Jaron Lanier (born ca. 1961), computer engineer who brought virtual reality into the grasp of ordinary citizens.
If Jaron Lanier were remembered for nothing else, history would note him as man who coined the phrase "virtual reality." But Lanier's place in the bigger picture of science and computer history is assured. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the software designer and inventor, virtually singlehandedly, brought high-tech thinking into the reach of the ordinary citizen. Revered by fans of the technical age— if sometimes reviled by other computer-industry leaders for his futuristic promises—Lanier remains an enigma to mainstream society.
A self-taught computer genius to whom the designation eccentric might be politely applied, Lanier grew up in a geodesic dome home in New Mexico surrounded by his twin loves, mathematics and music. The son of a science-writer father and a concert pianist mother (who died when Lanier was nine), the youth, who had dropped out of high school, was nevertheless allowed to attend college courses at age 14. "By the age most kids enter college," Joan O'C. Hamilton wrote in Business Week, he "had already progressed to graduate-level courses." Lanier told Hamilton that from that early age he was "consumed by math's beauty," while at the same time he studied several musical instruments.
Drawn to computers, Lanier moved to California in 1980 and found work designing video games, "earning a reputation as a prodigious hacker," as Time reporter Philip Elmer-Dewitt described. As a programmer in demand, Lanier eventually acquired the capital to form his own company, VPL Research Inc., in 1984. At that time, the technologies involved in virtual reality were already in place and in use; but, as Hamilton went on to say, the software was "hugely expensive and restricted to specific applications, such as flight simulators. Lanier's contribution was to develop virtual-reality (or "VR") software to run relatively inexpensive systems—sets of computers, gloves, and goggles that commercial users could tailor to any application they liked."
Lanier's notion of VR for the masses was accepted quickly. Now, any ordinary person could strap on a special helmet, don a power glove, and travel through space and time under the influence of computer-generated environments that added a new dimension to 3-D. "You might be in a Moorish temple," Lanier explains in an Omni interview, "or a heart that's pumping. You might be watching a representation of hydrogen bonds forming. In each case the world is entirely computer generated. Now, imagine that you had the power to change the world quickly—without limitations. If you suddenly wanted to make the planet three times larger, put a crystal cave in the middle with a giant goat bladder pulsing inside of that and tiny cities populating the goat bladder's surface … you could build that world instead of talking about it!"
More practical uses for VR soon came into focus. "VR systems would be the perfect command post for sending remote-controlled robots where humans prefer not to go (a melted-down nuclear reactor, the asteroid belt)," noted Omni in 1991. "Medical students could practice surgery on virtual cadavers that spurt virtual blood after a misplaced incision. Such uses are speculative so far, but few people doubt the technology's potential."
As brilliant as Lanier is within his high-tech realm, the machinations of the business world revealed "a boyish innocence when it comes to dollars and cents," as Hamilton noted in her Business Week profile. In 1992, she continued, Lanier "lost control of his company, VPL Research Inc., to French technology giant Thomson-CSF. Once a friendly partner, Thomson turned into an angry creditor. And after VPL was unable to retire the French company's loans, Thomson seized all of VPL's patents and intellectual property, leaving Lanier flapping in the wind."
Lanier left VPL and embarked on a number of new projects. According to the June 20, 1994, Computerworld, Lanier has been active in the field of virtual surgery, doing individual research as well as serving as chief scientist for New Leaf Systems and co-chair at Medical Media Systems. He has taught classes at New York University's film school and done a stint as a visiting scholar at Columbia. The multi-talented designer even released a CD of original musical compositions called Instruments of Change. Lanier's interest in music befits his image, according to Hamilton. Wherever he is recognized—and Lanier is not easy to forget with his large frame and distinctive blond dreadlocks—he is treated much like a rock star. "In Europe, where virtual reality is red-hot, Lanier's disciples sell psychedelic posters with his face on them. In Japan, he's sometimes mobbed on the street," Hamilton said.
For his part, Lanier is "a bit surprised by the hoopla his brainchild has generated," according to Elmer-Dewitt. "He concedes that expectations have flown far ahead of today's primitive technology, but he is convinced that virtual reality will someday live up to its name." As Lanier told Time:" The internal experience of reality is much more a product of your central nervous system than of the actual external world. That's why virtual reality works. Provide enough visual clues [on the screen], and millions of years of evolution will kick into gear."
Business Week, February 22, 1993.
Omni, January 1991.
Time, September 3, 1990.
Computerworld, June 20, 1994. □