As mandatory quarantine locks the world at home, billions of people’s real lives have transformed into virtual ones on the Internet. More than ever before, humanity searches for connection within virtual worlds.
I’ve written about the social impact of virtual reality before, but this technology is especially significant during these times.
I interviewed Dr. Thomas A. Furness III, known as the “Grandfather of VR” and Founder of the Virtual World Society, to find out how this nonprofit is sparking positive social change with VR.
What is the Virtual World Society and what is its mission?
Virtual reality is a member of the family of immersive computing technologies. It is a transportation system for human senses that can put the user into computer-generated three-dimensional places that can appear and act like a real world. However, the nature of virtual worlds is boundless and only limited by the imagination.
In a virtual world you can walk at the speed of light, shrink yourself to one millimeter in height or make your interpupillary distance equal to one light year. The Virtual World Society is a non-profit charity dedicated to guiding the use of advanced media technology such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence to enrich and lift humanity.
I like to think of the Virtual World Society as the Peace Corps of VR, the National Geographic Society of VR, the Public Broadcasting Company of VR and most importantly the heart and conscience of this amazing new tool of our age. It is interesting that the National Geographic Society works with humans from the outside in, whereas the Virtual World Society works with human from the inside out.
Why did you start VWS?
I have worked on inventing immersive computing technology including virtual and augmented reality for 54 years. During this time I have seen the incredible power virtual interfaces can unleash in getting bandwidth to and from the brain that unlocks, links and heals minds and bodies.
Even in the ’60s when I was working as an engineering officer for the UASF, it was obvious that we were creating a new portal to awaken spatial memory and enhance other cognitive processes. But just like splitting the atom, we must respect the power that VR unleashes as it can empower us or hurt us (from the inside out).
Given this duality, I wanted to emphasize the positive side of VR to show that this incredible technology can give us unprecedented and boundless experiences that can educate us, heal us and lift us. So my motivation was to bring together like-minded people to emphasize the good that immersive
Are there any special projects, announcements, or other information that would be useful for readers to know about?
I started the first Virtual World Society in 1994 but it was way too soon. At that time VR technology was clunky, expensive and few people even knew about the whole idea of virtual worlds. I restarted the Society in 2017 as new VR consumer technology became available. Since that new beginning we have been keen to show people the engaging power of virtual reality for education with the goal of making learning fun.
Two years ago we started a project at the Robert Eagle Staff Middle School in Seattle to explore how 6th graders can build virtual world content to teach STEM subjects to other middle school students. Starting as an after-school program, the success of the project has led to an in-class elective for STEM students that is a model for school districts in the USA and abroad.
Recently we have formed a partnership with the Make-a-Wish Foundation to provide uplifting experiences to critically ill children. In many cases these children are so sick that they are unable to leave the hospital, but through the use of VR they can be immersed in vibrant three dimensional interactive virtual world and be transported anywhere in the world to visit family and friends, go on adventures together, and become super heroes all from the confines of their hospital rooms.
The Learning Living Room is another upcoming project consisting of 100 field laboratories in homes around the world to explore how families can use VR to strengthen each other while working with other networked families to solve pervasive problems in the world. The concept is that Learning Living Rooms transport the minds of users into three-dimensional virtual places where they can visit, work, learn and play naturally.
These experiences are transformational and fun, giving the virtual traveler the sense of ‘being there’, thereby unlocking spatial memory and increasing retention for improved hands-on educational outcomes. These places have no boundaries and are a masterful blending of immersive media so family members can explore and go on expeditions together, solving problems and learning as they go.
As we interconnect all the Learning Living Room families, each family can interact and share experiences with 100s of other LLR families. One emphasis of the Learning Living Room is a focus on the health and well-being of each family member given the dynamics of living in today’s world and how families working together can solve the pervasive problems of our age.
There are many other exciting projects in our portfolio that help refugees, people with dementia, hackathons in Africa and other parts of the world, helping young people trapped in impoverished regions of the USA and a project to build bridges between historically separated Latino and African-American communities using the arts, green spaces and augmented reality experiences.
How can young people get involved?
The best way for young people to get involved is to join kindred spirits in the Virtual World Society for free. Just go to the Society website: virtualworldsociety.org, sign up as a member, then show interest in joining a project, or better yet, propose a project.
The Society has a newsletter and biweekly Fireside Chats that can be attended in a 3D virtual world or via a desktop or laptop computer. The Society is planning a worldwide conference in virtual space in October of this year. This is a great way to get to know other people who share the same values and interests in immersive computing technology for the good of mankind. Members can also apply to become ambassadors of the Virtual World Society.
What impact do you hope to have on the world?
Virtual Reality is the most powerful medium for education and training that we have ever had, and a means to heal and transform us. With the help with like-minded members of the Virtual World Society, I want us to harness the power of this new medium and use it for making a better reality for everyone.
Is there anything else I haven’t asked about that you would like readers to know?
The Nextant Prize. The “Nextant” is a term we use in the Virtual World Society to describe a new way to navigate into our future. It combines the desire to know what’s “next” with a navigation tool — the sextant — used by mariners to look toward the horizon to guide their course.
VWS Nextant Prizes are awarded annually to persons whom others can turn to for inspiration, guidance and role modeling, and who have exhibited an empathetic passion for building the best future reality that is possible for our civilization. The Nextant Prize honors extraordinary contribution to the development of virtual reality and related technology to lift humanity.
We like to think of the NEXTANT Prize as the Nobel Prize of VR. Let’s not forget that you, Rylan Daniels, was the 2019 recipient of the NEXTANT Spirit Prize that honors the fearless spirit of a young person to think big, yet start small, but act now to take on challenges that face the world. Congratulations Rylan.
I am proud to be part of the Virtual World Society’s mission to lift humanity and inspire others with VR and AR. It is an honor to know you.