"I’m 47. I have a bachelor’s degree in Information and Computer Science from the University of California at Irvine, and have been a software engineer since college. I worked at Microsoft for twenty years before switching to Valve Software, where I’ve worked for the past five years. I’ve been interested in and playing around with computers since I was 13-14 years old. I always liked 3D graphics and did a lot of hobby projects related to graphics. At Microsoft I did quite a bit of systems programming, but also spent several years working on various graphics teams there, such as the OpenGL team and the DirectX team."
Where did you find the ideas for your screensaver?
"While I was working on Microsoft’s OpenGL team we were looking for interesting ways to show off the fact that Windows was going to ship an OpenGL implementation to consumers in Windows 95 (it was already shipping in Windows NT but to a smaller audience) and screensavers came up. I had written a simpler version of the maze runner just for fun earlier, somewhat inspired by Wolfenstein 3D (which had come out a few years before). Writing the maze screensaver was not challenging in terms of technical difficulty but it expanded tremendously in complexity as I was working on it. I had started it as a just-for-fun project and it was very basic: just the minimal viewpoint going through a blank maze.
Which challenges did you encounter when making the screensaver? Was the initial idea very different from the final software?
When I decided to show it to the other people on the OpenGL team I added things like the overlay showing the map of the maze and some more interesting coloring. Then when the team chose it as one to include in Win95 I added many things and the team chipped in ideas too. That was when I added the rat running the maze, the little geometric shapes and teapot hidden in corners of the maze, the OpenGL programming book cover on the wall (I actually got official permission from the author), the fractal wall textures and color cycling and more things.
We knew everybody was going to compare it to Doom (which had also come out a few years before) and we wanted to have something about it that Doom couldn’t do, so I added the bit at the end of the maze where the whole thing rotates around your axis of view. It’s probably not anything that anybody really noticed, though. We also added a formal extension to OpenGL to do the color cycling when you turned on the fractal wall textures. It was funny going to the OpenGL Architecture Review Board and selling the feature because it made for great visuals in a screensaver (to be fair the feature did have practical purposes too).
The author of the 3D Pipes screensaver was updating that at the same time and I was also working on my 3D Flowerbox screensaver and everybody was having fun and throwing around ideas. There was a kind of creative ferment and it was a great period of work.
Were you surprised by the public response?
I was very surprised by the public response. I liked my screensavers but I didn’t realize that people would find them as engrossing as they did. I thought they would get interest initially since they were new and different from previous screensavers but I thought that would fade. People really stuck with them, though, and they would pop up in the background on TV shows and such. There was some media coverage too around the Win95 launch talking about the screensavers and how amazing they were. For many years, friends who knew I had done them would send me email about how they’d seen the screensavers running all over and how people still loved them. Overall the response and longevity of the screensavers boggled my mind. The fact that you’re including one in an exhibition now has re-boggled it.
What are some of your favourite screensavers?
I always liked 3D Pipes. There was another screensaver that a teammate on the OpenGL team did that simulated a pool of water with drops falling into it, I liked that one because it was interesting visually but also because I was interested in the underlying water simulation.
Do you currently use a screensaver on your computer?
Ironically enough I don’t use a screensaver. I have my monitor set to power-off after a period so it just goes blank in power-save mode and I wouldn’t see any screensaver running.
Do you see a future for screensavers?
I think a lot of people and equipment have low-power modes now so I think the amount of time that screensavers might be visible is probably lower than it was and most likely will continue getting lower. You don’t really see screensavers on phones, for example, as it’s better for the phone to shut down and not display anything rather than that using up batter power running a screensaver. That said I think there’ll always be a place for something like a screensaver, even if it’s more an art display than reducing monitor burn-in, because people find those kind of dynamic displays interesting. People also still like creating open-ended visual spectacles so I don’t think that kind of thing will ever go away entirely."