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 and also a published paper. 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.
 Noll, A. Michael, “Tactile man-machine communication system,” US Patent 3,919,691, filed May 26, 1971. http://www.google.com/patents/US3919691
 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.
Michael Noll has been teaching and conducting research on communication and technology since the early 1980s, most recently as a Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at USC. Prior to joining Annenberg, he was an engineer at Bell Labs in its heyday, from 1961-1971. At Bell Labs, Michael pioneered in such areas as digital art, three-dimensional displays, and tactile communication, and video communication. Michael as drafted in to design the prototype of video conferencing used in Stanley Kubrick classic film, 2001 Space Odyssey. Professor Noll has been supporting the Quello Center, such as through his blogs on technology and policy, and also drafting a book that reflects on his experience at the center of innovation in communication technology before the locus of innovation shifted to Silicon Valley. While so much has been written about the culture of Silicon Valley, relatively little has been written about Bell Labs. Professor Noll’s book helps rectify this imbalance. Written in a clear and accessible style, Michael blends personal anecdotes and engineering insights into an informative and engaging history of this center, illuminating the dynamics of a culture that fostered innovative people and ideas used round the world.
− Bill Dutton, Director of the Quello Center
Memories: A Personal History of Bell Telephone Laboratories
by A. Michael Noll
This manuscript tells the story of Bell Labs, concentrating mostly on the 1960s, from the personal perspective of the author who actually was employed at its Murray Hill laboratory as an engineer and researcher. Bell Labs continued the tradition of Thomas Alva Edison’s invention factory and had an environment that today is associated with Silicon Valley. The buildings, various locations, amenities, and most important—the people—are described to give a sense of what it was like to be at Bell Labs and why so many wanted to work there and contribute to its many inventions and discoveries.
Biographical Sketch: A. MICHAEL NOLL is professor emeritus at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. During most of the 1960s, he was employed as a Member of Technical Staff at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ, and recently worked on the papers of Dr. William O. Baker, who was vice president of research during what many consider the “golden years” of Bell Labs. He brings this personal knowledge and perspective to this manuscript.
This manuscript is a work in progress, distributed as a working paper of the Quello Center at Michigan State University for educational use. The author welcomes comments and questions on this site as he moves this toward publication.
The manuscript can be downloaded here: Memories-Noll.