That Damned Old Third Dimension

Daniel Byers '08, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University

Neal Stephenson spun the tale of Snow Crash long before the days of fully interactive three-dimensional video games or fully rendered three-dimensional movies like Shrek and The Incredibles. In 1992, which seems such a short breath away, the Internet was still a stripling and the World Wide Web was nonexistent. While his vision of virtual reality is compelling, it is interesting to consider just how modern knowledge might have affected his conception of avatars, or the vessels that people use to enter the virtual reality world.

He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer according to specifications coming down the fiver-optic cable. The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse… Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment.

It would be difficult for Stephenson to have imagined the biggest gripe his concept of avatar’s presents: the avatars seem to be fully viewable in 3 dimensions, yet the concept of 3-D modeling is either not present or not imagined. Early video games such as Duke Nukem dealt solely with 2-D sprites; the result was that when you moved around the sprite, you always saw the same image. It might be an animated monster or a corpse, but it was only ever viewable from one angle. In later games (and, recently, feature films), 3 dimensions allowed characters and enemies to be viewed from all angles, but this also meant that they had to be modeled in 3 dimensions, given body physics, etc. Similarly, the huge Animercial that Hiro walks through like a hologram would have to be modeled with extreme precision to preserve its illusion while Hiro was passing through it (otherwise, he might see an empty tube for the inside of the plane, if only the outside was textured). When Hiro enters The Black Sun, it is mentioned that the chatting avatars inside have physics that keep them from passing through each other, which suggests three dimensions, but Jaunita’s older model is also describes as appearing as though through a snowstorm, which brings to mind a 2d display.


1. Did Stephenson imagine his models in three dimensions, as are created by modelers today, or as a kind of holoscreen-viewable-from-all-sides?

2. With current knowledge of 3d work, would Stephenson have reshaped either his virtual world or his narrative descriptions of it?

3. Is it plausible that in a virtual reality setting with such amazingly convincing models requiring enormous amounts polygons, the backgrounds would still be featureless, and people would worry about things like not rendering 4-sided table legs (as in The Black Sun)?

4. It is mentioned at one point that receiving a huge amount of data slows one’s system and causes other parts of the matrix to lose their resolution. Considering a similar phenomenon in current online games, it seems that Stephenson’s world does not suffer from lag or slowdown, as said games do, but instead causes a person’s personal interface to break down. What kind of system could function like this, and is it a realistic one?

Website OV Cyborg Literature SnowCrash

Last modified 6 April 2005