Walter Isaacson: Dr. Skip Rizzo is having trouble with one of his patients. It’s 1991, and Rizzo is a clinical psychologist at the Coastline Traumatic Brain Injury Program in Costa Mesa, California. This day he’s struggling to help a 22 year old man who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. The patient’s frontal lobe is severely damaged, wreaking havoc on his ability to focus.
Rizzo is using the standard rehab tools of the day; cognitive exercises done with a pencil and paper and progress is barely noticeable. Then one day his patient rushes into the clinic bursting with excitement. He’s brought with him a new toy, an interactive game designed purely for entertainment. It’s a Nintendo Game Boy.
Rizzo watches fascinated as the young man immerses himself in a game of Tetris for far longer than he ever been able to pay attention to his boring rehab exercises. It was a breakthrough.
Skip immediately recognizes the technology’s potential to revolutionize the way rehab is done and he had another thought, what if there was a way to actually put the patient inside the video game world? The potential for other applications was huge.
I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.
Speaker 2: Firebird 2 to control tower, we are about to take off on the highway of tomorrow.
Speaker 3: Computer movies can be used to show phenomena we can’t directly see.
Speaker 4: Let’s enter the program.
Speaker 5: You think you could reach in and touch it.
Speaker 6: Total submersion, complete detachment from reality.
Speaker 7: The three dimensional color pictures are extraordinary.
Speaker 8: Thank you, it sounds very exciting.
Walter Isaacson: Whether it’s our televisions, computers, or our phones; we spend a lot of time with our screens. Despite the staggering advances in technology over the last several decades, the flat rectangle has remained a constant.
But for decades, pioneers have strived toward creating technology that would take us beyond the two dimensional into an experience that’s immersive and enveloping, less like television and more like an inhabitable world. They call it virtual reality.
Now technology has finally caught up with those trailblazer dreams. The mainstream introduction of virtual reality happened in the 1990s when Hollywood caught on to the technology’s potential for movie making and began producing virtual reality movies like The Lawnmower Man and The Matrix but the history of VR actually began a lot earlier than that.
It began in the 1950s with an obscure but visionary American filmmaker names Morton Heilig. Before today’s high resolution virtual reality headsets and video game consoles, there was the Sensorama. The Sensorama kind of looked like a phoropter, that piece of equipment your optometrist uses to measure your vision, except this contraption was brightly colored with flashing lights and illuminated pictures of far away places on its casing.
When you sat down on its plastic seat and ducked your head under the hood, it took you to those places in a way no piece of technology had ever before. Drop a token into the Sensorama and suddenly you’re riding a motorcycle down the streets of Brooklyn. Look forward, and the road is ahead of you. Look to your left or right, and you see parked cars and pedestrians whoosh past as you speed by.
The sounds of the street fill your ears in stereo. The machine rumbles and vibrates as if there’s an actual engine beneath you. Your hair is blown back by an unseen fan. Even the smells of the city, the reek of trash and the stench of burning rubber, assail your nose.
No one had seen anything quite like the Sensorama, but it would have a huge influence on virtual reality’s earliest innovators.
Tom Furness: Morton was a filmmaker, he was trying to come up with a better way for people to be involved in film that went beyond visual and acoustic. He was concerned that you didn’t feel immersed in the movie.
Walter Isaacson: That’s Tom Furness, the man who would become known as the Godfather of Virtual Reality.
Tom Furness: He never really did get into the consumer or commercial world. He built a couple of arcade kiosks to demonstrate the concept, but it didn’t go much further than that. It was his vision that was so exciting.
Walter Isaacson: Around the same time that Heilig was building his Sensorama, Furness was working on his own VR prototypes. In the 60s while he was an officer at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Furness was trying make fighter jet cockpits less complicated.
Tom Furness: It was clear from the very beginning that cockpits are a real problem. There are so many switches, so many displays. The pilot’s flying twice the speed of sound and being shot at, and all these kinds of things happening at once. It was just the sheer complexity was just enormous.
Walter Isaacson: Misreading a key piece of data or flipping the wrong switch could have deadly consequences.
Tom Furness: I started exploring this whole idea, what if we didn’t have to have a physical representation of this information? What if we could make it virtual, like a head-up display that basically moved around?
Walter Isaacson: A head-up display or HUD is a system that displays key information to pilots directly in their field of view, usually on a transparent surface. Furness’ idea was to decouple the HUD from a fixed screen so it was always visible no matter where the pilot’s head turned. It was some of the earliest iterations of virtual reality as we now know it.
Of course, the technology wasn’t even close to what we have today. It was clunky, and heavy, and expensive. The pilots would basically have two small old fashioned televisions attached to the sides of their head with the images from them bounced into their field of view. Despite the technical challenges, the benefits were obvious.
Tom Furness: First of all, the pilots were skeptical about whether this would work. They said, “We don’t need this, we don’t need to have these things hanging on our helmet”, and things like that until the put it on and started using it.
Then they realized, “Wow, this expands my capability because now I have the information where I need it. I don’t have to look into the cockpit, I don’t have to decode highly symbolic information. I can actually see it in the real world, projected in the real world, and where it really belongs.”
Walter Isaacson: By the late 1980s Furness had left the military and was using the technology he had pioneered in civilian applications. By then there was a new generation of innovators working in the virtual space. They came from a very different background than Furness did, and they were about to bring the gospel of virtual reality to the world in a very big way.
Sitting front row in a movie theater in early 1992, VR pioneer Tom Zimmerman is squirming as he looks up at the giant screen. He’s watching The Lawnmower Man and he has a specific interest. The science fiction film tells a story of a mad scientist who transforms a gardener into a sort of cyber god using virtual reality.
The movie was cheesy, but it was a hit and had VR cred as director Brett Leonard debuted a prop called the data glove, a genuine and groundbreaking virtual reality device invented by Zimmerman.
Tom Zimmerman: I was in the front row, and when the actor put on the data glove I was cringing because I could feel him tearing the fiber optics of it. It wasn’t a very good movie, but it was amazing to see something I worked on on the big screen.
Walter Isaacson: A decade earlier, Zimmerman had been working for Atari back when the video game company was at the top of the world. Their groundbreaking console, the Atari 2600, was a smash success selling in the millions and introducing video games to homes around the world.
Atari’s ambitions were lofty, they went beyond games played on TV sets. Atari research labs were a hotbed of creativity and innovation. Many of the ideas that came out of there were way ahead of their time. And Zimmerman, along with his passion for technology, loved music.
Tom Zimmerman: I started with a love of music early on. My dad, even though he was an accountant, the house was filled with music all the time. He’d pretend he was conducting an orchestra, which planted the seeds of virtual reality for me.
I used to pretend I was a Beatle playing guitar. And I had this fantasy of, “Wouldn’t it be cool if when I wiggled my finger, I could actually not only play air guitar but hear it come out of the speakers?”
Walter Isaacson: Zimmerman’s idea was to create a system that went beyond just keyboards and joysticks. What if he could create a glove that would interpret its user’s isolated finger movements and translate them into music?
Tom Zimmerman: I was in New York at the time and I was telling my friends about my idea of doing virtual pottery and controlling creatures with this glove. People thought I was crazy. I came to California and people not only thought I was sane, but they wanted to start companies with me.
Walter Isaacson: In California, Zimmerman met a fellow Atari vet by the name of Jaron Lanier.
Tom Zimmerman: I was at this electronic music concert at Stanford at night outdoors, and someone introduced us. I told him about this glove I had, and he told me about this programming language, a visual programming language he was working on. It was, as I say, a peanut butter meets chocolate story. That was the beginning of VPL Research.
Walter Isaacson: VPL Research was one of the first companies to manufacture and sell virtual reality products. In fact, it was Zimmerman’s new partner Lanier who coined the term virtual reality. The term took on a whole new meaning when they called Scott Fisher, yet another Atari lab mate, who brought in a head mounted display he was developing for NASA.
By wearing a helmet that tracked the movements of your head, you were no longer trapped on the other side of a flat screen. You could look around and actually feel like you were inside a computer generated environment.
Tom Zimmerman: It was kind of like a dream state because it’s all around you. With an immersive experience that you get with a head-mounted display, you’re always inside the simulation. It was a magical feeling, it’s like dreaming.
Walter Isaacson: Brenda Laurel, a fellow Atari vet who had gone on to start a company called Telepresence Research with Scott Fisher, remembers the first time she experienced the full virtual reality package.
Brenda Laurel: I was immediately immersed in it, it was magic. It brought something together in my mind, which was the joy and beauty of being an actor, and playing pretend in an environment that was so immersive it didn’t feel other, it didn’t feel like a stage. So it was like improvisation, but with a real palpable environment around you to support it.
Walter Isaacson: Once the press caught on to what they were up to, VPL became the center of the first virtual reality wave. Pretty soon, the big video game companies came knocking. The Power Glove was a controller for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
In the game Bad Street Brawler, you could use it to actually punch the bad guys with your own arm instead of just smashing a button. It was a simplified version of his original data glove, the one featured in The Lawnmower Man. Though it was far from an immersive virtual reality experience, for the first time regular people without a NASA budget could interact with video games in the ways he always dreamed of.
Tom Zimmerman: One of the greatest experiences of my life was I was walking in the streets of New York City visiting my family and I saw in Toys”R”Us, in the window, was my glove. I had this flash, this out-of-body experience that I thought of something, and through this long process materialized it in the world, and it now is staring back at me.
I felt this amazing connection between the ability to think and conceive of something, and through hands and brute force, and a lot of luck and teamwork, actually manifesting in the physical world. That really nailed it for me.
Walter Isaacson: With the introduction of the Power Glove and the success of The Lawnmower Man, VR hype had hit a frenzy by the early 1990s. Linda Jacobson is co-founding editor of Wired Magazine and the world’s first professional VR evangelist.
Linda Jacobson: The media hype was something that when it was addressed to the public, it was frustrating because it depicted sometimes a dystopian ideal. Lawnmower Man is a good example of something that really raised a lot of hope, but didn’t really depict the reality of the technology at the time. The story that Lawnmower Man told was not a glorious story of hope and optimism and self-empowerment, it was frustrating.
It also was fun to collect all the references and to see the ongoing attention for a while, until the world wide web stole everything away.
Walter Isaacson: The virtual reality craze of the early 1990s was eventually done in for a variety of reasons. One was that the wondrous psychedelic world that consumers had been promised was simply not achievable with the technology of the time. Anything that remotely resembled it cost in the millions.
Brenda Laurel: It was really sad to see VR going into eclipse. The constraints of the cost of computing in those days was so high that it became impossible to monetize. That was really what was necessary to keep it going.
Walter Isaacson: Second was a rise of a new technology that stole all of VR’s futuristic thunder, the internet. Linda Jacobson.
Linda Jacobson: When Tim Berners-Lee introduced and turned us all onto the web and the hypertext world, and everybody started building their own websites or learning how to code and HTML; that definitely took the heavy lights of the media, but also of business investment away from virtual reality and focused on the brave new world of web development.
As a result, a lot of interest in experimentation at the enterprise level and in the media and entertainment, that kind of fell off.
Walter Isaacson: So much had been promised and so little had been delivered, the crowd had moved on. By the end of the decade, virtual reality had become a bit of a joke with wild eyed fantasies like The Lawnmower Man sited as proof that the whole thing had been a fad.
But to those determined to keep the dream alive, virtual reality wasn’t dead, it was just in hibernation. Away from the public eye in laboratories and hospitals, research was being done that would expand even the most optimistic visions of what the technology could do.
Back in Costa Mesa, Dr. Skip Rizzo was sitting in his car when he heard the radio interview that would change his life. Inspired by his patient’s success playing Game Boy, he quickly recognized that traditional rehab practices could be disrupted with video game technology. There was just one piece of the puzzle that was missing.
Dr. Skip Rizzo: The first time I ever heard the term virtual reality was an NPR report where Jaron Lanier was being interviewed in Japan. He had set up, it was sort of like a virtual kitchen application where the mission was customers would go into this department store and build their own kitchen using a VR headset and data gloves.
When I heard that, it was one of those driveway moments. I was going to work out and I was sitting in the driveway at the gym, and I couldn’t get out of the car. It was like, “This is exactly what we need. This is the future of how we’re going to do rehab and clinical care.”
Walter Isaacson: The timing wasn’t right. The world and the technology weren’t close to being ready.
Dr. Skip Rizzo: That was 1996. The downside was, 1996 was also what I consider to be the start of the nuclear winter of virtual reality. There was so much hype and excitement about it in the early 90s. It was going to change the world and we’re going to have Lawnmower Man like experiences.
The reality was the technology was not there to deliver on the vision of virtual reality. With that in mind, the vision was sound. The idea of using VR simulation, it’s not just for cognitive rehab or physical therapy, but for anxiety disorders, and phobia treatment, and PTSD, and pain distraction. All those ideas made a lot of sense.
What happened was a number of folks around the world, maybe a couple hundred, still carried the torch for VR.
Walter Isaacson: Rizzo was one of those torchbearers. For years, he had kept the flame alive talking up the technologies boundless potential to anyone who would listen.
Dr. Skip Rizzo: When I used to have to really sell the idea of VR in the late 90s early 2000s, when I’d go to American Psychological Association I’d be doing a talk.
I’d say, ok “When you’re flying home from this conference, would you prefer that your pilot learned the cognitive or emotional skills for dealing with wind shear from a simulator and was certified in a simulator, or would you prefer they learned it out of a book, or from on-the-job training, or from a lecture?” People started to get it back then.
Walter Isaacson: By the early 2000s, the technology had come far enough for Rizzo to begin implementing some of his ideas in earnest. One of his most successful projects was a therapy program called Bravemind, which uses virtual reality to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s a high tech take on an established practice known as exposure therapy in which patients are encouraged to reimagine the scenarios in which they were traumatized and verbalize their experiences out loud. By revisiting the incidents over and over again, they’re able to process their memories in a healthy way, loosening the trauma’s grip on their minds.
Bravemind does something traditional exposure therapy could never do; it places the patients, many of them veterans in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, in a simulated environment where they relive their traumatic experiences with the guidance and safety of a professional always present.
As the patient narrates their experiences, a simulator technician adjusts the scenario in real time.
Dr. Skip Rizzo: The patient might say, “I’m driving down this deserted desert roadway towards a small village. There’s a lot of trash by the side of the road.” Click, there’s trash by the side of the road now. “It was right around dusk, so visibility is kind of low.” Click, it’s dusk now. “There were three people in the Humvee.” Bing, three people in the Humvee.
“As we’re going, I had a funny feeling. I felt like I was going to, I don’t know. I just felt contained with all this trash. All of a sudden I realize this trash was a camouflage for a large IED that was ignited and blew off half the side of the Humvee and killed my two best friends.”
You blow up the bomb to the right of the vehicle. You hit a couple of buttons that have screaming sounds, if the patient is ready for that, or signaling sounds, or radio calls or whatever.
Walter Isaacson: Rizzo has seen miraculous results.
Dr. Skip Rizzo: As you do it repeatedly over and over, eventually it doesn’t activate the same level of anxiety. Then as that happens, people start to feel empowered. They start to feel like, “Okay, I can get through this. I can get over this, I had a win today.”
Walter Isaacson: Bravemind is now used in more than 100 military bases around the world. It’s just the tip of the iceberg for virtual reality’s potential as a therapeutic tool.
In recent years, innovations like Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive have brought the tech to our living rooms. Even our phones can be used for VR with kits like Google Cardboard, a low tech solution that turns any smartphone into a VR viewer. To Rizzo, that means his clinical work has just scratched the surface of what VR technology can do.
Dr. Skip Rizzo: It’s kind of like a toaster. You might not use it every day, but every home’s got one. Maybe that’s what the VR headset will be like; that everyone will have one, it will be adopted. You might not use it all the time, you might not even use it for gaming, you might use it for other purposes.
Walter Isaacson: Today virtual reality is used by surgeons to map out complex operations, by theme parks to create new dimension for their roller coasters, by schools to create virtual classrooms, and even as an advanced tool to teach the principles of empathy by virtually placing the user in another person’s shoes.
For Tom Furness who started with Air Force cockpits and has worked in VR for more than 50 years, the technology is still in its infancy.
Tom Furness: The advent of these new technologies like the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift, and the portability coming into those devices now, it’s almost – not only is it vindication of the original visions that I had that this could actually work and it can make a profound difference, it has gone so far beyond that in applications I never had conceived of at the time in these earlier days. It is really gratifying to see that.
Walter Isaacson: The other pioneers of VR spent decades pursuing a seemingly impossible dream, that we will one day be able to create our own world bound only by our imaginations, and then enter them at will. Now that the technology has finally caught up with their vision, reality of all sorts, virtual or not, is about to get a whole lot more fascinating.
I’m Walter Isaacson and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. In the next episode, we take you into the world of modern sleep disruptors and examine the journey from the mattress industries humble utilitarian beginnings, to the waterbed craze of the 1970s, to NASA’s role in today’s mattress technology.
If you want to find out more about any of the guests we’ve talked to on today’s show, you can head to our website at delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. That’s delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.