david frerichs

Future Vision Technologies


Future Vision Technologies (FVT) was born in 1991 out a small team who met in the Advanced Digital Systems Lab at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign - John Belmonte, David Frerichs, Matt Klapman, and Kevin Lee. Inspired by a common vision to change the world through low-cost, high-quality, virtual reality gear, the FVT team secured many firsts. In 1994, FVT was purchased by Fujitsu Microelectronics to form the core of a new 3D graphics card business. Soon thereafter, a small team spun out of that business to form what would become the 3D graphics leader, 3Dfx, now a part of Nvidia.


World's First Consumer HMD


The World's First Consumer HMD: VictorMaxx Stuntmaster

One of our core goals at Future Vision Technologies was to bring VR technology to the masses. Our first success was the 1993 release of the VictorMaxx Stuntmaster HMD. The display's design and patented head tracking system was licensed from Future Vision Technolgies by VictorMaxx, Inc. Although we wished the execution could have been better, it was the first of it's kind mass-market immersive head mounted display. 

For cost and reliability, it used a monocular display which was magnified by a lenticular lens. Yaw tracking was accomplished by a zero-lag mechanical system which clipped to the user's shirt. [See US Patents 5,323,174 and 5,353,042.] Reflecting the fact that we perfected the tracking by testing it against Wolfenstein 3D on the PC, it did a good job at "look and shoot." The Stuntmaster shipped with connectors for Sega and Nintendo game consoles, but resourceful hackers back engineered the PC mouse support we left in the firmware. Below are some photos of prototypes. 

Final prototype delivered to licensee

Detail on early infrared version of head tracker

Alas, the Stuntmasters manufactured by VictorMaxx did not have the same quality as the prototypes we created. The manufactured units had faulty glue connecting the tracker sleeve to the potentiometer. Also, the headset was not properly balanced. As a result, it was a short lived fad product. There was, though, a long-lasting subculture of hackers out there using them for various garage VR experiments.


Portable Virtual Reality


This image, taken on April 7, 1993, shows me using the world's first portable virtual environment system, by Future Vision Technologies. While the first prototypes were developed in 1991, this version was the first to be strapped on to the user's body and powered by a battery lifted from a Macintosh Powerbook. Although never brought to market by Future Vision, this unit is remarkably similar in design to Nintendo's VirtualBoy which was released years later. The failure of VirtualBoy to sell many units gives me a sense of comfort that I never saw this unit as being well suited for gaming. Some of my application concepts were described in the SPIE 94 paper Portable Virtual Environment Generator: InterFACE and in the VR Report, May 93 article Wearable Virtual Reality and Network Management.

The user plugged a ROM cartridge with the desired software, put on the HMD, grabbed the joystick and powered on the unit to see a red-wireframe world snap into view. The HMD used two PrivateEye displays from Reflection Technologies to generate a stereoscopic CGA-resolution display with extremely high contrast and brightness. 

Since most of Future Vision's effort was focused on other products, only one title was ever created for this unit. The monotony of demonstrating this single title over and over again led to nightmares of being trapped in "Hell City." Needless to say, the name stuck, and to this day early VR mavens will still conjure the name in conversation with the slightest hint of red reflecting off their retinas. 

The images below are from a camera pointed into one of the eyes. The blur is from the camera catching the display in mid-scan. The user saw the scene as rock-solid and very bright. 

These photos serve as a reminder. There was so much good technology being developed back in the early 90s. We all had the bug and we had it bad. Innovation was occurring at a rapid pace, so rapid that we thought that these crappy interfaces you are using right now to read this article would be long gone. The question is, what happened? I certainly didn't think computing at the millennium would look like this.

Well, I certainly hope to bring the promise back to life.


PC-based VR CAVE


At SIGGRAPH 94, Future Vision Technologies debuted a platform years ahead of its time. A triple pipe, stereoscopic visualization system running on standard PCs, Barco projectors, and CrystalEyes LCD glasses.

Three 90MHz Pentium PCs equipped with Sapphire IME graphics cards were connected via Ethernet and a proprietary "Pixel Bus" buffer sync. Two PCs were set up as simulation slaves controlled by the third which processed input and generated the master world state. The result was twelve frame buffers (3 stereo views, double buffered) perfectly synchronized, displaying a complex simulation at interactive frame rates (>10fps).

The application was developed with Autodesk's Cyberspace Developer Kit, a very robust API designed from the ground up with high-end VR applications in mind. John Belmonte (left) created the triple-pipe display driver.