Oral History of VR Pt.3 Compiled by Adi Robertson and Michael Zelenko

Arguably the best-known maker of virtual reality entertainment in the 1990s was W Industries (later called Virtuality), a UK-based company that produced arcade headsets. At the time of W’s first official showing in 1990, virtual reality had already received significant mainstream press coverage. Some writers were skeptical of the technology — British journalist Hunter Davies summed up Waldern’s arcade pod by saying “the helmet was annoying and the game boring.” But others saw both potential and danger in a technology that could, as one writer put it, “make users’ dreams come true.” The New York Times said that virtual workspaces developed by major companies like Autodesk could have “profound implications,” but it warned that “psychologists who now worry about children losing themselves in video game fantasy worlds would no doubt find artificial environments a bigger problem.”

Jon Waldern Inventor, entrepreneur, and founder of British virtual reality arcade gaming company W Industries / Virtuality The first show we went to was the computer-graphics show in Alexandra Palace, London. We had two interactive VR systems linked together in big wooden boxes and a little booth. We had queue lines — I’m not kidding you — all the way around the building. The original direction of the company was to use virtual reality as a development tool for computer-aided design. But very quickly somebody suggested, “Hey, this is just an amazing experience, why don’t you make a game out of it?”

“I think everyone was hopeful, and looking forward to a change in consciousness. Either that, or they thought we were a bunch of crazy hippies.”

Ben Delaney Cybersex was a big titillation. People thought you would be able to put on some sort of tactile suit and have sexual encounters with real or imaginary people in a virtual world.

Brenda Laurel Author of human-computer interaction text Computers as Theatre, interactive media expert, and co-founder of VR company Telepresence Research The public perception of the medium was that it was powerful, amazingly cool and that we were about to have our heads turned around by it. I think everyone was hopeful, and looking forward to a change in consciousness. Either that, or they thought we were a bunch of crazy hippies.

Besides head-mounted displays, no technology is so strongly associated with virtual reality as the wired glove, a sensor-equipped device that tracks the wearer’s movement and location. Many companies manufactured such gloves, but the best-known was VPL’s “DataGlove” — created by company co-founder Tom Zimmerman with the help of engineer Young Harvill. VPL, depending on who you ask, stood for Visual Programming Language or Virtual Programming Language. Founded in 1985, the company was the product of a partnership between two former Atari lab employees: Zimmerman and Jaron Lanier, a musician and programmer who is sometimes referred to as the “father of virtual reality.”

Tom Zimmerman I told Atari about my glove, and they offered me ten thousand bucks. I was considering it, and then my friend in New York said, “No, it’s going to be worth more than this dude, don’t license it to them.” And I met Jaron Lanier at an electronic music concert at Stanford — apparently he had worked for Atari, but I didn’t know him. At this point, I had left Atari. Jaron told me about his company; he invented a visual program language with the name VPL, and he had a little tablet as the interface to it. I showed him my glove, and he thought, “Wow, this is much better than a tablet.”

“I used to say, if the resurrection happened in black and white, nobody would cover it.”

Me and this marketing guy had this little startup to do a voice-control synthesizer. So I was doing that during the day and making gloves for Jaron at night. And then, it started getting more interesting. Jaron basically said, “Why don’t we start a company? We can get funding. I know some great programmers. This language plus glove, it looks like a hot combination.” It turns out not many people wanted to program. But people loved the glove and Jaron just ran with the concept of VR.

Myron Krueger VPL had color graphics. I used to say, if the resurrection happened in black and white, nobody would cover it. And Jaron might as well have been sent from Central Casting to be the crazy scientist.

Tom Zimmerman We did a joint project with NASA Ames Research out there in Mountain View. They, and a fellow Scott Fisher, had this head-mounted display and the idea of astronauts fixing satellites [from] inside the space capsule. And so, we provided the gloves and they provided the HM display, and that created the first goggle VR system.

Scott Fisher The first commercial contract VPL had was from us at NASA; we asked them to build a five-fingered glove so we could take it to interact with the virtual spaces we had. We built one glove out of the initial fiber optic sensor material, then they improved the tech and we had several more built. They went on to sell commercial versions of that of course, which was great to see.

Tom Zimmerman When we started VPL, I added some ultrasound hand-tracking technology to the glove — little tiny speakers [that] made a little burst of sound that only dogs can hear. We made an inexpensive glove, which Jaron was kind enough to call the Z Glove, and then we made a high-end one with some sensors. Young Harvill was very clever; he figured out how to make them using fiber optics.

The little Z Glove we licensed to a New York City game company, which licensed it and turned into Mattel. We hit the big time because they made 1.3 million of this Power Glove, based on the Z Glove.

A Virtual Technologies force-feedback glove (Ben Delaney)

The Nintendo Power Glove was released in 1989 at an extremely low cost comparative to available tech. Outside of its normal gaming uses, it became a centerpiece of the homebrew virtual reality community.

Joe Gradecki When I went up to University of Wyoming for my master’s degree, a couple guys in the computer science department had seen a thing on the Nintendo Power Glove. My wife and I were sitting there and said, “Hey, that’s kind of cool.” There were schematics published on connecting it to the PC, and all we needed was code. That was probably 1992, and there was nothing like that around, really.

Tom Zimmerman To me, Power Glove was the real intrigue. That was where a million people touched virtual reality. I don’t think the implementation was that great, but that was probably the widest-distributed VR system.

A full-body VR capture suit by VPL (Kevin Kelly)

VPL would go on to develop more hardware, including a full-body motion-tracking suit and a head-mounted display called the Eyephone.

Stephen Ellis They were probably one of the first companies to hop on the so-called virtual reality bandwagon. CAE, the Canadian Electronics simulation company, had been making head-mounted simulators from the mid-1980s, but those were really expensive. On the order of millions of dollars for the helmet and the computer-based display system — it was a very expensive thing. And VPL, the company where I believe Jaron was CEO, was selling systems costing on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Tom Zimmerman The golden year was 1987, at least for me. I had my hand on the cover of Scientific American and National Inquirer. By that time we had production going on, so my role was pretty much done. Now it was a company cranking out products, more software-oriented. Also, I was a bit burnt out from working 14-hour days, so I took off and went to a farm in West Virginia.

That was kind of it for me in the VR world. I came back to help them out in a lawsuit [over the Power Glove], which was yucky. We were a little research company doing very innovative work. But other people started catching on, and some people started trying to use our IP without licensing it. The company started spending more money on legal defense than R&D.

Skip Rizzo Head of medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California I started off working in injury rehabilitation, brain injury, and it’s a very difficult process. It can be hard to motivate people with brain injuries to do their rehab exercises. So one of my patients, a young kid, maybe 21 years old, was sitting there one day and he had this thing called a Game Boy. He was bent over, glued to Tetris, focused on it, he couldn’t put it down. And I said, “Ooh shit, what about using this for rehab exercises?”

“What Jaron brought to the table was the ability to communicate to the public, to the press, these ideas.”

I was driving to the gym in 1992 and Jaron Lanier is on NPR doing a segment where he’s talking about a virtual kitchen in a department store in Japan. Here I am, having one of those driveway moments listening to this interview. I didn’t go into the gym, I just sat in my car because I had to finish the show. I thought shit, we could improve brain function with these patients, we could rehab and train these patients in a way that’s immersive and fun. There was a bookstore next to the gym. I went in and I said, “Give me every book you have about virtual reality.” I think they had maybe three books. I went to the gym and read while I worked out.

 

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