Who popularized the term 'virtual reality'?

Jaron Lanier performs at a concert in 2009
Who's this guy? Find out on the next page! See more virtual reality pictures.
Allan J. Cronin/Wikimedia Commons

Though the idea still seems futuristic and far-fetched, virtual reality is hardly new.

Some think that French playwright Antonin Artaud was the first to use the term "virtual reality." In his 1938 book "The Theater and Its Double," Artaud speaks of the theater as "la réalite virtuelle:" a reality that is both illusory and purely fictitious [source: Artaud]. Then, in the 1950s, inventor Morton Helig sought to blur the lines between illusion and reality with a device he called a Sensorama. His prototype, which never went into production, featured a single-seat projection booth that used wide-angle 3D images, stereo sound, realistic smells, a moving seat and sensations like wind to give viewers the sense that they were, for instance, riding a motorcycle.


Since then, the line between reality and virtual reality has grown steadily thinner. Though the Na'vi-human avatars of 2009's "Avatar" and the holodeck of 1987's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" remain, for now, in the realm of fantasy, plenty of professionals are applying virtual-reality technology to real-world problems every day. Doctors now use virtual reality to learn how to operate laparoscopic surgical instruments. The military employs virtual reality to simulate war games and train soldiers. Kids regularly use game systems like Wii and Xbox Kinect to play virtual-reality games. NASA is using virtual reality to control its Mars rover, Curiosity. And Internet superpower Google is expected to begin releasing "Google Goggles," an augmented-reality device, as early as late 2012.

Over the years, various terms, from "somatic cognition" to "augmented reality", have been coined to describe emerging virtual-reality technologies. Yet "virtual reality" (VR) is the moniker that seems to have stuck. Which Time Magazine 100-Most-Influential-People honoree, arcane instrument collector, musician, composer, author, thinker and dreadlocked Jew popularized the term "virtual reality" -- and could he really be the most interesting man in the world? Find out next!


Jaron Lanier, Renaissance Man and Big Thinker

While no one will ever be able to prove definitively that Jaron Lanier is the most interesting man in the world, this modern-day Renaissance man would be a top contender on almost any list. In fact, in 2010, Time Magazine named him one of the year's 100 most influential people thanks to his groundbreaking work in the field of virtual reality, as well as the questions he raised in his book "You Are Not a Gadget."

Before he became one of the world's most influential people, however, Lanier was just a precocious Jewish kid in New Mexico State's math department. He believed that mathematical language was simple and beautiful and that there had to be a less complicated way to express it. He set out to develop a visual computer programming language that could make math more accessible. There was just one problem: Computer screens weren't big enough to display the visualizations he pictured in his head. So in the 1980s, he and his friends developed a virtual-reality headpiece and glove that allowed Lanier to manipulate virtual objects in cyberspace.


Lanier thought his new programming language would interest people, but it was his cyber glove that ended up really exciting investors. He started marketing the glove as a "virtual reality" device, and, quite unintentionally, provided an entire emerging market with a media-ready catchphrase. Lanier, with his bright blue eyes and long, brown dreadlocks, became virtual reality's first cult hero.

Today, the 51-year-old Lanier remains as provocative as ever. In his 2010 book "You Are Not a Gadget" and in subsequent interviews with intellectual communities like Edge.org, Lanier raises interesting questions about the economics of the Internet. He claims that the vast quantity of duplicate and disorganized information on the Internet benefits corporations like Google while robbing content creators of the right to profit from their own intellectual property. Maybe "virtual robbery" will be Lanier's next sound byte!


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  • Artaud, Antonin. "The Theatre and Its Double." Grove Press. Jan. 7, 1994. (Aug. 17, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=bmf8CMzu3kIC&dq=inauthor%3A%22Antonin+Artaud%22&q=virtual+reality#v=snippet&q=virtual%20reality&f=false
  • Bilton, Nick. "Behind the Google Goggles, Virtual Reality." The New York Times. Feb. 22, 2012. (Aug. 17, 2012). http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/23/technology/google-glasses-will-be-powered-by-android.html
  • Brokman, John. "The Local-Global Flip, or, 'The Lanier Effect." The Edge. Aug. 29, 2011. (Aug. 17, 2012) http://edge.org/conversation/the-local-global-flip
  • Lanier, Jaron. "On the Threshold of the Avatar Era." The Wall Street Journal. Oct. 23, 2010. (Aug. 17, 2012). http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303738504575568410584865010.html
  • Savage, Emily. "Renaissance Man: Berkeley Resident is a Musician, a Web Guru and the Father of Virtual Reality." JWeekly.com. Oct. 21, 2010. (Aug. 17, 2012) http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/59622/renaissance-man-berkeley-resident-is-a-musician-a-web-guru-and-the-father-o/
  • Snider, Burr. "1.02 Jaron." Wired Magazine. February 1993. (Aug. 17, 2012). http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.02/jaron_pr.html