Twenty Two Years Later…

In December 1994, I wrote a column for Information Display magazine with the following title: “The Tour Bus with a Thousand Eyes”. The theme of the column was to make some near-term predictions of what was likely to happen with Virtual Reality – in just a few years. It is now twenty-two and a half years later. Is it happening yet? Let me know what you think after you read my words from over twenty-two years ago.

The Tour Bus with a Thousand Eyes – my column from the December 1994 issue of Information Display magazine.

It was a typically cool and cloudy Saturday morning in London. It was early fall – a few years from now. The usual crowds of sightseers and locals were beginning to fill the streets. A group of enthusiastic young French grade-schoolers were crossing an already busy Trafalgar Square street joyfully shouting, “Allez! Allez!” At several of the more popular theaters, lines of hopeful ticket seekers were beginning to form. The streets were still damp and the air was fresh from the overnight London “mist,” and although the sun was making occasionally serious attempts at cloud penetration, folded umbrellas (carried for insurance purposes only, I presume) seemed to be an integral part of everyone’s attire.

The traditional red double-decker buses were well into their day’s activities, shiny black taxis were bringing in the morning’s latest Heathrow arrivals, and the sightseeing buses had started their first tours. All seemed quite normal – all except for one rather peculiar looking tour bus.

Actually, this bus was quite ordinary as tour buses go. What was unusual was that instead of the normal complement of tourists looking and pointing from behind each window, there were instead four rows of approximately a dozen binocular-looking things lined up like birds on wire perches. Counting up all the windows, one could see that there must be at least 500 of these peculiar robot-like gadgets staring out from inside the bus. What was really weird was that these binocular-things were all moving apparently independently and in all different directions.

Meanwhile, the bus driver seemed oblivious to all this strangeness and was narrating the tour just like any other “normal” tour-bus driver. On his console, LED indicator lights were glowing above labels for a menu selection of languages – French, German, Spanish, Norwegian, and at least 20 others. An EL display occasionally blinked as if to acknowledge the words “Automatic Language Translators Activated.”

It is very early morning in West Windsor, New Jersey, on this same Saturday. Larry and his wife have arisen early and are sitting in their comfortably furnished, although modest, living room. Autumn is definitely in the air and the trees have begun their annual color show. Several weeks ago, Larry had decided that he and his wife would like to re-live their previous year’s much-enjoyed vacation trip to London. After contacting his travel agent, he had signed up with “Experiential Tours” to have a 1-hour specialty tour of central London, including Trafalgar Square and the Piccadilly Circus area. And so far, the tour was living up to all their expectations.

They both hardly noticed the lightweight head-mounted glasses they were wearing. The wrap-around displays effectively closed out any peripheral view of their living room and, together with the stereo headphones, completely immersed Larry and his wife in their tour. What made this experience especially realistic was that they could independently look in whatever direction they wished. The recently improved head-trackers were so effective that there was no perceptible time delay between their head movements and the movements of the remote binocular cameras on that mysterious tour bus many thousands of miles away. (The newest head trackers had optical sensors that analyzed eye movements as a precursor to head motion, in addition to the usual motion sensors.)

The overall experience was so close to being there that Larry decided he would do this from now on for any new location that they were planning to visit. It was great to have this kind of personalized overview. Now, when they arrived in person, they would no longer have to wander around for several days finding the locations and activities that they most wanted to experience. Not only that, this was an inexpensive way to find out about new destinations and, of course, to review previous good experiences as they had just done. The cost of the tour had been less than for an in-person bus ticket. The interconnect time had recently been reduced to $50 per hour, so this was becoming a rather manageable expense for a Saturday morning – perhaps even cheaper than a trip into New York, by the time one added a cab ride or two to the train fare.

The following Monday, as Larry was describing his exciting new discovery to some of his colleagues, he learned that these “virtual tours” had also become quite the rage with pre-newlyweds in Japan. “Experiential Reality” buses were regularly plying the streets of Honolulu and the main roads of Maui to preview, for these young Japanese couples and even their parents, what they would find when they arrived at their favorite honeymoon destinations.

As Larry learned more about this new technology, he discovered that head mounted displays with remote sensors, together with high-performance head-trackers, had found all kinds of new applications. For example, on the same Saturday that he was taking his tour of London and the Japanese couples were previewing Honolulu, out in the Atlantic Ocean a remotely piloted undersea vessel was searching for a sunken submarine. The pilot of this remotely guided vessel was sitting in a surface ship several thousand feet above wearing a head-mounted display that also tracked head movement and provided a high-resolution 3-D picture as clear and sharp as he would be able to get by being there. In this case, being there would not have been a very pleasant experience, with the many-atmosphere high-pressure environment inside the deep undersea vessel.

In yet another part of the world, an active volcano was being explored with a robotic walker guided by an operator wearing a similar head-mounted display that gave her the same view as the robot was getting. Here again, the key was the wide field of stereoscopic vision, the full-color high-resolution display, and the ability to reproduce head and eye movements as well as could be done by being there. In spite of knowing the unpredictability of the situation, it took the operator several hours to recover emotionally from the sheer terror she felt when the volcano unexpectedly erupted and destroyed the robot observer she was guiding.

There are many other scenes like these for us to imagine and construct. They will generally be based on simulating a variety of learning experiences; previewing events that are too scary, too unknown, too uncomfortable, or too unaffordable to experience in person; exploring hazardous or non-survivable environments; exploring locations where a human being would be too big or too intrusive; engaging in detection and security activities – and the list grows longer and longer.

And we don’t want to forget ENTERTAINMENT. The possibilities here seem nearly limitless. Anything from remotely piloted model airplanes and rockets to real racecars to water-skiing and skydiving. And maybe even calmer activities such as concerts and tours of art galleries. In other words, anything that can (and sometimes cannot) be done by a real person can be recreated to be experiences by one or many people remotely.

If you are a regular peruser of this column, you already know that virtual reality has “arrived.” About a year ago (October ’93), I wrote that there is now a popular magazine with that title. Since then, all sorts of publications have picked up on “VR” and made it the popular new topic. However, a recent news article that warned of the health hazards of virtual reality equipment really clinched it! This article was describing problems such as the dangers of motion sickness and disorientation and asserted that the technology has moved too quickly without time to analyze its environmental and health aspects. It mentioned the “product liability” issues and how the manufacturers would soon realize that they could be sued for injuries resulting from disoriented people bumping into things, such as with their cars, after playing a VR game or having some other yet unspecified VR experience. THAT’S IT! With that kind of “endorsement” we can now say for sure that VR is here to stay.

(And that is the end of the excerpt from my 1994 column).

So what do you think? Is VR and AR “here to stay” this time around or will we have to wait another decade or two for this latest version of “reality” to arrive.

You may contact me directly from this site or by telephone at 425-898-9117.