VR’s Oral History Pt2. Adi Robertson and Michael Zelenko

As Myron Krueger developed his own system of projector-based VR, the computer was invading American businesses, and eventually, homes. The Apple II was released in 1977, followed two years later by VisiCalc, a groundbreaking software application that moved personal computing beyond the realm of mere curiosity. Atari was at its peak, having expanded from arcade games to home consoles in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Meanwhile, a new generation of researchers was coming of age, crafting successors to Sutherland’s head-mounted display and Heilig’s entertainment supersystem.

Scott Fisher I’d been working with stereoscopic imaging since I was a teenager in the ‘60s. I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of images that you are immersed in. I worked on many different ways to present 3D imagery. It wasn’t until the late ’70s and early ’80s, when we started getting some new tech to track where you were in a space, that I started prototyping things to take that into account.

Tom Zimmerman Engineer, co-founder of pioneering virtual reality company VPL, and inventor of its most famous product, the DataGlove In the late ’70s, I was an undergrad at MIT, and me and my classmate were fantasizing about virtual orchestras. We started thinking about how you could play different chords with your fingers, and that’s as far as we got. It was all on paper. I finished MIT and went to the University of Amherst, and then I went to New York to study electronic music. So then, I started thinking about the orchestra thing again. This time, I was thinking about air guitar. Here I am in Queens now, luckily with no job, and I’m living at my parents’ house. The dreamer in me was saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could play air guitar and really hear it come out of the speakers?” So I set out to make a sensor to [measure] finger-bending.

Howard Rheingold Journalist and author of Virtual Reality, one of the definitive historical accounts of VR The personal computer was getting really mature because of the visual graphic user interface that Macintosh and Windows provided. When VR came along, some people looked at that as okay, the next step. The last step was moving from a command line interface to the visual interface. Maybe the next one was when you might be totally immersed in the world.

“The last step was moving from a command line interface to the visual interface. Maybe the next one was when you might be totally immersed in the world.”

Tom Zimmerman I was in New York, I’m studying electronic music, and then I decided to study Assembler programming because I got an Atari 400. Someone decided to give this class on Assembler, and there were 20 people in the class and maybe four of us had Ataris. Everyone else had Apples. One of the people was a woman named Nancy Mayer, and she said, “Oh, why don’t you come to my apartment…” (meaning us four people) “…and my husband, he knows Ataris really well, he can help us.” Well, her husband happened to be Steve Mayer, one of the major founders of Atari.

So her husband’s teaching us how to use the Atari computer and I told Nancy, “I’m moving to California, I fell in love with a ballet dancer, and she got into the Oakland ballet, so I’m leaving.” Her husband said, “Oh, you know, there is this music research group forming at the Atari research lab in Sunnyvale, California; would you be interested in interviewing?” And I was like, “Damn, yeah.” So I got interviewed and they accepted me and flew me out.

An early omnidirectional treadmill, used for walking in virtual reality (Ben Delaney)

3

The Atari Sunnyvale Research Laboratory was founded in 1982 to explore the future of digital entertainment. The lab was headed by Dr. Alan Kay, an influential computer scientist who had previously worked at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. It operated for only two years, shuttering in the aftermath of the 1980s “Atari crash” that decimated the video game market. The lab employed several individuals who would go on to play major roles in the development of virtual reality — including Zimmerman, Scott Fisher, Jaron Lanier, and Brenda Laurel.

Scott Fisher I went to Atari in California to work in corporate research with Alan Kay. I started working on an immersive display for coin-op arcade environments. A head-mounted display wasn’t feasible, so we built it into something more like an arcade cabinet that you just look into.

[The researchers] were given a big budget and asked, “What’s the home of the future in 20 years? What’s entertainment and education?” It was a wonderful think-tank of brilliant people making stuff and trying things.

When Atari crashed, NASA Ames offered to put a position together for me as a research scientist observer. I started in ’85 and we built one of the first versions of a head-mounted display using the wide-angle optics I found and was working on at Atari.

Mark Bolas Director of the University of Southern California’s Mixed Reality Lab and founder of VR hardware company Fakespace My first encounter with VR really was computer music at UC San Diego. It was one of the first systems where you could synthesize sound completely from a computer. And that gave me a taste for this idea that you could create a perceptual experience that nobody had ever had before. To me, VR is just a visual extension of that. So I did graduate work in computer music. And then at the same time I was doing that work, I was building an underwater telepresence system where you would look into a display and see through the eyes of the underwater robot.

So I’m in grad school, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a job as a product designer. I had an offer from the company I really wanted an offer from. Then, a professor said, “Hey, go visit this Scott Fisher guy down at Ames, because he’s interested in your robot work.” I visited him and put on his head-mounted display, put on the glove, and I remember staring, wiggling my fingers in front of my face. It was this horrible feeling, because I realized that I was going to have to say no to this job I just had been offered. I just had to play with this system.

In the early ’90s, virtual reality’s growing appeal created a broad market for related books, magazines, and newsletters. Ben Delaney’s CyberEdge Journal addressed the business of VR, and MIT launched Presence to cover virtual environment research. University of Wyoming masters student Joseph Gradecki, with the help of his wife, produced 17 issues of PCVR, a bimonthly how-to guide for building home VR systems.

Ben Delaney I was working for PC World magazine and one of my teammates there said, “Hey, there is this interesting presentation going on — it’s this new technology called VR. You want to check it out?” It consisted of about 47 polygons, all in bright primary colors, no curves, and it operated at about 5 or 10 frames per second. It was remarkably crude, but the promise was pretty amazing.

“It was remarkably crude, but the promise was pretty amazing.”

Sitting in the audience I said, “This is going to be hot and I want to be involved in it.” I arranged meetings with the two or three VR companies that were big enough to have marketing directors. One of them said, at the end of a lunch, “You know what we need? We need a newsletter. No one knows what is going on.” So, in January of ‘91, the first issue of CyberEdge Journal came out.

Joe Gradecki Software engineer and creator of homebrew virtual reality magazinePCVR In the beginning [PCVR] was just for other enthusiasts; other people that had an interest in virtual reality. It was the Make Magazine of virtual reality: I’m going to try and experiment with it, build it, and I’ll tell you how to do it. We were playing around with 1½-inch TVs — everything — trying to build a good head-mounted display that gave you reality within that immersive environment.

Cyberedge Journal editor Ben Delaney (left) presents an award to W Industries/Virtuality founder Jon Waldern (Ben Delaney)

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