A key piece of the story of virtual reality is how long the technology has been waiting to “happen.”
According to Tom Furness, considered to be the grandfather of virtual reality, we’re in finally in a place where “we just have to be.” It sounds cliche, but the future has arrived.
Furness gave a talk on day three of Augmented World Expo at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, California entitled “Being the Future.”
He described a situation where up until recently, virtual reality was in a “winter.” After years of hype, things stalled out. But now that underlying technology is developing so rapidly, the industry needs a new way to navigate when there’s not necessarily a horizon to sail towards, or stars to shoot for, as he put it.
One of the ideas he put forth was that of a “nextant,” a navigation tool that shows something a flow from the foundational science of the technology, to concept demonstrations, to innovation seeds, applications, customers and markets, and on to social drivers.
The social drivers are important for Furness — he described the responsibility that comes along with putting technology like virtual reality into the world.
“Being there transforms everything. It’s like writing on the brain with indelible ink,” he said. That means finding positive uses for it.
Part of this realization stems from his own life. The majority of his early work was at the Wright Patterson Air Force base where he was developing virtual reality technology to solve a series of problems for pilots in the cockpit, like the complexity of having many complicated computers but one operator, seeing at night, aiming the airplane and systems, and having adequate awareness and view of both the inside and the outside of the airplane.
Over the years (and as far back as the 60s), he developed several headmounted displays to address these issues, as well as the idea of the Super Cockpit.
Years into his work, CBS Evening News did a story on him, and when he started getting multiple calls a week from people asking if he could help them — think firefighters needing technology to gain better awareness of where a fire is in a building or where victims are, or a thoracic surgeon wanting better and more accurate views of a patient’s insides. He knew he had to get this technology out of the military.
He left the Air Force and went to work at the The Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington. He’s worked on projects relating to solutions for folks with low sight, or how to use VR to reduce and distract from pain, and others.
These days, Furness said he’s concerned with the plight of orphans, the destruction of the Arctic wilderness, and how families can better interact with each other.
“We have a responsibility,” he said.