Are You Ready for a Virtual Reality?

November 2, 2001

Originally published July 28, 2000 at Published on November 2, 2001.

“Never work with kids or dogs” was WC Fields’ advice to fellow actors. But he forgot to mention amphibians! Kermit the Frog upstaged the keynote speaker at the opening keynote to Siggraph 2000 in New Orleans. Ray Kurzweil, renowned inventor and author of “The Age of Spiritual Machines” was preceded on the dais by a live presentation by America’s favorite “green guy” who walked and talked and charmed the audience in real time.

Kurzweil’s speech “The Human-Machine Merger: Why We will Spend Most of Our Time in Virtual Reality in the 21st Century,” was a stunner but the accompanying powerpoint slides were no match for the magic of the new Hollywood. Two Los Angeles-based firms–Performance Capture Studios and Jim Henson’s “Creature Shop”–created Kermit’s computer graphics’ performance.

Backstage after the event, the charismatic and iconoclastic Kurzweil turned to the “techies” and asked what they might do to project him into a virtual world like the ones he envisions most of us will have available to us in the next decade. The CEO and founder of Kurzweil Technologies, Inc. won the 1999 National Medal of Technology (the nation’s highest tech honor) and was named Inventor of the Year by MIT. He’s probably best known for his text-to-speech synthesis work, creation of the first OCD Flatbed Scanner and his controversial proclamation that machines will have the computational power of human beings and even exceed them by 2020.

We will enter a shared virtual visual and auditory environment where we are always plugged in and connected, he promises. Web sites will become fully immersive experiences for a few thousand best friends, he maintains. What was surprising is that all too often, we think of VR as only “made-up” mythical experiences and worlds. Kurzweil assures us that the VR worlds he envisions will enable “real-time” experiences such as education, work and not just play. After all, we’ve had a form of virtual reality for 100 years–and that’s been the telephone. Yes, when people first talked on that “machine” they were spellbound by how it was possible to be “virtually together” with another person miles away. Too often we think of virtual worlds where things are “not true,” he noted. Yet, we make real agreements with real people via phone today and have real experiences in real-time worldwide through the evolution of modern telephony.

“If you work on technologies, you need to anticipate where technologies are going,” Kurzweil says. And, of course, he reminded the audience that the only way to anticipate the future is to create it.