The year is 1968, and 2001: A Space Odyssey has just premiered in Washington DC, offering viewers a rare and absorbing glimpse of a hypothetical future filled with technological marvels.
Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction epic has since become one of the most celebrated films of all time, due in large part to its realistic portrayal of many innovative devices that took decades to become reality.
Meanwhile, an American computer scientist and University of Utah professor is busy working on a ground-breaking innovation of his own, just as ahead of its time as the portable tablets and voice controlled systems utilised by Dr. David Bowman and co.
Ivan Sutherland, alongside his student Bob Sproull, has just completed work on The Sword of Damocles – the first ever augmented virtual reality headset.
The technology was primitive, to say the least. Designed to help helicopter pilots to land at night by automatically moving low-light cameras in synchronisation with their head movement, it was capable of tracking the user’s eyes and head position. However the Sword of Damocles was not fully immersive; the headset contained transparent parts that users could see through to the reality of the world beyond.
Furthermore, the Sword of Damocles was so heavy that a single man could not support it under his own strength. Instead, the device was suspended from the ceiling by an adjustable pole – hence why it was named after a mythical Greek weapon that hung suspended above the king’s throne.
All that aside, there’s no doubt that Mr Sutherland’s innovation was an incredible feat of scientific innovation and technical engineering. It paved the way for future devices such as the Oculus Rift, which is now considered to be at the forefront of virtual reality technology.
As for Sutherland himself, he went on to build a distinguished career in graphics and computer science. In 1988, he was awarded the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery for inventing one of the earliest graphical user interfaces, and in 2012 the then 74-year-old won the Kyoto Prize for Advanced Technology.
The rapid rise in wearable augmented and virtual reality displays like Google Glass and Oculus Rift has shone new light on the Sword of Damocles and the fascinating work of Sutherland and Sproull. There’s no denying that both men will go down in history as fathers of modern virtual reality and true pioneers in the field of simulation technology.