Multimedia: History, Theory and Practice

Week 6, 7- February 23 - March 2, 1999
Lecture Notes

Pleasure Island

Critique of character development.


  • Scott Fisher, "Virtual Interface Environments"


Since the dawning of human consciousness, man has used technology to enhance sensory awareness and the cognitive abilities of the mind and body. Scott Fisher's work at NASA's Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW) project during the 1980s extended this notion into realms that could not have been imagined prior to his research. He essentially unlocked virtual worlds that could be seen, touched, and heard by interfacing our sensory system to new digital "organs," a cyberborgian vision of the future in which the human body is literally coupled with the machine.

Scott Fisher is one of those new breed of artist-engineers who came out of the MIT Center for Advance Visual Studies, the venerable art and technology think tank that evolved into the Media Lab headed up by Nicholas Negroponte in 1986. Fisher's scientific work is informed by the inquisitive, aesthetic sensibilities he brings to his VR experiments from his training as an artist. During the period in the late 1980s, when virtual reality began to receive mainstream press, and much of the hype centered around digital guru Jaron Lanier’s vision of a virtualized society of cybernauts, it was Scott Fisher at his NASA research lab in Mountain View, who was quietly inventing the medium that came to be known as virtual reality.

While Lanier actually coined the term ;virtual reality' around 1989 resulting from his interest in its mind altering possibilities, Fisher prefers the term 'virtual environment,' "to emphasize the ability to completely immerse a subject in a simulated space with its attendant realities." Fisher was never so concerned with the psychological and paranormal ramifications of cyberspace exploration. Rather, his work has always focused on the pragmatics of sending the human being into virtual space and giving him the tools to interact with these digitally constructed worlds.

Fisher's work evolved from his clear sense of historical precedents in the field of immersive simulation. While a student at MIT in the 1970s, he worked closely with Negroponte and Michael Naimark on the Aspen Movie Map project, in which the viewer-participant navigates a representation of Aspen, Colorado via laserdisc. This form of environmental manipulation, dubbed by Naimark as 'surrogate travel,' was a strong influence on Fisher’s subsequent work. Drawing in part from such curious experiments as the 19th Century Zoetrope, the Nickelodeon, the short-lived Cinerama, and Morton Heilig's Sensorama arcade, Fisher developed his system based on the seminal research in head-mounted displays conducted by Ivan Sutherland in the late 1960s. It was from this panoply of diverse influences that Fisher formulated his broader vision of the capabilities of immersive simulation and the idea of 'telepresence.'

While Fisher developed the VIEW system based on prior research of Sutherland and predecessors at NASA, he also worked closely with his contemporaries. An important exchange took place in collaboration with Lanier and his company VPL Research, Inc., where the key component known as the 'dataglove' was created. This extraordinary device serves as an artificial limb that literally extends the 'immersant's' reach into the immaterial realm of cyberspace, through which digital objects can be touched and manipulated. Lanier, who often combined his talents as musician and computer scientist, had originally invented the dataglove as a means to perform virtual musical instruments.

Once Fisher had implemented sight (head-mounted display) and touch (dataglove), he achieved a more total sense of immersion by adding sound (binaural headphones) and speech recognition (microphone). He began to experiment with such ideas as full-body tracking, in which viewers would interact with "life-sized representations and electronic persona." Far from the notion of interface we associate with the graphical user interface of the personal computer, he had achieved an advanced degree of simulation that would literally transport the viewer beyond the interface, through the screen, or as Fisher describes it, "a human interface that disappears – a doorway to other worlds."

After the early 1990s, once the hype of virtual reality had subsided and the medium had assimilated into the mainstream, its impact on contemporary life could be felt in numerous ways. Almost overnight, amusement parks and video arcades had incorporated immersive simulations; films such as Lawnmower Man dramatized the dangers of virtual reality; and the Guggenheim Museum proclaimed VR as a new avenue for artistic expression with its "Virtual Reality: An Emerging Medium" exhibition in 1993. Today, just as Fisher had envisioned, even the field of medicine is undergoing a transformation through the incorporation of virtual surgery.

We live in a changing world; one is which the barrier between the real and the virtual is rapidly eroding. The research of such pioneers as Morton Heilig, Ivan Sutherland, and Scott Fisher has opened doors to new forms of representation that bring into question the very foundation of our sense of reality, epistemological concerns that will assuredly confound future generations. Or perhaps we are embarking on a form of communication that will allow us to decode the cryptic paintings mysteriously constructed on the walls of Lascaux some 17,000 years ago, where human consciousness first made itself felt in the immersive environs of those dimly lit caves.

The History of Virtual Reality

Morton Heilig's Experience Theater : Sensorama (1960)

"I became fascinated by Cinerama after reading about it. I was already involved with cameras and film and the technological influences in film. On a visit back to new York I went down to see Cinerama. this was a pivotal experience in my life. The narrator described the scene, the curtain swept back, revealing a screen four times bigger than normal and they showed a roller coaster ride. you no longer identified with some actor who has having your experience, you had the experience yourself." -- Morton Heilig

Cinerama excited a young cinematographer named Morton Heilig, who believed the future of cinema lay in creating films that could present a total illusion of reality. He diagrammed the various elements he felt were necessary to create that total illusion, such as the brain's sensory channels and the body's motor network. He called his end product "experience theater."

Here is a passage from Heilig's "The Cinema of the Future," first published in 1955. "When a primitive man desired to convey to another man the emotional texture of an experience, he tried to reproduce, as closely as possible, the elements that generated his own emotions. His Art was very simple, being limited to the means provided by his own body... With time, a specific word-sound became associated with the impressions, objects, and feelings in man's experience. Words were useful in conveying the general structure of an event... [but] even then not a thousand of his choicest words could convey the sensation of yellow better than one glance at yellow, or the sound of high-C better than listening for one second to high-C. And so side by side with verbal language they evolved more direct forms of communication, painting, sculpture, song and dance... For all the apparent variety of the art forms, there is one thread uniting all of them. And that is man, with his particular organs of perception and action. Art is like a bridge connecting what man can do to what he can perceive."

SensoramaHeilig's research led to "Sensorama," a VR-type arcade attraction he designed and patented in 1962. Sensorama simulated all the sensory experiences of a motorcycle ride by combining 3-D movies, stereo sound, wind, and aromas. By gripping the handlebars on a specially equipped motorcycle seat and wearing Viewmaster-type goggles, the "passenger" could travel through scenes including California sand dunes and Brooklyn streets. Small grills near the viewer's nose and ears emitted breezes and authentic aromas. Sensorama was extremely complex for the arcade environment, and funding never materialized for the simplified version Heilig later developed, but his version of a medium that combined multisensory artificial experiences became a reality in the 1990's. It was outfitted with handlebars, a binocular-like viewing device, a vibrating seat, and small vents that could blow air, stereophonic speakers and a device for generating odors. One of the rides was a motorcycle trip through Brooklyn.


Experimental film techniques such as three-dimensional (3-D) movies and stereophonic sound that developed in Hollywood during the early 1950's also influenced VR's future. Cinerama, one of these technologies, sought to expand the movie-going experience by filling a larger portion of the audience's visual field. Three cameras, shooting from slightly different angles, were used to film each scene in a Cinerama movie. The film was then synchronized and projected onto three large screens that curved inward, wrapping around the audience's peripheral visual field. Cinerama's technology proved too costly to be embraced by most commercial theaters, but the theory of visual immersion became an important VR element.

Ivan Sutherland (1938 - )
The Head-Mounted Display

"We live in a physical world whose properties we have come to know well through long familiarity. We sense an involvement with this physical world which gives us the ability to predict its properties well. For example, we can predict where objects will fall, how well-known shapes look from other angles, and how much force is required to push objects against friction. We lack corresponding familiarity with the forces on charged particles, forces in nonuniform fields, the effects of nonprojective geometric transformations, and high-intertia, low-friction motion. A display connected to a digital computer gives us a chance to gain familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world. It is a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland." -- Ivan Sutherland, 1965, from the article "The Ultimate Display."

Ivan SutherlandIn the early 1960's a graduate student named Ivan Sutherland presented a Ph.D. thesis in this area that demonstrated a new way to interact with computers by using graphics. Sutherland believed that display screens and digital computers could offer a means of gaining familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world by providing a window, or looking glass of sorts, into the mathematical wonderland of a computer. Sketchpad launched the field of computer graphics, Sutherland's groundbreaking interactive software system developed at MIT.

Sutherland next focused on developing technology that would allow computer users to actually enter the world of computer-generated graphics. In 1965, with support from the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and the Office of Naval Research, Sutherland unveiled the head-mounted display (HMD), which took users inside a three-dimensional world by limiting visual contact to the displays shown by small computer screens mounted in binocular glasses. It became a cornerstone of VR technology.

Head-Mounted Display

Sutherland's head-mounted display earned the nickname the sword of Damocles due to the mass of hardware that was supported from the ceiling above the user's head. The weight of the HMD was too much to bear without some additional support. A mechanical apparatus determined where the viewer was looking, and monoscopic wire-frame images were generated using two small cathode-ray tubes (CRT's) mounted alongside each ear.

Optics focused the image onto half-silvered mirrors placed directly in front of the eyes. The mirrors allowed the computer-generated images to overlay the view of the world (in contrast, most of today's VR systems obscure the view of the outside word). Users of the system viewed a wire-frame cube floating in space in the middle of the lab. By moving their head around they could see different aspects of the glowing cube and determine its size and placement.

McDonnell Douglas - VITAL
HMD - Flight Simulator (1979)

FLIGHT SIMULATORAs early as 1979, the military was experimenting with head-mounted displays. If an effective one could be built, it would significantly reduce the expense and physical size of the simulation system. by projecting the image directly into the pilotís eyes, bulky screens and projection systems could be eliminated. One of the first of these, McDonnell Douglasís VITAL helmet used an electromagnetic head tracker to sense where the pilot was looking. Dual monchromatic cathode-ray tubes were mounted next to the pilotís ears, projecting the image onto beam splitters in front of his eyes. This allowed the pilot to view and manipulate mechanical controls in the cockpit, while seeing the computer-generated image of the outside world. Problems with bulky headgear and the unnaturalness of viewing through beam splitters, however, limited the acceptance of these early head-mounted displays. For over 20 years, America's armed forces have been manufacturing realities in order to improve the effectiveness of training their personnel. This military development of flight simulation had a significant impact on the future of arcade and later computer games.

Michael Naimark - Aspen Movie Map (1979) - Surrogate Travel
MIT Architecture Machine Group

Michael NaimarkIn 1978, Michael Naimark, under the direction of Andrew Lippman in the MIT Architecture Machine Group pushed hypertext into the hypermedia arena where it combined photographic image and text together, when he directed the production of the Aspen Movie Map. Aspen Movie MapAspen was a simulated application that allowed the user to drive through the city of Aspen on a computer. The system was implemented using hypermedia database (i.e. non-linear). User simulated the driving of a car by means of joy stick. User indicated the turn of a specific direction by pointing the joy stick toward that direction and a link to a specific photograph or film segment would be activated. One of the applications of this simulation hypermedia experience is in the area of training e.g. pilot training or driving training.

Aspen Movie MapThe system used a set of videodisks containing photographs of all the streets of Aspen, Colorado. Recording was done by means of four cameras, each pointing in a different direction, and mounted on a truck. Photos were taken every 3 meters. The user could always continue straight ahead, back up, move left or right. Each photo was linked to the other relevant photos for supporting these movements. In theory the system could display 30 images per second, simulating a speed of 200 mph (330 km/h). The system was artificially slowed down to at most 10 images per second, or 68 mph (110 km/h).

Scott Fisher and the VIEW-Virtual Environment Workstation Project (1985)
NASA/AMES - Mountainview, CA

NASA / AmesIn the mid-1980's, the different technologies that enabled the development of VR converged to create the first true VR system. Researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, charged with creating an affordable pilot training system for manned space missions, developed the Virtual Interface Environment Workstation. It was the first system that combined such standard elements as computer graphics and video imaging, 3-D sound, voice recognition and synthesis, and a head-mounted display. A data glove, based on an invention designed to play air guitar, completed the system.

McGreevyIn 1981 Michael McGreevy began a program of research in spatial information transfer at NASA Ames, emphasizing the interpretation of 3-D displays. Aware of the pioneering work by Sutherland in HMD, McGreevy put forth a proposal in 1984 to craft a similar system for NASA called a virtual workstation.

Building on a helmet display system from the air force (VCASS) used for pilots, he built a small inexpensive display that could be worn on the head. Black and white hand held TVs, based on LCD technology (Watchman). The displays were mounted on a frame similar to a scuba mask, special optics in front of the displays focused and expanded the image so it could be viewed and dubbed the display Virtual Visual Environment Display (VIVED). Two video computers were then mounted to create independent left and right-eye images, or stereo pairs. Their first production was a walking tour from NASA's human factors lab, through the offices of the division, and on to the hanger. Finally they patched together a Picture System 2 graphics computer from Evans and Sutherland, two 19-inch display monitors, a DEC PDP-11/40 host computer, and a head tracker. The Evans and Sutherland graphics system generated separate (stereo) wide-angle perspective images on each of the two display monitors.

Scott FisherScott Fisher attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he held a research fellowship at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies from 1974 to 1976 and was a member of the Architecture Machine Group from 1978 to 1982. There he participated in development of the `Aspen Movie Map' surrogate travel videodisc project and several stereoscopic display systems for teleconferencing and telepresence applications. He received the Master of Science degree in Media Technology from MIT in 1981. His research interests focus primarily in stereoscopic imaging technologies, interactive display environments and the development of media technology for representing `first-person' sensory experience.

Scott FisherFrom 1985 to 1990, Mr. Fisher was Founder and Director of the Virtual Environment Workstation Project (VIEW) at NASA's Ames Research Center in which the objective was to develop a multisensory virtual environment workstation for use in Space Station teleoperation, telepresence and automation activities. The VIEW Project pioneered the development of many key VR technologies including head-coupled displays, datagloves, and 3-D audio technology. In 1990, he co-founded Telepresence Research to continue research on first-person media, and to develop Virtual Environment and Remote Presence systems and applications. Prior to the Ames Research Center, Mr. Fisher has served as Research Scientist with Atari Corporation's Sunnyvale Research Laboratory and has provided consulting services for several other corporations in the areas of spatial imaging and interactive display technology. His work has been recognized internationally in numerous invited presentations, professional publications and by the popular media.

Attached to the HMD was a mall mike that allowed you to give simple voice commands to the computer. fisher had simply purchased a commercially available voice-recognition package and had it connected to the system. voice input was important because, once you put the HMD on, you could no longer use the keyboard or find any buttons to control your environment.

Head-Mounted DisplayBy the end of 1986, the NASA team had assembled a virtual environment that allowed users to issue voice commands, hear synthesized speech and 3-D sound sources, and manipulate virtual objects directly by grasping them with their hand. NASA environmentCybernauts venturing into NASA's virtual worlds had to outfit themselves with a collection of gear that a scuba diver might recognize, particularly because the original design used a scuba-mask frame to mount the LCD displays. Instead of a glass window into the undersea world, the displays were glass windows into the virtual world.

NASA environmentThe cybernaut's lifeline was a series of cables that led from the headgear and DataGlove to an array of computers and control boxes. Just as early divers used compressor pumps and airhoses, virtual explorers were similarly connected to their reality-generating machines. In their exploration of these new virtual environments, cybernauts were like divers descending alone into the undersea realm. Holding up your gloved hand in front you, you would see a simple, blocky, wire-frame, and the disembodied hand would mimic the motion. Using fiberoptic sensors to measure the flex of each finger joint and an additional position and orientation sensor, the computer knew exactly where your hand was and what movements your fingers made.

BoomScott Fisher also worked on another virtual reality system known as the "Boom," in which the viewer is mounted on a stand, much like a microphone boom stand. This system frees the viewer from being encumbered by the head-mounted display, allowing greater movement and flexibility. Fake Space Labs: BOOM system - high-resolution mobile VR. Shown here is a composite image, demonstrating the view the user would see in the monitor. In VR systems, a 3D display device mounted on a counter-weighed arm (boom) that can be manipulated in space by the VR participant. An alternative to head-mounted displays or EyePhones, boom-mounted displays can carry heavier, higher-resolution CRT monitors. With position sensors attached to the shafts of the boom itself, latency or frame-lag (the disparity between the participant's movement and a corresponding movement of the virtual world) can be kept to a minimum. Boom-mounted VR displays provide a useful halfway-house between desktop VR and full sensory immersion.

Jaron Lanier and the DataGlove

Jaron LanierFrom there, it was only a matter of time before VR programs began appearing in settings ranging from virtual reality theme parks to operating rooms, largely aided by products developed by Jaron Lanier, whose programming language operated the first data glove at the NASA research center. Lanier and his company, VPL Research, Inc., were at the forefront of the VR industry, designing the DataGlove used in many virtual reality applications. VPL also developed VR software for clients ranging from automobile manufacturers to entertainment companies. Lanier is probably best known for his work in Virtual Reality. He coined the phrase 'Virtual Reality' in 1989, and helped found the VR industry.

DataGloveA data input device developed by Jaron Lanier and Thomas Zimmerman of VPL Industries, the DataGlove was designed to translate the movements of the hand and fingers into a code that is readable by a computer. The DataGlove has absolute position sensors attached to it, and is lined with fibre-optic cables that run along the love fingers. these transmit light from an electronic light source at one end of the cable, which is read by an electronic photosensor at the other end. when the hand is flexed, light is released from precisely calibrated incisions at each knuckle. the amount of light released corresponds to the degree that the finger is crooked. The DataGlove opened up the possibility of a whole new range of gestural interfaces for interactive multimedia and virtual reality.

DataGloveSeeing the representation of your hand suddenly changes your perspective. You now have a perceptual anchor in the virtual world. You're actually inside the computer because you can see your hand in there. To move about the tinker-toy world, you simply point with one gloved finger in the appropriate direction and the angle of your thumb controls the speed of your flight. The computer had been taught to recognize that gesture as the desire for movement. Other gestures were possible; for example, closing your fist caused you to grab any object that your hand intersected. As long a you kept your hand closed, the object stayed stuck to it. this allowed you to move objects around. Opening your hand released the object.

Assignments for this week:

complete Fisher and Novak readings for next week (Krueger is delayed)
Complete character development and begin character home page

(due March 9th)