First Mention: Computer Scientists Develop 'Virtual Reality' Our First Mention feature finds the phrase "virtual reality" on All Things Considered on Aug. 8, 1989.

First Mention: Computer Scientists Develop 'Virtual Reality'

First Mention: Computer Scientists Develop 'Virtual Reality'

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Our First Mention feature finds the phrase "virtual reality" on All Things Considered on Aug. 8, 1989.


Virtual reality headsets have finally hit the consumer market. We wondered when that phrase - virtual reality - first showed up on NPR. It's the perfect candidate for our series...




This is when we try to track down in our archives the first time a person or concept was heard on our air. Now, the search for virtual reality took us to August 8, 1989. That's when our co-host Robert Siegel introduced a story this way.


ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: What science fiction writers have dreamt of for decades, scientists now say is possible, to simulate reality to create with the aid of a computer a lifelike world of the imagination, a place not bound by physical laws or reason. Computer scientists call the concept virtual or artificial reality.

SHAPIRO: He was introducing a piece by WBUR reporter David Baron on a new virtual reality computer system and the man behind that technology.


DAVID BARON, BYLINE: One of the greatest proponents of virtual reality is 29-year-old Jaron Lanier. Lanier holds no bachelor's degree or high school diploma, yet some call him a visionary.

CORNISH: Now four years earlier, according to Baron, Lanier had started VPL Research, a California company that builds virtual reality systems. Here's Lanier describing it.


JARON LANIER: It's basically this new kind of reality. It feels as real as the physical world, but you can change it and you can make it anything you like.

SHAPIRO: The reporter David Baron found it took more than just a computer to create this virtual world.


BARON: Making it appear real to people requires special equipment. Most importantly a device Lanier calls an EyePhone.

SHAPIRO: That's an E-Y-E - EyePhone, oversized goggles with two miniature video monitors inside that produce 3-D images.


LANIER: What happens is as you move your head, the images that you see create this illusion that you're moving around inside an imaginary world that's really there, and the illusion is completely compelling.

CORNISH: Lanier's VR system also included a data glove. The glove allowed users to move objects in the virtual environment. But there were problems with what Lanier said the system could do. Baron tried it out and reported that the images were blurry and cartoonlike. He also found a noticeable delay between when he turned his head and when the image turned before his eyes. Also people were advised to stop the experience after 45 minutes. David Baron couldn't even take it that long.


BARON: After about 15 minutes, I'm feeling disoriented and a tinge queasy. This condition sometimes called simulator sickness.

SHAPIRO: Back in 1989, there was another big issue with virtual reality, the cost. The whole rig - headset, computer - it ran a whopping $250,000. Jaron Lanier's venture into the business of virtual reality did not take off. His company filed for bankruptcy the following year in 1990. But Lanier has continued pushing the bounds of science and technology, and in 2010 Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

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