AWE Hall of Fame - Robert Stone

An interview with a new inductee to the AWE Hall of Fame

I recently had a chance to speak to an inductee for the AWE Hall of Fame, Robert Stone. I pinged him a few questions where I wanted to learn some fun facts about the innovator. Learn how a chance encounter at NASA transformed Robert's career, or how he revived history with the Mayflower project:

  • How did you get started in VR? 

  • What is the dumbest thing you have seen online regarding VR?

  • What about VR gets your gears going?

  • What was the most impressive thing you have seen in your career? 

  • Any final thoughts on your life and career? 

How did you get started in VR? 

It was back in June, 1987, and, whilst working in the Human Factors Department of British Aerospace in Bristol, UK, my team and I were conducting research sponsored by the European Space Agency, addressing the unique human factors issues facing human operators on Earth controlling future satellite maintenance telerobot systems in Low Earth Orbit.  As part of the work, I was asked to attend the 3rd Satellite Servicing Workshop at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland.  Whilst there I met Dr Steve Ellis of NASA Ames, also a human factors specialist.  He showed interest in our ESA-funded research and invited me over to Ames to visit their Human Systems Integration Division and to deliver a lunchtime seminar.  

At Ames, I also met with Scott Fisher, who invited me to experience their early VIEW System (Virtual Interface Environment Workstation).  In all honesty, I have to say that that was a career-changing experience.  The wireframe demos were simple, but the illusory motion effects that the system generated – despite knowing I was standing still on solid ground – were very powerful indeed.  Interacting the 3D environments was achieved using a scratch-built headset based on a pair of Sony Watchman LCDs, equipped with an early Polhemus head tracker.  Also sporting a Polhemus sensor was a single bulky glove, brimming with fibre optics (the forerunner of the VPL DataGlove).  “Moving” by pointing and making a simple gesture was something I had never experienced in my career in human factors!  But, despite the “wow” factor of these demos, the NASA researchers’ approach to VR was something that has stayed with me for nearly four decades.  Their incredible research was firmly focused on putting the needs, capabilities and limitations of the human user first at all times and not being swayed by the existence of novel, innovative and, as the years progressed, glitzy tech.  I took that message back with me to the UK and the rest, as they say, is history.  It's amazing to think that that same VR headset is now on show in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's annex at Dulles International Airport! 

What is the dumbest thing you have seen online regarding VR?

I think that the word “dumb” is a bit strong although I was once contacted by a mystic who wanted to use VR to “feel” what it was like to be a chair!  There are many XR developments posted online that, whilst not outright dumb (give or take!) I feel are misguided or devoid of strong underpinning research.  These are typically the projects and products that put tech before human need, or haven’t taken advantage of experience that has gone before (and the AWE Hall of Fame demonstrates just how much experience is out there).  A prime example here is the continued huge expenditures on academic VR Centres.  In the UK, none of these (and they’re still being set up) have ever really contributed anything of significance or lasting impact to the development of XR.

I believe that there is as much hype and false promise surrounding XR technologies and applications today as there was in the 1990s, when the future of VR looked very uncertain indeed.  I also see far too many social media posts which make me sit back and simply ask “why?”, and a few that really push the credibility of XR as a future, persistent human interface too far, too soon.  Having been involved with developments in the technology since the very early 1990s, the completely unbelievable claims put out by vendors of wearable haptics tech are a good case in point.  I get angry when I see posts (many often repeats of those posted previously by others) put out by obviously unqualified “talk-the-talkers” or individuals who have positions of seniority in organisations large and small, or are at the head of online groups, but have little in the way of track record and genuine “hands-on” experience.  Posts claiming VR to be “dead” after a market failure are annoying too, as are those that try to compare VR with AR, claiming the latter to be superior the former.  The problem is that there are many potential XR adopters out there who, sadly believe the hype and are then disappointed when they are told by those “in the know” that what was being claimed is simply unachievable today.

What about VR gets your gears going?

In the earlier (pre-Oculus) days, I actually used to get excited at developments in headset and interactive device technologies, as we progressed from product to product.  This was especially the case in the ‘90s when progress was actually significant and exciting – and, in the main, with minimal “lead-up” hype.  Today, that level of excitement – for me, anyway – is nowhere near as intense.  The months, sometimes years of hype, more often than not leads to an anticlimax once a product is launched.  But then again, with our focus on human-centred design, we concentrate on end user needs and the generation of project content using technologies in existence at the time.  Then, if something really worthwhile comes along, we can – and certainly do - take advantage of it.

What really gets my gears going in today’s XR, I guess, is not really tech-related at all.  It’s all about being able to take our demos out to those who can benefit most from what it offers.  Sure, the defence medical work we’ve been working on has the potential to revolutionise training, not to mention save lives.  But our Virtual Heritage projects – from tours of inaccessible or long-gone natural and museum sites to 360 video “excursions” on heritage railways – bring the biggest rewards we have seen over the past nearly 40 years.  We don’t get paid for any of this effort, but it doesn’t matter.  Seeing how we can change lives in care homes, hospices and hospitals – if even only for a brief moment in time – is worth everything. 

What was the most impressive thing you have seen in your career? 

Well, the VR experience at NASA Ames back in June, 1987 is certainly up there, if not at the top.  But in general, the things that have impressed me most are not specific technologies, but the outcomes of demonstrating VR to different end user groups.  This is particularly true when, at the beginning of a project we’re faced with the sceptics who simply refused to be convinced to accept that what we do will actually change users’ behaviours – in training, for example.  An extensive project we undertook between 2007 and 2011, SubSafe, with original plans going back to 2000, set out to evaluate VR for the safety awareness training of submarine recruits.  The project met with considerable resistance at the outset, particularly from certain senior naval instructors who were convinced this “new-fangled game” would never replace “good old chalk and talk”!  It took us a good 9 months to “construct” the VR model of a British T-Class submarine (using SLR cameras and tape measures - no CAD available at the time!) and another 16 months to execute the experimental evaluation with 113 participants and a real nuclear sub (note: one technology-based thing that has impressed me recently is being able to 3D scan exactly the same number of decks and compartments on a nuclear submarine with a Matterport Pro3 system in just over 1 day!!).  The results of the SubSafe trial were pretty conclusive.  VR works and works well.  So well, in fact, that the sceptics were the first to admit that they knew this would be the outcome all the time!

An unrelated project, the informal results of which impressed me immensely, was our Virtual Mayflower project.  Again, the research underpinning this work, the aim of which was to recreate as accurate a virtual scene of Sutton Pool in Plymouth in the 1620s, with the Mayflower about to set sail, extended over a period of many years (as there was no sponsorship – financial or moral, for the work!).  But the results were well worth the effort! At one of the events we staged in Plymouth in 2021, only metres from the current Mayflower monument, we had 50 members of the public attend to experience the VR demo, delivered using an HP Reverb and Samsung Odyssey headset, both equipped with one of OVR Technology’s ION scent delivery systems (note: I still believe that smell has the capability to enhance immersion in XR significantly, far more than, say, wearable haptics, the currently available systems for which I believe are simply unfit for human purpose).  The feedback from the participants was highly encouraging, but to hear people say “after that experience, I’ll never walk the streets of Plymouth’s Barbican with the same eyes again” made it all worthwhile.

Any final thoughts on your life and career? 

I count myself very lucky to have taken the education and career path I have. It hasn’t all been planned – far from it!  Indeed, in many cases, I feel I have been in right place at the right time.  Studying for a Master’s degree in Ergonomics after reading Psychology at University College London,  Joining the Human Factors Department of British Aerospace immediately on leaving university and then becoming a member of the UK’s first Advanced Robotics Research Centre in 1989, where I was able to take many of my early VR concepts forwards, including the world-first Teletact tactile feedback glove!  Being a committed 1960s (and later) science fiction fan, taking the VR “career route” has enable me to do things I would never have been able to, had I pursued another path.  Flying in search-and-rescue helicopters and, most recently a WWII Spitfire, diving in nuclear submarines and offshore manned submersibles, developing telepresence robots, flying drones and piloting underwater ROVs, conducting research on offshore oil and gas platforms … the list goes on!