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The suggestively titled book is a history of virtual reality, which Moody defines as a computer interface that immerses the user. It chronicles the considerable trials VR proponents faced in developing a technology with endless potential. Sound familiar?
It's a good, old-fashioned genius story that Moody sympathetically casts with some otherwise unappealing people folks who call the human brain "wetware." To write the book, Moody camped out for over a year in the University of Washington lab of Dr. Thomas Furness, an early VR heavy.
The Visionary Position lends color and good writing to the story of researchers caught between commercial and academic pressures. Now that the Internet has moved away from the heady days of lab research and into big business, Moody reminds us what it's like to be behind schedule, over budget and ahead of one's time.
How to Profit From the Y2K Recession
by John F. Mauldin (St. Martin's Press, $25)
Don't say you haven't been warned.
By the time Furness arrived in Seattle, the PC revolution was in full swing. The VR discipline, however, was floundering. It suffered from an image problem that stemmed partly from an exaggerated media portrayal, partly from the eccentricities of its early advocates and developers, and partly from its own overhype. Thus in the popular imagination, the VR world quite reasonably consisted of a few mad scientists or game players wearing outlandish helmets and gloves from which extended a confusing, perilous tangle of wires. The late 1980s had brought no end of predictions that virtual reality was just around the corner; when by 1993 it had not yet arrived, public interest in it subsided almost to nothing. As far as most Americans were concerned, virtual reality was the lunatic fringe of the PC revolution.
Virtual-world interface designers, headset makers, architects, entrepreneurs, and other adepts, however, kept working away at their technological designs and business plans, and the mid-1990s saw the first tentative emergence of VR technology out of the laboratory and into the mainstream marketplace. It looked as if the steady increase in microprocessor computing power and the steady decrease in price of personal computers had finally conspired to bring virtual reality to the threshold of the mass market by the end of 1995. A growing group of Seattle prospectors was hard at work trying to do for virtual reality what Microsoft had done for personal computing: to come up not only with a set of standards that would bring uniformity and ease of use to the VR arena, but also with a "killer app"--a use for virtual reality so compelling that millions of people would feel forced tobuy VR hardware. Their efforts began attracting the nervous attention--and sometimes the money--of investors from the financial markets, the PC industry, and the entertainment industry.
. . .
From May 1996 until September 1997, I set up shop in Furness's Human Interface Technology lab, researching its history and the lives of its scientists, and watching the lab's life unfold around me. I also spent countless hours in the offices and laboratories of other companies--some working in collaboration with the lab, others working effectively in competition with it, still others apparently doing both.
Much of this book is devoted to studying the uneasy alliances, misalliances, and battles between the research lab and companies in the industrial sector. My exploration took me around among the HIT lab and four Seattle start-up companies: Microvision, F5 Labs, Zombie Virtual Reality Entertainment, and Virtual i/O. Microvision was trying to bring to market an invention of Furness's called the Virtual Retinal Display (VRD), a means of seeing images without using a screen; F5 Labs was developing and trying to market an Internet switching system that would dramatically speed the flow of data in and out of web sites, allowing for the rendering of fully three-dimensional artificial environments; Zombie, cofounded by two VR pioneers, was developing CD-ROM VR games using discoveries and technologies developed in military research labs; and Virtual i/O developed and marketed the world's first lightweight head-mounted display (HMD), to be used both for viewing video and playing games in three-dimensional virtual environments.
In addition to fighting for their own survival, all of these companies maneuvered in concert and opposition at various times with one another and with the HIT lab, everyone caught up in a high-tech soap opera that was a complex welter of ego clashes, struggles for money, Shakespearean intrigues, nurture gone wrong, overlapping and conflicting visions, disillusionment, disgust, fury, revenge, and occasional respect and reverence. The tensions, of course, were a function both of the incredible difficulty in bringing an ambitious technological vision into the marketplace and the high emotional stakes involved in betting one's life on the endeavor.
I set off on this exploration because I wanted to find out what had happened to VR technology, which a few short years ago was being hailed as the Next Big Thing. I also wanted to climb into a microcosm--a tiny, illustrative slice in space and time--in order to study its inhabitants and their struggles from up close. I have long believed that the examination of a microcosm is far more instructive, and far more interesting, than the overview of a macrocosm, and I entered this one in the hopes that I could divine the way an American turns an idea into a commercial product, an industry, a fortune, or a disaster. In this respect, the resulting book is less a study of virtual reality in particular than of the origins of American industry in general. These VR pioneers, I believe, continue an illustrious American tradition--of the first adventurers into uncharted industrial territory, trying to develop new products and processes and consumer demand all at once, in the hopes that they will launch a world-changing new venture.
As often happens on such escapades as mine, I was soon faced with an intricate array of psychological avenues to explore, and I think now of the resulting book as a look--however uncomprehending--at the mysterious combination of ambitions, circumstances, obsessions, attainments, education, policies, personalities, and personal quests that go into the making of what we call progress. Every tangible enterprise, from the single small invention to the international conglomerate, begins with an intangible notion, a tug at the heart of a dreamer. What follows here is an examination of the people and events that gathered and grew, both wittingly and unwittingly, in the wake of just such a tug at the heart.
|Cast of "Characters"|
|The Road to Damascus||12|
|In the Sweat of Thy Face Shalt Thou Eat Bread||41|
|The Soul of a New Machinist||60|
|Buddy, Can You Paradigm?||89|
|The Elisha Gray Memorial Chapter||117|
|A Hole in the Ground Surrounded by Liars||162|
|The Visionary Position||193|
|And the Earth Shall Cast Out the Dead||230|
|Behold, I Am in My Anger||265|
|The Sense of an Ending||294|
|Shoot the Inventor||321|
IT WOULD SEEM at first glance that the room has been ransacked. Packing crates have been torn open and plundered. Hundreds of cords either lie tangled on the floor or hang in massive snarls from hooks, racks, and pieces of plastic pipe attached at various points to a ceiling that is missing most of its tiles. A Styrofoam head, perched on a low table, is wearing a pair of large goggles. The lights are turned off. There is electronic junk piled haphazardly everywhere--video cameras, keyboards, helmets, computer monitors, computer mice, computer guts, oversized trackballs, joysticks....
A second glance leads you to believe that the arrangement is more or less deliberate. You notice that a great deal of the mess is held together by duct tape. A large, doughnut-shaped, plywood contraption, suspended from the ceiling by bungee cords in the far corner of the room, has duct-taped to it a variety of electronic cables, some of which are attached to a helmet, others to gloves, others disappear into a hole in the ceiling, and still others snake their way across the room to a computer. A bedsheet is stuck with duct tape to one wall; another wall has been fashioned from trash bags duct-taped to one another.
It is hardly the setting you would dream up as a treatment center for someone in severe psychological distress. Yet it is precisely this mess into which I watched two psychologists lead a visibly nervous young woman one summer evening, at the beginning of a treatment session for her crippling arachnophobia.
The woman had long, black hair, black clothes, and the deathly pale skin of someone who never ventures outdoors. She wore a pair of candy-apple-red, high-topped, leather sneakers that perversely highlighted the already conspicuous lifelessness of her skin and wardrobe. She was terribly thin, as if her nervous energy burned calories faster than she could ingest them. Her voice was so soft and quavering that I had a hard time hearing it over the deafening whine of the computers in the room.
Everything about her testified to the fragility of her mental state: darting eyes, fluttering hands, and an array of tics and twitches that made it look as if she were on the verge of disintegration.
I was never told the woman's name--a condition of my being allowed to observe her treatment--and the psychologists would refer to her in subsequent professional papers as "Miss Muffet."
The woman sat down on a chair, and one of the psychologists--a postdoctoral student named Hunter Hoffman--started fiddling with two of the computers and arranging various objects on a table set up in the center of the room. Hoffman always began these sessions with a lot of tedious and tense arrangement of his equipment--the most noticeable piece being a huge, homemade, hairy toy spider that he had hooked up to a Polhemus tracker. Once everything was in place and his computers were running properly (not a simple task, I noticed, as the infernal machines habitually went awry), Hoffman helped Miss Muffet put on a large VR helmet and data glove, then led her to where he wanted her to stand. I could see on a television monitor that she was immersed in a crude cartoonish kitchen, with a counter, a sink, some cupboards, a window, a spiderweb, and--on the wall next to a window over the kitchen sink--a huge, black spider. Miss Muffet held a CyberMan in her hand, which allowed her to zoom toward or away from the spider.
Hoffman had told me before that a number of universities now were doing research into the treatment of fears and phobias with VR technology. In applying virtual reality to Miss Muffet, he and the other psychologist in the room, Dr. Albert S. Carlin, were employing a regimen modeled on treatment of fear of heights undertaken at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. "What we're doing with her is both an experiment and a treatment," Hoffman said. "The experiment is to see if you can use VR as a treatment. So, to some extent, we're just basically trying to treat her for spiderphobia, and at the same time we're trying to learn from her experience whether this is an effective medium."
Hoffman sat at a keyboard, keeping the software running, while Carlin sat in a chair nearby, notepad and pen in hand. As the woman stood looking at the spider from a distance, Carlin asked, "Can you tell me zero to ten what anxiety you're experiencing?"
She reached out with her data-gloved hand, and I could see the virtual hand on the screen float up and touch the spider for an instant, then immediately withdraw as she drew back her gloved hand. "That's kind of creepy," she said softly, zooming away from it.
Now the spider looked quite small, and Carlin asked her again to rate her anxiety level. "About a six now ... a six ... ," she answered.
Moments later, she slowly zoomed in and reached out with her gloved hand again, and clicked a button on the CyberMan that allowed her virtual hand to grab the virtual spider and set it down on the counter. Then she released it and zoomed away. "Now that's much better," she said. "For some reason, when they're on the wall, that bothers me more than when they're on the counter. When they're on the wall, it's more like all the spider incidences I've had ... where they're staring with their big eyes and everything."
For the next few minutes, she zoomed in and back, at varying speeds and distances, picking the spider up and putting it in various places, zooming back to regard it each time, saying at one moment, "Now that's about an eight," another time, "about a six-seven," yet another, "a five ... ," then saying, in a more trembling voice, "I'm really shaky." As she zoomed back now, I could see her grimacing and licking her lips before trying to reassure Hoffman, who looked as if he were about to shut off the session. "All I am is really shaky," she said. "I mean, I'm not sweating or anything."
Hoffman had her rest for a few minutes while he hooked the toy spider up to the system. Now the image on the screen corresponded to the physical toy, and Hoffman rather than the woman could move it around. Hoffman held it suspended in the air in front of her, and the virtual spider floated in the middle of the virtual kitchen. Two minutes went by before she reached out, at his direction, and touched the physical spider with a finger and thumb. The woman's hand was shaking. "I'm about a six ... seven ... eight," she said.
For the next ten minutes, the woman alternately touched the spider gingerly, held it in one hand, held it in both hands, palpated its legs, put it down, picked it up, all the while delivering status reports. Near the end of the session, Hoffman asked, "Any physical symptoms?"
"Well, I'm trying not to shake," his patient said. "My hands are the only thing that's shaking. And I'm trying to keep my eyeballs open."
After she was finished and Hoffman had removed her helmet and glove, the woman sat down and told me her story. Her phobia had begun nearly twenty years ago and worsened dramatically, until her life was entirely defined by her fear. She took a night-shift job so she wouldn't have to go out during the day, believing that spiders moved around by day and slept at night. She removed all her shades and drapes so that spiders could not hide behind them. When she arrived home from work, she would put "magic towels" at the base of her doors, both inside and out, then duct-tape the doors shut and keep them that way until she went to work the next night. She kept her windows closed and sealed with duct tape even in the summer, no matter how hot it was inside her house. After she washed her laundry, she would iron all her clothing, then store each item in a separate, sealed, plastic bag. Each night just before she went to work, she would carefully sweep and wash out her pickup truck, then fumigate it with insecticides. During her commute, she would wear rubber gloves that extended past her elbows and keep a cigarette smoldering in the truck's ashtray in the belief that spiders hated cigarette smoke.
She was increasingly careful to avoid grassy areas. If cajoled into going to a park--for a picnic, say--she would wear high boots, keep her pants tucked into her socks, wear a heavy parka zipped up to her chin even in the summer, and run to the nearest picnic table and sit up on top of it, looking around vigilantly.
She began to believe that spiders had prodigious powers--that they could leap across the room to get her, that they could fly, that they could conspire against her. "It didn't make sense," she said, "it was totally untrue, but yet I would think, `This spider has a personal vendetta against me.'" When home, she would spend her time looking constantly for spiders, even to the point of obsessively examining her walls and ceilings, inch by inch, through binoculars.
The more obsessive and fearful she grew, the more ashamed she felt. "I knew it was totally irrational, but I couldn't help it."
She also suffered from a recurring nightmare in which she would wake up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and find "that everywhere around my bed there were spiderwebs, that the floor was covered with spiders, and that when I finally fought my way to the bathroom this single-file line of spiders would follow me in there. I'd run back to bed, pull the blanket over my head, and make a little breathing hole."
Hoffman was unsure to what degree his VR treatments could be credited for the woman's subsequent improvement. But there was no question that Miss Muffet had made tremendous progress. While still preoccupied and vigilant, she now professed to feel almost entirely liberated. She ventured out during the day. When home, she no longer sealed herself inside with tape. She could walk through grass. She was capable of seeing spiders in her home and leaving them alone--something she hadn't been able to do in years.
Even her dream life had improved. "Now, in my dream," she said of her recurring nightmare, "I say, `See, they're not bothering me,' and I talk to them and they talk to me. I tell them they give me the creeps, and they say, `That's okay ... we give everyone the creeps.'"
The Miss Muffet experiments graphically illustrate the maddening allure of virtual reality--a technology that seems to have been lingering on the threshold of the mass market for decades. There is on the one hand the dramatic improvement a virtual world interface has wrought in this young woman's life, apparent proof positive of the inherent worth of the technology. On the other hand, there is the unreliability of the system used on Miss Muffet, the hours of preparation required for each of her treatment sessions, the constant fear that something will go wrong with some part of the system used in her treatment, and the astronomical expense of present-day VR equipment. For each of Miss Muffet's one-hour sessions, Hunter Hoffman spent some three to four hours tinkering with his electronics, never really being assured that his computers would work properly. And while the turnaround Hoffman and Carlin wrought in Miss Muffet's life inspires visions of clinics on every street corner outfitted with helmets, gloves, computers, and miracle-working software, in reality the equipment costs of such treatment are prohibitive, to say the least. Hoffman estimated that the machinery used on Miss Muffet cost close to $100,000.
The overall impression of watching people labor so mightily and so uncertainly on something that persistently remains an unrealized promise is that of seeing a light at the end of a tunnel designed by a sadistic engineer: The tunnel keeps lengthening ever so slightly faster than the speed of the vehicle traveling through it.
The room where Hoffman and Carlin experimented on Miss Muffet (labeled the "Visual Simulation Laboratory," it is the nerve center of the University of Washington's HIT lab, the world's leading VR research center) is a protean place whose visitors and inhabitants constantly refashion it. It is by turns an architectural studio, a medical research center, an arcade, a psychologist's clinic, an industrial lab, an artist's studio, a zoo inhabited by virtual dinosaurs, a virtual playground for bedridden children. My first few weeks in the HIT lab were spent largely in this space, studying and cataloging an array of future uses of VR technology that will change the world in ways that are at once odd, exhilarating, disconcerting, subtle, and dramatic. Just as the personal computer has been spreading in all directions at once, taking on the roles of calculator, typewriter, file cabinet, fax machine, mailbox, appointment calendar, video-game player, television, telephone, printing press, income-tax adviser, and bookshelf, among countless other things, so is this new technology--more or less the third wave of the PC revolution--now poised to enter our lives in multifarious ways.
I saw countless examples in the Visual Simulation Laboratory of future uses for VR machinery, from architectural applications allowing users to build virtual structures from which blueprints could be extrapolated by computer, to medical applications in which remote surgeons operating on virtual bodies were controlling teleconnected robots operating on real bodies. The most dramatic--and, in the final analysis, most discouraging--of these demonstrations was one put on by Dr. Tom Riess, a California podiatrist-turned-inventor who was forced into retirement by Parkinson's disease.
Working with the HIT lab's Suzanne Weghorst and other lab researchers, Riess had devised a headset that displayed a row of vertically scrolling dots, superimposed on reality, as he walked along. This was a high-tech version of a trick Parkinson's patients use to overcome the disease's breakdown of the brain's "visual cueing" mechanism. Often, Parkinson's sufferers lay out rows of playing cards on the floors of their houses, as such evenly spaced visual aids eliminate their tremors and disorientation, and Riess wanted to build a portable system that would work wherever he went. "You can't really lay out playing cards on the floor of the supermarket," he liked to say.
When the display was turned on, it completely eliminated the tremors and twitches caused by Riess's disease. I watched him one day, twitching and flailing so violently that he could scarcely maintain his balance, get himself fitted with the headset and belt-pack-mounted computer that powered the display. Then, once the display was in place and turned on, his symptoms miraculously disappeared, and he started walking and running around the lab.
This was in mid-1993, and it looked at the time as if Riess was about to be set free from his prison. Yet three years later, he had essentially made no further progress with his invention. The display proved unreliable at high altitudes and under temperature extremes, and Riess's efforts at making the computer pack smaller and easier to use had proven futile. As has happened time and again with VR inventions, the difficulties in moving beyond the beguiling prototype to the practical and useful product had proven insurmountable.
To see a hacked-together laboratory prototype bring such dramatic deliverance to someone like Riess or Miss Muffet--someone, in other words, who otherwise would be cut off from the world--is immediately to see an almost infinite potential for technology to aid in the struggle for the mind's transcendence over the body's limits. You begin to understand the hunger and impatience that thoroughly color the lives of VR adepts; in the case of psychologist Hunter Hoffman and HIT lab director Tom Furness, the easing of human suffering had understandably become something of an obsession by the time I arrived at the lab. Furness, in particular, was marked with an intense impatience for computer technology--which seems constantly to fall short of its potential--to finally get there, and start bringing forth the results that VR visionaries had been promising for decades.
Tom Furness--more formally known as Dr. Thomas A. Furness III--is an exotic commodity in the Pacific Northwest. A North Carolina native with a pronounced accent, he has an arresting manner that is at once courtly and folksy. Along with his spectacles and graying hair and beard, his accent gives him the avuncular air of a Colonel Sanders. He is formal in a way not commonly seen in modern America, opening doors for women, shaking hands every time he greets a friend, and pulling chairs out from tables for his guests. Yet his speech, marked by a musical drawl, is determinedly downhome, packed with odd, strangled sounds, as if consonants keep getting swallowed in mid-expression by his sinus cavity. "Isn't" is rendered as "idn't," "ninety" is "niney," "want" is "won't," "presented" is "bresented," "student" is "stunent," "my" is "muh," and so on. His enthusiasms are highly contagious, bewitching investors, entrepreneurs, students, fellow faculty, and journalists alike. When he talks about his hopes and dreams for virtual reality, you find yourself reflexively reaching for your wallet--whether to hand over its contents to Furness or hide them from him, you're never quite sure.
The story of the HIT lab, I was told again and again, is very much "the story of Tom." I have since learned that the same is true of the story of virtual reality in general. Accordingly, in order to properly understand the quest to connect the world's citizens with one another through the virtual world interface, it is necessary first to take a look out Mrs. Margaret Furness's kitchen window in 1946, from where we can watch with her as her three-year-old son, a dreamy American boy named Tommy Furness, is tottering toward his new tricycle.