ISMAR closing notes – Tom Furness on what matters most (Keynote #3)

After quite some break, I want to take the time to share a few words on Tom Furness’ great talk on the last day of ISMAR 2014. It was not the closing remarks of ISMAR (it was the keynote on Friday morning), but it was definitely my most inspiring highlight and most emotionally captivating 90 minutes in this year’s AR space! The perfect talk to end the week. It’s hard to squeeze his words worthy in a blog, but I want to share an impression.


Tom Furness’ claim was “seeing anew” and while I was still wondering what he meant with that he already jumps into his past starting to explain. He went to a sketching workshop trying to improve his skills. Turns out that everybody basically knows how to draw (not that hard regarding the motoric needs for a human hand) but not how to see. Training the eyes and how to see things is the key factor to success and to enabling something new. Then the “easy part” can jump in and just do it (in this case just draw it after having understood the proportions and pieces)!

As a kid life was simple and fantastic. You could explore your dreams without restrictions and live into the day. Only later fear arises and you take less risks, influenced by too much knowledge (what could happen) and by what society might think of you. Real life got complicated. Following your dreams can become tricky with physical or other enforced restrictions. Tom turned towards the virtual reality work for the airforce after not being able to become a pilot up in the sky. So this on the other hand enabled his VR career and many VR people to profit from his work. Virtual life is not complicated at first. Virtuality has always been there, but inaccessible. You can have the imagination or a dream, but not being able to present this to outsiders. So, the first VR was actually done by artists and paintings so to speak.
Early steps included the Sensorama by Mort Heilig or early 3D Virtual Models and the The Sword of Damocles from Ivan Sutherland.

Sharpening the Sword

Mr. Furness jumps into the full history of VR in his military years and shows all kinds of HMD and HUD systems for pilots. Project on a helmet screen including tracking, see virtually through the airplane or even use a complete virtual cockpit setup (the super cockpit) to reach a memetic display. The complexity is the problem and often the hardware was not there yet. E.g. the “Darth Vader Simulator” HMD from 1981 already had a great immersive experience with 120° field of view and stereo, but was still way too bulky and non-convincing from rendering side. But a screen can already become a virtual place (if a big field of view is used)!

Swords into Plowshares

Mr. Furness reached the conclusion that he rather wanted to get the technology out of the military to transform and help lives: support medical services (surgery), help firefighters with additional info, etc. This fact actually resulted in the founding of the HITLab in 1989 and continued work on HMD/HUD setups and initial patents on VR/MR glasses, resulting in the first commercially available pairs. Still, the world was not quite ready yet: “Why would you want to watch football on the beach?” – “But you could do it now!” or the funny example of using HMDs to let kids relax during heavy dentist operations: kids would be going happily to the dentist not brushing their teeth properly to get to the VR device! The history lead through the years and typical VR hardware problems.

Imagination to Innovation

But to cut it short, the top question should truely be: what to use it for? “The medium is there… but what is the message?” The whole community of IT specialists and developers focuses too heavily on solving the hardware issues (screen size, weight, focal distance at infinity, etc.), but forgetting about the use cases that could really make a difference and enrich the world and the people’s life with technology. He quotes the image company Kodak: “you are not in the image business but in the transportation business!” This is so true for VR developers at the end of the day: we should be creating a system to allow an immersion that really gets us to some place convincingly!

We should more often ask “So what?” and “What can we do with it?” to really solve problems that matter, like with one example using VR with a snow world game for burn patients that actually gives a pain relief in the brain by 40-50%.
His big hope is that we can shift more teaching and learning into VR spaces where it makes sense and where it empowers the kids. Learning can and should be fun and a social activity to work. VR can support here if used correctly.
Ideally a non-profit community can push the use of VR for this and other scenarios, and the VirtualWorldSociety could be one contributor! Mr. Furness unfortunately seemed a bit disappointed with the progress of VR/MR systems since the 60s (I can relate why).

In the end all this technology is just a tool and the reason why we do things with it matters more. The content is the key for it and we should not pervert the usage of the cool creations (he seemed rather bothered by people wearing Google Glass – even though he played a big part in inventing these things!)…

The world is full with useless suffering (“war is dumb”) and a big waste of resources. Don’t be a grumpy technophile losing oneself in the technology as an end in itself! We should put way more effort in solving real problems and show more courage in our lives! Take some risks, work with the children and just be happy! Life is just way too short.



Well, to end the day you should browse through the offically uploaded videos from ISMAR organization. They put together a playlist of many papers or presented work. Enjoy!



Thanks to the whole ISMAR team and all contributors for bringing this great conference to Munich! See you in Fukuoka, Japan, 2015?


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