The gaming industry gets a lot of credit for expanding virtual reality from concept to, well, reality. But consider this: In 1982, Atari founded a research lab for virtual reality, only to shut it down after only two years due to what became known as "Atari Shock" – a North American video game crash.

But here’s what else happened in 1982: Tom Furness presented the Air Force with his first working model of a virtual flight simulator he called the Visually Coupled Airborne Systems Simulator, or VCASS. In his own words, provided in an email to Defense News, VCASS created "a fully immersive three dimensional circumambience of graphical information superimposed over the real world." 

That was followed by Furness’s "Super Cockpit" – a cockpit the pilot wears, with high-resolution graphics and a responsive display.

Both of those systems were nearly two decades in the making, the result of work Furness first beganwhile working with companies like Honeywell, Hughes Aircraft, Kaiser Aerospace and McDonnell-Douglas.

"Early on I decided, ‘You know, we’ve got to do a paradigm shift; we’re going to do this differently,'" Furness said in a 2015 keynote at the Augmented World Expo.

Virtual reality evolved from there, now used to provide a virtual environment for training soldiers in the field and elsewhere. And the capabilities are increasingly sophisticated, noted Winn Hines, director of virtual systems sales at Meggitt, which is in the process of installing its Engagement Skills Trainer II in every active-duty location for the Army. He describes a scenario where a soldier can be in a training environment, moving toward a target that is moving toward him or her at the same time, utilizing multiple weapons in the process. Beyond the soldier and target's own reactions, bullets will respond differently depending on elevation, temperature, weather conditions.

And in the future? Multiple systems networked together, to ultimately enable "two locations, same battlespace." Both an effective and efficient means of training.

But as is often the case when technology advances faster than procedures, the military’s next big challenge is figuring out how to effectively link virtual reality tools into tangible training efforts – and prove their worth. An August 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the Army does not define how the effectiveness of virtual training devices should be measured. And while Army regulations require training developers to incorporate virtual training devices into their strategies, the degree to which that has been done varies. A sample of training strategies that GAO reviewed revealed that none of them described how virtual training devices could be used to accomplish training tasks.

Perhaps Tom Furness will help that process along as well. He recently launched The Virtual World Society – a community of pioneers and what he calls "latter-day adventurers" seeking to explore and guide virtual reality and augmented reality technology to solve pervasive problems in the world.

Over a span of 25 years, he and his students and colleagues formed 27 startup companies with a market capitalization of about $10 billion, fueling the current $120 billion market in virtual interface technology.

"Yea, we have to have the technology. But we want to apply it to these applications and configure it and solve problems," Furness said in 2015. "That’s the end game we should be playing."

This article is part of a larger Defense News 30-year anniversary project, showcasing the people, programs and innovations from the last three decades that most shaped the global security arena. Go to to see all of our coverage.

Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.

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