A Challenge to Virtual Reality by A. Michael Noll

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A Challenge to Virtual Reality

A. Michael Noll

September 26, 2016

© 2016 AMN

Is today’s virtual reality little more than real fantasy?

Back in the 1960s, Maurice Constant of the National Film board of Canada visited Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. I was in the audience listening to him challenge us to make a system that would allow a designer to actually mold with their hands a virtual clay that existed only in the computer – seeing and feeling simultaneously in 3D. I was challenged by this vision, and subsequently designed and built an interactive 3D stereoscopic system that offered tactile feeling through force feedback, along with a stereoscopic display. This project started in the late 1960s and was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. I now challenge today’s haptic and virtual reality communities to create the technology to implement Maurice’s vision.

My research was completed in 1971 and resulted in a US patent[1] and also a published paper[2]. The system I invented had 3D force feedback, in which virtual objects had actual weight, in addition to feel. There also was simultaneous stereoscopic real-time display. The next step in my research would have been a 3D head-mounted display to superimpose the computer-generated 3D imagery on reality with half-silvered mirrors, and some sort of finger feel. However, my career changed direction, as I accepted an assignment on the staff of the President’s Science Advisor, and I did not continue this research.

One application for my 3D “feelie” that I proposed was to facilitate tactile telecommunication. I suggested that a person could feel cloth, or other objects, over distances – in effect, a “touch” telephone.

It is perplexing that with the advances in technology that have occurred since the early 1970s that what is today called “virtual reality” and “haptic” seem behind our vision back then. I therefore issue my challenge to today’s community to create what was envisioned decades ago. Otherwise, much of today’s virtual reality indeed is little more than real fantasy.

[1] Noll, A. Michael, “Tactile man-machine communication system,” US Patent 3,919,691, filed May 26, 1971. http://www.google.com/patents/US3919691

[2] Noll, A. Michael, “Man-Machine Tactile Communication,” SID Journal (The Official Journal of the Society for Information Display), Vol. 1, No. 2, (July/August 1972), pp. 5-11.

A. Michael Noll

A. Michael Noll

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‘3D Yet Again’ by A. Michael Noll

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‘3D Yet Again’

A. Michael Noll

November 26, 2015

© 2015 AMN

Stereoscopic 3D has always created a strong fascination with its feelings of depth and realism. Today it has morphed into the hype of something called “holographic enhanced virtual reality.”

As a child, I had both a Tru-View stereoscope that used 35mm filmstrips and also a View-Master™ stereoscope that used small images on disks. They both presented separate pictures for the left and right eyes that created the feeling of stereoscopic depth.

While employed at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey during the1960s, I programmed the computer there to create stereoscopic pairs of random shapes, a form of virtual sculpture. I used various stereoscopes to view the 3D pairs, such as the cardboard viewer shown in the Figure. I also made computer-animated stereoscopic movies, such as a computer-generated ballet, random kinetic objects, and four-dimensional hyper objects. [Noll, A. Michael, Computer-Generated Three-Dimensional Movies,” Computers and Automation, Vol. 14, No. 11, (November 1965), pp. 20-23.] The 3D movie of the 4D hypercube can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXYXuHVTS_k Simple cross-eyed viewing will give the 3D effect without the need for any viewing device, although some practice is required. We who did research on 3D learned how to relax or cross our eyes to see 3D pairs without the use of any viewing device.

Decades ago, it was suggested to use half-silvered mirrors so that the computer-generated imagery could be superimposed on reality. When the head moved, the computer-generated images would be suitably changed so that virtual shapes and objects would be seen in real settings. It was even suggested back then to couple this 3D imagery with tactile sensation so that virtual objects could be seen and felt in real settings. [Noll, A. Michael, “Man-Machine Tactile Communication,” SID Journal (The Official Journal of the Society for Information Display), Vol. 1, No. 2, (July/August 1972), pp. 5-11.] Prototypes were invented and built, but applications were not clear – and the technology was massive and complex.

Google is promoting its 3D viewer – called Google Cardboard. It has two lenses to view separate stereoscopic images on a smart phone. It is little more than the Tru-View, 3D Mail-O-Vue, and View-Master of the distant past.

The term “holographic” is even being used to describe today’s 3D imagery. But the images are not holograms at all – they are just simple 3D stereographic images and technology from decades ago.

Some “new” devices present separate images to each eye from two small screens mounted in some form of viewer that is attached to one’s head. But even this is not new, and such technology was used in the 1960s for helicopter pilots to see the ground under them. [Upton, H. W., “Head-mounted displays in helicopter operations,” USAECOM-AAA-ION Technical Symposium on Navigation and Positioning, Fort Monmouth NJ, September 1969.] The use of such head-mounted displays was also used for computer graphic display. What is “new” today is the ultra-miniaturization of the technology, along with motion and position sensors, and vast computing power that was unimaginable decades ago. But what applications of all this 3D technology will excite consumers?

Stereo Mail-O-Vue

Figure. Photo of Stereo Mail-O-Vue viewer. This cardboard foldable 3D viewer was used for seeing 3D stereoscopic images on a 35mm filmstrip. [Photo courtesy of A. Michael Noll.]

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