The Sword of Damocles


Earlier this week, I covered “The Sword of Damocles”, the first pioneering example of virtual and augmented reality technology from 1968. Unfortunately I was unable to locate a visual demo of it at the time, but thanks to Thomas Richter, he sent me a link to a short video demonstrating it in action:

The above GIF, text, and video came by way of this post on the Prosthetic Knowledge tumblr. I followed up on a number of the documents linked in this post, and what struck me was that virtual reality was (like the mouse, the internet, video conferencing, online dating, etc.) yet another pioneering technology realized during the 1960s.

While reading through the documents framing out these innovation in graphic user interfaces I recognized the name of their author, Ivan Sutherland. from the 1998 history of the internet Where Wizards Stay Up Late that I read early this semester. So, the same guy who designed the Sword of Damocles had replaced J.C.R. Licklider as the head of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office a few years earlier in 1964. It’s remarkable how small this 1960s world of techncial inventions and innovations was.

Crazy enough, these far out 3-D virtual reality glasses from 1968 were by no means the most important of Sutherlands creations. Five years earlier he created Sketchpad as part of his Ph.D. thesis at Harvard. Sketchpad represented a revolutionary approach to graphic user interfaces and human-computer interaction by “using an x-y point plotter display and the recently invented light pen.” Interestingly enough for the purposes of the Internet Course, Sutherland’s vision for Sketchpad was inspired by Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” and helped realize some of Licklider’s vision in “Man Computer Symbiosis.” Below is a quote from Sutherland’s 1965 paper “The Ultimate Display:”

The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Ultimate Display Wonderland into which Alice walked.

A vision of computer itnerfaces as the ultimate in a virtual reality wherein chairs work, handcuffs bind, and bullets kill. This notion of the looking glass as ameans to define the idea of computer displays as an entry to another world is fascinating, and it was all right there in the mid-1960s. Amazing how these engineers were remarkably poetic and expansive in their discussion of what might have just been technology—I wonder how much of this has to do with the example set by thinkers like Licklider and Bush

Another paper Sutherland authored in the 1968, “A Head-Mounted Three-Dimensional Display,” frames out the thinking and execution of “The Sword of Damocles.” While noting his findings with how folks experienced the 3-D headgear he noted:

Even with this relatively crude system, the three-dimensional illusion was real. Users naturally moved to positions appropriate for the particular views they desired. For instance, the “size” of a displayed cube could be measured by noting how far the observer must move to line himself up with the left face of the right face of the cube.

And that cube was real, well virtually at least. And as you can tell by the notes in this paper, Sutherland cites the work of Larry Roberts, the cheif architect of the internet, on several occasions in that paper. Particularly Roberts work on the Lincoln Wand at the Lincoln laboratory. Just like the internet, I’m finding these various inventions and creations were part of a more prevalent intellectual and cultural environment of creative approaches to what’s techncially possible at academic institutions with seemingly endless funding from the military-industrial complex.


Finally, during my search I found an oral history transcript from May 1, 1989 that featured Sutherland talking about his his tenure as head of DARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office. He discusses the existing programs established by J. C. R. Licklider, his interaction with the research community, the budget, and the new initiatives started while he was there: projects in graphics and networking, the ILLIAC IV, and the Macromodule program. Interestingly enough, the oral history is part of a series of interviews recorded as part of a research project on the influence of DARPA on the development of computer science in the US. As I’m just wrapping up the first iteration of the Internet Course I feel like I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface of this unbelievably rich history.

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2 Responses to The Sword of Damocles

  1. AND Ivan Sutherland was an advisor to and major influence on Alan Kay, all at the place that was one of the first four nodes on the Arpanet. Sketchpad was a major influence on Smalltalk. You can find the roots of about 2/3 of Apple’s innovations at Utah.

    • Reverend says:

      Hahaa, so when are you teaching this Internet course at CSUCI< this is a whole new element of the curriculum, tracing the intellectual history of the development of this entire space. I didn;t even touch on Sutherlnd, Kay, Papert, and many more. This class needs so much more space and time to explore the vast possibilitis of exploring how so much of what seems like a engineering marvel, which it was, was also a social marvel rom the very beginning. Relations and conenctions of people, not technologies.

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