On the edge of reality: an innovator invents a new world


Lanier left VPL Research in Nov 1992. The former chairman and founder of VPL, a leading company in virtual reality research, left after a disagreement over the focus and direction of the research and products.

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The firm’s elegant offices, in a 19-storey smoked glass tower in Foster City, in California’s Silicon Valley 25 km south of San Francisco, are a symbol of its success. Since its founding in 1984, VPL Research Inc. has emerged as one of the leading players in the fast-growing field of virtual reality, supplying headsets, special gloves and software to a list of clients that includes the U.S. space agency, NASA, several American universities and scores of private customers in North America and overseas. Over the years, analysts have attributed much of VPL’s success to the skills of its founder, 32-year-old Jaron Lanier, a high-school dropout who coined the phrase virtual reality during the early 1980s. Last week, the company was under new leadership following Lanier’s abrupt departure from the company on Nov. 30 after a dispute with his partners about the future of VPL. I wanted a faster-growing company with higher standards,” Lanier told Maclean’s, but that involves more money and a willingness to take risks.” He added that he might consider starting a new firm: There are all kinds of possibilities.”


Fortunes: Industry observers said that Lanier’s departure will likely mark a turning point in the fortunes of the pioneering, privately held company. According to Jean-Jacques Grimaud, VPL’s 46-year-old president and CEO, Lanier’s resignation as chairman took place after a period of uncertainty in the firm. The French-born Grimaud, who says that he helped to found VPL, added that the company needed to grow, but that Lanier wanted to develop too many products too quickly. The virtual reality field is growing,” said Grimaud, but we have to move at a reasonable pace and be careful of managing our product lines.”

VPL’s success has been based largely on a virtual reality system that Lanier helped to create, called RB2–for Reality built for two.” Selling for $320,000, RB2 uses a powerful Silicon Graphics, Inc. computer system to create detailed images with VPL’s patented virtual reality language. The user puts on an EyePhone,” a headset with speakers and two tiny television screens, to become immersed in the computer-projected world, which can depict scenes as varied as an airplane cockpit, a forest or the interior of the human heart. The system can be used by two or more people at the same time. And a television camera linked to the image-generator makes it possible for the users themselves to appear in the visual world created by the computer. Applications of RB2 range from controlling robotic constructon equipment to simulating surgical procedures for medical interns. With RB2,” said Lanier, you and your virtual reality partners can shake hands, dance together or play ball.”

Lanier, who wears his shoulder-length hair in Rastafarian-style dreadlocks, grew up in Mesilla, N.M., in a mountainous area midway between the U.S. Air Force’s White Sands missile range and the Mexican border. A solitary, scholarly boy, Lanier lived under a geodesic dome with his eccentric, widowed father, who earned his living writing about science. He said that as a child, he felt frustrated when his imagination collided with the constraints of reality. To overcome that conflict, he says that he built unusual devices, including a theremin,” an electronic musical instrument that the player controls by moving his hand in an electrical field between two antennas. Lanier says, in effect, that virtual reality may soften the barriers that a child’s imagination encounters. It’s every child’s dream,” he says, for as we grow up, all of that imagination we were born with has to be compromised.”

Lanier said that in spite of his departure from VPL, he hopes to remain involved in a joint venture with Alex Singer, a Los Angeles-based television director, and movie screenwriter John Hill, to create virtual reality theatre. Still, company officials said that the proposed theatre was a VPL project and pointed out that Lanier was no longer a company employee. In the proposed theatre, audience members would wear gloves and helmets connecting them to a virtual reality fantasy world. A performance might involve two competitors, aided by a trained guide, who would search for a hidden treasure, progressing from one world to another. The audience would be able to interfere with or aid the competitors’ progress. VPL officials said that two virtual reality theatres should be in operation within the next two years.


Patents: Though Lanier no longer works for VPL, he is still a major shareholder in the company. Grimaud said that the patents that Lanier helped to develop remain part of the company’s assets. For his part, Lanier insisted that the dispute within the company involved a block of people” who were critical of the way the company was being run. He added that some of the younger members of the company’s 25-member staff had left with him.

Lanier said that he intends to continue working on the development of virtual reality and admitted that the idea that he might start a new firm was not an inappropriate speculation.” Added Lanier: Virtual reality is in its infancy. There will be some opportunities to create beautiful human culture with it.” For Lanier, there could also be the opportunity of creating another new firm and more ingenious ways of advancing the development of an astonishing new technology.

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