ve made it backwards compatible with ’98 – most people are still using it – but ideally, you’ll want Windows 2000 or Millenium and you definitely want a 56k modem: 28k just won’t cut it.”

Sam turned to look at her team and sighed… “And you say i designed this?”

Before anyone could answer, there was a commotion as Philip appeared in the doorway.

“Taylor!”, he pointed at Sam, “You. My Office. Toot sweet!” – turning to rest of the team, he glowered at them – “As for you reprobates, if you think you’re being paid for hanging round in here, you can think again – you’re got more chance of finding an ostrich with a plum up its’ arse… get back to bloody work, or else I’ll be coming over to your desks and stamping on your executive toys!”

For the second time that morning, Sam found herself in Philip’s office and on the receiving end of his ire.

“I really don’t know what’s got into you, Sam. There’s me thinking you were getting on with the job, like a good little girl, then Ray comes in here tittle-tattling about how you’ve lost the plot. From what I can work out you’ve been about as much use today as a magnet in a plastic factory! Now… if you know something that I need to know, then you need to spill: you get the message?”

Sam weighed up the man sat in front of here. ‘No bullshit’, she thought to herself, ‘just tell him’…

“Philip, you can’t launch The Rig – it’s crap”

To give him credit, he barely flinched: he gestured for her to continue:

“If we launch that contraption, we’ll become the laughing stock of the games industry. No-one will buy it and this company will go bust. If you want to end up in the same scrapyard as Sinclair and Amstrad, then go ahead with the launch, but i’m telling you, it’ll be corporate suicide.

Just delay for another year or so… i’ll come up with something that’ll blow the competition out of the water. People are looking for more than just shoot-em-ups and they want something more immersive than just glorified chat rooms – i can give you that, but i need time and i need the best equipment you’ve got. i know i can do this – just give me the chance”

For a full minute, Philip stared at Sam in complete silence. Then he appeared to come to a decision.

“All right, Sam. It’s good to see you acting like a programmer and showing some balls… although I wasn’t expecting that ballsy! It doesn’t take a degree in applied bollocks to know what’s going on – you’ve screwed up – but, if you’re prepared to carry the can, so be it. I’ll suspend the launch, but you’d better come up with the goods, and fast!”

He stood up and walked briskly to the door, turning to speak on the way –

“Get your team together and get me some results, and you tell me you want top notch equipment… well, you got it…”

Reaching the doorway, he stopped then bellowed across the office…

“Right. Let’s fire up the Pentium!”

ooOOOooo

The team talk was a bit of an uphill struggle but Sam persevered. She didn’t have a lot of choice – since it seemed she was doomed to relive the past, she felt she may as well make the best of it. There was no way that she was going to become the laughing stock of future generations… she could see it now: for generations of future developers she’d become the watchword for ill-conceived and overly-ambitious projects… ‘Well, you made a right Sam Taylor of that!’. Inwardly, she shuddered – no, here was her chance to make good – she was in a unique position: she knew the future! It would be difficult working with the antiquated equipment and within the constraints that she was stuck with but she could plan ahead – have a product that was ready to make the best of new technology as soon as it came along…. the future looked very bright from where she was sitting.

“You’re ditching The Rig?”, Chris was incredulous, “what about that ‘all round immersive experience’ you’ve been telling us to focus on all this time?”

” We’re not going to lose that focus”, replied Sam, “we’ve just been looking for it in the wrong places. People want something they can fully engage with… something that they can lose themselves in, something that’s as good as, if not better, than the real world. That’s exactly what we’re going to give them. i want you to imagine an environment that goes way beyond a ‘game’ – where the participants can design things to look and act the way that they want, rather than have us dictate to them how things should be – a blank canvas, if you like, for them to create their own virtual world.”

Stood in the corner, Ray almost choked on his tea… “Sorry to be the picky pain in the arse I normally am, but you have to be out of your tiny little mind boss, if you don’t mind me saying! That’s not what people want… our punters want to be able to blow things up and shoot each other – hell, that’s what i want too!”

Sam eyed up her opponent: “Tell you what, Ray: what if i said the punters could still blow things up and shoot each other – only, with what we’re going to do, they can choose exactly how they’re going to do it. How about in outer space, or a cowboy western? What about as robots or flame breathing dragons?”

Ray stared at Sam wide-eyed. “Now you’re talking!”

“Hey, hang on just a second”, interjected Chris, “how the hell are we supposed to do all that – just think of all the polygons it’ll take to build that kind of game and you’re not seriously suggesting we let the punters develop things themselves? Next you’ll be suggesting we let run wild with their own code! Whose going to make the rules, for crying out loud? Besides, what you’re suggesting… we just don’t have the technology to support it – it’ll never work.”

Sam grinned broadly.

“Don’t be such a jessie, Chris – what’s so bad about letting people make their own rules? As for the technology… just you wait and see; i’ve got a hunch that the future’s going to bring some big surprises!

When i was talking to Philip, he spoke about us having vision – that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We’re not going to programme for what we have today, but for what we’re going to have tomorrow… and when it arrives, we’ll be so far ahead of the game, no-one will be able to compete. So what if we don’t have the technology yet – you’re all smart lads – use your initiative and let’s do something so different from anything else that we’ll take over this market completely.”

oooOOOooo

It had been a long eighteen months. Once again, Sam found herself in Phil’s office, only this time it was to arrange a launch not call one off.

She’d spent a lot of time working on her presentation. She’d demonstrated the rudimentary ‘world’ her team had managed to build and she’d let him play with it for a while, pleased at the smile that crossed his face when he’d successfully created a simple structure – it even resembled a house! She was even more pleased that he was so proud of his achievement that he refused to even consider blowing it up.

She explained how the plugins they’d developed would increase functionality as the technology was developed to support it – how audio and even video ‘streams’ could eventually be added to the system. She demonstrated how users would be able to buy into the experience and how that could be turned into real money. At the end of it, Phil was pretty much convinced.

“Super duper”, he said, “I’m impressed – only one thing you’ve missed… what are we going to call it?”

Sam laughed, “i thought i’d leave that up to you”.

“Hmmm… I like a challenge”, he replied, “how about we discuss it over lunch? We could maybe go to the pub for chicken in a basket? Or maybe you fancy something different – maybe a Bernie Inn?”

“Sounds good to me”, said Sam, “i’ll get my coat… you know, it’ll be good to relax a bit, this project has pretty much taken over my life. To be honest it’s been a second life to me and i’ll be glad to get back to my real life!” Sam walked out of the office, idly wondering as she did, whether she would ever get back to any semblance of a real life.

Philip watched her go, turning her last words over in his mind…. “It’s been a second life to me” ‘second life?’ He thought; ‘I wonder…’

Sits like a man but he smiles like a reptile
She love him, she love him but just for a short while
David Bowie – The Jean Genie

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