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Remembering VR Innovator Randy Pausch

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Something about the book drew me in.

While perusing the local second hand bookstore I noticed several copies of a small, squarish book with frayed pages stuffed between yet another “For Dummies” book and a nameless textbook.  Intrigued, I pulled a copy off of the shelf and the title immediately rung a bell.

“The Last Lecture,” by Randy Pausch.

All that I could recall was that the book was based off of the lecture that the author gave in his dying years.  Seeming like a short read, I figured why not and brought it home with me.  Little did I know that I was about to be introduced to a leading figure in virtual reality research during the 90’s.

Carnegie Mellon University’s “Last Lecture” series was intended as a hypothetical situation in which professors were to provide any wisdom that they want passed on in case this actually were their last lecture.  For Randy Pausch, who a month earlier had been told he had 3 to 6 months to live due to pancreatic cancer, the hypothetical became literal.

Given in front of an overflowing theater in September 2007, Pausch’s, “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”  was his upbeat take on how he was able to achieve every one of his childhood dreams and how you easily can too.  Listed below, each of his dreams was achieved through his repeated insistence on, “brick walls are there for a reason: they let us prove how badly we want things.”

  • Being in zero gravity
  • Playing in the NFL
  • Authoring an article in the World Book Encyclopedia
  • Being Captain Kirk
  • Winning stuffed animals
  • Being a Disney Imagineer

On his road to achieving all of these dreams, Pausch received his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Brown University and then his Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon.  What he didn’t reveal until his last lecture was that both of these institutions initially turned him down.  His professional career followed with stints as an associate professor in Computer Science at the University of Virginia and in Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Mellon University.  It was during these stints that four of these dreams were achieved directly through virtual reality.

Authoring an article in the World Book Encyclopedia
Pausch titled Chapter 8 of his book, “You Can Find Me Under ‘V’.”  All of the research that he had done throughout his time as a student and professor qualified him for a call from the World Book HQ to submit his very own definition of virtual reality.

Being in zero gravity
Being a full time associate professor there wasn’t much time to be an astronaut.  Fortunately, NASA held a competition in which student teams could submit proposals to conduct research on their “vomit comet,” a plane that provided about 25 seconds of weightlessness by flying parabolic arcs.  Pausch and some of his computer science students submitted a proposal to test the perceptions of VR while in zero g’s since our inner ear relies so much on gravity.  Winning the competition, the team prepped for their flight when Pausch received the crushing news that faculty were not allowed to fly with the students (Brick wall alert!).  Looking into the fine print, he discovered that each student was allowed to bring a journalist from their home town to document the journey.  Along with the promise to bring enough VR headsets for all of the other student teams to demo, dream number one was successfully fulfilled.

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Being Captain Kirk
Captain Kirk was the epitome of leadership so Randy’s aspirations are warranted.  William Shatner, who played Kirk during an era of the Star Trek series later went on to co author a book on the science of Star Trek and what had come true.  Randy Pausch, being a lead VR researcher of the time was more than welcome to invite Shatner and his team to his lab to try his technology.  For the occasion, Pausch’s team built a virtual flight deck that looked not too far off from the Ubisoft experience recently made for the VR.

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So maybe he didn’t get to directly be Captain Kirk, but in his own words. “It’s really cool to meet your boyhood idol, but it’s even cooler when he comes to you to see what cool stuff you’re doing in your lab.

Being a Disney Imagineer
Being a top VR researcher, Pausch’s final childhood dream was achieved when Disney Imagineering reached out to him with plans of creating a virtual reality experience for the parks. Their collaboration resulted in the Aladdin VR experience that allowed park goers to virtually take a magic carpet ride. The full experience was achieved by combining motorcycle type chairs and handlebars with a VR headset. The chair and handlebars were used to steer the magic carpet through the experience as well as give the wearer a sense of actually riding something. Pausch was particularly proud of the headset, which was a one size fits all system that had separate insertable caps to allow for different sized heads. For the 90’s this was extremely innovative.

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The success of the project would lead to a full time offer from Imagineering but Randy, knowing his heart was in education, turned it down but continued to consult with the team for years to come.  Projects he consulted on included Disney Quest Virtual Jungle Cruise and Pirates of the Caribbean experiences.

Beyond his own work, Randy Pausch was especially proud of the student that he had and the work that they’ve gone on to.  Just to name a few, students of his have gone on to head projects with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), EA, and Activision.

Final Words of Wisdom

“Never lose the childlike wonder”
“Help others”
“Don’t bail; the best gold is at the bottom of barrels of crap”
“Get a feedback loop and listen to it”
“Show gratitude”
“Find the best in everybody; no matter how long you have to wait for them to show it”
“Be prepared: ‘luck’ is where preparation meets opportunity”

His lecture ends with the disclosure that the purpose was never to teach you how to achieve your dreams but instead, how to lead your life.

Achieving all of this and much much more in VR, Randy Pausch was a true innovator for the industry as well as a great human being.  It really is a shame that cancer took him before he could see this latest wave of VR that we are seeing today.

Image Credit: Kaylin Bowers/Daily Progress, via Associated Press

About the Scout

Tom Buchanan

Tom is a cofounder and hardware engineer for Contact CI, a company developing VR input gloves. In his spare time he can be found playing ice hockey, rugby, or reading Ready Player One for the nth time.

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