Posts Tagged ‘Polaroid’

Eric M. Howlett, demonstrating the LEEPvr System in Las Vegas, 1980. Courtesy, leepvr.com

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.

Jaron Lanier, co-founder of VPL Research - a competitor, and ultimately a client of Howlett's LEEP, Ltd. Courtesy, The Guardian (U.K.)

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.”

The NASA VIVED (Virtual Visual Environment Display), which used the LEEP system viewers. Courtesy, http://www.leepvr.com

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.

Cyberface (1989)

The original Cyberface system. Courtesy, leepvr.com

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.

As J.M. Lawrence succinctly noted in Howlett’s January 15, 2012 obituary in the Boston Globe,

“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.”

-Chris Hartman


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Several months back, High Tech History profiled Lady Gaga’s appointment as Polaroid’s new Creative Director. In Las Vegas in January, she introduced the company’s new “Grey Label”: a series of sleek new products designed to both embrace Polaroid’s character and history, and showcase its renewed commitment to innovation and creativity. Watch the video here (warning: R-rated for language):

The line consists of three products: 1) GL10 Instant Mobile Printer; 2) GL30 Instant Digital Camera, and 3) GL20 Camera Glasses.  Combining sleek design and advanced digital technology, these products are fully interactive

The sunglasses were an outgrowth of Lady Gaga’s design of sunglasses from old iPhone screens that could show movies. This product would allow one to take photos or make video and, through a USB device, process the media later on a home computer or send instantly to their Grey Label printer device via bluetooth.

The pocket printer appeared compact and portable and as Lady Gaga injected at one point: “Many of you may be nerdy enough to carry a portable printer … I know I will.” It will allow one to print 3″ x 4″ quality photos  – with either the traditional Polaroid bordered variety or full-bleed. It will work with the other two components of the Grey Label, or with one’s cell phone. The one catch: iPhone technology is not compatible.

Lady Gaga and her co-presenter, Polaroid Chairman Bobby Sager, made what I thought was an excellent presentation – as the daughter of a high-tech entrepreneur, and herself an enthusiast of high tech and design, Gaga’s delivery was highly persuasive. She confessed at one point how pleased she was to be associated with Polaroid, who brought her into the huddle on both design and technical issues and didn’t just treat her like a figurehead.

Please be aware these products will not be available until later in 2011 – Polaroid will announce both availability and prices at that time.

Lady Gaga modeling her Grey Label GL20 Camera Glasses

Polaroid Grey Label GL30 Instant Camera

Polaroid Grey Label GL10 Mobile Printer

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The always mesmerizing Lady Gaga, in Boston for a couple of concerts on her “Monster Ball” tour, stopped by the M.I.T. Museum on Wednesday, June 30 to visit the Polaroid camera archive the museum recently received. In January, Lady Gaga became the re-made company’s Creative Director. At Wednesday’s event, Polaroid’s President, Scott Hardy, said “The products developed with Lady Gaga are very much focused on instant imaging and video technology … they’re going to remain very true to the heritage of Polaroid, but with a digital twist.” A new line of Polaroid and “Gaga co-branded” products will be introduced in stores in November.

Lady Gaga, who did not speak with reporters, posed for her own Polaroid photo, which will become part of the 73-year old archive, comprising over 10,000 items and containing such noteworthy rarities as Polarized glasses from the 1939 World’s Fair, original newsprint sketches by Polaroid founder Edwin H. Land, an historic bellows camera the size of a filing cabinet, as well as examples of Land-designed camera prototypes. It is scheduled to go on exhibition in 2013.

As Yahoo Finance noted in a June 30 story, “Lady Gaga’s recent appointment as Polaroid’s Creative Director is the first of many corporate objectives toward developing new and exciting products – introducing Polaroid to a new generation. Earlier today, Lady Gaga presided over a product design and development session for future Polaroid products. Today’s session is a milestone in the road to developing Lady Gaga’s co-branded Polaroid products that blend fashion, technology and photography.”

The defunct company was acquired by Minnetonka, Minnesota based PLR IP Holdings following Polaroid’s bankruptcy in 2001 –  and joins a long line of  brands that have made Phoenix-like revivals on the wings of “retro-chic.”

With all the force of a public relations tsunami, Lady Gaga’s own iconic brand will likely bring in a more youthful and style-conscious following for Polaroid’s return. And it is not inconceivable that November’s Polaroid products rollout could rival the hysteria of recent Apple product launches. I think even the late Edwin Land himself might have managed a smile had he been at this event.

-Chris Hartman

Lady Gaga and Polaroid at M.I.T. - courtesy, Polaroid

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