Going Where No Minds Have Gone Before

To get a feel for what is different about virtual reality, meet Jaron Lanier, chairman of VPL Research Inc. Dreadlocks crown his ample frame. His Sausalito (Calif.) studio -- he's an accomplished musician -- is filled with exotic instruments. On the door hangs his image emblazoned on a psychedelic poster. The poster is hot in Europe, where VR is tres trendy and Lanier is a cult figure, reflecting VPL's preeminent role among the startups that are pushing the technology's frontiers.

Lanier, 33, started VPL in his garage eight years ago with money he made from programming an Atari Corp. video game called Moondust. Fiddling with icons and graphics he hoped would make math easier led him to a more sweeping vision. Today, VPL sells hardware devices such as the Dataglove and Datasuit for navigating in virtual space, helmets that surround you with computer-generated worlds, and programming software that even children have used to create virtual environments -- kids, and a few other customers, such as Boeing, SRI International, Matsushita, and MCA.

THE `BOOM.' VR's big winners eventually should be heavyweights such as Intel, IBM, Apple, and Silicon Graphics -- the makers of graphics chips and computers. Alan Meckler, publisher of the newsletter The Virtual Reality Report, sees liftoff toward the end of this decade. But whoever cashes in will owe a debt to VPL and many other innovators. Crystal River Engineering in Groveland, Calif., is selling acoustical circuit boards that let programmers put 3-D sound -- say, the sound of a door opening and closing -- in a virtual space. Fake Space Labs has invented a stereoscopic viewing device called the "boom" -- as in boom microphone -- that lets a person move around a virtual space by looking through a viewfinder.

Lanier thinks medicine will be VR's "monster market," partly because of the need for better visualization of diagnostic scans. At a recent San Diego conference, surgeon-inventors mingled with science fiction writers, while Sony Corp. marketers pitched high-definition-television screens. The other products discussed ranged from systems for doing remote surgery to 3-D data bases for analyzing casualty data in a war.

The core of such markets will be software, says Robert Jacobson, founder of WorlDesign in Seattle. StereoCad in Sunnyvale, Calif., and Virtus in Cary, N. C., specialize in architectural and engineering design programs. BioCad in Mountain View, Calif., sells "virtual chemistry" software that lets scientists create 3-D, interactive models of molecules and other chemical structures. Engineering Animation Inc. in Ames, Iowa, makes 3-D graphics and animation programs that recreate accident scenes for use in court. Both Sense8 and VPL sell "tool-kit" programs for VR software programmers. But they may not rule the market for long. Autodesk Inc. in Sausalito, which has 700,000 customers for its computer-aided-design software, could have an edge when it comes out soon with its own tool-kit program.

BETTER ENTREE. Such competition has begun to alarm Lanier, a major VPL shareholder. In May, he named a new chief executive: ex-Hewlett-Packard Co. executive Walt Fischer. As white collar as Lanier is not, Fischer may have better entree to corporate customers. This could be crucial for VPL's plan to become a systems integrator, selling packaged solutions -- not just components. "We've sold millions of dollars' worth of hobby stuff," says Lanier. "The transition now is into a real company."

Whether VPL and the other VR upstarts will prosper is impossible to predict. But even if they do not,pioneers such as Lanier are trailblazing a technology that is likely to benefit every industry that relies on computing.

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