Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#1 Geert Lovink 1 jan 1992


Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality, Secker & Warburg, 1991

The second half of the memorable year 1989 saw not only the 'velvet revolution' that swept Eastern Europe, but also the presentation of virtual reality to the world. Two developments that will occupy us for the rest of the nineties, however far removed they may be from us.


Cover of "Virtual Reality" -

Two contradictory movements: while the collapse of communism is hurling us back into the nineteenth century, VR is catapulting us far into the 21st. Fascinating and horrifying scenarios arise. In a flash, everything seems possible. But familiar, everyday patterns are slowly resurfacing: it is up to the former Eastern bloc countries to sort out their own problems and virtual reality will have to prove itself, too. The euphoria dies down and what is left is the media hype. The theme has been abgegessen, as the Germans say. Once exposed as mere fashionable subjects, the highlights of 1989 have become the object of enormous disdain.

Howard Rheingold, editor of the Whole Earth Review in San Francisco, apparently recognized this mechanism early on and wrote a very serious and entertaining standard work about the pre-history, birth and childhood of vr. He can rightfully be called the godfather of the reality engines. Not only did Rheingold witness the first tests of various prototypes, the excited presentations and conferences; he travelled the world as a networker and intermediary, visiting various laboratories where VR software and interfaces are developed.

The author of Tools for Thought was not exactly staggered when the new wonder appeared. He had been closely following innovations in computer technology since the seventies. He is personally acquainted with all of the tinkerers in garages, prophets and millionaires-to-be and has witnessed their climb up the social ladder (in the US, this means that they frequently change jobs). We become acquainted with principal characters like Krueger, Lanier, Fischer, Laurel and Walker. But his colourful description of these eccentric characters is more than human interest. The pioneers embody potential destinies of virtual reality, from fun arcade games, edutainment and telerobotics to post-communication.

Contrary to all expectations, Rheingold begins his account with an extensive search for the predecessors of the street legal mesmerism machines and thus makes an important contribution to the history of technology. While it is claimed that the us has no official policy on technology and that business sees only short-term interests, that cannot be said of Rheingold. The time he takes to come to his point can be seen as an indirect plea for a Manhattan Project for VR.
Rheingold's message is that high tech does not just appear out of the blue, however ingenious individual inventors may be. The us will pay a high price for the current lack of money for long-term research and development. A scientific program with clearly defined goals is needed, in which government and business collaborate. But a MITI in the US conflicts with all anti-trust laws and could therefore never exist. What remains is the creation of as good a communication network as possible with research centres in Japan, Europe and the us. Rheingold would be glad to fulfil this function. Besides his publications, he has founded a news group within Usenet (sci.virtual worlds) through which researchers can contact one another using e-mail.

Rheingold sees Morton Heilig's Sensorama, created in the early sixties, as the first VR machine. For the first time, film images, sound and smell were 'stuck' to the senses of a person seated in a sensory sensation cabin. Rheingold in the cabin: I put my hands on the handlebars and rested my face against a viewer that looked like a pair of binoculars with a padded face plate. Right below the eyepiece was a small grill, near my nose, where the odours would have been pumped in and out of smelling range. Small speakers were positioned on either side of my ears. The machine started. I heard an automobile, apparently with the muffler removed, saw an expanse of sand dunes, felt my seat lurch, and found myself looking from the driver's seat at a stereoscopic view of a dune-buggy ride. But film turned out to be a dead end and was left stranded in 3-D and Cinemascope. But the seeds of VR are present in the Sensorama in the form of the principles of 'enabling technologies' and 'convergence'. Only after great advances in simulation, miniaturisation and graphics in the late eighties, could cross-pollination be attempted.

Another starting point of VR is the development of human/computer interfaces. In this regard, Rheingold writes of the ground breaking work of Douglas Engelbart, who wanted to take computers out of the hands of experts. He was the first to perceive the computer as a problem-solving device and mind amplifier for personal use. Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center is the birthplace of word processing, windows and the mouse, the core of VR: it became possible to interact with a computer by using a natural gesture. Rheingold also devotes a great deal of attention to Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad, the first program that allowed one to draw with a light pen directly on the screen during the portrayal of data on a cathode ray tube.

Although stereo presentation is important to the three-dimensional illusion, it is less important than the change that takes place in the image when the observer moves his head, wrote Ivan Sutherland in 1968. Sutherland's invention, the head mounted display (HMD), saw the light of day on January 1, 1970.
Ironically, this extremely heavy helmet was sometimes called 'the sword of Damocles' and developed further by NASA. The perfection of the helmet paralleled the development of computer-aided design, which allows the portrayal of three-dimensional spaces on a plane. All pieces of the puzzle formed by the hybrid collection of 'artificial reality', a concept patented by Myron Kreuger. Krueger is some times called the grandfather of VR. Rheingold devotes much attention to his concepts and installations, though the reader can sense a certain distance between him and this kind of techno prophet, especially in the case of hypertext king Ted Nelson.

Rheingold sums up the two foundations of the pre-history of VR technology: ''The idea of immersion - using stereoscopy, gaze-tracking etc. to create the illusion of being inside a computer-generated scene. And the idea of navigation - creating a computer model of a molecule or a city and enabling the user
to move around as if inside it.''

Rheingold then devotes roughly two hundred pages to his expedition through the various outposts of the 'Reality-Industrial Complex'. He takes us along to the Mountain View NASA lab (birthplace of Scott Fischer's VR), Jaron Lanier's VPL Research, Inc., a hippy carpenter's shop that burst its seams (where the Dataglove was made) and the cool Autodesk offices of VR entrepreneur John Walker. Then time is compressed into a series of sensational achievements, culminating in the memorable date June 7, 1989 when VPL and Autodesk present their VR systems to the public simultaneously, followed immediately by demonstrations at the Siggraph conference. This formed the starting shot for the creation of various other firms (like Sense8) and quarrels about trademarks,
illustrating what a village Silicon Valley actually is.

In this turbulent period, Rheingold stumbled on John Furness's hit laboratory in Seattle. This company embodies the interweaving of military research and civilian industry (or should we call it conversion?). In HIT's case, Rheingold draws a direct line from the WWII flight simulator The Link (one of the key historical antecedents of VR) to the navigation model that HIT is developing for Seattle harbour. Rheingold seizes on this to point out the shortcomings of present-day systems. Furness: We don't understand the human factors dimensions of virtual space. We don't know how to measure how real a virtual world seems. Except for the more expensive military versions, virtual displays lack sufficient resolution for wide-field-of-view presentations.

There is an insatiable need for bandwidth in the lines of communication, while ISDN and VR are still in the very early stages of development. Not to mention the 'bugs of humans'. Many are familiar with the California hype that has been sweeping the world since the summer of 89. But less well-known is the research that began around the same time in Japan, England and France. Take the ATR lab in Kansai Science City, not far from Kyoto. They place special emphasis on psychological research into perception and cognition. These Japanese researchers want to get rid of the clumsy goggles ('face suckers' as they are called at VPL). They consider the face to be an organ of (non-verbal) communication that cannot be hidden from view. Gesture recognition can occur through so-called voice commanded 3-D shape acquisition cameras. Called 'wireless VR' by Rheingold, these intelligent machines are familiar with our personal character traits.
NTT's prototype combines old optical technology - the lenticular lens autostereoscopic system - with modern enabling technologies of liquid crystal displays and head tracking devices. NTT's 'future vision' for the twenty first century is summarized in the key phrase VI&P: 'Visual, Intelligent and Personal'.
According to them, the future belongs to 'visual thinking'. Besides 'communication with realistic sensations', the Japanese believe in the commercial potential of VR on the fun market. Rheingold can already see the Fujitsu-Disney Cyberpark in his mind's eye. The Japanese take the slogan What Mankind Can Dream, Technology Can Achieve very seriously.

In the final part of the book, Rheingold covers the various existing applications of vr. These vary from transputing architecture, fingertip virtuality for creating 'tactile pictures' and the virtual violins in Grenoble to data visualization for cybernautic brokers who zoom through landscapes that are 3-D depictions of marketplaces.Separate research is being done on the tele-operator technique: an 'out of the body experience' in which one operates a machine at a distance.
In this section, Rheingold adds some critical annotations: ''Just what we don't need right now are powerful machines doing things to the world before we have discovered just what it is we ought to be doing to the world. To the medical diagnosticians or surgeons who want to float their vision into an artery or a cornea, tele-operated robots are a miraculous aid. To those who turn rain forests into plywood, semi-autonomous megadozers are an ideal instrument.
The families of bomb-squad experts and fire fighters who risk their life and limb might see impervious telerobots as a gift of life. And to those who would rather not risk their own flesh but don't mind spewing shrapnel into the bodies of other human beings, tele-operated gunships are the way to go.''

Rheingold did not get to (or did not want to include) the Gulf War in his book. January 17, 1991 can be termed a subsequent milestone in VR. For many, Desert Storm meant an abrupt end to what (with hindsight) can be called naive enthusiasm about VR. While Rheingold touches on the 'alienating effects' and discusses the global wargame simulator simnet (along with 'teledildonics' and VR as 'electronic LSD'), Virtual Reality remains mainly a report of the carefree childhood years of VR, 89-91.

translation jim boekbinder