TaotiTalks: Tom Furness, the man behind the goggles

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Taoti Talks with the Grandfather of Virtual Reality, Tom Furness, about the recent explosion in technology that has propelled a renaissance in VR and AR.
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Stacy Whittle

Business Development Strategist
As a Business Development Strategist, Ms. Whittle is responsible for building Taoti’s portfolio of work with impact driven organizations and companies. She joined Taoti after an extensive career working in…

We are proud to present the first of our Taoti Talks, featuring the Grandfather of Virtual Reality, Tom Furness. In addition to being one of the founders of VR, Tom is known worldwide for his compassion and kind heart. He has made a profound impact on the world, has mentored hundreds of students, and continues to play a key role in how we can use emerging technology for the betterment of society.

Taoti Talks will be a regular series of blog posts with people who are changing the world through emerging technology. Each month, we will feature a leader who is having a real impact and making the world a better place.

VWS has extended readers of this blog a one-year complimentary membership to the society. Join now using this code: Taoti4good  www.virtualworldsociety.org

1. You have been called “grandfather of virtual reality.” And knowing you like I do, I would add the kindest grandfather at that…What do you think about that title? How does it make you feel?

Actually, I sort of like it.  It leaves a lot of room for other ‘fathers and mothers of VR’, and great grandparents.  Hopefully, I am a benevolent and kind grandfather…I am just so excited to be a part of it all.  It has taken a long gestation period to get us to this day when virtual reality is actually happening for many people.  For me it has been 52 years of working on this stuff, both as a military scientist/engineer (1966-1989) where I conceived and developed VR and AR for jet fighter cockpits and then beginning in 1989 as an engineering professor at the University of Washington.

Tom Furness: the Grandfather of VR

2. What industry do you think will benefit the most from virtual reality?

Since I started in the VR/AR business in the mid-60s, we have been searching for the ‘killer’ application, one that would create so much market pull that that there would be an economy of scale that, in turn, would make VR affordable for many people and a positive force in their lives.  I guess I have felt all along that this ultimate driver would be education and training applications, even though these markets don’t have a lot of money.  Other areas are creation and design.  VR can act like a blank 3D canvas, where we can create a virtual world by actions we take in a virtual world.  It is like breaking the glass of our traditional two dimensional computer screens and walking inside, taking all of the tools with us (and more) that we have had in our two dimensional  computer world.

But like other industries, the emerging VR industry is driven by profit seeking and as a consequence, I fear that they will continue to follow the tradition of gaming platforms and develop and push mainly gaming applications.  That is OK as long as these are good games, that lift and enlighten and entertain, but without exploitation.  We used to call it ‘gamification’ of educational content or ‘edutainment’.  But as I feared, the industry default remains dominated by games of violence, where users practice murder, or killing things or virtual people.  The more people you kill, the better your score.

Through our experiments we have known for a long time that VR can unlock intelligence and link minds, especially for young people.  We have measured the ability of VR to enable rapid assimilation and retention of knowledge.  We know that using VR can assist people with physical and cognitive challenges …and it is all fun and engaging.  But there are dangers that can come from this high bandwidth pathway to the brain, especially if we use it to practice violence.   I liken it to splitting the atom or playing with fire, wherein we can release enormous power that can lift humanity or destroy us from the inside out.

3. Where is virtual reality now and where do you think it will be 5 years from now?

Even though VR as a concept along with its experimental systems has been around for fifty years, the virtual reality and augmented reality industry is nascent.  Even with the recent surge in the sales of ‘cardboard’ type viewing mechanisms that convert smartphones into crude VR devices, the installed base of VR devices hardly moves the needle.

Last year there were about 106 million gaming platforms  (Microsoft xBox, Sony Playstation, Nintendo Wii) in the USA.  By comparison, industry statistics show that at most there are 21 million VR systems that have been sold (not including the smartphone viewers mentioned above.)  The bottom line is that most people in the world don’t know about VR.

There have been several deterrents to VR adoption.  The first is the cost of entry.  Most home based systems such as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift require a fairly substantial computer capability to render virtual worlds in real time.

The headset is really a minor component. These systems are not wireless, in that the headset must to attached to the computer to get the head tracking signals from the headset and the pictures to the headset.  Wireless version of this are emerging, but this still requires a separate computer.  Both HTC Vive and Facebook Oculus have recently offered ‘self-contained’ versions of their systems where the computation is merged with the display.  The compromise is that the performance is not as good as the wired systems and there are batteries that must be charged in between use.  But in the next two years, these self-contained systems will improve to match the performance of the wired systems we see today.  The resulting reduction in price point will certainly open the market.

The second is the lack of content.  This is changing rapidly, although I question the quality of a lot of the content, not just because of the violence purveyed, but also that it can make people sick.  Many of the new content developers have not done their homework.  It is easy to make people sick in VR when the content creates a conflict between what the eyes say is happening versus what the vestibular senses in the inner ear say is happening.  The bottom line is that putting people into a virtual roller coaster while they are sitting stationary on the ground invites motion sickness.  Motion sickness or what we call simulator sickness is a show stopper for VR.  We know of ways around this problem but the content cowboys have not been paying attention.   So there is bad content out there.

The third deterrent is related to the second.  There are few tools for developing 3D content for VR.  Currently, we are still using computer-aided design tools that operate in  two dimensions in order to create three dimensional content for VR.  I recently have been working with middle school students in teaching them how to build virtual worlds so that they can build STEM content for other middle school students.  These students know what they want to create in VR, but the development tools are so onerous to learn, they quickly lose interest.  We need the same kind of tools that they were using in Minecraft, only in this case the idea is to build 3D virtual content while you are in a 3D virtual world.  Then content building becomes intuitive.  These content development tools are essential to decrease the overhead and cycle time for creating content.

In the next 5 years, all of these problems will be solved  (except people will still get sick with badly design content).  What excites me is that we really can only imagine the applications that will emerge in the next few years as different vertical markets pick up on applying VR in many enterprises such as scientific visualization, medical training simulators, manufacturing design, robotic interfaces and the like.

A photo of Furness' Robert Eagle Staff Middle School VR program in Seattle, WA.

4. Recent articles have mentioned China as an emerging virtual reality giant. Where does the U.S. stack up?

China seems to be good at making things, but until recently, they looked to the west to know what to make.  That will certainly change.  The real impact of China is that they have their own market…1.4 billion people, many of whom are becoming middle class and consumers of technology such as VR/AR.  Most of the VR and AR equipment for the world is already being manufactured in China.  Once China’s consumer market clicks in, certainly they will dominate the world in terms of VR/AR hardware technology of all kinds.

But content for VR/AR platforms is another matter.  That is where the money is going to be.  There is still a paucity of good content for VR.  As mentioned above, aside from 360 videos that anyone can create, current VR content is mainly gaming, such as first person shooters and some role playing games.  Even though the VR hardware manufacturers will be centered in China,  the developers of content are likely to be worldwide.  The distribution channels can continue to be online stores such as Steam, VivePort and Oculus Store.  But it won’t be long before WebVR (as energized by 5G cellular networks) will begin to dominate the access to content.  I expect merchandizers such as Amazon and other retailers will provide users with up close and personal experiences with their products, from automobiles, home furnishings, camping equipment, travel destinations etc. But these latter uptakes in the market will depend on the installed base.  This again is where China  (and eventually India) will dominate given their massive populations that will turn into markets.

(Shameless editorial plug: Taoti developed its first Ar app, hatch.itt, in early 2018. it started as a joke, but tom says that is where the money is going to be. We’re feeling optimistic.)

5. When the internet first became accessible to consumers, it was called the information superhighway. What would you call AR/VR now?

In the early 90s I testified before the Senate Commerce Committee about the future of the National Information Infrastructure or what we call the information superhighway.  I predicted at the time, that such a superhighway when combined with VR would provide an ability far beyond just sending data back and forth as it would give us the ability to meld minds with an unprecedented bandwidth to and between brains.  It would be like the Vulcan Mind Meld in Star Trek, where the link between two or more individuals would be so intimate and complete that it would allow the participants to become as one mind, sharing their consciousness. I called it the superbrainway.

I also predicted that people around the world could interact in the same virtual world, similar to the Oasis depicted in the recent film Ready Player One.  Although WebVR is still in its infancy it will grow exponentially as the installed base grows thereby presenting a market for content developers.  This is really a new world for content  developers….the merging of interactions, fostering concepts such as non-linear storytelling, putting places into people, spatial mindmapping, and 5G to make it wireless.

Tom Furness: the Grandfather of VR

6. What can policymakers in DC do to help advance virtual reality? Does ending Net Neutrality make you nervous?

There is still a big unknown in VR: nobody knows the longitudinal effects of persistent use of VR over extended periods of time.  Using VR for eight hours a days versus a one hour period a few times a week is likely to change the way we interact with the real world.   The government should take on the responsibility of funding the research that looks into these longitudinal effects.

We already know that VR is an efficacious educational technology but the cost of entry for schools is prohibitive, especially if there is little viable educational content.  I would like to see more government grants to help schools embrace this technology and in turn, generate a nationwide marketplace for a VR in education industry.  This is the only way that we can get the attention of educational content developers.

When it comes to regulation of the content, the government should encourage the industry to regulate itself.  There needs to be a robust system for categorization of content or user experience similar to the film industry.  Some of that exists, but not for the issues that may impact the user physiologically, e.g. inducing simulator sickness, etc.

The issue of Net Neutrality is complex.  Companies have to make money.  Now this is done by advertising, a lot of it.  I would rather pay more to: 1) rid advertising from my VR experiences; and 2) increase the transmission quality of my service.   So to me, premium channels make sense.  We have it with cable television and telephones…we are even charging more to get onto the fast lane on major highways.  People still have free access to the highway, but to travel faster you pay.  Federal regulation of the network will always be needed to avoid monopolies and let competition thrive.

But having said that, I still believe the government should support public broadcasting and eventually the VR version of PBS, as a public service.  I am excited about the new thinking about libraries providing access to virtual world experiences and becoming makerspaces.  The Feds should help this.  I think it is important to reinvent our libraries that include experiences beyond books that enlighten and lift including access to tools that enable people to create and train.  This would be open to all.

7. If you close your eyes and imagine a world in which VR is truly helping connect us as humans what does that look like?

I love this question.  It really is about connection…and VR can help us connect in unprecedented ways.    There are so many things that we can learn from each other.  Individually, we have limited perspective.  When we are able to crawl into another person’s head and heart, to see through their eyes, we can then begin to understand that there is more to the whole than what we perceive individually.  In this way we can enlarge our vision and progress via empathy toward compassion and activism.  VR can help us do this.

In my world travels, I find that even with our diversity, people pretty much want the same things for their family and the world.  Although we may be separated by boundaries, political alliances, wealth, education, religion etc., all of us just want to be happy.  I like to imagine a world where there is a level playing field.  Everyone has access to the abundance that the earth can provide and we work together to explore, to understand, to teach, to create and love.  In such a connected world, we could work together to solve the pervasive problems that confront our civilization, especially those that are endemic to our earth home.  We are at Childhood’s End as Arthur Clarke wrote, where we need to grow up as a civilization and fix those things that are harming our planet and each other.  We need to take care of our children and our elders helping both to exchange their wisdom and vision.  I believe VR can substantially augment the connectivity that we already have with the internet.  It is truly a transportation system for all of our senses.

In much the same way, I can envision the classroom of the future, where teaching is done via virtual field trips, guided by an instructor.   Here we can venture into a Pythagorian Kingdom to learn about geometry or become a T-cell in the body and see how HIV affects our cell growth.   For many activities we  don’t need to move our bodies (atoms) to a specific place to receive instruction, but instead move bits that take our minds to VR places where we can be with others without burning up fossil fuels.

I can also envision virtual worlds that awaken and expand the senses and capabilities that we already have, but have been lost because we haven’t used them.  What would it be like to really see with our whole visual system rather than just a small part that we have trained with screens and cellphones.  What if we could begin to tune into, hear and feel those signals and stories that the earth, streams  and trees can tell us.  VR is a medium that can help us with that tuning…to become one with the universe, where there is  peace and rest and forest bathing even while we might live in high density population.  I envision VR can awaken our immune system and provide a new way of healing.  We already have pioneered VR as a non-pharmaceutical analgesic for acute and chronic pain.

Tom Furness: the Grandfather of VR

8. What worries you about unintended consequences that we should work now to safeguard against?

Again, we are playing with fire.  VR puts that fire into our minds.  We have to respect privacy and to treat virtual representations of humans as if they are real humans.  If we don’t, there are negative consequences.  VR is so powerful that we feel we are really ‘there’.  And we should behave as if we are really there.   Immersive VR, like no other medium, awakens our spatial memory.  We never forget a virtual world, just like we wouldn’t forget a trip to Disneyland.  VR puts a place inside of us, just like Disneyland.  It does this by putting us into a virtual place that consists of a circumambience of visual, acoustic and tactile images from we construct a synthetic world that can be indistinguishable from the real world.    We can then interact in this world as if it were the real thing.  If we cause harm in this virtual place to an individual by blowing out their brains, then we forever retain that image in our mind due to enhanced spatial memory.   If we do cause harm, then there are one of two consequences: we either have nightmares that taunt us, or become numb to what we have done, or both.  We are playing with fire.  We need to be careful, especially with our children.

9. What is your favorite quote?

I really have three favorite quotes:

Lose this day loitering, ‘Twill be the same story Tomorrow — and the next more dilatory. Each indecision brings its own delays and days are lost lamenting over lost days… What you can do or think you can do, begin it. For boldness has magic, power, and genius in it.
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Tom FurnessThose who accomplish something have something to accomplish. 

Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
— George Bernard Shaw

10. Why did you create the Virtual World Society? How can people become engaged with your work?

Over the many years that I have been developing and testing VR technology, my dreams of what VR could do to lift mankind has been an elixir for me to continue the journey even with the ups and downs of our progress.   My motivation for creating the Virtual World Society was sparked in 1993 when the film Lawnmower Man was released.  Up to that time, there was little mention of VR in the media.  To my alarm,  Landmower Man trivialized and sexualized VR.  In a way, the film called my VR baby ugly.  I realized then that some people could get the wrong idea about VR from this negative messaging.  While I wanted to develop VR to lift mankind there was an emerging element in our society who without knowledge or understanding would want to debase or distort what it could do.  I felt at the time that the best defense was a good offense that consisted of organizing a organization of people who felt as I that we needed to educate the world about the good side of VR and its humanitarian applications.  So I started the original Virtual World Society in the mid-nineties when I was doing a lot of early work on educational and medical applications of VR.  After a few years of operation, it became clear that we were way too early to organize the Society because the technology had not really arrived and no one would know what it is about anyway.

Every eight years after that I revisited the prospects of resurrecting the Society, waiting on the technology to mature.  Then in 2015 there was a resurgence of interest in VR because emerging technology from smartphones and computers solved many of the technology performance problems that we had encountered in the past and at the same time made that performance available to consumers at an affordable price.  Within this climate of growing interest and affordable technology, I felt (finally) that the timing was right to form a new Virtual World Society.  I felt the Society should do several things, including the promotion of the humanitarian uses of VR throughout the world while becoming a bell weather or touchstone about the best ways that VR could unlock and link minds to build a better world.  I wanted the Society to become the ‘Peace Corps of VR’ that would take the technology into field to strengthen families and solve problems for people who had become disconnected due to illness, disabilities, age, social standing or being a refugee.  I wanted to promote VR use for education and training at all levels.  In addition to being the Peace Corps of VR, I wanted to develop an ecosystem where we could also serve as the ‘National Geographic Society of VR’ and the ‘PBS of VR’.

The ecosystem I wanted to build would consist of four communities:

  • Technology providers
  • Independent content developers
  • Families from around the world
  • Communities of Need (local, NGO, United Nations (Unicef) etc.)
  • The VWS would serve as the superglue to integrate these communities, creating a sustainable organization that would fulfill its mission of lifting humanity.

As for the dynamics of such an arrangement, I envisioned that the technology providers would kickstart the Society with funding and technology. (Note: this support from technology providers would ultimately lead to more market and business in the long term.)  Once underway we would encourage membership from people globally who were interested in VR technology and our cause.  In ten years I envisioned that we would grow 10 million families from around the world who would subscribe to the Virtual World Society for $10.00/month.  (Note:  The National Geographic Society currently has 6.8 million members worldwide.) In turn these subscribers would receive content developed by the independent developers that consists of experiences, games and projects that relate to the communities of need.  Families would use this content in their homes.  That way, each family could join with other families to form teams who would learn and work together to address the pervasive problems of the world…all the while expanding their own perspective and learning by doing.  With such an economy of scale, we could change the world.

This lofty goal is what the Virtual World Society is about.  It is a 501c3 charity.  We want to promote VR for the good that it can do for people so as to drown out those purveyors of the negative side…and to show the industry that it is possible to make money, a lot of money, by promoting the beneficial applications of the technology.

Currently the Society has a growing number of activities and projects that invite participation by members.  These projects include:

  • 13 Voices – a project in Appalachia for empowering teenagers and expanding their view of the world through VR.
  • Voices of VR Podcast by Kent Bye relating interviews with the people throughout the industry who are bringing VR technology, tools and applications to the marketplace.
  • Robert Eagle Staff Middle School project to explore how sixth graders can build virtual world content to teach STEM subjects to other middle school students.
  • Take Flight– a project to build a scalable and sustainable models for introducing VR into public school systems.
  • Learning Living Room – consisting of 10-20 field laboratories which are living room in homes around the world to explore how families can use VR to strengthen each other while working with other networked families.
  • Nextant Prize and Medallions – awards recognizing people who are contributing to the betterment of mankind using the tools and technology of our age.
  • Nextant Challenge – a challenge with prize for solving a specific problem with VR or AR technology
  • Nextant Fellowship – award stipends for the scholarly investigation of VR and its application in families and other applications for refugees, people with physical or cognitive impairment.
  • Nextant Grants—funding awarded via grants to individuals and groups who are tackling problems in using VR to life humanity
  • Repository and database of the humanitarian projects including education, medicine for use by the community.
  • International Hackathons – to bring VR technology and applications to underrepresented populations and countries to spur interest and solve problems
  • Ambassador Corps – individuals who represent the Society and our mission throughout the world and who organize events and work with affiliated organizations that promote the humanitarian use of VR.

By joining the Virtual World Society now, people can become founding members in perpetuity as long as they maintain their membership in the Society.  If interested, people can join the Society and find out more about our program and benefits from our website: www.virtualworldsociety.org.

Note:  I used the term Nextant in the projects above.  Let me explain what I mean.

Long before the days of GPS and other electronic navigation systems, mariners relied on three instruments to navigate their ships to desired destinations.  These instruments were a compass, a clock, and a sextant.  The sextant is an optical instrument used to measure the angle between two objects, such as the sun relative to the horizon.   At night, the sextant is used to ‘shoot the stars’.  This sextant information, when combined with date and time, enabled mariners to calculate a ‘fix’ of their position on a nautical map.  Together with the compass, these three simple instruments made accurate and timely navigation possible across oceans where there were no visible landmarks.

I made use of the concept of the sextant in a talk I gave at AWE 2015 (June 10, 2015).  The talk was entitled, ‘Being the Future’.  In that talk I related my experience developing virtual and augmented reality over a 50-year span as I served first, as a military scientist designing fighter aircraft cockpits that incorporated virtual and augmented reality, and then second, as an academic exploiting VR and AR for medical, training, educational and enterprise applications.

Even in the 1960s, we were able to envision the incredible transformational power that AR and VR could afford people in many applications –  especially those in education and training.  But it was also clear that this vision would require and have to await a time when major advances in key technologies could enable the kind of high quality and affordable virtual world experiences necessary to make that vision a practical and achievable reality.

Over the next three decades, getting a “fix” where we were on the technology development map was hardly difficult –  the steering headings to reach technology destinations were clear.  Indeed, our navigation system to chart and measure progress across the ocean of technology advancements during that period was quite sufficient.  We did experience some periods of dead calm when the overhyping of ‘the VR revolution’ took much of the wind from our sails.  But the march of progress in smartphones and graphics processors in the last decade put us firmly back on course where all the VR possibilities we dreamed about decades before could finally become reality.

Only now we find that the same explosion in technology that has propelled this renaissance in VR and AR has also put us in a high sea state.  There is so much happening it’s difficult to see the horizon, much less plot our course- or even know the destination.  And unlike ancient mariners, shooting the stars’ can no longer help us because there are no “stars” to be seen in the current storm.  And worse, I feel we have lost our ability to predict or even guide us towards a more hopeful future, leaving us with the default of using this newfound technology for just creating more and ‘better’ games of violence.

As a solution to these navigation challenges of our present day, I offer the idea of a new navigational instrument – something I call the NEXTANT –  the ‘Next-Sextant’.

I believe that each of us already has embedded within us just such an instrument …it is our heart and conscience.  We already know innately what is good and right and what can lift humankind.  Our Nextants are ready to enable us to see beyond this default dark side of virtual reality.  Relying on our Nextants is not unlike in Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker learned to trust the ‘Force’ to guide his decisions.

I believe that all of us, as 21st Century technology mariners, need to come together to be a ‘force’ for good.  That we need to form a community and use our Nextants and the VR tools of our age to collectively unlock our potential and link hearts and minds globally to solve problems and build a better world.  We need a Virtual World Society that can gather and harness Nextant users and create a movement – a community of communities – that can and will literally change the world.


VWS has extended readers of this blog a one-year complimentary membership to the society. Join now using this code: Taoti4good  www.virtualworldsociety.org

 

Tom Furness is an amalgam of Professor, Inventor and Entrepreneur in a professional career that spans 52 years. In addition to his contributions in photonics, electro-optics, human interface technology, he is an original pioneer of virtual and augmented reality technology and widely known as the ‘grandfather’ of virtual reality. Tom is currently a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering with adjunct professorships in Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, Washington, USA. He is the founder of the family of Human Interface Technology Laboratories at the University of Washington, Christchurch, New Zealand and Tasmania, Australia. He is the founder and chairman of the Virtual World Society, a non-profit for extending virtual reality as a learning system for families and other humanitarian applications. He is a Fellow of the IEEE.