Say ‘virtual reality” to anyone and you can be sure the first thing they think of is the iconic head-mounted display. Head-mounted displays have a long, interesting history and plenty of people have contributed to their eventual form. The one we all know today. Ivan Sutherland is largely credited with putting together the first true VR system, but inside modern headset there’s a critical technology that VR just would not be the same without. It’s all thanks to the inventor Eric Howlett
Who Was Eric Howlett?
Born in 1926 Miami, Howlett was the son of a talented drama scholar who pushed her son to realize his potential in mathematics and science. As a child and young adult, Howlett won multiple prizes, including a full scholarship to the college of his choice, courtesy of Grumman Aircraft. Choosing MIT as his alma mater, Howlett would eventually graduate with a BSc in Physics, after taking a short break to serve in the US Navy.
With a fresh new MIT degree in hand, Howlett went into business for himself – as a TV repairman. At the same time, he was inventing new electronic devices. It wasn’t long however, before Howlett would join a larger outfit. First at MIT working on radar technology, then at General Electric’s military division. After spending some time as a marketing manager, then engineering manager and also director of research at Adage. Later Howlett would found NUMEX, a display technology company using projected numerical display technology. This was in the late 60s, so sadly the technology was soon made obsolete by segmented displays.
During the 70s and the 80s Howlett started working with optical technology, which included inventing a super wide angle stereoscopic lens system One that compensated for viewer aberration brought on by having such a wide field of view. This was called LEEP.
Howlet’s Quantum LEEP
From the mid-1980s, LEE lenses were critical to VR systems. NASA, the aviation industry and of course modern VR systems all owes a debt to Howlett’s technology. In 2006, LeepVR was founded by Howlett and it still exists today as a contributor to VR technology. Howlett himself sadly passed away in 2011 at the age of 84. His contribution to VR optics will however live on forever, in every HMD we use and every further push to improve distortion-free immersion.