The Virtusonics Corp. team. Front:
R&D Director Frank Schwartz in lab
coat, President Joseph Lyons in
white tie and tails. Rear: Chairman/
CEO Richard Lewis, Marketing
Director Jack Godler
The Story Behind Virtuoso
About eight years ago, Joseph Lyons and Frank Schwartz decided that the way sound was usually viewed in technology wasn't necessarily the best way. So the two New Yorkers developed their own method of arranging information to present it more expressively. 'As a result, we ended up in Atari Land," says Lyons, "because the 8-bit Atari was a good, inexpensive computer-we didn't have much money-and for a couple of hundred bucks we had four voices and colors:"
They called the results of their work "Virtuoso" - a fully realized software philosophy. They added graphics, text, animation and telecommunications. All of this took much time and work. Longtime Antic readers will probably remember our enthusiastic preview of this product in June 1985, when Virtuoso consisted of nothing but a graphic music editor.
Desktop Performance Studio (reviewed in this issue) is the long-awaited commercial debut of Virtuoso, but many other applications are possible. In fact, Lyons and Schwartz's Virtusonics Corp. has begun licensing Virtuoso software for other applications, such as marine navigational plotting. Lyons says that the goal of Virtusonics Corp. is to license Virtuoso technology to anyone who wants to develop an application requiring that kind of flexible data processing.
Virtuoso's co-developers come from widely different backgrounds. Lyons, the president of Virtusonics, was a professor and conductor at New York's Juilliard School. Schwartz, the vice president of research and development, spent over 20 years on what he calls "the leading edge" of computer technology, pioneering highly successful projects on micro, mini and mainframe computers. "I don't like being the second person to do something," he says. "I want to be first. 'Me too' isn't good enough-I want it to be 'Me one
NEW OPERATING SYSTEM
Schwartz says, In creating Virtuoso, we basically tossed out the existing Atari operating system and put in our own, because Atari DOS just wasn't compatible with what we wanted to do." The Virtuoso software is an 18K core around which Lyons and Schwartz built the Desktop Performance Studio. The whole thing is written in assembly language. Roughly 1.2Mb of source code reduces to about 70K of object code on disk.
The Desktop Performance Studio is as about as much of the Virtuoso technology as they could fit into the 8-bit Atari. "Versions in more powerful machines like the ST will be astonishingly more extensive than what you see here," says Schwartz.
Basic ports of Virtuoso to other computers are being contracted to "conversion houses" with the fine-tuning to be done in-house at Virtusonics. A Commodore 64 version is already being tested at the Virtusonics offices in upper Manhattan. Contracts have just been signed for transferring Virtuoso to the Atari ST and the Apple IIGS.
"Our real concentration is in expressing information so that it can be summarized, transmitted and re-created," says Lyons. "We feel that we have a very sophisticated package that doesn't follow 'traditional' lines of thinking, especially in terms of music and graphics. We've tried to provide something experimental and innovative so that a person doesn't have to say, 'I don't want to do another painting' or, 'I can't read music.'
"We're trying to introduce a new kind of thinking about software, and a new kind of thinking about thinking in which creative material is combined and accessed. I think our greatest achievement in this program is the flow of the editors-from the music editor to the text editor to the graphics editor to the live performance editor to the storyboard editor to telecommunications, etc."
Lyons and Schwartz are well aware that the program has limitations There are some standard things in both music and graphics that aren't available. They chose not to add them "to leave people free to think in another way
"Frame-by-frame animators are still fairly picture-oriented," says Lyons. "We wanted people to be able to take an abstract shape, spin it around, add another one, take it away, add another one-creating a kind of personal lightshow with music that's easy to compose by moving the cursor with the touch tablet and drawing lines up and down the steps-instant music. You don't have to know what D-major means, or 4/4."
Lyons continues, "In fact, it's very difficult to write in D-major or 4/4 using Desktop Performance Studio-it's almost impossible. The software is not designed for that. It's designed to provide a whole new level of freedom. We think it's unique. It provides-in real time-all these graphics and instantaneous changes-delete, insert, background, change the path, change the scale, shape, speed, color, music-all at the click of a switch."
'We're targeting the Atari users groups in our first round of marketing," says Lyons, "not only by mail, but by visiting all the groups that we feel still have a good number of the active 8-bit activists. I've been to a number of user faires and each month we visit one or two groups.
Virtusonics Corp. spends a lot of time online-on CompuServe, GEnie, and their own new Virtuoso Think Tank BBS which has all the play object files as well as the help text and demos. (Information about how to log on is provided in this issue's Virtuoso review.) "Lots of people are uploading their pieces to both the BBS and the online services," says Lyons. "We're slowly getting people not to be so shy about uploading them. They'd been very hesitant."
Lyons acknowledges that the company has had some trouble establishing Desktop Performance Studio in the distribution/retail pipeline. "We've been distributing the software kind of by hand. But through users groups and online we've had people sending us retailer lists in the various states. The retailers are very interested in the product, but they have no way to get it.''
Schwartz says that the main thing he and Lyons want to provide for 8-bit computers is something instant- where you don't need to wait for results, spending an hour composing a frame and then going to the next frame and trying to manipulate it. "You need a very strong imagination when doing frame-by-frame animation," he says, "which basically amounts to a form of expertise. We wanted to minimize user expertise requirements-addressing those people who never thought they had any musical or artistic skills and showing them that they can create pieces."
Schwartz adds, "Compact discs hold gigabytes of information, so we realized that to achieve any controlled representation of sound that was anything close to realtime, we had to get the numbers down. You can't expect to manipulate 80K in one second and be very flexible, even on a 16mHz computer. So we came up with a whole new set of theories about how sound is broken down. We realized that the difference between sound and light was only a matter of frequency, so we knew we could apply the same theories to graphics and animation."
The basic concept is of Virtuoso is to avoid anything 'static,' explains Schwartz. "CDs and similar media basically do page-flipping through tens of thousands of static frames each second. You get the illusion of motion, just like a motion picture. We decided to deal with representations based on dynamic principles, where the numbers are related to dynamic changes in the sound or the visual. By developing this system, we began achieving enormously efficient representations of moving objects, both sound and visual."