The invention: The creation of highly interactive, computer-based multimedia environments in which the user becomes a participant with the computer in a “virtually real” world.
The people behind the invention:
Ivan Sutherland (1938- ), an American computer scientist Myron W. Krueger (1942- ), an American computer scientist Fred P. Brooks (1931- ), an American computer scientist
In the early 1960′s, the encounter between humans and computers was considered to be the central event of the time. The computer was evolving more rapidly than any technology in history; humans seemed not to be evolving at all. The “user interface” (the devices and language with which a person communicates with a computer) was a veneer that had been applied to the computer to make it slightly easier to use, but it seemed obvious that the ultimate interface would be connecting the human body and senses directly to the computer.
Against this background, Ivan Sutherland of the University of Utah identified the next logical step in the development of computer graphics. He implemented a head-mounted display that allowed a person to look around in a graphically created “room” simply by turning his or her head. Two small cathode-ray tubes, or CRTs (which are the basis of television screens and computer monitors), driven by vector graphics generators (mathematical image-creating devices) provided the appropriate view for each eye, and thus, stereo vision.
In the early 1970′s, Fred P. Brooks of the University of North Carolina created a system that allowed a person to handle graphic objects by using a mechanical manipulator. When the user moved the physical manipulator, a graphic manipulator moved accordingly. If a graphic block was picked up, the user felt its weight and its resistance to his or her fingers closing around it.
A New Reality
Beginning in 1969, Myron W. Krueger of the University of Wisconsin created a series of interactive environments that emphasized unencumbered, full-body, multisensory participation in computer events. In one demonstration, a sensory floor detected participants’ movements around a room. A symbol representing each participant moved through a projected graphic maze that changed in playful ways if participants tried to cheat. In another demonstration, participants could use the image of a finger to draw on the projection screen. In yet another, participants’ views of a projected three-dimensional room changed appropriately as they moved around the physical space.
It was interesting that people naturally accepted these projected experiences as reality. They expected their bodies to influence graphic objects and were delighted when they did. They regarded their electronic images as extensions of themselves. What happened to their images also happened to them; they felt what touched their images. These observations led to the creation of the Videoplace, a graphic world that people could enter from different places to interact with each other and with graphic creatures. Videoplace is an installation at the Connecticut Museum of Natural History in Storrs, Connecticut. Videoplace visitors in separate rooms can fingerpaint together, perform free-fall gymnastics, tickle each other, and experience additional interactive events.
The computer combines and alters inputs from separate cameras trained on each person, each of whom responds in turn to the computer’s output, playing games in the world created by Videoplace software. Since participants’ live video images can be manipulated (moved, scaled, or rotated) in real time, the world that is created is not bound by the laws of physics. In fact, the result is a virtual reality in which new laws of cause and effect are created, and can be changed, from moment to moment. Indeed, the term “virtual reality” describes the type of experience that can be created with Video-place or with the technology invented by Ivan Sutherland.
Virtual realities are part of certain ongoing trends. Most obvious are the trend from interaction to participation in computer events and the trend from passive to active art forms. In addition, artificial experiences are taking on increasing significance. Businesspersons like to talk about “doing it right the first time.” This can now be done in many cases, not because fewer mistakes are being made by people but because those mistakes are being made in simulated environments.
Ivan Sutherland was born in Hastings, Nebraska, in 1938. His father was an engineer, and from an early age Sutherland considered engineering his own destiny, too. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1959, a master’s degree from the California Institute of Technology in 1960, and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1963.
His adviser at MIT was Claude Shannon, creator of information theory, who directed Sutherland to find ways to simplify the interface between people and computers. Out of this research came Sketchpad. It was software that allowed people to draw designs on a computer terminal with a light pen, an early form of computer-assisted design (CAD). The U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Center became interested in Sutherland’s work and hired him to direct its Information Processing Techniques Office in 1964. In 1966 he left to become an associate professor of electrical engineering at Harvard University, moving to the University of Utah in 1968, and then to Caltech in 1975. During his academic career he developed the graphic interface for virtual reality, first announced in his ground-breaking 1968 article “A Head-Mounted Three-Dimensional Display.”
In 1980 Sutherland left academia for industry. He already had business experience as cofounder of Evans & Sutherland in Salt Lake City. The new firm, Sutherland, Sproull, and Associates, which provided consulting services and venture capital, later became part of Sun Microsystems, Inc. Sutherland remained as a research fellow and vice president. A member of the National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences, in 1988 Sutherland was awarded the AM Turing Award, the highest honor in information technology.
Most important is that virtual realities provide means of expressing and experiencing, as well as new ways for people to interact. Entertainment uses of virtual reality will be as economically significant as more practical uses, since entertainment is the United States’ number-two export. Vicarious experience through theater, novels, movies, and television represents a significant percentage of people’s lives in developed countries. The addition of a radically new form of physically involving, interactive experience is a major cultural event that may shape human consciousness as much as earlier forms of experience have.
Most religions offer their believers an escape from this world, but few technologies have been able to do likewise. Not so with virtual reality, the fledgling technology in which people explore a simulated three-dimensional environment generated by a computer. Using this technology, people can not only escape from this world but also design the world in which they want to live.
In most virtual reality systems, many of which are still experimental, one watches the scene, or alternative reality, through three-dimensional goggles in a headset. Sound and tactile sensations enhance the illusion of reality. Because of the wide variety of actual and potential applications of virtual reality, from three-dimensional video games and simulators to remotely operated “telepresence” systems for the nuclear and undersea industries, interest in the field is intense.
The term “virtual reality” describes the computer-generated simulation of reality with physical, tactile, and visual dimensions. The interactive technology is used by science and engineering researchers as well as by the entertainment industry, especially in the form of video games. Virtual reality systems can, for example, simulate a walk-through of a building in an architectural graphics program. Virtual reality technology in which the artificial world overlaps with reality will have major social and psychological implications.
See also Personal computer; Virtual machine.