NASA Virtual Environment Workstation

The Virtual Environment Workstation was an early virtual reality system, developed in the mid-1980's at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.  The software for the first prototype of the system was developed by Warren Robinett, working in collaboration with NASA scientists Scott S. Fisher and Michael McGreevy.

The first virtual-reality system, built by Ivan Sutherland in the late 1960's, was quite expensive and contained many custom-built components, and even so, could display only a very simplistic virtual world.  The availability in the mid-1980's of small, cheap LCD televisions and more powerful computer graphics machines from Silicon Graphics Inc. made it possible to create a more capable VR system.  The first prototype of the NASA Virtual Environment Workstation was built from a motorcycle helmet, Watchman LCD displays, wide-angle stereoscopic optics, and a Polhemus magnetic head-position tracker.

The Virtual Environment Workstation incorporated the first dataglove used in virtual reality.  The glove measured the bending angles of the finger joints and also included a tracker to measure the hand's position and orientation.  Thus, the user's gloved hand could interact with the virtual world -- grasping virtual objects, or using hand gestures as commands.  A favorite gesture was pointing with the index finger to fly through the virtual world in the direction pointed.  Other hand gestures were used to scale the surrounding virtual world up or down.  These interaction techniques using the glove were conceived and implemented by Robinett.


Fisher, Scott S., James Humphries, Michael McGreevy, Warren Robinett, "The Virtual Environment Display System," 1986 ACM Workshop on Interactive 3D Graphics.

Foley, James D., 'Interfaces for Advanced Computing" (cover story), Scientific American magazine, October 1987.