A lifetime of inventing transformative technology

Interview with Prof. Tom Furness ‘grandfather of VR’

He is a Professor in the University of Washington Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering, and the founder of the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington and its sister labs at the University of Canterbury and University of Tasmania.

The ‘grandfather of VR,’ Tom Furness is now using technology to link minds globally.

There are a lot of people who – with varying degrees of success – try to predict the future. LUMO Labs Scientific and Industry Advisory Board member Tom Furness has actually been inventing the virtual future since the 1960s when computers had tubes and the term “virtual reality” was just entering the tech vocabulary.

Known as “the grandfather of virtual reality” for decades of creating the interfaces connecting humans with machines, Furness is a professor, researcher and inventor at the University of Washington. He’s also founder of the Human Interface Technology Lab at UW in the tech center of Seattle.

He solved technical issues that require massive amounts of computing power today with the most rudimentary early processors as he digitized fighter plane cockpits as a young Air Force officer. Later, Tom dedicated his talents and extraordinary vision shifting paradigms only to peace, which is why he’s dedicated to LUMO Labs and its ethos.

“I’m certainly a promoter of LUMO labs,” Tom says. There’s nothing wrong with industry, he adds, and the world needs the new technologies and capabilities that come along. “But we need to do it in a in a human, humane way where we’re not exploiting. In the end, that’s what wins,” he says.

“LUMO Labs is so wonderful in that there’s this sense of social responsibility and doing things for good. We need to build a nurturing environment for these (peaceful) teams.”

But it was in the United States Air Force that he began the research that revolutionized how pilots experienced their environments and – in the process – created the modern concepts of virtual reality and virtually enhanced reality.

Tom was an officer in the 1960s with a degree in engineering and the chutzpah to convince his chain of command that he could solve the problem of pilots in the cockpits. Those pilots were overwhelmed with information “when you have, you know, 75 displays and 300 switches and 11 switches on the control stick and nine switches on the throttle,” he says. “You’re pulling Gs and you’re flying twice the speed sound.

“It was clear we needed a paradigm shift. And the paradigm shift had to come from getting away from this notion that you had to have physical instruments in the cockpit.”

At first, Tom thought the solution was to physically expand the cockpit of the plane. But that would only add to the chaos … and huge costs. So, it became about creating a “super cockpit,” a virtual world with critical information in front of the pilot’s eyes via the magic of revolutionary new displays.

His R&D “pretty much laid the foundation for what we know today is virtual reality and augmented reality,” Tom says.

The first time someone tried his technology – from the early primitive headsets to what he calls his advanced “Darth Vader helmets,” it completely changed how they thought about information presentation in the cockpit. “They were never the same.” Tom’s approach was ultimately applied in the Space Shuttle.

In the military role, he was altruistic, thinking of himself as “a warrior” doing his best to protect his country. “But still, I was building weapons systems, you know, that would hurt people.”

An interview on the CBS Evening News changed his trajectory after people started calling from around the U.S. asking if he could adapt his virtual creativity to their real-world problems.

“They’d say, ‘Hey, I saw that program on television. I’m wondering, can you do anything with that technology?’ A mother called me and said, ‘My child has cerebral palsy. Is there anything you can do with that technology to help my child?’ ”

A thoracic surgeon told Tom he was inside this patient, “up to my elbows, trying to do a graft on an aorta. And I’m just feeling my way around …” Could he create a 360-degree internal view? the doctor asked. “You know, I hadn’t thought about those kinds of things.”

After a year sabbatical, Tom returned as an advocate for transferring military-developed tech to the public sector – after all, taxpayers had financed millions in research – and completely revolutionizing multiple sectors including education, training and design.

If you’re wondering when all this advanced technology enters the consumer world, it already has, Tom says.

Fast-forward to gamers adopting VR headsets. Don’t tell them, but they were using technology Tom developed years before including 3D stereoscopy, wireless connections and 270-degree field-of-view.

“When (Oculus VR founder) Palmer Luckey did his thing, that’s old stuff,” Tom says. “We’d done that 20 years before, but it was rediscovered.” To his credit, Luckey also revealed latent marketplace demand for VR, building from a Kickstarter raise of $35,000 to Facebook buying Oculus 24 months later for $2 billion.

After leaving the Air Force, Tom set out to take his ideas to a VR research center and ended up at the University of Washington at a lab set up to promote entrepreneurship.

The lab is supported by some of the most successful companies in the world including Boeing, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.

In his 31 years at the multidisciplinary lab, with talent not just from engineering but from professional services and liberal arts, he’s spun off 27 companies, several of which have become publicly traded companies with an aggregate market cap of about $12 billion.

What’s next?

Tom wants to create “a super-cockpit for the mind.” The goal is to unlock intelligence and link minds globally.

But the tools we have today aren’t up to this ambitious expansion of global interconnection. He wants to see the relationship between the computer and human mind become a symbiotic relationship. He calls it, “intelligence amplification.” The great thing is humans already are wired through their skin and eyes to interact in ways they’ve never dreamed of. “We have more power than we think.”

Stay tuned … the best is yet to come.