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VR Pioneer Founded Off-Campus Lab to Work On Practical Uses

RATLab, founded in 2005, gave unlikely students a chance to work on serious virtual reality projects

In a recent podcast, “Rats in the Technology lab” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks continued his discussion with the “grandfather of virtual reality” Thomas Furness. Furness shares his tribulations and triumphs with RATLab (Rats in the Technology lab), which is an “incubator” for innovative ideas in technology. All the employees are RATs (Rocking and Thinking). Furness is, of course, King Rat. So how did it get started and what happened then?


Partial transcript:

Thomas Furness (right): Well, I was enjoying my activity at the university, certainly a wonderful place to do research. But it is a bureaucracy, and I’ve found that sometimes having worked for the Air Force for the Department of Defense for 23 years, I got used to the bureaucracy. But it sure does slow you down and reduce your flexibility, especially if you want to try out things. And so I decided that what I needed was an outlet to do some pretty far out things that I wouldn’t be able to do at the university, because I would be labelled as a flake. Well, I am a flake, but I didn’t want to be labeled as a flake. And so in 2005, I was thinking about how can I hire some high school dropouts because these kids are brilliant, but the university would never hire them.

He also did not want to cede to the university ideas that he or others had uniquely created without much assistance from the institution. So he bought a house near the university, to serve as a lab. One of the lab’s first clients wanted help with a project that used light to characterize matter. Then, of course, the talk turned to… money:

Thomas Furness: And I said, “Well, it’s going to cost you.” And they said, “Well, how much?” And I said, “A million bucks.” I didn’t know. I just threw it all throughout that. And they said, “Okay.”

Robert J. Marks (right): You know, of course, you didn’t ask for enough.

Thomas Furness: At that time, I said, “Good grief. I should have asked for two or three.”

Robert J. Marks: Absolutely.

Twenty patents later, RATLab was reasonably sure that in any event, it was wasting people’s time. Then came a stark economics lesson via a virtual reality-adapted exercise routine, Heart Rate Games:

Thomas Furness: How do you use games as a means of helping people get to healthy with exercise machines. So what we did was figure out a way to take a bicycle, just your regular bicycle, plug it into this machine, and you’d be peddling away on this bicycle. And you put on a headset, virtual reality headset, and you become a dragon and you breathe fire. And you start flying around in three dimensional space while you’re pedaling. And your peddling charges up your flame thrower, and you have to keep an energy level up on that flame thrower.

And then you’re flying around and you have these dragons that are trying to attack you and you’re zapping them with your flame thrower and things like that. It’s back to the pain thing we talked about before. You get completely distracted that you’re exercising. And by the time 30 minutes is up, the game’s over and they say, “Really? We have to quit now?”…

So we wanted to keep you in the zone of where you were sufficiently challenged, but it wasn’t too much, so that you would stay on this curve of exercising and eventually over a period of time, you get to the point where you didn’t have to have the game anymore. You felt really good exercising.

And then it became a social thing. You wanted to compete with other people and getting people over that hump of where exercising is unpleasant, to where it is pleasant, because you’re fit, you’re more fit, that was our objective.

Sadly, the spun-off company went under. At least Furness knows why:

Thomas Furness: Well, it would work and we knew it worked, but the problem is the industry is dominated by a few manufacturers. And we started talking to those manufacturers and they just were not interested. They thought, “Nah, it’s going to be too big a deal, too expensive, and we have a direct line to all of these fitness centers and we’re trying to convince them that this is a way to go. And so, as it turns out, that we couldn’t get through that particular roadblock.

Another health-related project that the lab undertook focused on heart disease, often called a silent killer. The Rats found themselves doing research at the largest traditional Chinese medicine clinic in the United States, in Poulsbo, Washington, to see if they could help develop early warning systems.

Thomas Furness: The way Western medicine works, they only intervene when you have an event, and that may be too late. You have a heart attack and then you die, or you’re injured for the rest of your life. And so there’s not a whole lot that goes on in preventative heart disease. If you do have a good physician who does an EKG every year, you may be able to pick up on some of this, but EKG isn’t too good, actually. So we started digging down and said, “How can we come up with a warning system for cardiovascular disease?” And we stumbled upon traditional Chinese medicine.

They have been practicing this for 2000 years, where a traditional Chinese medicine physician will feel the pulse, the pattern of the pulse. They take the pulse with three fingers on the radial artery on your left arm and only your right arm too, but mainly the left arm. And they can tell pretty much what’s going on in the body by sounding the body. The pulse actually is like sonar, it tells you what’s going on throughout the body.

And so, we went over and talked to this guy. He actually came to us and we said, we want to talk to him about this. And then what he did, the first thing he did is he went around the room. There were, I think, eight or 10 of us Rats around the room. And he went one at a time and felt our pulse and told us our whole history, medical history. I couldn’t believe it. None of us could believe it. And he didn’t know us. This is the first time he met us. So this was beginning to make a believer out of me.

For the Rats, the question was how to digitize the skill, so that the information from pulses might be captured.

Thomas Furness: The traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, of which there are about a hundred thousand, said “We want this. And the reason we want it is we have no way of documenting what we’ve done. It’s just one of those things we go feel the patient and give them some herbal medicine to make them better. And this way we have a record of it. And not only that, we can give them this system to take home so that we see what happens during the day.”

The Rats were studying the information that could be learned from monitoring pulses more carefully but then politics intervened. The worsening relationship between the United States and China dried up investment in the project from China. They did start Pulse Tectonics to seek funds to continue the development. Meanwhile, some projects had better initial luck. There was, for example, the virtual cockpit for a search and rescue helicopter:

Thomas Furness: And so one of the bedrooms, we converted into a helicopter simulator, and this was a virtual cockpit for helicopters. What causes a real problem with search and rescue is these pilots are flying in these awful conditions, weather conditions, and they don’t see. And we were going to provide a way for them to see and a way to hover, station keep, rescue people, things like that. So we built a simulator to test some of
our ideas, just like I did at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and had developed a whole new way of providing a cockpit for helicopters. So in the process of all of this, my rats, were getting all kinds of experience. And then they went on, the ones that went on from there. Well, they loved it. And then they use that as a stepping stone to get responsible jobs in the industry.

Furness was able to get similar labs going in New Zealand and Tasmania (Australia), where they are known as HITLabs (Human Interface Technology Labs). Not bad for a project that began as a simple effort to bypass the deadweight of the local university bureaucracy.

You may also enjoy Dr. Marks’s earlier podcasts with Thomas Furness:

Virtual reality joins actual reality—and it’s a real advance. The grandfather of virtual reality explains how everyone began to adopt VR. Thomas Furness had more patents at his HIT Lab than all the rest of the university combined because he made a point of looking for different perspectives.


VR was invented by an Air Force engineer. Real world pilot concerns drove his inventions, long before Comic-Con. Fighter pilots needed virtual reality to see what was happening around them. That’s how the technology got started, as developer Tom Furness explains.

Also: Abandoning reality: Getting lost in Oculus Quest’s VR: Amazing. And time to remember the history. I was the chair of the first serious conference dedicated to virtual reality twenty-five years ago. (Robert J. Marks)

Show Notes

  • 00:26 | Introducing Dr. Thomas Furness, Professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering at the University of Washington
  • 01:00 | The RATLAB
  • 06:25 | Exercising in virtual reality
  • 09:45 | Prizes for achievements in technology
  • 11:22 | What can you learn about yourself from your pulse?
  • 19:38 | Measuring the light coming out of the eyes
  • 22:04 | Virtual cockpits for rescue helicopters
  • 23:30 | Setting up a HITLab in New Zealand

Additional Resources

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VR Pioneer Founded Off-Campus Lab to Work On Practical Uses