This past December 11th saw the passing, at age 84, of an innovator of so-called “Virtual Reality,” Eric Mayorga Howlett. Mr. Howlett was a life-long inventor and entrepreneur in the area of optical and electronic engineering. His creation of the Large Expanse Extra Perspective or “LEEP” system was a dramatic development in optics, becoming popularly known as Virtual Reality – though in engineering circles, it was more commonly referred to as “Virtual Environment” – as it was essentially a computer-simulated environment. The term is attributed to polymath Jaron Lanier, co-founder of VPL Research – the first company to sell Virtual Reality goggles and gloves and a pioneer in 3-D computer graphics.
Howlett, who grew up in Miami, was a prodigy in mathematics and science. In 1944, during his senior year in high school, he was selected in the Westinghouse (Now Intel) Science Talent Search – one of only forty students in the country to be so chosen. As a recipient of this award, he had the opportunity to visit the White House, where he met the then First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Grumman Aircraft offered him a full scholarship to the university of his choice, whereupon he selected M.I.T. After a short time in the Navy, he achieved his physics degree. During the 1950s, he worked at M.I.T.’s Lincoln Laboratory and General Electric, where he specialized in early warning radar and other electrical systems for military application.
Development of the LEEP System
In the intervening years and contemporary with the launching of the LEEP device, Howlett had been working in high-quality photography equipment. He developed a wide-angle stereoscopic photography system consisting of a viewer and a matching camera to make pictures to view. A patent for it was issued in 1983. They had seventy early orders for it, but only completed twenty as manufacturing the cameras was too complex for Howlett’s bare-bones staff. Howlett knew that he couldn’t raise the $100 million corporations such as Kodak and Polaroid would spend, and he tried to interest each of them in his technology. Both rather unceremoniously declined.
After the ill-fated Polaroid presentation, Howlett began to compare himself to Chester Carlson, who at the time was likewise trying to get companies (and investors) excited about his new invention, xerography:
“After Polaroid I was comparing myself to Chester Carlson as he trekked around the country trying to interest people in some cockamamie thing called “xerography” that his company, “Haloid” or “Haloid Xerox” was developing.”
However, NASA expressed an interest in the viewers that accompanied the cameras. One of their engineers came by Howlett’s offices in Waltham, Mass. (at the old Waltham Watch factory) and was impressed with the quality of the images and immediately placed an order, after which NASA became one of Howlett’s best customers. These units were to become the NASA VIVED (Virtual Visual Environment Display). Howlett was also able to sell similar units to Disney – though they were never widely produced. The prices for the the devices based on their features ranged between $840 and $3,500. The engineer also told Howlett that they should supply their competitor, Lanier’s VPL Research (who NASA also had a contract with), with the viewers, because VPL had a contract to build devices for NASA’s VIEWS (Virtual Interface Environment Work Station) project. When Howlett found out that NASA was having these units built at their competitor, he called NASA and was told that they would pay $10,000 at least per unit of a head-mounted virtual reality system. This precipitated the development of Howlett’s “Cyberface” system.
The Cyberface system went through a series of updates, which variously improved the quality of the pictures, and the ease of its use and portability. With the advent of LEEP Cyberface, Eric Howlett became the first to offer a commercial head-mounted display. As it was developed through the Cyberface2 and Cyberface3 models, resolution of images continued to improve, and the entire system was made for the wearer to move more efficiently, and, ultimately, to make the experience more and more realistic.
Cyberface4 and Virtual Orbiter
Created in 1996, the fourth incarnation of the Cyberface system, the Virtual Orbiter, convincingly delivered the effect of floating through space as an untethered spacewalker. Cyberface4 forms the nucleus of this device, which offered still higher resolution than its predecessor, the Cyberface3.
The Virtual Orbiter was conceived as a standalone, Virtual Reality experience. Its display was supported on one’s arm, permitting the user to look freely in every direction in their virtual environment. The Virtual Orbiter initially revealed the Earth as it appeared from 20,000 miles above, moving to within 200 miles, then back, allowing the “space walker” to acquire a virtually unique perspective – a vantage point previously available only to space travelers.
As a bittersweet coda to this tale, Eric Howlett, though seeing the significant benefits of his innovations, never fully realized the rewards of his work. He had lost his home in an effort to finance his dreams; but remained undaunted to the last that what he was doing was both important and ahead of its time. With his passing, his son Alex (likewise a talented electronics engineer) is trying to now market LEEP to the gaming community – fertile ground for such advanced, realistic technology. Though it remains to be seen if he will ultimately be successful, there is no question that his father’s research advanced both the argument for, and the technology of Virtual Reality, to the betterment and enjoyment of society.
“Toiling in the basement of his Newton home in the 1980s, virtual reality pioneer Eric M. Howlett solved a key problem in the quest to experience far-flung and potentially dangerous places without ever leaving a comfortable chair.”